Understanding cultic leaders so that you can leave them behind

Focusing on the abuse that has ensnared our country

I tend to write about explosive things in undercurrent, and one reader noted that if you can’t read subtext, you may not realize what I’m writing.

Growing up in the emotionally-repressive world of the yoga, alternative medicine, and New Age cultures taught me how to say things very clearly yet subtly so that less aware people couldn’t hear me. It’s a skill!

So I’ve been writing about the cultic aspects of Trump’s leadership style since 2016, but only in subtext, because I know that openly calling something a cult can cement people into it more strongly.

You have to have all of your wits about you, and you have to know how to work all of your emotions in order to be around cult members and not make things worse.

But since just before the election, I’ve been focusing openly on the undeniably cultic aspects of Trump’s presidency because as a cult researcher, I can tell you this:

It’s never too late to leave, and people all over the world have gotten out of cults, or are leaving cults every day.

Even children can get out! But first, they need to know that they’re in a cult.

A cult is not just any group, and the word is not an insult. A cult is a very specific kind of abusive relationship.

What is a cult?

In the book I wrote with renowned cult expert Janja Lalich, we defined cults in this way:

A cult is a group or a relationship that stifles individuality and critical thinking, requires intense commitment and obedience to a person and/or an ideology, and restricts or eliminates personal autonomy in favor of the cult’s worldview and the leader’s wants and needs. (From Escaping Utopia, p. 5)

Cover of the book Escaping UtopiaNote that a cult can be a relationship. You can have a cultic relationship with a friend, mate, family member, or boss (etc.). We’re seeing these damaging cultic relationships with Trump throughout the leadership of the Republican party and among his friends, family, underlings, and advisors.

The way to tell if any group or relationship is cultic is if you begin to lose your individuality and are forced to accept the leader’s views as your own. A relationship is cultic if you must be obedient and give up your autonomy or all hell will break loose.

If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship, you’ve been in a cultic relationship. But if you haven’t healed from that relationship, and you haven’t learned how to identify healthy relationships, you’ll likely be drawn to abusive relationships and groups again (and again). 

And it’s hard not to be drawn in. In a cultic relationship, the needs of the leader and their belief system begin to take over your life. Most cultic leaders are emotionally and empathically damaged, and they tend to need everyone to meet all of their emotional needs.

Many cult leaders don’t have a functional internal life, so most of their needs get pushed out onto the people around them. Many of them have tons of external charisma laid over the top of unimaginable pain and emptiness.

And trying to fill that bottomless pit of emptiness becomes a main job of cult members (and friends, mates, family members, and business partners).

It’s very easy to get drawn in

Meeting the needs of others is a normal human skill, so it’s easy to get drawn into cultic relationships and not realize that you’ve lost your time, your personal life, your internal emotional compass, and eventually, your own good mind.

It’s also easy to forget that no one should do the emotional work or emotional bidding of another person.

But once you get into these cultic relationships, the needs and tantrums and cries and rules and beliefs and paranoias and hysterias and rages and conspiracy theories and coldnesses of the cultic leader become a part of your internal system.

That’s why cultic relationships and groups become so entrapping — they take perfectly normal people who may have trouble with emotions or unhealed trauma, and turn them into emotional tools for the damaged leader.

A cult is an abusive relationship

People who join cults are not unusually damaged (at first); they’re human. They’re often idealistic and want to heal the world.

They get drawn in by the charisma, pain, and needs of the leader, by the idealistic or world-changing beliefs, or by the need for community and belonging.

Many Republican leaders were drawn in by their naïve idea that they could mold and control Trump (or by their own unhealthy power hunger), and they may have thought they could ride this cultic train to their own glory. But that’s not what cults are ever about; they are always and only about the leader’s needs, wants, paranoias, and gnawing emptiness.

We’re all susceptible to abusive relationships and groups if we don’t know how to identify them. We all want to belong, to believe that we’re doing something important in the world, and to find people we can look up to. That’s normal and healthy.

But what a cultic leader or group does is to turn those normal and healthy needs into a nightmare.

Cultic relationships damage everyone, especially the cultic leader, who will eventually fall apart and decompensate psychologically. Tragically, this is when many group members will cling to him more tightly, because his fall will become a part of the melodramatic story, where enemies from the outside are attacking him — just as he said they would!

Um, no.

The fall of a cultic leader is a natural result of the emptiness, emotional incapacity, and deep trouble at the very center of cultic relationships.

Waking from the nightmare

In this post: Understanding Unhealthy Leadership, I share ways to identify healthy and unhealthy leaders. Note that of the 9 aspects all abusive cultic leaders share, Trump used all 9 of them.

I’ve also listed three other dimensions that make up cultic relationships and groups, and I contrast them with the features that healthy groups and relationships contain.

Once you see these cultic features, you can’t un-see them, and once you know that you’re in an unhealthy group or relationship, you can get out.

You can always get out; it’s never too late.

But if you’re feeing smug because you were never caught in Trump’s cultic nightmare and you hate him instead, I ask you to think and feel again.

Hatred, as we know, is just as much of an attachment to someone as cultic adoration is (see The twisted love inside hatred).

It keeps the cultic leader at the forefront of your thoughts (attention is food to cultic leaders, and negative attention keys into important aspects of their early wounding), and it keeps you trapped in an unhealthy dance where your emotions are intensified and mostly out of your control.

If you despise Trump or adore him, you’re caught in the tragic, cultic game.

And the only winning move is not to play.

People can and do get out of cults every day; and if they can learn why they were drawn in and how cults and other abusive relationships operate, they will be much less likely to be abused in this way again.

May we all learn to identify healthy leaders, healthy belief systems, and healthy relationships.

May we all become free, and in turn, free others.

6 Responses

  1. Patti
    | Reply

    This is so well done. Thank you.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thank you Patti.

  2. Laura Graham
    | Reply

    When I read this description of a cultic relationship – it makes me feel like my entire life (until my 30’s) was spent trying to fit in and be accepted by the patriarchy…. and always feeling I was never right or enough. Now not. Do most women feel this way on some level?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      I’m not sure if most women are aware of this. I think that any hierarchy that’s enforced has cultic elements, and sadly, a hierarchy damages everyone in it. You would think that the people at the top of a hierarchy are the “winners,” but they are just as damaged in their way as the people at the bottom are damaged in theirs. We see the damage to the people at the bottom so clearly, because it’s often egregious and obvious.

      But an abusive system damages everyone in the system. Hierarchies are a disaster.

  3. Renee
    | Reply

    Reading all your posts on cults and cultic characteristics has made me realize I grew up in a cultic environment.

    I hold a lot my caretaker’s truths as if they are mine.

    I’ve lived a lot my caretaker’s truths too and my contracts with them.

    It’s only until recently that I see I’ve been doing this.

    I was a cultic follower and I want out.

    It feels like if I try to heal and get better, bad things are going to happen to me. That’s my good emotion fear there. There to help me with my other good emotion, confusion, to lift me out of my own unworkable ways.

    They say, “you survived the worst already.” And that working with the trauma can bring back what you’ve already survived in ways that feel real. “But it’s okay because you already survived.” Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that. Though it’s probably just my isolation that freaks me out.

    I don’t want to be who I was before to people anymore.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      I’m so sorry that you’re having to endure this. Please reach out to the women’s center or crisis center in your area so that you can strategize your way out with lots of social support.

      This book by my colleague Janja Lalich will also be helpful: Take Back Your Life.

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