This is a model for how a specific kind of abusive cult or group functions. Not all dangerous groups follow this model. This can be used as a guide to distinguish if a guru is creating an environment for unhealthy control.
The Guru is most typically an intelligent man in his 30s or 40s that wants something badly. Sex, power, and fame are common motives. He believes that he is special, above others, and deserving of the thing he wants.
The Guru is smart enough to understand and read people, and has relied on his ability to read people as a strategy for survival. He can find weaknesses and emotional buttons, then adapt his pitch to better appeal to the target. And he’s practiced for years.
Still, he has a polarizing effect on people. Many notice the warning signs and avoid the guru out of distaste and wariness, leaving him around the people he most appeals to.
The most important thing is that there is a power differential between the guru and the targets, be that age, intelligence, fame, manipulative skill, or wealth. Three common targets include:
- Young women with self-esteem issues and family problems
- Attractive men to help lure in attractive women
- Wealthy men or women who feel a spiritual void and are seeking a salve
The guru will espouse a framework for how the world works that only he understands fully. Because he has monopoly over this understanding, his authority is unquestionable.
The guru will also prescribe a way of being. The deal is that the closer you follow this way of being, the closer you will be to understanding the framework and thus achieving some sort of reward.
The rewards for following his way are numerous, from power, abilities, enlightenment, love, or whatever else pushes the target’s buttons. The good student rises in status in the internal pecking order and gains validation — but never rises above that of the guru. Any real threats to his authority will leave or are kicked out.
Any outside and thus competing belief framework will be reframed as anything from naive to evil. These competing frameworks are seen as the word of the enemy. A dichotomy is formed where the world is conspiring against the guru and the targets. The only safety is to be found by listening to the guru and obeying his instructions. Questioning him or his worldview indicates that you are one of the enemy.
After abandoning whatever old framework the target had before, they are dependent on the guru for their sense of self, meaning, understanding, and purpose. The target cannot know better than the guru, unless the guru says so. True wisdom lies in accepting the word of the guru.
All of the positives are because of the teacher. All of the negatives are the fault of the student.
Over time, the target feels overwhelmingly indebted and thankful of the guru. The guru encourages this, with a way of being that emphasizes emotional and physical labor plus the gift of resources towards the guru. The debt is never paid.
Tools for control
The worldview above becomes installed with the use of many tools designed for keeping targets emotionally controlled. These aren’t all of the tools, but these are some common ones.
- Drugs. Mind-altering substances can create a psychological or physical addiction. They also create dependence on the guru, who often controls access to drugs. Many drugs further destabilize and reframe the way the targets see the world, so they are dependent on the guru for stability and meaning.
- Financial control. A worldview where the guru must have the possessions and resources of the targets.
- Control of sex. Either celibacy or promiscuity. This prevents group members from forming strong bonds that might compete with the guru/target bond.
- Threats and violence. Disobeying or questioning has spiritual or physical consequences.
- Promises. If only the target does X, they will get Y. After the target invests by doing X, the requirements for Y often change to require yet more dedication.
- Requirement of submission. A good student can only achieve enlightenment (or not get beaten) by submitting fully to the will of the guru. This makes it harder for the target to act in their own interest.
- Conditional affection (aka “Love bombing”). This begins by providing more affection and care than the targets have felt before. it will be hard for the targets to frame the scenario as anything but good. They don’t realize how low a bar had been set by their upbringing.
- Pecking orders. Special attention given to members that behave in certain ways.
- Threats of disownment. This can be used to put targets into situations where they are more receptive of the other tools.
- Illegality and blackmail. This can cause shame for targets, making it harder to confide in non-members of the group.
- Pushing emotional buttons. Getting the targets to confide their secrets and traumas allows the guru to provide the right type of validation and threats to keep the target emotionally dependent.
I’m interested in this topic because I was in an unhealthy and traumatic guru/target relationship for over a year. Realizing that the dynamic was not normal and in fact quite damaging was difficult, coming from a background of low self-esteem and the constant reassurance from the guru that everyone else was wrong.
IT HURTS when you learn that those you were taught were your “enemies” were telling the truth after all — but you had been told they were liars, deceivers, repressive, satanic etc and not to listen to them.It Hurts, from the Cult Education Institute
It hurts to admit that a situation was unhealthy. For me, it meant admitting that it wasn’t worth it. My time could have been better spent elsewhere. Admitting this to myself was very hard, and for a long time I was defending that it was worth it. In retrospect, I don’t think it was.
I had a hard time listening to the people who noticed the warning signs about the guru. At every step, the guru was framing the others as out to get us. Following my own volition was to go against the guru. Plus, everyone who was trying to help only made me feel like a child, stripped of agency.
Accepting that you have been the target of manipulation is to admit a loss of agency and control. But by looking at it straight on, in exchange, lets you regain actual control.
Leaving, I lacked a healthy support system and resources. I felt a lot of shame, isolation, failure, and guilt. I had a lot of dissociation and distancing from my experiences, that only came out as triggered outbursts at first. I didn’t know what was right or wrong for a while, as the framework for making sense had been revealed to be the product of bias and tool for control. Unfortunately, this all is normal.
The Body Keeps the Score is a good book about processing trauma and reducing dissociation.
It’s important to know that you should be treated with compassion, and that seeking a healthy environment is not a betrayal. There are support groups and therapy for people who have been targeted in this way.