Freedom From Coercive Control & Influence in Groups & Relationships

Freedom From Coercive Control and Influence

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 families) 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 abuser 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 and connection with 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. And a traumatizing narcissist can be vindictive.

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.

Inaccurate, self-limiting and self-sabotaging (pathogenic) beliefs develop from traumatic experience in childhood and adulthood including in cults, families, and abusive relationships. "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.

As cult, high control group or relationship survivors we may be vulnerable to relational dynamics we had in cults, families of origin, and some relationships with narcissistic, abusive and exploitative people. We may be lured in by the narcissist’s position of power, charm, and apparent kindness. He or she claims some special status and often is regarded as an expert. With all narcissists, one word can expose their fury and fragility...and that is “no”. We can initially allow such people in our lives (or, for children, be forced into obedience) and gradually see “red flags” that we may disregard or need to disregard for survival. The more “red flags,” the greater the underlying anxiety in such relational systems in groups or relationships. It may even go unnoticed. And with mounting anxiety, when the time has come to say “No, I cannot continue our relationship based on my needs and concerns...” the narcissist’s rage and attack can come unleashed.
I’ve heard this often from cult and abusive relationship survivors and I've experienced it myself.
Often, shunning follows in a group, initiated by the abuser and those who comply, usually with fear of the same happening to them. Or, they’ve believed the abuser’s common tactic of Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.
We survivors are individuals at different stages in our recovery. As we join together in any group or relationship, similar dynamics in the cults and groups we left can emerge such as “good”/ “bad”, “right”/“wrong” thinking, hierarchies — who’s in, who’s out — triangulation — speaking to A about B without speaking to B directly, idolizing a leader.
In my opinion, kind and ethical people listen to others and accept their need to move on, graduate from a group or leave the role one occupied in that relationship without lies, divisive actions and punishment. Healthy people acknowledge that change is inevitable, sometimes difficult, and that differences as well as commonalities exist in an equal power dynamic.
I often refer to the late Arthur Deikman who wrote in his book “Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat”, “The question to pose is not ‘Is this group a cult?’, but how much cult thinking is taking place in any group?'” Important to ponder, in my opinion.
Cult thinking is about coercive control and influence in groups and of course the same dynamic applies to relationships. Many of us have had experiences with coercive control and influence. It's common to notice that our needs and goals may be undermined in service of the other and fear of some type of punishment should we leave. It's my responsibility to be aware and self-reflective of how I may avoid entering into or perpetuating relationships characterized by coercive control or influence. I am here to contribute to the field of freedom from coercive control and influence in education and recovery. We can all learn from each other!

Important Websites:

Coercive Control Collective , serves as a source of information about the concept of coercive control, including recognizing and sharing the work of thought leaders across the globe. This website includes information intended to explain the concept, including its history, and will advocate for the use of a coercive control framework for understanding extreme forms of abuse across disciplines, including policy initiatives in the United States, and education and prevention efforts.

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.


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