Mean Girls, 2004.
Karen explains the rules of being in the Plastics.
The mentalities behind some personality disorders and cult membership have an interesting amount of overlap. While the individual members of cults tend to be made up of Narcissistic leaders and Dependent followers, the belief of the members in the righteousness of their cult is parallel to the Narcissist’s belief in their own greatness. Just as dysfunctional families led by Narcissistic parents can breed Narcissists for children, the constant emotional torment of a childhood with Narcissistic parents can lead to Dependent Personality Disorder. Growing up in a dysfunctional environment normalizes the dysfunctional relationship when Narcissists and Dependents meet later in life.
Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder feed off of attention, especially from those who enable their grandiose image of themselves. People with Dependent Personality Disorder need others to enable their state of eternal dependence. When Narcissists and Dependents meet, they can fall into a dangerous cycle of enabling each other’s disordered beliefs. Narcissists see the Dependent as less than themself and in comparison, themselves as grand. The Dependent supports these ideas by believing that they themselves are inadequate, and need someone like the Narcissist to direct them. They see the Narcissist as the grandiose facade the Narcissist projects, tending to fawn over the greatness of this leader. The Narcissist, feeding on this attention, allows the Dependent person to continue their self-sabotaging concept of themselves as “less than” others in the world.
A Mean Microcosm
A microcosm of the relationship between these two disorders (Narcissistic and Dependent) can be seen in the archetypal roles of bullies and their lackeys. I picked the above screen capture for this post very intentionally: the characters Regina George and Gretchen Wieners from the movie Mean Girls are a sterling example of this relationship. For those unacquainted with the movie, a 15-year-old girl named Cady, having previously only been homeschooled while her parents studied large cats in Africa, suddenly enters high school in the States. She is accidentally inducted into “the Plastics” — the group of popular (and mean) girls at the school.
The Plastics go by inane rules such as the above “Wednesdays we wear pink,” and are led by Regina George, who is referred to as “the Queen Bee”. Regina’s #1 lackey is Gretchen Wieners. Gretchen truly believes in Regina’s perfection and constantly seeks her approval. She tells Cady how Regina declared hoop earrings “hers” so Gretchen can no longer wear the ones her parents bought her. Gretchen repeatedly tries to promote the slang word “fetch” which Regina uses as an opportunity to berate her. Even at the end of the movie, while the other previous Plastics members find new identities in themselves, Gretchen is only able to move on by finding a new Queen Bee to serve.
Of course, Mean Girls is a comedy, and the storylines are exaggerated, but sometimes the exaggeration of comedy makes these kinds of behavior patterns visible (it also gives us an opportunity to laugh about people like those who have been mean to us, which can be very healthy!). Anyone who has been a part of a group like the Plastics can tell you the pattern of Narcissistic leader and Dependent follower is very real. Any group that has a Narcissistic view of themselves as a whole, such as “we are popular, everyone likes us” or “we are saving people, everyone should thank us”, breeds these dichotomic relationships and falls on the spectrum of cults.
From Personal Experience
While I was never a “popular” kid in school, I was a member of a martial arts school for 8 years that preached women’s empowerment, yet internally had the exact same social structure as the Plastics. The name of the school was Valley Women’s Martial Arts* and their tagline was “Institute for Healing and Violence Prevention” — rather funny as they actually prevent healing! The head instructor was a textbook Narcissist: she expected to be recognized as special, desired constant admiration, secretly envied others, was obsessed with fantasies of spiritual greatness, was largely unempathetic, and extremely arrogant. She behaved much like a Narcissistic parent, always playing favorites and manipulating her students. I watched her use karate promotions to get between siblings and scapegoat other instructors into leaving the school.
The school itself paraded an image of righteous empowerment; the followers of the head instructor deeply believing in the good they were doing and the head instructor deeply believing in how wonderful she was. The mentality of the school was that all women needed to learn physical self-defense because otherwise, they will go to college and they will get raped (there was a news article quoting members of the school stating just this). I wholeheartedly support teaching self-defense to anyone who wants to learn, as it’s a great life skill, but I can’t stand fear mongering of this sort. It simultaneously blames potential victims for not being a part of their cult-like world and promotes themselves as the saviors of women. Being a martial arts school in Western Massachusetts, there was plenty of bastardized Eastern philosophy mixed in with the self-defense lessons. When discussing my history with this martial arts school with my therapist, we frequently use the phrase “Spiritual Narcissist” to describe the head instructor — I find it to be painfully accurate.
For several years while I was taking classes at this school, there was an older girl who violated multiple boundaries of mine. Her behavior was in the area of verbal and sexual abuse. She herself had been abused, and was only five years older than myself. For this girl, I have mostly compassion. Yes, her behavior was wrong, but it was all she was taught, and I can no longer expend the energy to be angry with her. She left town after five years of this nonsense, just after I had turned 15. It took me two years to begin to understand what had happened, and when I did, I attempted to tell the instructors at the martial arts school about it. At the time, I was looking for support. It had not occurred to me my experience pointed out a flaw in the attention of the instructors to the behavior of their young students.
In place of support, I received a backlash I couldn’t have imagined. I was told the abuse was my fault, because at 14 I didn’t report it. I was simultaneously told I had made the whole thing up. The head instructor went so far as to attempt to gaslight me about the age of the abusive older girl, as though a slightly smaller age gap changed the situation dramatically. Her mantra through the ordeal was “there’s my truth, your truth and ‘the’ truth” — I have since heard other Narcissists rationalize their lying in very similar ways, as they are able to undermine the other person and appear humble all at once.
After disclosing my experience, I was isolated from everyone else at the school. The head instructor directed me not speak to anyone, and to take time off to prove my sanity. She demanded I go into therapy, requesting reports from my therapist, and expecting written work from myself on the topic of “what it means to be a survivor” to test the truth of my story. The reaction was so outrageous, violent, and downright abusive that I left the martial arts school. It was for the best, and hasn’t stopped me continuing to train elsewhere. As opposed to the compassion I felt for the older girl who abused me, I have nothing but disdain for the head instructor and her reaction to my disclosure. The damage done by the original abuse does not compare to the damage done by this head instructor.
More than five years after the incident, I had returned to my hometown and was having a conversation with friends at a local coffee shop. We were discussing broad topics like neurodiversity and I brought up the conversation with my therapist about the martial arts head instructor and the phrase Spiritual Narcissist. A week later, a very unstable sounding letter was sent to my mother’s house, harassing me for naming the actions of the school as abusive. Some of the most Dependent lackeys had eavesdropped on my conversation and reported back to their leader. I was absolutely stunned that half a decade later these people were still actively trying to stop me from speaking honestly about my experience and their behavior. That is what all abusers work for: silence. They can continue their abuse as long as it is not known about, and repress their knowledge of themselves as an abusive person as long as it goes unacknowledged. Maintaining a false belief (e.g. “we are a good group” “I am a good person”) while repressing the truth (e.g. knowledge of their one’s own abusive behavior) is psychologically exhausting, leaving all of the members of the group in an unstable and vulnerable state.
The Downward Spiral†
While the individual members of the group develop Narcissistic and Dependent personality traits, the larger mentality of the group about the group is largely Narcissistic. The “knowledge” that they are a good group doing good things, the excessive rationalizing of the beliefs they know to be unfounded, and repression of anything that contradicts said belief are the same traits possessed by individual Narcissists. A Narcissist believes they are great, even as they behave horrendously. The Narcissist believes that since they are a perfect person, all of their actions must be excusable. Similarly, a cult-minded group shares the belief that they are a good group, with good objectives, and that any means the group chooses must be similarly good. The group uses this logic to repress feelings of guilt and shame about actions that violate their individual ethics.
Possessing an intense and unrelenting belief in the inherent morality of their group, cult members will go to any lengths to rationalize the mentality and behavior of themselves and the leader. Just as a Narcissistic parent will blatantly throw a child into a stereotyped role such as “golden child” or “scapegoat”, the Narcissistic cult stereotypes their opponents. Scapegoated enemies allow the cult to bask in a sense of moral goodness and righteousness, feeling inflated pride in the mission of their group, just as an individual Narcissist will compare themselves to someone they perceive as “less” and take great glee in a sense of superiority.
While the Narcissistic leader buys into their own delusional invulnerability and perfection, the members see themselves as less than the leader, buying into the idea that they somehow need the leader to direct them. The excessive false love for the self or leader encourages odd and risky behavior to maintain this belief of invulnerability and perfection. Just as an individual Narcissist rationalizes and represses their bad behavior in favor of their facade of perfection, the collective discounts ideas that could lead to individual members reconsidering their commitment to the group. The Narcissistic leader aides this repression by rewriting history and facts, spinning a complex web of lies and distortions. The Dependent Personality Type followers are able to soothe their anxiety-driven need for attention and approval by following the Narcissistic leaders example, being praised by the Narcissist for supporting the Narcissist. Thus the Dependent followers encourage the Narcissistic leader’s perceived excellence and the Narcissistic leader encourages the Dependent follower’s need for attention.
In the case of the martial arts studio, the members believed so deeply in the larger goal of the organization and the enlightenment of the leader, they were unable to see actions of their leader for what they were. Not wanting to integrate the knowledge that their school had failed in its mission to help victims and instead had a leader blatantly accusing victims of lying and deserving abuse, most turned a blind eye to the situation. The cult-like mindset of this martial arts school had most of the members under the impression that simply by being under this instructor, they were receiving some kind of special teaching. There was an unquestioned belief that the school was inherently moral and that the head instructor would lead them to further enlightenment and empowerment. A sense that the leader could take them to greatness in a way that they could not teach themselves, because the leader was more than they were.
Prior to any of the aforementioned dramatics at this school, I was involved in a blatant episode of favoritism by the leader. She did not favor me, instead casting me as the scapegoat, and another young student as the golden child. She allowed this student to be promoted when she was not capable of performing the required tasks, sometimes skipping levels of promotion that no other students were allowed to skip. When I wrote a short letter to the head instructor and other primary instructors asking why this was happening, intense pressure was placed upon me to “let it go” and stop discussing it. I was labeled immature and jealous. Had I wanted to succeed at that school any longer, it was obvious I would have needed to censor my own thoughts when they deviated from the collective consensus to avoid being pigeonholed.
All of the behaviors and mentalities I have described above, while related to my own experience with a cult-like environment, are accurate for the more extreme “true” cults as well. One of the things that these more extreme “true” cults have going for them is complete isolation of their members, who are all living in a self-contained environment. While this martial arts school was not isolated in the same way, it was within an environment in Western Massachusetts that often caters these kinds of “Spiritual Narcissists” and in fact the head instructor was, for a time, celebrated for her work in the community. Environments that act as magnets for Narcissistic behavior tend to be small self-contained areas with a tendency towards extreme viewpoints.
To increase the feeling of exclusivity and specialness, cult-like groups often use their own terminology. At the martial arts school, the terminology they chose to use, when not garbled Japanese names for martial arts moves, was largely appropriated from the vocabulary of abuse survivors themselves. In fact, it was so well appropriated, everyone who walks through their door at first buys the group’s state of vicitmhood. The extremely dangerous part about this, is that survivors of abuse are vulnerable people and it can be easy for the Narcissistic leader to sell themselves as the good person they pretend to be.
In these Narcissistic cult-like groups, the leader and followers are in an eternal state of depending on and enabling one another. The Narcissist needs the followers to enforce their grandiose sense of self, and the Dependents needs their leader to fawn over and be directed by. From the outside looking in on these groups, it would seem as though the followers are the more dependent ones, but as the students in Mean Girls explain, Regina George would be nothing without her “army of skanks” and so wouldn’t every Narcissistic leader be nothing without their followers. It is large-scale co-dependence.
I’ll of course be writing more about Narcissists, Personality Disorders, Complex PTSD, and cultures and places that cater to Personality Disorders. I may also return to this idea of Narcissistic Cults, and how beliefs and behaviors of Personality Disorders get translated into a group mentality.
I am always interested in hearing other’s stories about Narcissists — if you have had an experience with a crazy leader of a cult-like group (or cult-like family — much of what I have described in this post happens in dysfunctional familes too), please tell it in the comments! As I mentioned in this post, abusers thrive when their abuse is kept silent. Survivors of abuse should decide for themselves what they are comfortable sharing, but the more abuse is discussed out in the open, the less people like my Narcissistic martial arts instructor can get away with their actions.
*As stated on my policies page, I am not interested in using this blog as a platform to target anyone, therefore I have not used any people’s names. However, given the severity of the dysfunction at this particular school, I feel it is actually very important to name it. Others seeking a safe space to learn self-defense and find healing and empowerment deserve to know that this school is decidedly unsafe.