A lot has been written about the kinds of people who choose to lead a cult. Like Charles Manson, Jim Jones or Sun Myung Moon, these are power-crazed narcissists and sociopaths, highly invested in manipulating and controlling others to do their bidding. It’s not enough for these individuals to have personal power; they’re compelled to have others bend to their will.
But what causes a seemingly normal person to cast aside their autonomy and allow a charismatic stranger to tell them what to think and what to do? Cult followers give up their money and personal possessions to the leader; they abandon their family and friends; they willingly offer their bodies to the leader, allowing themselves to be married off, impregnated, or literally, to “drink the Kool-ade.”
Cult followers — whether religious, political, or survivalist — are so in the thrall of their leaders that tragically, the news often contains stories of how these followers are willing to die if that’s what their leader directs them to do. It seems incomprehensible, when you take a step back and look at it; especially when you consider that these were once people with spouses, houses, careers and full, active lives.
In totalitarian states, people fight tooth and nail to free themselves from the bonds of oppression, but adult cult members join up willingly and gladly give away their voice and their freedom of choice.
I’ve concluded that that there’s one main psychological reason that could explain why people are so willing to give up their personal power and autonomy and allow some authoritarian bully to do their thinking for them. It all comes down to wanting to be parented.
The adult cult follower could be any age, but if they carry deep emotional wounds or unmet needs for love and care from a hurtful or neglectful childhood, they might harbor an unconscious but powerful desire to be parented today.
If a child grows up without receiving all the love, nurturing, protection and support that they need, they can become adults who carry unconscious emotional wounds. The person is compelled to be healed, but most often, they aren’t aware of these wounds or the fact that they’re driven to find healing.
When bad things happen to us in childhood, it’s hard to recognize them for what they are because as children, we have no basis for comparison. Neglect and abuse might feel bad, but a child can’t see that these things shouldn’t have happened, since it’s all that they know. When they grow into adults with emotional wounds, they can’t recognize the fact that they’ve been hurt and that the hurts have come from experiences in their past.
The reason why people are in denial of hurtful parents:
Even when someone goes for counseling for an emotional problem or addiction, they could have a knee-jerk denial with regard to hurtful or neglectful parents. This happens because it’s painful to face such a truth. Individuals with emotional problems don’t want to associate their symptoms of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem or addiction with the way that they were parented.
Many adults turn to addiction to fill up an inner sense of emptiness, or to distract or numb them from their emotional pain. They don’t connect their symptoms with their past experiences so they don’t realize that this is why they’re addicted. Sadly, this is a significant reason why so many people fail to overcome their addictions. If we don’t understand the cause of the problem we won’t be able to find a solution for it.
Many people who didn’t receive the love and care the needed as a child will become people-pleasers in their adult lives, believing that if they’re nice, accommodating and helpful that someone will finally give them the approval and support they so desperately crave. Again, all of this happens on an unconscious level.
Some people go even further to deal with their unconscious inner wounds. They join a cult. The appeal of a cult for these individuals is that they finally get to be parented. The problem with being parented as an adult is that it’s completely inappropriate.
When we’re little, we’re incapable of making most of our own decisions, so we need a grown-up who loves us and wants the best for us to make these decisions for us. As we grow older, our parents should be giving us more and more autonomy and decision-making ability, so that we grow up to be confident competent adults, able to run our own lives.
As adults, it’s never a good idea to have someone else making our decisions for us. Unless the person truly loves us and wants the best for us, it’s too easy for this other person to prioritize their own agenda and put their needs ahead of our own. In the case of cult leaders this is the rule, rather than the exception.
And even if the other person truly loves us and cares for us, normal healthy grown-ups don’t want to make all the decisions for another adult. They want to be with an equal; someone who’s capable of making their own choices, as opposed to a passive, dependent person who expects them to be in full control.
As adults, we need to take responsibility for ourselves, and if we didn’t get the right kind of parenting when we were kids, having someone parent us as adults won’t fix the problem. In fact, it’s doomed to backfire.
When we abdicate our adult autonomy and let someone else do our thinking and deciding for us, instead of healing our deep inner wounds, it makes them worse. In order to heal, and to live our best life, we need to be empowered, not helpless. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and discover our own innate ability to love and care for ourselves. This is the only way for us to heal.
If we give away our decision-making ability to another person, the likelihood is that they’ll abuse the privilege. Instead of being loved and cared for the way we always wanted, we’ll be taken advantage of, exploited and abused. Or, if the other person happens to be normal and healthy as opposed to a manipulative, toxic narcissist, they’ll be confused with our willful passivity or resent our demands for them to baby us.
Normal, healthy people don’t want to control us and they won’t want to take care of another adult, so the only people who’ll promise to care for us (if we abdicate our personal autonomy) are the users and abusers out there.
If anyone is all too happy to take over our decision-making capacity it shows us who they really are. Their willingness to parent us is an irrefutable sign that they’re a toxic narcissist who really only wants to control and exploit us.
This is why cults are so destructive and dangerous. It’s because the only people who’d want to lead a cult are abusive, power-mad individuals. These are the worst type of pseudo-parents. They take advantage of the emotional needs of wounded adults who harbor the unconscious hope to be parented again.