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14 Ways Narcissists Can Be Like Cult Leaders

The tactics some narcissists use to get their way in personal relationships can be strikingly similar to the coercive tactics used by destructive cult leaders.

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If you have a spouse, family member, friend, or boss who is narcissistic, ask yourself whether any of the following 14 characteristics of destructive cults parallel your relationship with the narcissist.

  1. Cult leaders act larger than life. They are viewed as innately good, possessing special wisdom, answerable to no one, with no one above them.
  2. Cult members’ rights are subjugated for the “good” of the group, leader, or cause. Members are told that what the cult wants them to do is for their own good, even if it is self-destructive.
  3. An “Us vs. Them” attitude prevails. Outsiders are viewed as dangerous or enemies. This turns members’ focus outward, reducing the chances they will spot problems within the cult. In addition, viewing others as enemies is used to justify extreme actions because of the “dangers” outsiders pose.
  4. The leader or cause becomes all-important. Members devote inordinate amounts of time to the leader and group, leaving little time for self-care or reflection.
  5. Feelings are devalued, minimized, or manipulated. Shame, guilt, coercion, and appeals to fear keep members in line. Members are led to discount their instincts and intuition and told to seek answers from the leader or cult’s teachings. Over time, members can lose touch with their previous habits and values.
  6. Questioning and dissent are not tolerated. Having doubts about the leader or cult is considered shameful or sinful. Members are told that doubts or dissent indicate something wrong with the member.
  7. The ends justify the means. The “rightness” of the leader and cult justifies behavior that violates most people’s standards for ethics and honesty. In the zealotry of the cult, anything goes.
  8. Closeness to the cult and leader is rewarded while distance is punished. Temporary ostracism is used to punish behavior that doesn’t conform to group rules. Members fear being estranged from the group and losing their identities and the benefits of group membership.
  9. Cult members are on an endless treadmill of “becoming.” Only the cult leader is considered perfect. All other members must strive to emulate the leader. Most cults are set up so that members can never achieve this perfection, which keeps them dependent.
  10. Lies are repeated so often they seem true. The cult leader cannot be wrong and never needs to apologize.
  11. Cult leaders enrich themselves at members’ expense. Members are encouraged or coerced into gratifying the leader’s needs by giving up time, money, and more.
  12. Communication is coercive or deceptive. Things are not always what they seem. This fosters confusion, leaving members vulnerable. When confused, they seek solace from the aura of certainty the leader seems to possess.
  13. Sameness is encouraged. Certain kinds of appearance, behavior, and  cult terms and language become the norm for members. Over time, members come to identify themselves as part of an entity rather than as individuals.
  14. Doing what the leader wants is presented as the path to enlightenment or happiness. In time, this leads members to give up their old habits and norms. They live in a bubble, filtering out information that might weaken their resolve.

If you notice similarities between such techniques and your relationship with a narcissistic person, keep in mind:

  • Cults and narcissists use powerful forms of manipulation but there is nothing magical about what they do. Understanding their methods can allow you to avoid being taken in.
  • If someone is narcissistic, be mindful of sharing personal information with that person, as it may be used against you.
  • In any adult relationship you have the right to confront, prevent, or remove yourself from manipulation or coercive control at any time. You do not need to give a reason and you do not need the other person’s permission.
  • In any adult relationship you have the right to ask questions, make your own decisions and honor your own values and goals.
  • Nobody has the right to tell you what to think or how to feel.

Additional readings on destructive cults and narcissism:

Characteristics of cults
Traits of dangerous cult leaders
Psychology of the cult experience
Telltale signs of cults
What cults don’t want you to know
Techniques of thought reform
Brainwashing techniques
How narcissistic leaders manipulate group dynamics
Cults of personality
Sociopathic cult leaders

Copyright © 2017 by Dan Neuharth, PhD MFT

14 Ways Narcissists Can Be Like Cult Leaders

Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

Dan Neuharth, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist and best-selling author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has more than 25 years’ experience providing individual, couples and family therapy. Dr. Neuharth is the author of If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. He writes two blogs for PsychCentral: Love Matters and Narcissism Decoded. He is licensed as a marriage and family therapist in California, Florida, Texas and Virginia. His website:

Please note: Dr. Neuharth's posts are for information and educational purposes only. These posts are not intended to be therapy or professional psychotherapeutic advice, and are not a replacement for psychotherapy. I cannot give psychotherapeutic advice about your individual situation outside of a therapist-client relationship. The posting of these blogs and the information therein does not constitute the formation of a therapist-client relationship. Please consult your physician or mental health provider for individual advice or support for your health and well-being. If you are in crisis, please call your local 24-hour crisis or mental health hotline or dial 911.

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APA Reference
Neuharth, D. (2019). 14 Ways Narcissists Can Be Like Cult Leaders. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Apr 2019
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