I recently had the pleasure of joining a Facebook support group for ex-Jehovah’s Witness women. Reading through the posts, I noticed two interesting phenomena.
First to stand out were the quotes and memes being circulated to encourage women and help them recover from cult indoctrination. They were the same ones I had seen on other forums dedicated to recovery from abusive relationships, which I had also joined. The second were the posts written by the women of the group themselves. Many had been involved in romantic relationships that were abusive, psychologically or otherwise. The overlap was not a coincidence.
It comes as no surprise that vulnerability – whether owing to an empathetic nature, a need for stability or community, or a history of abuse – primes targets for manipulation. The same holds true whether the target is groomed by a high control religion or a high control partner. But there is an added layer for those who have already been victims of the first. I would argue that being women in a high control religion predisposes us to succumb to the tactics employed by psychologically controlling and emotionally abusive partners. By no means does this observation intend to even partially blame victims, only to explain how exploitative people select their supply. It is often our best qualities that make us so appealing in the first place.
While this sort of abuse knows no sex and men can and do find themselves on the receiving end of emotional abuse, women contend with an added dimension of coercive control in a religion like that of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in which they are expected to be deferential not only to the organisation, but to their husbands. The only way to break free from these cycles of abuse is to empower ourselves with knowledge by both untangling the complex web of strategies used by abusers and examining the way this treatment is rationalised by its victims.
Note that in this article I will often reference narcissistic abuse, as it is most similar to the calculating, intentional, and exploitative manipulation a high control organisation like Watchtower uses in its rhetoric. I also use the word ‘victim’ for clarity and simplicity, but those who have suffered psychological abuse are so much more than this experience. They are tough-as-nails survivors forged in a crucible meant for the obliteration of their mental health, self-esteem, trust, and hope. And it is no hyperbole to say that.
One thing nearly all victims of narcissistic abuse will say is that every article they read on the topic seems to perfectly describe their experiences. The abuser seems cut from the same sheet of cookie dough. Cults likewise have a set of defining characteristics to which all their variations seem to conform. This makes the two fairly simple to identify, in theory, which is the first step to building up defences against them. What was amorphous and intimidating now has a name, and we know the weapons in its arsenal.
It can be mind-boggling to recognize that so many different individuals, from different backgrounds and walks of life, can all exhibit the same characteristics and use the same devices to keep people under their thumbs. But human psychology is fairly predictable. It follows patterns. It is why we can study it in the first place. And it is precisely these patterns manipulative, power-hungry individuals and organizations take advantage of to keep their victims in a perpetual state of submissiveness and compliance.
Those who choose to manipulate others are masters of psychology. They are able to lure their targets in – and keep them in – with disturbing accuracy and efficiency.
The goal is the same: to enforce their own agenda, to keep power firmly on their side of the court, and to recruit others into doing their work. Narcissists, for example, feed off of external validation, which is why their victims are often referred to as ‘supply’. Void of self-affirming worth, they seek outside supply to feed the ego by choosing attractive, high-status partners who are generous with their affection, trusting, and optimistic. They leech onto these appealing qualities and flaunt themselves by proxy while exploiting ‘weaknesses’ like a tendency to see the good and to trust others.
I want to be careful not to dehumanise (a narcissistic personality is the result of genetics often combined with environmental factors in the formative years, such as trauma or excessive adoration), but it is an unfortunate reality that the preferred coping mechanism of the narcissist is a win-at-all-costs mentality that involves projecting on others and using relationships exclusively for personal gain.
High control groups seek something very similar. Built on a feeble foundation of unconvincing ‘truths’ for which there is little to no evidence or intrinsic value, these groups must propagate, perpetuate, and maintain their power at all costs. They do so through emotional blackmail, gaslighting, propagandistic appeals, and fear of the ‘outside’, keeping members isolated from any threats that would expose the groups for what they are. Much like narcissists who, through triangulation, make use of third parties to smear or discredit their victims, these groups use members to recruit others and to keep them in line. The purpose, in the end, is the same. The power balance must be maintained in their favor.
It may seem a paradox, but those who have been through the wringer once are likely to go through it again if not privy to the methodological way abuse is carried out.
It is said that narcissists promise dreams only to deliver nightmares. If the appeal of involvement were not so powerful, far fewer people would become entangled with abusers.
Both narcissists and cults love bomb in the initial phase. They tailor their messages to our unique needs, they promise us affection, a family, redemption, a beautiful future in paradisiac conditions. They flatter us, and we inevitably lower our guards. We see in them a soul mate, or in the case of an organization, a sense of purpose and a reason to hope in a better life. The God of Love wants us in His embrace. This person, who seems too good to be true, has chosen us. We are honored and humbled. We are hooked. This love is one of two most powerful emotions. The other is fear.
Carrot and stick
Once we are comfortably situated and basking in the warm glow of affection and idealization, we soon learn of the rules we must abide by to maintain this favorable, delicate balance. By the time we have made our emotional investment, we learn that love is conditional. Fall out of line, and the same hand that offered us our dreams on a platter now metes out punishment: the cold shoulder, distance, a marked shift in behavior.
Where once we were idealized, we are now devalued. Cognitive dissonance sets in, and we struggle to wrap our heads around this change in light of the person we thought we knew. How could a God of love isolate us from friends and family? How could the person we thought to be our missing half, the person who showered us with so much praise, now discard us? The fault must lie in us.
We ramp up our efforts to please. We play by the rules, and the reward that follows conditions us to do so in the future also. The embrace, literal or metaphorical, that follows an emotionally devastating episode provides relief of euphoric proportions – literally. By alternating love and fear, manipulators forge our bonds with them through trauma and reinforce them, conditioning us to behave in a certain way. When we see in someone the ability to placate our fears, we become disposed to do almost anything to stay in their good graces. This means the systematic erosion of our boundaries.
God disciplines those he loves. The pain that we feel at being cut off from friends and family is a manifestation of love, of our rehabilitation and redirection onto the right path. The crippling self-doubt and loneliness we endure during a phase of neglect is a way of showing us we did something wrong. Anyone who questions the validity of this treatment is a crazy ex, or an apostate. The true ‘victim’ is the one whose authority was challenged.
The effects of this power imbalance, created through feelings of dependency on the abuser to restore our self-confidence and sense of worth, result in a savior-sinner dynamic. We are nothing without them. We are not worthy of them. We need them to save us. And they know what we need to be happy. If we leave, if we fail to submit, there is hell to pay. We are made to feel as though we are the problem. We begin to wonder in every situation whether we are doing the right thing.
Herein lies the root of the problem. Our conditioned response to restore peace, to return to the good times, erases our boundaries. It is the reluctance to establish firm boundaries that predisposes us to suffer cycles of abuse. When we are told, whether by a manipulative partner or group, that our passions, our hobbies, our time, our self-improvement must all be sacrificed to serve, it becomes all too easy for us to question whether anything we ever do will be enough.
By indulging the idea that we are selfish for taking time and attention away from service to an organisation or a person and dedicating it to ourselves, we arrive at a total erasure of the self accompanied by persistent feelings of guilt, self-loathing and shame. If we talk about our feelings, our reactions, and our thresholds, we our putting ourselves first.
This invalidation of our personhood, of everything that constitutes our ‘selves’ separate from our partner or the high control group, is the end result of a gradual erasure of boundaries. It leads us to believe that we can take on an infinite number of responsibilities, that we are weak for being tired, that we can always give more of ourselves, that ‘love covers all sins’, or that if we just prayed enough, just gave more attention, then we would come into their good graces.
Breaking the cycle
When women who are taught that they are an inexhaustible well of emotional resources enter into relationships, it is often with the mentality that they can and should save their partner, that they can endure anything (even physical abuse), and that they must do the above with stoicism, ‘dignity’, and a spirit of forgiveness.
Emotional generosity and labour can only derive from a place of remarkable strength, but at what cost are they expended and, to use a familiar expression, what fruits do they yield? We must face the very unromantic reality that abusive people do not change because we nurture them; sometimes, constant forgiveness has the opposite effect. It reinforces the idea that they can get away with their treatment of us, that we will always be there to stroke their ego. When we are taught to be givers, we learn to never ask for what is rightfully ours, to never ask for help, to bear our burden in silence.
To break free from this sort of thinking, encouraged by both Watchtower and society in general to an extent, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are only worthy of love through what we can endure. Love does not cover bruises and scars, both visible and invisible. Love does not cover degradation. It does not cover negligence. Love for the other must never exceed love for ourselves. And it is not selfish to say this. It is an affirmation of our dignity and worth independent of external validation. It is the opposite of selfishness and narcissism.
As women who have emerged from the vice of a controlling organization, we must use our unique knowledge to recognize and avoid the traps of manipulation and break free once and for all from ‘truths’ and people who promise more than they can – or ever will – deliver.