In July, 2019, I presented "Behave, Believe, Become -- Or Not! Freedom From Coercive Control in Groups and Relationships" with the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) in Manchester, UK. I'm sharing some key points from my presentation here.
"In an unequal power dynamic, the dominant authority figure defined by age, strength, position, influence, and cultural acceptances uses manipulation and exploitation to control the subordinate for his/her own gain, usually power, control, and money. This dynamic occurs in abusive high demand groups (cults) and relationships (partnerships, marriages, teacher/student, guru/disciple). An unaware target is lured in, recruited or seduced by a leader/partner with observable narcissistic and antisocial or sociopathic traits. In a gradual process of indoctrination, a subordinate member's sense of self is significantly altered and her healthy developmental goals obstructed in service to the needs of the abusive leader/partner. When does one recognize that what was initially perceived as "love" or 'spiritual' is abusive?" How does one physically and psychologically leave and what is essential in the recovery process? What strengths, vulnerabilities, and responses do domestic abuse and high demand group or cult survivors have in common? What do healthy relationships consist of?" These and more questions I answer based on my training and what I learn from clients.
Coercive control or Influence and gaslighting can be used interchangeably. Each involves a strategic pattern of control and exploitation by at least one traumatizing narcissist and at least one vulnerable other in abuser-centered relational systems. These include partnerships, marriages, teacher-student, therapist-patient, guru-disciple, families, groups, corporations and movements (political, "spiritual"/"religious" or otherwise), gangs, sex and labor trafficking. In such systems similar dynamics of manipulation, unequal power and disregard of personal rights and autonomy exists.
Dan Shaw, in his book Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation (2014) writes:
"The traumatizing narcissist recruits others -- her child, spouse, sibling, friend, patient, and so on -- into a relationship that seductively offers the promise of the bestowal of special gifts -- love, prestige, power, adoration. However, the traumatizing narcissist will soon find cause to accuse the other of insufficient concern and of selfishness. The other will then come to be ashamed of and disconnected from his own needs, other than his need to stave off disapproval from and rejection by the traumatizing narcissist. Most crucially, the traumatizing narcissist's goal is to corrupt and debilitate the subjectivity of the other -- a form of dehumanization that is the very essence of traumatic abuse."
The unaware target in an abuser-centered system is lured in, recruited or seduced by a perpetrator with narcissistic and anti-social or sociopathic traits in a step by step process of indoctrination that changes the other's beliefs. His strengths and vulnerabilities are exploited, he becomes more dependent emotionally and financially. Within the abusive system, the abuser takes center stage and dominates with his rules and beliefs. Over time, anyone caught in the abusive system of coercive control rationalizes, minimizes, or denies the perpetrator's dangerous behavior. At the same time, he/she loses a healthy sense of self, awareness of personal rights and pursuit of individual goals. Her financial and emotional dependency on the dominant abusive person deepens. At some point, something occurs to motivate the person to leave. Physical leaving can be dangerous and psychological leaving is extremely challenging due to the deliberate fear and guilt induction of "bad" things that will happen.
Those who are victims of coercive control are traumatized with the subjugation or take-over of one's personhood. Traumatic events impact us existentially, physically, neurophysiologically, psychologically, interpersonally, developmentally, culturally.
"Trauma is broadly defined as any situation that overwhelms a person with fear or helplessness; or leads a person to believe an important developmental goal must be relinquished in order to avoid the danger of hurting or being hurt by significant others." (San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group, 2013, empirically validated over 40+ years).
I assert that individual developmental goals must be relinquished in systems of coercive control and social-psychological influence.
Thought reform or changing a person's beliefs without a person being aware of what is occurring (Robert J. Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961) are schemas or inaccurate, self-limiting and self-sabotaging (pathogenic) beliefs that stem from traumatic experience in childhood and adulthood. "These beliefs are usually unconscious and are extremely frightening and constricting because they suggest that the pursuit of an important goal is fraught with danger." George Silberschatz, Ed. Transformative Relationships, (2005).
Disconfirmation of these pathogenic beliefs are central to recovery. This comes from having better outcomes than in the past in the therapeutic relationship or in life situations.
People who gain freedom from coercive control exhibit tremendous courage in establishing a life of their own as they gain insight about what they were involved in, manage their symptoms, disconfirm internalized, deeply held inaccurate beliefs, and pursue healthy goals. Beneficial to recovery is learning about and asserting healthy boundaries, personal rights, and other practical skills along with education about coercive control and gaslighting.
An Important Website:
Center for Institutional Courage, founded by Dr. Jennifer Freyd, who is internationally known as a pioneer in the field of trauma psychology. She is also a lifelong activist in the realm of sexual violence. Dr. Freyd has spent her life asking tough questions about power, abuse, and institutions.