A number of abusive, religious leaders may exhibit many of the behavioral characteristics of a sociopath–an outstanding ability to charm and seduce followers. Since they appear apparently normal, they are not easily recognizable as deviant or disturbed. Although only a trained professional can make a diagnosis of whether or not someone is a sociopath, it is important to be able to recognize the personality type in order to avoid further abuse. These traits also apply to a one-on-one cultic relationship.
- Glibness/Superficial Charm
Language can be used without effort by them to confuse and convince their audience. Captivating storytellers that exude self-confidence, they can spin a web that intrigues others. Since they are persuasive, they have the capacity to destroy their critics verbally or emotionally.
- Manipulative and Conning
They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors permissible. They appear to be charming, yet are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They dominate and humiliate their victims.
- Grandiose Sense of Self
Feels entitled to certain things as “their right.” Craves adulation and attendance. Must be the center of attention with their own fantasies as the “spokesman for God,” “enlightened,” “leader of humankind,” etc. Creates an us-versus-them mentality.
- Pathological Lying
Has no problem lying coolly and easily and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. Can create, and get caught up in, a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. Extremely convincing and able to pass lie detector tests.
- Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt
A deep seated rage, which is split off and repressed, is at their core. Does not see others around them as people, but only as targets and opportunities. Instead of friends, they have victims and accomplices who end up as victims. The end always justifies the means and they let nothing stand in their way.
- Shallow Emotions
When they show what seems to be warmth, joy, love and compassion, it is more feigned than experienced and serves an ulterior motive. Outraged by insignificant matters, yet remaining unmoved and cold by what would upset a normal person. Since they are not genuine, neither are their promises.
- Incapacity for Love
While they talk about “God’s love” they are unable to give or receive it. Since they do not believe in the genuineness of their followers’ love, they are very harsh in testing it from their devotees and expect them to feel guilt for their failings. Expects unconditional surrender.
- Need for Stimulation
Living on the edge, yet testing the beliefs of their followers with bizarre rules, punishments and behaviors. Verbal outbursts and physical punishments are normal.
- Callousness/Lack of Empathy
Unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, having only contempt for others’ feelings of distress and readily taking advantage of them. Their skills are used to exploit, abuse and exert power. Since the follower cannot believe their leader would callously hurt them, they rationalize the behavior as necessary for their (or the group’s) own “good” and deny the abuse. When devotees become aware of the exploitation it feels like a “spiritual rape” to them.
- Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature
Rage and abuse, alternating with small expressions of love and approval produce an addictive cycle for abuser and abused, as well as creating hopelessness in the victim. Believe they are all-powerful, all-knowing, entitled to every wish, no sense of personal boundaries, no concern for their impact on others. The followers only see them as near perfect.
- Early Behavioral Problems/Early Juvenile Delinquency
Usually has a history of behavioral and academic difficulties, yet “gets by” by conning others. Problems in making and keeping friends; aberrant behaviors such as cruelty to people or animals, stealing, etc.
Not concerned about wrecking others’ lives and dreams. Oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they cause. Does not accept blame themselves, but blame their followers or others outside their group. Blame reinforces passivity and obedience and produces guilt, shame, terror and conformity in the followers.
- Promiscuous Sexual Behavior/Infidelity
Totalistic leaders frequently practice promiscuity, child sexual abuse, rape and sexual acting out of all sorts. This is usually kept hidden from all but the inner circle. Stringent sexual control of their followers, such as forced breakups and divorces, removal of children from parents, rules for dating, etc.
- Lack of Realistic Life Plan/Parasitic Lifestyle
Tends to move around a lot or makes all encompassing promises for the future. Many groups claim as their goal world-domination or other utopian promises. Great contrast between the leader’s opulent lifestyle and the followers’ impoverishment. Support by gifts and donations from the followers who are pressured to give through fear and guilt. Highly sensitive to their own pain and health.
- Criminal or Entrepreneurial Versatility
Changes their image and that of the group as needed to avoid prosecution and to increase income and to recruit a range of members. Is able to adapt or relocate as needed to preserve the group. Can resurface later with a new name, a new front group and a new twist on the scam.
Other Related Qualities:
- Contemptuous of those who seek to understand them
- Does not perceive that anything is wrong with them
- Only rarely in difficulty with the law, but seeks out situations where their tyrannical behavior will be tolerated, condoned, or admired
- Conventional appearance
- Goal of enslavement of their victim(s)
- Exercises despotic control over every aspect of the victim’s life
- Has an emotional need to justify their crimes and therefore needs their victim’s affirmation (respect, gratitude and love)
- Ultimate goal is the creation of a willing victim
- Incapable of real human attachment to another
- Unable to feel remorse or guilt
- Extreme narcissism and grandioseMay state readily that their goal is to rule the world
The above is based on the psychopathy checklists of H. Cleckley and R. Hare. In the 1830s this disorder was called “moral insanity.” By 1900 it was changed to “psychopathic personality.” More recently it has been termed “antisocial personality disorder.” (Robert D. Hare)
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NOTICE: We are not qualified to give out detailed advice to those who have been/are in a sociopathic relationship, or are wondering whether someone they know is a sociopath. If you are needing help, our recommendation is to seek out a professional counselor or expert who is knowledgeable with this disorder.
WITHOUT CONSCIENCE (The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us) by Robert D. Hare
THE EMOTIONALLY ABUSED WOMAN (Overcoming Destructive Patterns and Reclaiming Yourself) by Beverly Engel