It’s Narcissist Friday!
Singer’s Six Conditions for Thought Control (Cults in our Midst, 1995)
5. Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group’s ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors. Good behavior, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group’s beliefs, and compliance are rewarded while questioning, expressing doubts or criticizing are met with disapproval, redress and possible rejection. If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.
One of the things I remember so well from the legalistic organization we were in was the system of rewards and punishments. Those who were chosen to lead, even in small groups, were considered superior. It was an achievement to be noticed for compliance and conformity. Things like initiative and energy were only rewarded if they served the system. Leaders were chosen, not on actual leadership abilities (that might present a threat someday) but for their willingness to submit to even higher authorities. Special families were given administrative chores, even brought to headquarters to serve.
Don’t underestimate the attraction of this kind of reward! I knew men who quit their jobs to work for the organization at minimal pay. I knew young people who gave up vocations and education to serve. Some of them even paid for the privilege to work long hours at sometimes trivial tasks. To serve at headquarters, even to serve in the local organization, was an honor.
The other side was almost as strong. Certain people were discouraged from applying, joining the group, because their families wouldn’t measure up. Too much television. Divorce and step kids. Even young people in college. These were enough to keep families out. Not good enough.
And, if you got in, the old process of shunning took new forms. Yes, certain families and certain people were in the group, barely. Everyone knew they didn’t fit. No one looked at them when opportunities arose. If one of the young people at HQ broke even a minor rule, he or she could be sent home to a reception of failure and shame.
Doubt was allowed. People spoke against some of the teachings. But those people were not rewarded. They were noticed and remembered. To ask a question was to reveal your spiritual immaturity. I marveled at those who said things like: “I really don’t agree with that teaching, but I know it’s because I haven’t arrived at that point yet.” Or: “Every time I disagree with something the teacher says, I find him to be right later.” You just had to wait and the teacher would be affirmed, no matter what kind of off-the-wall thing he taught.
The power of a legalist/narcissist organization to indoctrinate, to force conformity, seems unbelievable to those who have never experienced it. By subtly presenting a feedback system that always loops back into the teachings and control of the organization, the victims are moved slowly to acceptance. Rewards always led back to more involvement, more recognition, within the system. Punishments always circled back to the idea that conformity was best.
Now, does an individual narcissist do this? Of course. In fact, in much the same way. “If you do it my way, we will go out someplace together.” Always together. “If you don’t do it my way, you will be further separated from the things and people who build you up.” Always away from what is good for the victim and toward the narcissist. To question the narcissist is to attack him/her. Your question will be met with either a pat on the head (”You just don’t understand”) or a slap in the face (”How dare you?”).
In fact, one of the things that should cause you to suspect a narcissistic relationship is a system of rewards and punishments. What happens when you do what you are told? What happens when you do not? Loving relationships may have consequences, but they won’t make you feel controlled or manipulated. Narcissists don’t see you as a person with values and ideas like themselves. You are a tool to be used to serve the image. Any nonconformity must be brought under control.