Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Understanding Codependence as "Soft-Core" Cult Dynamics...

...and Cult Dynamics as "Hard-Core" Codependence

My two theses here are that 1) cults of personality are little other than large networks of what can range up to an extreme form of codependency, and 2) that understanding the operational dynamics of cults can be highly useful to sponsors and sponsees in Co-Dependents Anonymous, as well as to treatment professionals. One paradigm informs the other in both cases. 

(For those unfamiliar with the concept, patterns and characteristics of co-dependence, one can click on the preceding links to come up to speed very quickly. For material on co-dependence in depth, please see Anonymous, Beattie, Cermak, Evans, Mellody, Rapson & English, Schaef, Weinhold & Weinhold, and Whitfield in the Resources & References at the end of this paper. For a quick primer on the characteristics of cults, give Dan Goleman's list a look.)

For any students of sociology who stumble upon this, suffice it to say that the organizational platform here is built on Spencer's, Durkheim's and Parson's "structural functionalism," and that those who grasp that concept in depth are very easily able to see the operational similarities between codependence and cult dynamics.)

I grew up in Hollywood. It's no surprise to me that several large cults of human potential have flourished in soil pre-treated to ardent belief in (excessive) self esteem, black and white / all-or-nothing thinking, obsession with achievement and fame, and submission to dominating authority. Observed through the lens of those four concepts (aka: perfectionism, either/or dichotomism, narcissism and authoritarianism), the attachment and devotion to what some might call a self-destructive degree of co-dependence near the Soboba Indian Reservation close to San Jacinto, California (described in recent articles in the Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker magazine) may make a lot more sense. 

We may never really know what all it was that the founder of Hollywood's largest cult had been exposed to that empowered his seemingly messianic (and megalomanic?) quest. Read those who deconstructed the individual, family-of-origin and group dynamics of the National Socialist, Red Chinese and North Korean "thought reform" techniques that made Hitler's, Mao's and Kim's (as well as Sun Myung Moon's) cults of personality possible. (Erich Fromm, Eric Hoffer, Robert J. Lifton, Edgar Schein, Margaret Thaler, Michael Langone, et al, are listed below). 


In so doing, it may be evident that the founder of Hollywood's Cult numero uno (who finally expired in a trailer in a tiny village in north San Luis Obispo County) had access to -- as well as a considerable grasp of -- them. And that, at least in the last half century, he was only one of several who may have gotten his or her guru chops from the folks who produced the grisly spectacles of 1933 to 1953. 

"Over time, I learned that I could escape the awful feelings of being an incompetent, shameful, guilty, submissive little fool by finding someone else in the cult to dominate, embarrass, belittle, humiliate and demoralize so that I could feel competent, capable and prideful. I learned to do whatever it took to please my dominators, including channeling their domination of me onto other little fools."  

For me, anyway, the major shortcoming of many of the fine books out there on cults is that they often pay attention to all the drama but fail to connect all the dots. Nor did they look into whether the top dogs of the era following the founders' deaths are less, equally or even more schooled in the methods of mind control described by those listed above nearly as deeply as Joel Kramer, Diana Alstad, Flo Conway, Jim Siegelman, Steven Hassan, Kathleen Taylor, Mark Galanter, Arthur Deikman and the redoubtable Charles Tart (on his concept of the "consensus trance").

BUT... I'll take a shot at some dot-connecting here. Because over the more than four decades since I first either fell down the well or at least drank some of the Cool Aid in several of these organizations, I was able to see from outside the paradigm, "box," "cage," "cave," "frame," "trap" or consensus trance what was going on inside with ever greater clarity. (In fact, it was a renown psychologist in Beverly Hills for whom I worked in the late 1970s -- who himself had a relatively benign, and far less dangerous, human potential cult going there -- who kicked me in the shins just hard enough to start my own, real growth process.) (But giving credit where it's really due, it was Jiddu Krishnamurti who first put the dots close enough together for me to get some real traction with them.)

Let's look at the four characteristics I have seen again and again among cult members, leaders and escapees, as well as ardent codependents:

1) Excessive "perfectionism" usually acquired earlier in life.

2) Black and white / all-or-nothing thinking; aka "dichotomism."

3) Blindly ambitious obsession with either achievement and fame or to compensate for earlier invalidation, devaluation, being ignored and/or functionally abandoned; aka "compensatory narcissism."

4) An unusual willingness submit to dominant authority to get the rewards of attention, validation and esteem from others; aka "authoritarianism."

I could have listed credulity, but elected not to do so because it is evident that while many co-dependents and cult members are highly credulous, many others are startlingly given to ardent skepticism; an almost knee-jerk questioning of and/or argument with those who promote propositions that they find dubious. Nevertheless, credulity and skepticism are worth understanding for those who want to comprehend the mentality of many co-dependents and cult members because it points to a particular form of dichotomism.

Neither do I see psychologic paranoia in the behaviors of all co-dependents or cult members. But I have observed it often enough to consider it a high-order correlate. Nor do I see Seligman's "learned helplessness" or Tangney & Dearing's (and Forward's) "toxic shame" in all co-dependents or cult members... but I do see them a lot.

I also see a lot of excessive internalizing (or taking too much responsibility) in both groups, but find some codependents and many cult members to be either externalizing (e.g.: blaming others) or alternatively (and excessively) internalizing and externalizing in a sort of flip-flop / ping-pong fashion. And I see a lot of Van der Kolk's "compulsion to repeat the trauma," but do not (or cannot) see it in enough people of either category to assert that it is universal in either co-dependents or cult members.

Taking those four one at a time in the frame of their relevance to both cult membership and co-dependence:

Excessive Perfectionism

Too much of a good thing may not be.

Many (most?) of the co-dependents and virtually all of the cult members or former members I have known are (often covertly and/or unconsciously) perfectionistic to the point of at least occasional (if not chronic) obsession with saying and doing what they believe to be "correct," "right," "functional" and/or "appropriate." Some came from backgrounds that predisposed them to achievement to meet parental expectations; perhaps because their parents were either high -- and proud -- (or low and shame-infected) achievers themselves. Others seem to have dots connecting their current perfectionism with early life experiences with parents who set them up to "try harder" by ignoring, invalidating, abandoning or otherwise devaluing them.

The worst cases, however, tended to have backgrounds with parents who gave paradoxical injunctions; parents who (overtly) said one thing and then (usually covertly) said or did the opposite so that the child was damned if he did and damned if didn't follow the conflicting -- often overt here and covert there -- instructions. The typical combination of paradoxical injunctions was something like, "Do your best to get rewards from us," and "Do you really expect us to pay any attention?" The child of such parents is often set up (in the fashion of the classic "double-bind") to strive for enough achievement to finally get the attention and approval that still remains out of reach. And the adult child of such parents will often work him- or herself half to death to meet the expectations and requirements of the parental dynamics that remain normalized in the so-called "superego" between his or her ears. (Wickliff's excellent rundown of family dysfunction as a precursor to cult affiliation is more than germane here.)

The manipulation of one's own, perfectionistic moral principles very easily induces (emotional) shame, guilt, remorse, regret and (cognitive) worry and morbid reflection in the minds of those already conditioned, socialized, habituated, accustomed, normalized and institutionalized to these affective and cognitive states.

Conditioned, socialized, habituated and normalized by their early life experiences to seek approval by being "perfect," such people make terrific (and "highly co-dependent") employees for bosses and employers who care little or nothing about those who backs they climb over to make their own way to the top, regardless of what they say or the minimal (and occasional) rewards they provide to those in the state of anxious attachment. In moderate burnout (before they collapse from stress), they also make fine and dandy salesmen, supporters and slaves for covertly ruthless gurus. 

Dichotomism

If there is any one technique of manipulation that stands out for its ubiquity among those who succeed at politics via the building of massive cults of personality, it is all-or-nothing, this-way-or-that, all-good-or-all-bad, black and white thinking. Our culture conditions, socializes, habituates, normalizes and even institutionalizes polarized perception to such an extent throughout childhood that most of us cannot see that we think in terms of "either / or." Researchers estimate that only about five percent of us can be counted upon to regularly see outside the box, frame or paradigm of this possibility or that. Which makes it very easy for politicians, manipulative bosses and gurus to stipulate a choice between two ("obviously") "good" or "bad" opposites. Such stipulation forces the unconscious employee, party or cult member to limit his or her choice to those offered without noticing any others. 

Most children are taught by virtually every authority they encounter to "follow the rules" and not to question those rules. The child's natural capacity to simply use his eyes, ears and other senses to tell what is from what is not with respect to anything fairly complex is dulled nearly to the point of extinction by the time he or she is six years old (see Cvencek, Greenwald & Meltzoff, and who knows how many others). From the point of view of the guru, this couldn't be any better. Because -- like any effective politician -- he will present his own explanations of and solutions for life's challenges in either / or terms that exclude all other possibilities.

Compensatory Narcissism

The very word "narcissism" has -- as the result of vernacular usage -- come to mean "too narcissistic for one's own good." The fact that a limited degree of narcissism is actually useful is obvious to those who watch infants set up a fuss to get picked up, fed and otherwise attended to when they are uncomfortable. And those frustrated, learned helpless children who were too often ignored or dismissed when they needed attention usually grow up to be fine candidates for those who understand how easily they can be manipulated by appealing to their healthy, but unmet, narcissistic needs.

I am not speaking of the "classic," entitled narcissist who was "spoiled" by overly indulgent parents (though such people do make good cult fodder, as well). I am talking about the adult child of self-absorbed parents who did not get enough attention, and who grows up having collected all manner of ways to compensate for believing him- or herself to be "unwanted," "unnecessary" and "unimportant." Listen to any card-carrying co-dependent for ten minutes, and then tell me that those three words do not describe their unconscious self-concepts. One need only listen to a cult member for a fraction of that time to grasp how obsessed they are with being wanted, necessary, important and significant.  

Authoritarianism

Raised as "victims" on Stephen Karpman's Drama Triangle (by alternate "rescuers" and "punishers"), the typical co-dependent -- and cult member -- has formed an unconsciously foreclosed identity as a victim. And he or she will spend the rest of his or her life trying to get out of the victim corner by rescuing... and if rescuing fails, by persecuting and punishing. This (non-sexual) dominance and submission schematic is glaringly obvious in the world of the cult, regardless of whether it is "religious" or not. 

(Virtually all cults -- whether they are "religious," psuedo-spiritual or "human potential" -- are set up in a tiered, top-to-bottom hierarchy of relatively more powerful dominators and less powerful submittors; each dominator being submissive to the dominators on the level above. The guru stands at the top of a functional pyramid of increasing dominance from bottom to top and increasing submission from top to bottom.) 

Because it seems germane at this point, let's take a quick left turn into Trinkner, et al's, work on Baumrind's parenting styles:

"Authoritative parents are both demanding and controlling, but they are also warm and receptive to their children's needs. They are receptive to bi-directional communication in that they explain to their children why they have established rules and also listen to their children's opinions about those rules. Children of authoritative parents tend to be self-reliant, self-controlled, and content.

"On the other hand, authoritarian parents are demanding and highly controlling, but detached and unreceptive to their children's needs. These parents support unilateral communication where they establish rules without explanation and expect them to be obeyed without complaint or question. Authoritarian parenting produces children who are discontent, withdrawn, and distrustful. 

"Finally, in contrast to authoritarian parenting, permissive parents are non-demanding and non-controlling. They tend to be warm and receptive to their children's needs, but place few boundaries on their children. If they do establish rules, they rarely enforce them to any great extent. These parents tend to produce children who are the least self-reliant, explorative and self-controlled out of all the parenting styles."

Morality is as waaaaay twisted in the frame-work, paradigm, cave, cage, box or consensus trance of the cult as it was for most co-dependents and cult members in the interpersonal family system of the family in which they grew up. Twisted morality was so effectively -- and covertly -- socialized, habituated and institutionalized in such families of origin that it seems perfectly normal in the cult or severely co-dependent marriage or workplace.

The recovering co-dependent is at somewhat of an advantage here. He or she hears that long grind of "patterns and characteristics of codependence" at every CoDA meeting they attend. (For them, it's a way of working Steps Six and Seven again and again.) Those who arrived at this weblog from at least somewhat informed perspectives on cult dynamics, however, may find themselves more than a little surprised. 

"I judge what I think, say, or do harshly, as never good enough."
"I value others’ approval of my thinking, feelings, and behavior over my own."
"I constantly seek recognition that I think I deserve."
"I have difficulty admitting that I made a mistake."
"I need to appear to be right in the eyes of others and will even lie to look good."
"I look to others to provide my sense of safety."
"I am extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long."
"I compromise my own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger."
"I put aside my own interests in order to do what others want."
"I am afraid to express my beliefs, opinions, and feelings when they differ from those of others."
"I give up my truth to gain the approval of others or to avoid change."
"I believe most people are incapable of taking care of themselves."
"I attempt to convince others what to think, do, or feel."
"I freely offer advice and direction to others without being asked."
"I become resentful when others decline my help or reject my advice."
"I have to be needed in order to have a relationship with others."
"I use charm and charisma to convince others of my capacity to be caring and compassionate."
"I use blame and shame to emotionally exploit others."
"I adopt an attitude of indifference, helplessness, authority, or rage to manipulate outcomes."
"I use terms of recovery in an attempt to control the behavior of others."
"I pretend to agree with others to get what I want."


Tell me you've never seen any of this in a cult.

Codependence, Cult Participation & Complex PTSD

Like co-dependents (only generally even moreso), the devoted cult member displays high allostatic loading (especially see Bruce McEwen's, Sonya Lupien's and Robert Sapolsky's work on this very hot topic in abnormal psychology) and other behavioral presentations of complex post-traumatic stress disorder that usually began in childhood. Generally speaking, this allostatic loading was greatly densified in co-dependent, romantic and workplace relationships, as well as religious and other large group activities that were interpersonally stress-inducing, even if they seemed "normal" to the participant.

My observation is that this allostatic loading is the direct result of what Susan Forward called "emotional blackmail" (in a truly fine book of the same title) by means of the "F.O.G." manipulations of fear, obligation and guilt. 

I have observed repeatedly -- via scans of the brain with magnetic resonance imaging and three-dimensional computer-aided tomography -- that those who have been tortured psychologically have brains that function very similarly to those who have been tortured physically, as well as those exposed to violent, military combat. I have seen scans of the brains of those who have been exposed to chronic -- as well as severe acute -- stress and abuse. The histories may be as different as one can imagine... but the limbic systems look pretty much the same: amygdalae and hippocampi that are either grossly over- or under-size owing to over-growth to deal with relentless threat, or excitotoxicity from being on the receiving end. 

Over time, the severely co-dependent or cult member may find he or she needs to drink or drug, gamble, exercise, work, volunteer or otherwise distract him- or herself to excess to try to displace the conflict, anxiety, mania and/or depression typical in the traumatic stress that both causes and results from continued, chronic allostatic loading.

Are cult membership or codependence potentially "deadly?" I wish you could see those scans. As well as the statistics on both fast and slow suicide among people with anxiety-, depression- and mania-soaked, complex PTSD induced by having become "learned helpless" victims at the bottom of Karpman's Drama Triangle

Treatment

Once programmed and caught in the vicious cycle of trying to escape from what is causing the problem by indulging in yet more of it, is there a way out? I think so, but only for those (more or less as for anyone who has been obsessed or addicted to a substance or behavior like gambling, workaholism, excessive exercise or sex, or severely codependent relationships) who have moved through denial / pre-contemplation and contemplation / consideration into self-identification / acceptance so that they can move on to commitment / action and maintenance / relapse prevention (see Prochaska & DiClemente on the five stages of addiction recovery).

In combination with understanding the fear, obligation & guilt ("FOG") dynamics of cult mind control (e.g.: see above, see Goleman's list of cult danger signs, see Zimbardo's ten lessons from the Milgram studies)  have seen the following work for both codependents and cult exiters: Pia Mellody's approach to the 12 Steps of Co-Dependents Anonymous, Albert Ellis's Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy, Aaron Beck's Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Stephen Hayes's Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Stanley Block's Mind-Body Bridging Therapy, and Patricia Ogden's Sensorimotor Psychotherapy for Trauma

Or one can take a look at the 10 StEPs of Emotion Processing, yet another of the new wave of reality therapies that re-ground the mind in observing what is, as opposed to what the mind has been trained to believe. See also The 10 StEPs for Recovery from the Consensus Trance and The 10 StEPs to Freedom from Emotional Blackmail.) 

But one may have to employ the consciousness-raising, "howzitoworkingforyou?" techniques of motivational enhancement much as they are used in the treatments of substance abuse and behavioral addictions (including severe, unconscious, ardently denied or unseen co-dependence) to break through the first stage of denial / pre-contemplation to get the co-dependent or cult member on the road through contemplation / consideration to self-identification / acceptance of his or her causes and conditions.

Finally, those who may be looking for edification on the causes, conditions, treatment of, and recovery from both co-dependence and cultic thought reform will find an exhaustive list of published resources below. Also see the outline on CARM's website.

Related article: Coercive Persuasion & Attitude Change in Cults

Resources & References

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