In my first article, We All Create Cults: Part 1, I discussed our collective responsibility for creating cults together, through how we relate to a person in power.
In this article, I want to share about the internal dynamics I believe occur for a person who finds their self in this power position, and ends up abusing this power. I then end with a proposition for all those who would like to end cult dynamics.
In these scenarios where individuals in leadership positions, are recognized for their power, and end up abusing it, I notice a particular pattern. Each individual often has a somewhat codependent relationship with others, and cares a great deal about either pleasing or impacting people, and is clearly dependent upon others to receive validation and worth. This codependence and over-investment of other’s experience of us, is promoted by many cultures and societies as a way to belong and seek worth, relevance, meaning or validation.
Within this pattern of codependent pleasing or seeking of impact, there is a desire to project images and actions that portray perfection, which represents superiority, in order to receive what the person in power needs to maintain success in their position. There are three types of leaders portraying the perfection(ism)- 1. those that internalize the need for portraying perfection, and thus place a lot of pressure on only themselves to maintain perfection, 2. those who place a lot of pressure on both themselves and on controlling others and the environment, for the sake of attaining perfection, and 3. those who place a lot of pressure on others and their environment for perfection, while somehow excusing themselves from the need to strive for it, as they already view themselves as not needing to follow rules of perfection. As you might see, there is a spectrum of expression, of this perfection(ism), from internalization to externalization.
These three types of leaders in power then justify their abuses of power, based on the need to manage striving for perfection. What creates the conditions for someone to justify their abuses of power, for the sake of an over-focus on perfection, is a disconnection from one’s humanity, and thus also from one’s capacity to feel empathy. If one is disconnected from their own humanity, they are not in connection to the self, as well as to others. This means the self and others are not human subjects, but rather, objects to be used for a goal. instead. When the self and others are objects, one doesn’t feel (enough) empathy, yet is more focused on the compulsory drive to fulfill perfection, by any means necessary, in order to avoid a feeling of emptiness, and thus derive a continued sense of meaning and connection to something. Not being connected to the self or others, essentially, makes one identify with deriving identity and connection from blending with the striving for perfection within the context of a goal or ideal. Without perpetuating this striving and the use of the self and others as objects, the leader has the internal experience of not existing, which is existentially terrifying. Their reality begins to bend and distort in order to maintain the pursuit of the goal and avoid the terror, which leads to grandiosity, rationalization, and delusional thinking, amongst other defenses.
This unconscious, compulsive, and delusional striving to avoid terror and continue to exist, drives the leader to continue to fulfill the goal of perfection, with ever-greater momentum and single-mindedness. This compulsory pursuit and over-focus, convinces others around them of the worthiness of the goal, as we are all attracted to someone with sharp focus and self-convinced, absolute certainty, because it provides a beacon of hope that we too can avoid the terror of disconnection, meaninglessness, the unknown and uncertainty.
The more the leader continues to be rewarded and supported in maintaining their obsessive focus and “certainty” (e.g. delusional thinking and grandiosity), the leader becomes even more convinced of the validity of their own focus, and is supported in justifying the added sacrifices and consequences of this goal for perfection, as others are encouraging their continued path forward in this way. Ah, shared delusion, and group grandiosity.
The only way for a leader to maintain delusional thinking, grandiosity, and the ability to do harm, is if they joined the situation with an impaired capacity for empathy, which usually stems from childhood wounding. This wounding also simultaneously places them in the position of being challenged in regulating their emotions and sense of self, both while alone and in relationship. Alternately, if a person is connected to their self, deeply self-aware, has empathy intact, is capable of dealing with emotion, and did not have this wounding around relationship, they would have the ability to self-reflect, intervene with their self, or stop the projection of ordained authority others place onto them, instead of identifying with it.
Sadly, many of us have never worked with our own tendency to experience dysregulation of self and emotion, alone and in relationship, and have not worked with our own compensatory and codependent desires for perfectionism, and the ways this all connects to early childhood wounding. Thus, power, and the positions of leadership that are highly powerful, become attractive to us, as a means to bypass needing to deal with our own humanity, messiness, accountability for our own power, and the fact that we must create our own meaning in a messy, disorganized self and world. We are attracted to the relief provided by losing all remaining connection with self and others. The relief through melding with an ideal and a goal, centered in perfection(ism), and playing a part where we lose accountability for our life and actions, through displacing it upon a group, and a goal that must be accomplished.
In the field of psychology, the people who are characterized as being most susceptible to falling in to leadership and power abuse like this, are those who already have a fractured sense of self, poor ability for emotion regulation, are image conscious, obsessive, have a marked lack of empathy, and significant childhood wounding- those with a Personality Disorder. This includes, but is not limited to, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, Obsessive Compuslive Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Just as in my first article, I caution us against scapegoating cults and cult leaders with something we all have a tendency to do, I want to emphasize that though these individuals are perhaps extreme examples of the people most likely to enter dysfunctional positions of power and to abuse these positions, we all live on this spectrum. We all are capable of abusing power, and justifying this abuse in some way. Given the right contexts, systems and individuals who relate to us in the ways in which cults are formed, which I discuss in the first article, We All Create Cults: Part 1, we are increasingly susceptible to repeated abuse of power.
If a dynamic and system goes unchecked, through both parties being unaware, unaccountable, and permissive of the roles being played out, people who seem like the most loving, caring, and benign leaders, can quickly become those who are abusing their power. Their abuse of power may not be as immediate or extreme as perhaps other leaders who started off more wounded, however, in time, harm will most certainly be done.
My theory gives explanation for how many spiritual masters and teachers, who are forces of good in the world, are outed in scandals of abuse. The need to fulfill the role of leader, then necessitates the disconnection from self and others, and the over-identification with the goal and pursuit of perfection. In this role, with unhealed early life wounding, and an environment that promotes bypassing this wound, one begins to not adequately judge their own actions, in the face of others justifying their over-identification of promoting that image, role, and goal. Since their is no room for this master to be fully human and address their healing, as in cult dynamics, the person in power thus neglects their own humanity, and become delusional and grandiose. In essence, it is easy for leaders to bypass their own healing, and thus, these areas of wounding to become their Achilles Heel, so to speak. Additionally, a person abusing their power, is so caught up in the codependent role and the necessity to maintain this position, they rarely turn their self in. Even if this leader happens to be a remarkable and loving person, they usually are somewhat powerless to stop the compulsory process within, and need to be turned in by some other person who has been hurt and disillusioned enough to step out of this cult dynamic, and express dissent.
I am hopeful, these two articles, when read together, offer a practical approach to understanding internal dynamics that lead to abuse of power, as it is seen everywhere, on this planet.
In conclusion, the way to undo our mutual co-creation of cults and abusive leaders, is to address whatever scares each of us. When we address our deepest, existential fears, that compel us to relate in unaccountable or irresponsible ways towards power, we are capable of stepping outside of cult dynamics.
From here, we learn to deal more effectively with any woundings or dysfunctions, by getting to the root of what motivates harmful action: fear. We would need to overhaul the most influential systems in societies, to entirely address how to face and work with fear, and thus end cult dynamics completely.
Will this overhaul happen, while there are still many people invested in cult dynamics? Probably not. However, you can create the change in your life and the world around you, and be that voice of empowerment and dissent, by addressing your deepest fears, and learning to deal with them with accountability, honesty, and commitment to growth.
As Ghandi, a complicated man who was a great political and spiritual leader, who also severely abused his power, expressed: “be the change you wish to see in the world.”