If you want to know how to brainwash someone, just look at any cult and you will see the process they use to recruit new people, change their attitude and beliefs and keep them involved. The same process is used in intimate relationships by manipulators as well.
I am writing this page on how to brainwash someone for those who have been in a cult or an abusive relationship so that you can get an overall picture of what was done to you.
This is not a manual for someone who wants to start a cult or manipulate others. If that is your intention and you are not a psychopath or a narcissist (and doing this anyway!), you probably won't be able to do these things. The lack of empathy and emotions of a psychopath is usually necessary to be able to deliberately and calculatedly totally control/destroy another person.
Destruction is what brainwashing someone involves. It's not just about changing their ideas but it involves altering the way they perceive the world, their thinking strategies, their emotions, their decision making and their behaviors. In effect you change a person's personality or identity to something different. Once done, these changes will last for years unless the victim deliberately works to undo them.
So let's look at the steps in how to brainwash someone...
While I have listed these things in this order, at times there may be considerable overlap between them. It may be necessary to jump around from one step to another, or to go back and repeat several steps and there may be several items occurring at the same time, and so on.
These phases occur in a cult, in a work situation, in a social situation and in an intimate relationship, although they may seem different in each context. Let's look at each in more detail.
Cults have an outer façade that they use to attract members. It can be personal development, religion, health, politics, sports or any variety of things. People don't join a cult. They go along for a sales training course or to improve their relationships or to lose weight. Each group has something they offer to people and they make out that it is special to the group, that you can't get anything like it anywhere else and there is a promise to fulfill your dreams. While their target group may seem to be specific, the members are quickly led to believe that the group will work for almost anyone and they act accordingly, trying to invite anyone and everyone along.
In intimate relationships the 'what is on offer' is variable. The manipulator quickly assesses their target, working out their wants, needs, desires, fears, weaknesses and even strengths. Then the manipulator will offer the victim what the victim wants. This could be anything from a job, to company, to help resolving a problem, to a place to stay, to advice, to a shoulder to cry on, to a relationship with the promise of marriage and children.
In either situation, the victim is being lied to. The manipulators hide all sorts of information, they tell outright lies and they sugar coat things to make them more palatable.
Once the person comes along to the group session they are love bombed. This means that the group members make them feel very welcome, special, cared for, intelligent, talented and even loved. This has a very powerful effect on new people, immediately making them feel part of the group as if they have made instant friends. It makes it very easy for the new victim to share information about themselves and to take the next step and it also makes it very hard not to take the nest step! It's difficult to turn down the offer of more from people who are so nice, even if the 'more' is not exactly what you want.
The same process works in intimate relationships. The victim is made to feel like they have met their perfect partner. This new person in their life seems to tick all the boxes, the victim feels accepted, understood and loved. The victim opens up and reveals personal details about themselves to the manipulator.
This love-bombing is designed to get the victim to commit to further involvement in the relationship, whether it is in a cult or a one to one situation or a work environment.
The information the victim reveals will be used against them later.
I talk of brainwashing here as the process used in cults today.
It is possible to differentiate between Brainwashing vs Mind control,
as these terms were originally used.
In a cult, while the general attention is on the theme of the group (health, sales, nutrition etc.) the rules of the group are introduced. Sometimes it's done overtly, often covertly. The new member notices that doing certain things causes the other member to distance themselves in some way and doing other things brings more of that nice attention that is very pleasant. The newbie quickly learns that in order to feel good and stay in the good graces of the leader and the group, they have to think and act in a certain way. In this manner the beliefs and behaviors of members are molded by the group.
In intimate relationships, all that unconditional love at the start of the relationship suddenly becomes conditional. The victim learns that doing certain things causes the 'ideal partner' to be upset and they quickly adjust to fix things again. The victim realizes that things that were acceptable at the start are no longer so. The terms and conditions of the relationship are adjusted by the manipulator so that if the victim wants to be treated nicely they have to change the way they relate to the manipulator. Nobody likes being given the silent treatment, for example, especially when the relationship has been based (so far) on love and happiness and mutual understanding. The motivation to avoid the withdrawal of such nice attention is very strong.
Very soon after becoming part of the group, the new members are led through a sequence whereby the thing that initially attracted them to the group becomes transformed into a desire for something larger. The general idea sold to them is this: "Notice how good you feel about what we do here. Imagine if more people knew about this. How much better would the world be? You'd like to help to create such a world, wouldn't you?"
In this way, people who come along for weight loss start taking the products and then they are offered the idea that if they sold products themselves, they could have the benefits of the products and make money while doing it.
A person who goes to a seminar in order to improve their communication skills is led to believe that it would be better to start with improving who they are and that their communication skills will naturally improve if they do that. They are led to believe that switching to creating 'the ideal self' is for their overall benefit.
Another who wants a personal relationship with god is told that their personal relationship involves going out and spreading the word. The are further leveraged into recruiting members by being asked, "You wouldn't want to upset god, now, would you?"
In intimate relationships a common ploy of the manipulators is to make everything about the relationship. "I am doing this for the benefit of the relationship. What are you doing for us? You want this relationship to work, don't you?
Later on, the leader, whether in a cult or intimate relationship, switches the attention to themselves. The cult leader makes out that this bigger goal that the victim has bought into can only be achieved through him (or her!). The members come to believe that nothing has value unless it has to do with the leader. In order to do this the leader tells stories to boost their own importance, they claim to have special authority and secret knowledge and they take credit for anything good that happens within 50 yards of them.
The cults and manipulators in intimate relationship criticize their victims, a lot! But it's not just about any old thing. They certainly use any old thing to criticize, but the criticism is aimed at the identity of the individual, at their sense of themselves.
Instead of criticizing the behavior or the opinion or the belief, the manipulator criticizes the person directly for doing the behavior or having the belief. So instead of 'that's a stupid thing to do,' it's 'you are stupid (for doing or thinking that).'
This is very significant, because along with the frequent repetition of these insults, they have a profound effect on the victim. They chip away at self esteem and they begin to undo a person's personality. The victim feels guilt and shame about who they are and makes an effort to change themselves to please the manipulator.
I have written in detail about this idea in this article about narcissistic boyfriends.
The manipulators will do many things to isolate their victims from family and friends and any other support network they may have. The reason they do this is that they want to be the victim's only source of information. Caring family members will tell the victim that they are in a cult or an abusive relationship and the manipulator obviously doesn't want the victim to know this. The best way to prevent it happening is for the victim either not to have contact with others or not to believe or accept what friends and family tell them.
There are a whole range of things that manipulators will say and do to the victims to get them to separate from outsiders, including telling members that their family does not love them if they do not support them. Of course a family won't support a loved one being in a cult but often by the time the family realizes what is happening, the member has already been inoculated against any criticism the family may have against the group or the leader. In this way the victim has been programmed not to pay attention to anything the family says or even to aggressively defend the group.
If friends will not join the group the member is told that they will be held back by such non-believers and that they should cut them off.
Members are even isolated from themselves by such techniques as name changes, rewriting of past history, not being allowed to talk of certain topics or engage in certain activities, having to use particular language, dress a certain way and adopt particular hairstyles or having to change to fit into the group's lifestyle.
Victims are isolated from outsiders but very much encouraged to spend time with other group members as a way to strengthen the ideas of the group. Members support each other in sticking to the rules and they reinforce the group beliefs for each other. This helps build the 'us vs them' mentality of the cult.
Cult members are never allowed to get angry or frustrated at the leader or the group. Any anger is redirected at outsiders.
Fear and guilt are the two main emotions used to control people in mind control situations. Fear of outsiders, fear of disapproval from the group or the leader, fear of losing what has been learnt, fear of thinking independently, fear of leaving are some of the more common things that are used to keep people docile and obedient.
Guilt is the other major factor in such situations. Victims often don’t realize how much guilt they experience while in the environment but this control mechanism is used repeatedly by the manipulators. Victims are basically blamed for anything that goes wrong while the leader takes credit for anything that goes well. The members are forced over and over again to take personal responsibility for all sorts of things and they are put in a never-ending loop of trying to perfect themselves to stop bad things from happening so that they can 'reach their potential'. This personal responsibility thing also breaks down people's personalities and more than one person has actually had a nervous breakdown or committed suicide because of the psychological pressure applied to them.
The fear and guilt is a great combination to force the thinking and decision making of people. People will make decisions in order to avoid fear and guilt. In this way, the leader doesn’t always have to tell people what to do, he just creates fear and guilt in relation to A so that the members choose B. B, of course, is what the leader wanted in the first place and doing things this way has the advantage for the leader that the members think that they are making their own decisions.
The leader will keep the victims busy. Busy physically and busy mentally. In cults there are exercises to be repeated, tools to be mastered and techniques to be practiced. There are books, DVD, audios and so on with lots of information that need to be digested. And when you finish all of them, you are told that it's worth going over them all again.
And then there are lists of your wants, desires, values, goals that need to be checked, rechecked, rewritten, updated and so on. On top of that, the members are expected to be telling others, spreading the word, teaching the world... There is never a dull, boring moment in a cult. There is always something to analyze in order to discover a deeper meaning... to learn a significant lesson... to have a profound realization. And it's all just mental gymnastics. It's of no real value for the cult member but what it does is keep them in the mindset of the cult.
In intimate relationships, the manipulators will also keep their victims busy, doing housework, child care, paperwork, trips to the bank and/or the post office. In terms of keeping their victims mentally busy, a classic for the manipulators is to tell a generous person that they are mean or a friendly person that they don't really care about others, or an honest person that they are a liar. This often sets the victim's head in a spin, trying to figure out what the manipulator means. "Why would she say that? Does she notice something that I don't? Do other people think of me as ... when I thought I was the opposite? What am I missing here?"
If the cult can keep the members so busy that they don't have time to sleep much, all the better! Tired people cannot resist mentally. And if the cult can get people to eat a low protein diet, they will do that, too. Now add in chanting, dancing, singing, hypnosis, meditation and you have people who can no longer think well at all but are actually very vulnerable to suggestion and manipulation.
Cults will push people to be paranoid about their own thoughts, to believe that their problem is their own ego. Cults will suggest that the members should stop thinking and judging.
Very quickly the members will accept that the leader is flawless and has all the answers to the problems of life. They will believe bogus scientific research that is dressed up as evidence and they will even accept all sorts of ideas without any evidence at all, without ever questioning. At this stage they have entered the realm of blind obedience.
The leaders will make their victims dependent on them. Criticizing the victim for thinking independently and making their own decisions, criticizing their decisions, alternating criticisms and compliments, attacking the person's identity and installing phobias of leaving are some of the techniques that cult leaders and manipulators in intimate relationships use to create a childlike dependency in the victims.
Cult members and other victims often come to think of themselves as co-dependent as a way to explain their feeling of dependence on the manipulators. This is an error in thinking because it reverses cause and effect. The victim thinks that they have a dependent personality and that's why they have ended up with this controlling person. The fact is that, because they are with the manipulator, they have become dependent. This is actually part of the cult personality that has been imposed on them.
Read this article on abusive husbands for a fuller explanation of this kind of dependency.
I have explained some of the brainwashing techniques used to unfreeze a victim's personality and how various methods are used to get people to think differently, to make decisions differently and to act differently.
Once these things are in place, once the cult member (or partner in an intimate relationship) has this new world view in place and is acting and thinking according to the leader's wishes, this new system is refrozen in place, usually using a simple system of rewards and punishments. The victim behaves according to the doctrine and they are rewarded, they break the 'rules' and they are punished. In this way this new personality is frozen in place and stabilized over time. It becomes the new default for the victim.
This cult personality, or pseudopersonality, is obedient and loyal to the leader. It is programmed to defend the leader if anyone criticizes him or her. It is programmed to believe the leader and to follow his or her instructions. It is also very dependent on the leader. In fact, the leader becomes the life's purpose of the pseudopersonality and the pseudopersonality organizes itself around the leader.
The thinking of the pseudopersonality is quite distorted and it does not recognize the control the leader has over it. Nor can it see the contradictions in the group or the relationship, such as the fact that the leader does things that the members are not allowed to do.
The beliefs of the pseudopersonality are very strong, often much stronger than normal beliefs. In normal circumstances humans like to keep their beliefs intact and will often ignore or even deny information that contradicts those beliefs. The strength of the beliefs of the pseudopersonality means that this ignoring or denying of information works at an enhanced level in cult members and other victims of psychological abuse. This is one of the things that makes it so difficult to convince them that they are in an abusive situation.
This process is occurring over and over in cults. The members are constantly being manipulated and abused by the leader to keep the pseudopersonality in place. At the same time, new members are being brought in and put through the steps by the older members (because the pseudopersonality is programmed to recruit and indoctrinate new members).
Cults like to have members come to cult events frequently. Besides taking money from them, it also gives the leadership a chance to 'top up' the pseudopersonality. Some groups insist that members attend an event every six or twelve months to keep their learning up to date with the group's advances. Of course, what happens is that their pseudopersonality is reinforced.
Other groups, as 'punishment' for wrong doings, have people go back to the start of the indoctrination process and go through things again. This serves at least two purposes, the first being punishment and the second re-indoctrination.
An important thing to remember is that cults' techniques, tools, their processes, their strategies are all sold as being useful for what they are offering, whether that's making money, getting healthy, personal development, religion or whatever. These things have been distorted, however, in such a way that they all act to brainwash the members, to destroy their real personality and replace it with the cult personality that thinks and acts only for the benefit of the leadership. At the same time, the members absolutely believe that the leader is helping them!
Undoing this process is obviously is a major task and is best done with the help of a professional.
You can read more about mind control, complex trauma, the characteristics of a cult, abusive relationships, toxic families, how to escape a cult, how to leave an abusive relationship, and life after dating a psychopath.
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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