The Cult of the Narcissist
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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The narcissist is the guru at the centre of a cult. Like other gurus, he demands complete obedience from his flock: his spouse, his offspring, other family members, friends, and colleagues. He feels entitled to adulation and special treatment by his followers. He punishes the wayward and the straying lambs. He enforces discipline, adherence to his teachings, and common goals. The less accomplished he is in reality – the more stringent his mastery, the more outlandish and incredible his mission and message, and the more pervasive the brainwashing.
Cults are, therefore, person-centred organizations compared to other impersonal bureaucracies. This is the ironic paradox at the heart of cults: even as cult leaders dehumanize and objectify people, they do it with a “human face”, the face of the cult’s charismatic founder and chieftain.
Cult leaders are narcissists who failed in their quest to "be someone", to become famous, and to impress the world with their uniqueness, talents, traits, and skills. Such disgruntled narcissists withdraw into a "Pathological Narcissistic Space" that assumes the hallmarks of a cult.
The – often involuntary – members of the narcissist's mini-cult inhabit a twilight zone of his own construction. He imposes on them an exclusionary or inclusionary shared psychosis, replete with persecutory delusions, "enemies", mythical-grandiose narratives, and apocalyptic scenarios if he is flouted. It is a mental enclave of suspended judgement which fast becomes the disciples’s comfort zone where – devoid of all responsibilities and the guilt attendant on failure (“performance anxiety”) – they feel calm and assured of the master’s unconditional acceptance and “love”. It is a re-enactment of the follower’s early childhood, only this time with an ideal, benevolent parent.
Exclusionary shared psychosis involves the physical and emotional isolation of the narcissist and his “flock” (spouse, children, fans, friends) from the outside world in order to better shield them from imminent threats and hostile intentions. Inclusionary shared psychosis revolves around attempts to spread the narcissist’s message in a missionary fashion among friends, colleagues, co-workers, fans, churchgoers, and anyone else who comes across the mini-cult.
The narcissist's control is based on ambiguity, unpredictability, fuzziness, and ambient abuse. His ever-shifting whims exclusively define right versus wrong, desirable and unwanted, what is to be pursued and what to be avoided. He alone determines the rights and obligations of his disciples and alters them at will.
The narcissist is a micro-manager. He exerts control over the minutest details and behaviours. He punishes severely and abuses withholders of information and those who fail to conform to his wishes and goals.
The narcissist does not respect the boundaries and privacy of his reluctant adherents. He ignores their wishes and treats them as objects or instruments of gratification. He seeks to control both situations and people compulsively.
He strongly disapproves of others' personal autonomy and independence. Even innocuous activities, such as meeting a friend or visiting one's family require his permission. Gradually, he isolates his nearest and dearest until they are fully dependent on him emotionally, sexually, financially, and socially.
He acts in a patronising and condescending manner and criticises often. He alternates between emphasising the minutest faults (devalues) and exaggerating the talents, traits, and skills (idealises) of the members of his cult. He is wildly unrealistic in his expectations – which legitimises his subsequent abusive conduct.
The narcissist claims to be infallible, superior, talented, skilful, omnipotent, and omniscient. He often lies and confabulates to support these unfounded claims. Within his cult, he expects awe, admiration, adulation, and constant attention commensurate with his outlandish stories and assertions. He reinterprets reality to fit his fantasies.
His thinking is dogmatic, rigid, and doctrinaire. He does not countenance free thought, pluralism, or free speech and doesn't brook criticism and disagreement. He demands – and often gets – complete trust and the relegation to his capable hands of all decision-making.
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He forces the participants in his cult to be hostile to critics, the authorities, institutions, his personal enemies, or the media – if they try to uncover his actions and reveal the truth. He closely monitors and censors information from the outside, exposing his captive audience only to selective data and analyses.
The narcissist's cult is "missionary" and "imperialistic". He is always on the lookout for new recruits – his spouse's friends, his daughter's girlfriends, his neighbours, new colleagues at work. He immediately attempts to "convert" them to his "creed" – to convince them how wonderful and admirable he is. In other words, he tries to render them Sources of Narcissistic Supply.
Often, his behaviour on these "recruiting missions" is different to his conduct within the "cult". In the first phases of wooing new admirers and proselytising to potential "conscripts" – the narcissist is attentive, compassionate, empathic, flexible, self-effacing, reasonable, and helpful. At home, among the "veterans" he is tyrannical, demanding, wilful, opinionated, aggressive, and exploitative.
As the leader of his congregation, the narcissist feels entitled to special amenities and benefits not accorded the "rank and file". He expects to be waited on hand and foot, to make free use of everyone's money and dispose of their assets (and even their bodies) liberally, and to be cynically exempt from the rules that he himself established (if such violation is pleasurable or gainful).
In extreme cases, the narcissist feels above the law – any kind of law. This grandiose and haughty conviction leads to criminal acts, incestuous or polygamous relationships, and recurrent friction with the authorities.
Hence the narcissist's panicky and sometimes violent reactions to "dropouts" from his cult. There's a lot going on that the narcissist wants kept under wraps. Moreover, the narcissist stabilises his fluctuating sense of self-worth by deriving Narcissistic Supply from his victims. Abandonment threatens the narcissist's precariously balanced personality.
Add to that the narcissist's paranoid and schizoid tendencies, his lack of introspective self-awareness, and his stunted sense of humour (lack of self-deprecation) and the risks to the grudging members of his cult are clear.
The narcissist sees enemies and conspiracies everywhere. He often casts himself as the heroic victim (martyr) of dark and stupendous forces. In every deviation from his tenets he espies malevolent and ominous subversion. He, therefore, is bent on disempowering his devotees. By any and all means. The narcissist is dangerous.
"My husband is a
misunderstood and much envied genius" (really he is an abject failure and
loser). "The CIA is spying on us" (why would they waste resources on
a couple of sedate third-rate accountants?) "My wife is good-hearted and
kind"(a harridan in fact). A delusion is "a false belief based on
incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite
what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes
incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary" (DSM
IV-TR). Sometimes, the member of a family, especially spouses or lovers, share
a delusion and aid and abet each other in sustaining it in a cult-like setting:
there is a primary inducer and a suggestible acceptor.
In "shared psychotic disorder" or folie a deux (no longer a diagnosis in the DSM 5), the delusions are persecutory (paranoid), grandiose (narcissistic), or manic ("we are going to make big money soon, so let's splurge now"). The line between steadfast support for your partner and believing in him and shared psychosis is not clear. In many ways, all long-term intimate relationships end up incorporating pronounced delusional elements which are fiercely defended by the couple.
Shared psychoses are also common in other settings involving emotional intensity and stress: business, political activism, ideological movements, even in academe.
"empaths" are actually codependent enablers. There is a difference
between being compassionate or empathic and enabling.
Compassion means that you hold a realistic view of your partner, but refuse to participate in his shared psychosis (his paranoia, mind games, power plays). Enabling means that you aid and abet your significant other: together with him, you descend into his madness, his personal Hades, his mental purgatory, and his fantasies and ideation.
Compassion is about providing your counterpart with external boundaries, checks and balances, control, and a realistic feedback.
Enabling involves fusing and merging with the other, erasing all the boundaries, helping to fend off hurtful reality by becoming delusional jointly.
When a couple is in a state of shared psychosis (folie a deux), they uphold a common delusional or paranoid or narcissistic narrative about themselves and about the world and settle on a code of conduct. Shared psychoses require the partners to fuse and merge and, therefore, present psychodynamic aspects of both dependent (codependency) and borderline personality disorders.
When one of the partners opts out of the shared psychotic disorder, the other half feels annulled, incomplete (amputated) and cast out. S/he reacts with a depressive episode whose severity and duration can be extreme.
The depression resolves into two solutions or orientations. Some rejected partners react by utterly repressing the past (dissociating). They live solely in the present, like there is no yesterday - or tomorrow (carpe diem). They act out recklessly or antisocially or promiscuously.
Others get stuck in the past and are debilitated and rendered dysfunctional by nostalgia and abandonment anxiety. They live like there is no today or tomorrow.
Both types usually end up enmeshed in a new shared psychosis in an attempt to recapture the magic of being one with another person and the overwhelming sensations of safety and acceptance that it provides.
In some couples, where one
member is a failure and a loser, the other member fails to thrive and engages
in self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors in order to not humiliate the
less accomplished intimate partner by being too successful.
Similarly, when one of the members of the dyad is challenged or threatened by intimacy or sexuality, the other member often opts to suppress her femininity (or his masculinity) in order to avoid conflicts and hurt.
Narcissists prefer to be
right than to be happy. It is a self-defeating, even self-destructive
propensity. The narcissist pushes people to prove his judgment and
prognostications infallible even at a life-threatening traumatic cost to
For example: the narcissist may predict a dire, painful future and then preemptively make it happen in order to avoid dissonance, a challenge to his grandiosity (omniscience), and the excruciating shame for having been wrong and having misread the tea leaves
The narcissist prevaricates, deceives, confabulates, and gaslights in order to preserve ego syntony by always being right. He undermines intimate relationships, his own accomplishments, and values and priorities to preserve his fantastic, godlike grandiosity.
When confronted with incontrovertible evidence that he is wrong, the narcissist reacts by retreating to delusions and thus denying reality. He decompensates, acts out, and rages or becomes passive-aggressive.
Comment: The Narcissist’s Conflicted Relationship with His Fans, Followers, and Admirers
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The narcissist depends on his coterie for Narcissistic Supply. He resents this addictive dependence and himself for being so frail and impotent. It negates his self-delusional grandiose fantasy of omnipotence.
To compensate for this shameful neediness, the narcissist holds his sycophantic acolytes in contempt. He finds his fans, admirers, and followers repulsive and holds them to be inferior. He sees himself reflected in their presumptuousness and sense of entitlement and takes exception to this constant and tawdry reminder.
Fans often claim to possess inside information about their idol and to have special rights to privileged access simply by virtue of their unbridled adulation and time-tested loyalty. But, the narcissist, not being a mere mortal, believes himself to be beyond human comprehension and refuses to render anyone special by granting him or her concessions denied to others. Being special is his exclusive prerogative. His followers conduct implies a certain egalitarian camaraderie which the narcissist finds abhorrent, humiliating, and infuriating.
Groupies and hangers-on somehow fancy themselves entitled to the narcissist’s favour and largesse, his time, attention, and other resources. They convince themselves that they are exempt from the narcissist’s rage and wrath and immune to his vagaries and abuse. This self-imputed and self-conferred status irritates the narcissist no end as it challenges and encroaches on his standing as the only source of preferential treatment and the sole decision-maker when it comes to the allocation of his precious and cosmically significant wherewithal.
In general the narcissist finds other people’s expectations of him distasteful because they imply that he is no longer a terra incognita and that he may be subject to influence. Only those who believe that they know him well can expect anything from him and only if they trust that their expressed wishes and prognoses are likely to affect his life and even shape it. This contrasts with the narcissist’s twin fantasies of uniqueness (read: unknowability) and omnipotence (read: imperviousness to external inputs.)
Appendix: Jesus Christ, narcissist
Though most of the quotes in this essay are from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, I was careful to compare them with the texts of the other three canonical gospels. Where the gospels disagree, I avoided using the quote altogether.
Illegitimate and adopted children, especially of humble origins, often develop narcissistic defenses to fend off persistent feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. Admittedly, it is highly unlikely that Jesus was an illegitimate child. Adulteresses in ancient Judea were stoned to death. But, equally, there is little doubt that the circumstances of Jesus's birth were shrouded in mystery. His mother, Mary, got herself pregnant but not by having sexual intercourse with her lawfully-wedded husband, Joseph.
Early on, Jesus developed magical thinking, compensatory grandiose delusions, and fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience. A firstborn, he was much pampered by his doting mother. He was a prodigy, a Wunderkind: highly intelligent and inquisitive and more comfortable in the company of adults than with his peers.
When he was a mere 12 years old:
"(T)hey found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions." (Luke 2:46)
Even at this tender age, he showed a marked lack of empathy and a full-fledged case of pathological grandiosity:
"His mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" ("My Father" being God - SV). (Luke 2:48-49)
Gurus at the center of emergent cults are inevitably narcissistic, if not outright narcissists. The self-imputation of superiority, epiphanic knowledge, and infallibility and the assumption that others need and crave the guru's message are at the heart of an elaborate construct which often borders on the psychotic:
"... (T)he people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." (Matthew 7:28-29)
Referring to his 12 disciples, Jesus made clear that: "The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord." (Matthew 10:24)
"He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." (Matthew 10:37-39)
Here is how Jesus, the lowly, unmarried, and itinerant son of a carpenter - an abysmal failure by the standards of his society - viewed himself:
"When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats ... And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." (Matthew 25:31-32 and 25:46)
"Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:53)
Contrary to his much-cultivated image, Jesus, like the vast majority of cult leaders, lacked empathy and was a heartless and irresponsible manipulator whose magical thinking ruined the lives of many. He instructed his followers to commit acts that must have had harshly adverse impacts on their hitherto nearest and dearest. Jesus monopolized the lives of his disciples to the exclusion of all else and all others:
"For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household." (Matthew 10:35-36)
"Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!" (Matthew 12:47-48)
"And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him. And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him." (Matthew 4:18-22)
Consider the disastrous effects their actions had had on their fathers and their families, now left to starve. To Jesus, evidently, these were irrelevant considerations.
Jesus healed only those who visibly, volubly, clearly, publicly and repeatedly worshipped him. In other words, he extended his gift only to his sources of narcissistic supply. There are numerous instances in the four canonical gospels where Jesus actually bargains with the afflicted and demands - sometimes in anger - their unconditional adoration. He is happiest when acknowledged and affirmed as Christ, the Son of Man (son of God). Those who do not recognize his splendid grandeur, unbounded might, and implied divinity are "dogs" and "swine" (Matthew 7:6)
His much-touted love of the poor was not a match for his malignant self-love. When his disciples upbraided a woman for anointing Jesus with expensive ointment because the money could have been better used to help the poor, the great humanist, Jesus, had this to say:
"Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always." (Matthew 26:10-11)
The principles espoused by Jesus were malleable and easily bent. He professed to minister only to the Hebrews (Sons of Israel) and steadfastly refused to heal the Gentiles whom he called "dogs". When a woman of Canaan beseeched him to cast the devil out of her daughter ("Have mercy on me!"), he retorted, shockingly:
"I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel ... It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs." (Matthew 15:24-26)
But he soon forgot and retracted this lofty "principle" when she adulated him:
"Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour." (Matthew 15:28)
Similarly, he cured the servant of a Roman centurion after his master catered to Jesus's by-now rampant megalomania:
"When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour." (Matthew 8:10 and 8:13)
Jesus's initial false modesty soon gave way to bragging and outlandish, often confabulatory claims.
Whenever he affected a miracle - such as restoring eyesight to the blind, cleansing lepers, reviving the crippled, and raising the ostensibly dead - Jesus beseeched them to keep mum about the events. One of many examples:
"And their eyes were opened; and Jesus straitly charged them, saying, See that no man know it." (Matthew 9:30)
But Jesus was not averse to blatant self-promotion when his false modesty failed to elicit narcissistic supply:
"Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." (Matthew 11:2)
"I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple ... For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day ... behold, a greater than (the prophet) Jonas is here ... behold, a greater than (King) Solomon is here." (Matthew 12)
As a true narcissist, Jesus reprimanded others for his own brand of behavior. This psychological defense mechanism is called "projection".
This is how he described the Pharisees, the scribes, and the Sadducees (and, inadvertently, himself and his own conduct):
"(T)hey say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi." (Matthew 23:1-6)
Narcissists are disruptive, counter-dependent, combative, and resent authority (rebellious and contumacious). They feel that they are above the law, or, rather, that they are a law unto themselves. They hold themselves to be immune to the consequences of their actions:
"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." (Matthew 10:34)
"And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves." (Matthew 21:12-13)
Narcissists are ill-disposed towards disagreement and criticism. They react to the slightest hint of either with narcissistic rage and fury that knows no bounds and no mercy:
"And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee." (Matthew 11:23-24)
"He that is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30)
"For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." (Matthew 23:39)
Narcissists react particularly badly when their concocted personal myth, their False Self, is directly and effectively challenged and they are consequently discredited and humiliated in public:
"And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief." (Matthew 13:54-58)
Ultimately, the narcissist pays the price for years of ill-treating others and sucking their energies dry with constant demands for attention, adulation, and affirmation. People get tired of the overbearing and overweening presence of the narcissist in their lives, of his disruptive and destabilizing influence, and of the pernicious effects he has on their nearest, dearest, and communities. Invariably, they seek to banish him and extricate themselves from his cult. The authorities usually are forced to intervene and lock the narcissist up or, worse, crucify him.
Even his closest followers, supporters, and disciples give up on the narcissist:
"Then all the disciples forsook him, and fled." (Matthew 26:56)
"Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands, Saying, Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee?" (Matthew 26:67-68)
"Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice." (Peter, indeed, denying knowing Jesus thrice - SV) (Matthew 26:75)
And the fickle "multitude" (the common folk), who were supposed to be the mainstay of Jesus's power and popularity, betrayed him gleefully and with a clear sense of relief and good riddance:
"Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas ... They all say unto him, Let him be crucified ... they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified ... Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children ... And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth." (Matthew 27)
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