The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse; Recognizing and Escaping Bullying, Manipulation and Pathological Behavior.
So many of us have been in all kinds of groups-spiritual-business-classes-lines at the bank, and we witness someone getting angry or upset and inwardly we can wince. We do so want everyone to get along. But we don’t all get along, and it can cause all kinds of trouble.
The premise of group dynamics is to identify types of personalities, and can be useful in understanding decision-making behavior, abuse, racism, sexism, and other forms of social prejudice and discrimination.
Next time you are in a group context, look around and try to identify the types: the one's who want to be the Leader, the Silent one, the Lost one, the Helper, the Peacemaker, the Angry one, the Talker, the Invisible one, the Dominant one, the Judge, the Divisive one, etc.
This has been called “role suction” by Wilfred Boin. He says, “Among regularly occurring group roles are those of the scapegoat, for the group's troubles; the joker, the peacemaker; the critic or spokesperson for group standards; the idol, or upholder of the group ideal; and the identified patient.”
“The Identified Patient, or "IP", is a term used in a clinical setting to describe the person in a dysfunctional family who has been unconsciously selected to act out the family's inner conflicts as a diversion. This term is also used in the context of organizational management, in circumstances where an individual becomes the carrier of a group problem.”
This behavior with groups happens so much and so often, that many books have been written about it in varying fields of discipline. Adding spirituality to the group dynamics brings in another layer of complexity. All spiritual traditions are based on overcoming the lower self, being kind to others, and do unto others as you would have done to yourself. But that does not mean everyone practices what they preach. There are still folks -men or women- who have to control the group and if we add pathological narcissistic tendencies to the mix, this will ensure "the power" comes into the hands of the narcissist.
Ambitious people who want power are willing to do just about anything to acquire it. They may be overt or will quietly manipulate people so they get what they want, the perceived positions of power and authority within the group context.
Groups tend to conform, the manipulator or want-to-be-leader even in supposed “’leaderless groups”, will dominate, suppress, ignore even humiliate anyone they see as knowledgeable or does not conform to the "group norm." And they give favors, or attention to those they are not threatened by. You can look at your own group; when anyone speaks up, is it held? Is it ignored, is it projected on, does it get met with jealousy? Is it dismissed, sidetracked and is the person managed by someone in the group?
Why don't others WAKE UP to how people are being managed as if in an abusive family environment? That is the Bigger Question. Silence implies consent.
Let's take an example; a high-functioning narcissist wants to be a leader in a spiritual group; lets call he or she F; F needs admiration, control and dislikes others getting attention. Perhaps there is a person in the group who threatens F; lets call this person B.
In order to contain and manage that person, the Narcissist "F" starts mentioning to impressionable members G & O, "I don't like the way "B" shares, I think "B" may be egotistical, don't you?" So the drop of poison in the group, starts the projection going. Soon others see that these G and O and F treat member B differently, they start to ignore or dismiss what member B brings to the group. Next, the topic of "egotism" is brought up, how "SOME" people can share in an egotistical manner. And it's much better to be more humble, contained, and without enthusiasm; maybe a little enthusiasm but not too much. Time goes on, and member B starts getting the message they are not all-right in the group dynamic anymore; B starts managing what and how they share, over time B becomes silent. Within this abusive scenario, B has been scapegoated to the ambition and coercive manipulation of F.
Like Sleeping Beauty, this is the Wicked Witch with the Poison Apple. Replace the “poison” in this scenario with the techniques you have witnessed and are familiar with in your group experience. Those who are awake to how people are being treated within a group, will identify this control-maneuver, and role grooming technique immediately.
Now F steps up the game; every time B shares in the group, F "re-frames" what B says. It is as if F cannot stand B to say anything at all, it must be handled and managed by F. No one else seems to notice this managing technique, but B realizes the "managing" technique of reframing. If B asks questions to other group members about if they see this “re-framing” of B's sharing, they may very well dismiss B as having a “thing” about F, and say, “It’s your problem,” or "It's your karma", and it is dismissed and ignored. See how this works for F? (See blog Are We Refusing to Help Others Because it's Their Karma?)
Another example of control: One night before the group starts, everyone is doing this and that, and B is sitting across from F; no one can hear them. Member B is enthusiastic about something and is sharing with F; but F does not want to give B any attention (because they don't like the way B shares, it's egotistical) and pretends to cough and cough and cough over B's sharing. This is confusing to B because its obvious F is not really coughing but is blocking B. Over time B has become hyper-vigilant in regards to F, and B is aware of crazy making behavior.
The other members come back to the group, and the meeting takes place. Now watch: F is going to teach B a lesson. At the end of the study, F says to B, "Was there something you wanted to share B?" This is a classic narcissist domination attempt to take power, control, intimidate and subordinate B. The manipulation is furtive and sly because F and B are the only two who know what is happening. This is scary pathological behavior, like Sharon Stone opening her legs to the detectives in “Basic Instinct”, it is dramatic predatory behavior, F means to intimidate B show who is in control and win at all costs.
In "spiritual" groups there is the underlying premise of turning the other cheek, forgive them and love them. A question, if B does nothing, stays silent and compliant and tries to do the Buddhist or Christian thing, do you think F is going to stop the negative behavior or escalate the negative behavior? Remember, the narcissist has to win, they have to be liked, and they have a rampant egoism that they are superior. If you don't "like" them anymore, they seek to destroy your reputation. This is their documented pathology, which is what we see in these examples of "poisoning" the group think in B's reputation.
Since a narcisscist wants to maintain control, they identify roles and tasks they can do. You will find F-people will do all the jobs very well and want to do all the jobs. Other group members will generally gratefully give over these tasks to F; they may give up trying to do these jobs within the group because F is so nice, so competent and so willing to do them. But this gives F-people what they crave; the power, the information to be able to control the group. Because F is now so knowledgeable about all aspects of the groups’ policies F will be the "point" person for any contact with people in higher up positions of authority within the groups expanded communities.
So now F has the ear of the "higher ups" and the group looks to F for information. What is easier than building up F's persona to the "higher ups" but by subtly putting down members of the group? Again, this is not done overtly, and is done with the "best interest" and sharing of the point person F with the higher ups about the lack of skill sets with certain people in the group, thereby underlining F's own abilities to be the "leader."
(Although, in our email info world today, these kinds of discrepancies can show up if someone else in the group becomes active and contacts the “higher-ups” to confirm the accuracy of the information. And I highly recommend this be put in place, as a cautionary tale. )
Now, the scene is set for promotion. If there is a position of leadership or authority who do you suppose is going to get it? Any of the other members of the group? Over the years, F has be-friended the participants who do not challenge or upset the norm. So if asked by the higher ups, who should get this position of authority? They all say, Oh! F is so qualified, look at how they handle all the group details so competently.
Now, they may very well know, in their heart of hearts, these "other" group members that they wanted to be the financial officer, or the point person or what ever the job, but they simply gave up over time, because F kept the job from them somehow, in some mysterious way they cannot ascertain. F has exhibited these kinds of "leadership" behaviors for years and has used these techniques over and over very successfully. Pathology is defined by doing the same behavior over and over, until they conform to the same rigid techniques. The group may be completely unaware they have been groomed by F to become tame, so F receives the position authority; and does so with an outward show of humility.
So the obvious question is why aren't others SEEING this behavior? Denial of power over scenarios are easy to assume because otherwise the person would have to admit they participated in abusing the scapegoat. They may in fact believe that it was "their own" thoughts about (in this example) the egotistical sharing of B and they still say they are right. They will not question that perhaps B starts speaking up in a different way because B could feel the group's disapproval. They will deny, that this correctional judgment they have of B had anything to do with B finally leaving the group, and may say things like, "Don't take it personally." They have basically scapegoated and slandered their "friend" in the group context (B) effectively silencing B, until they left the group. But they, the group did not do anything wrong!
I believe that if we allow other people to bully someone and stand by and do nothing, then we are the same as the bully. So speaking up is actually an act of spiritual deed of healing, and gives those that bully other people a warning that they are being watched, and so they tend to stop their abusive behavior. Standing up to abuse is a spiritual deed in overcoming evil, otherwise we normalize the evil/bullying. If we have normalized bullying, then we excuse the abuser and lay the blame of on the victim.
Richard Boyd, author of book, Narcissistic Leaders and their Manipulation in Group Dynamics states, “However predatory or malignant narcissists do not have a healthy sense of self, they are not in touch with their true self, instead becoming a chameleon type of personality who seek to project an idealized image to others, and then seduce and control all others that have some value or utility for them, until that persons utility value is exhausted, and then they are dumped and abandoned without remorse by the narcissist.”
The Cycle of Violence is very similar to the Cycle of Narcisscistic Pathology and one that is easily recognized in abusive relationships. You don't have to have someone hit you to know, they are being violent, abusive, intimidating or threatening. Get out of there!
For B, the only thing there is to do is either leave or speak up. Saying, " I SEE this is Happening!”, and I don't like it." Start the conversation about the Elephant in the middle of the room. But if one tries and tries and no one will listen or do anything to bring health into this enmeshed group, and is still "pushed" out by these unspoken negative contracts by other group members, then there is nothing to do but leave, regain the soul forces lost through doing spiritual battle for your soul, and start another road.
So you are scapegoated and ejected from the group. What now? Get out of the shame and circle of silence, Speak up! Contact the "higher ups" and let them know what is going on from your perspective. See if a person with authority can go to the group and break up the rigid replication of abusive family dynamics that is choking the freedom and life from the group.
This will put F on high alert, because F knows very well what is going down, F's machinations have been exposed and F needs time to regroup to defend their position. So when asked by a “higher-up” to come to the group, F will probably use a delaying tactic, something along the lines, of “oh the group isn’t ready yet,” or “lets do that next year when the timing is better.”
If the higher-up leaders bite the baited hook of these delaying tactics, then the group loses the influence of something healthy that can break up the hold F has on it. But eventually, F will slip up under duress, and expose a not so savory aspect of self, and other people will may view F differently. Hopefully, the knowledge of the exposure of speaking out about abusive dynamics within the group scenario will diminish, temporarily, the grip F has on the group.
And you may find someone you think may be qualified to come to the group to help, but unbeknownst to you, if they have their own wishes to become leader of the group, then all hell can break loose. This is an epidemic of egoism of a need to gain power, and most especially "spiritual" groups. Get out of there!
So if F is a chameleon Narcisscist, F will become a better person to all. They will be extra nice, extra caring, extra careful; they have to be admired, it's their vanity at stake. You may not be surprised how the group makes excuses to keep the status quo. The people in the group may not be aware how they have been put to sleep and may reform without B and the conflict may seem resolved, because B as a scapegoat has carried the projected shadow out, and now the group will seek their own level and may restructure power roles.
These examples are given to outline the dynamic that can happen quietly within a group and may take years. You may have other scenarios; they are all painful to endure, even if it's happening to someone else in your group and not yourself. You are not alone; Wilfred Bion’s work has also been used to illustrate the part played by role suction in the selection of group leaders – dependent groups favoring narcissistic leaders. (Wilfred Bion a psychoanalyst)
Richard Boyd goes on to explain why no one recognizes these manipulations. “The predatory narcissist can morph into a false self without their body language betraying them with all the normal cues of unease or misalignment between their body and mind. According to Alexander Lowen(1986) this is because the narcissist is without feelings such as compassion, empathy, love or associated morality, and their bodies are deadened to feeling and so cannot betray them like feeling bodies will in the average person. They are fake or unreal in their body, mind and emotions, and can move freely between various states within each without creating obvious conflicts or anxieties(Johnson:1987). Feelings are superficially replicated by the narcissist but never actually felt (Lowen:1986).” And yes, they look just like you and me; they do not have horns on their head so you can recognize them. We have to become aware of interactions and see where they lead.
But as my transpersonal psychologist teacher said to me once, "If you are feeling crazy, someone is acting crazy!" Leaving an abusive relationship or family dynamic, and these unhealthy and suppressive group dynamics means you have to have the inner strength to stand on your own two feet. Turning the other cheek may be committing spiritual suicide. Now maybe you have a ambitious manipulator, who is going for the perceived power in the group context. They may not be a narcissist, but they still are going to shift the internal power structure of the group in their favor; and they can be just as heartless in attaining their goal.
Getting out of these unhealthy contexts will bring back you health, peace of mind, and inner tranquility. We all need to become spiritual warriors for truth and health and speak up to these manipulations for power. And get some help from professionals, dialogue with others who have gone through similar experiences, your spiritual path/group has been dismembered, let it go. Allow time, meditation, grief or sadness to move through. Feel your feelings they are real and you took care of yourself by getting out. Now is the time to heal...then over time something new will approach.
We have to wake up our roles of being sleepy heads, of being managed by other people's anger, control, re-framing, and manipulations. Do your own inner work, pick one bad habit and overcome it. Be kind, then be kinder, and help others who are in now in your shoes. We have learned a life lesson, that teaches us how we can lose ourselves, because it is so easy to be managed by someone else's power and ambition drives.
But we are here to bring our gifts to the world, find a place that welcomes your gifts and enthusiasm for life! Keep loving and forgiving, but keep speaking out! while moving on and forward!
More on Confronting Abuse of Power:
- Our Teachers Are Not Gods
- Confronting Abuse of Power
- Watch: Pam Rubin talks about confronting abuse in Buddhist communities
Confronting Abuse: Be Proactive
Exit and Support Network
ENERGETICS INSTITUTE/NARCISSISTIC GROUP DYNAMICS
OUT OF THE FOG; PERSONALITY DISORDERS RICHARD BOYD
HEALING THE HEART JACK KORNFIELD
CO-DEPENDENT NO MORE MELODIE BEATTIE
I want to say thank you to all the readers who have sent emails about their own experiences. Please take steps to get away from any relationship or group that is bullying you. Seek professional help and keep reaching out.