Understanding Influence – How Does Mind Control Look in Relationships?

Last month I shared with you a brief explanation of why I left Radical Honesty. I spent the last few months trying to understand mind control and undue influence. Since then, I learned that we live in times of cult renaissance, where anyone can access psychological manipulation techniques and aggressive, unethical marketing tools and be a self-proclaimed guru.

"If you think you're immune to mind control, you're the most vulnerable to it," according to Steven Hassan, a world-renowned cult expert who has worked with mind-control survivors for 30 years and has written books on mind control. Everyone is susceptible to manipulation. That includes you and me.

With this blog post, I want to inform you about mind control techniques and why people stay in toxic relationship dynamics so you can recognize them and respond accordingly.

I also added links to valuable articles and a video interview by Dr. Ramani and Dr. Janja Lalich.

Influence is a Spectrum

According to David Mc Dermott, who spent 12 years in the personal development scene learning about how people process information, he says that "mind control is also known as manipulation, thought reform, brainwashing, mental control, coercive persuasion, coercive control, malignant use of group dynamics, and many others.

The fact that there are so many names indicates a lack of agreement which allows for confusion and distortion (especially by those using it covertly for their own benefit)."

He suggests that mind control goes under the persuasion and influence umbrella - how to change people's beliefs and behaviors.

"Some will argue that everything is manipulation. However, in saying this, important distinctions still need to be made. It's much more helpful to think of influence as a continuum. At one end, we have ethical and respectful influences which respect the individual and their rights. On the other end, we have destructive influences which strip the person of their identity, independence, and ability to think critically or logically.

For example, "a one-on-one cult is an intimate relationship where one person abuses their power to manipulate and exploit the other, e.g., teacher/student, therapist/client, pastor/worshiper, or wife/husband.

This cultic relationship is a version of the larger groups and can be even more destructive because all the time and attention is directed only towards one person" - David Mc Dermott.

I recently watched a conversation between two of my favorite experts, Dr. Janja Lalich and Dr. Ramani.

Dr. Ramani compared how an intimate relationship with a narcissist (NPDisorder or someone who exhibits narcissistic attitudes and behaviors (personality)) is identical to a cult relationship - the abuse tactics and effects are the same. It's like people who abuse power learned it from the same school. You can watch the video here.

Dr. Ramani & Dr. Janja Lalich interview about what is a cult

Mind Control vs. Brainwashing

Dr. Steve Hassan makes an interesting distinction between mental control and brainwashing. He says that in brainwashing, the victim knows that the aggressor is an enemy. For example, prisoners of war know that the person doing the brainwashing and/or torture is an enemy. They often understand that remaining alive depends on changing their belief system. They are coerced, often with physical force, into doing things they would not normally do. However, the brainwashing effects frequently disappear when the victim escapes from the enemy's influence.

"Mind control is more subtle and sophisticated because the person doing the manipulations is often considered a friend or a teacher. Hence, the victim is NOT trying to defend themselves. They may be a 'willing' participant, and believing that the manipulator has their best interests in mind, they often provide private information willingly, which is then used against them to continue the mind control.

This makes mind control as dangerous, if not more so, than physical coercion. Mind control may have no physical coercion or violence, but it can be much more effective in controlling a person.

That's because coercion can change behavior, but coercive persuasion (mind control) will change beliefs, attitudes, thinking processes, and behavior (basically, a personality change). And the 'victim' happily and actively participates in the changes, believing it is best for them." - writes David.

A List of Mind Control Tools

Psycho-emotional Manipulation

  • Love Bombing ("You're so good at this, we would benefit from having someone like you work with us, a person with such a set of skills, here is a discount for you because you're so exceptional");
  • Reciprocity ("I am happy to give you a 50% discount. Please share my events on your social media channels and invite your friends");
  • Commitment and consistency ("I'm a consistent guy, trust me," when breaking an agreement or when words don't match actions, he reminds you that he's been consistent and committed and that this was a one-time- mistake, then rinse and repeat);
  • Authority ("I'm a certified so-and-so with such-and-such years of experience; therefore, I know that this thing I'm prescribing is good for you");
  • Scarcity ("If you miss this exercise, you'll miss the entire training")
  • Social proof ("Tom, Dick, and Harry like us, they're very important people, join us");
  • Likeability ("Nancy Salzmann is such a good person, she's so kind and loving, she would never do sth to harm us);
  • Urgency ("Okay, tell me what you want, I have other things to do today," flash sale "book your spot in 24h and get 50% o for our next workshop!");
  • Weaponized responsibility ("You were assaulted in our workshop? How did you create that for yourself? What lessons have you learned from that experience?");
  • Shaming ("Someone like you is not fit for our training");
  • Guilt-tripping ("I'm angry at you, and I want to get over it, would you have a call with me? No? Wow... Is our friendship just a figment of my imagination????").
  • Weaponized confessions ("Tell the truth for your own good," later on when challenged, "Earlier you shared you were angry at your mother, that's why now you're angry at me now. You first need to work on your anger towards your mother so you don't project it on me" or when held accountable for misconduct "I know your friend is angry at me, they have an ax to grind against me, therefore what they're saying is invalid").

Psychological Manipulation

  • Trance and hypnosis (naturalistic trance induction - announcing that "we are now doing hypnosis" or "autogenic relaxation");
  • Guided imagery (storytelling - "close your eyes, imagine the world in which you....");
  • NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming - "mirroring leverages body language to make instant connections and build rapport with anyone");
  • Indirect (implied) directives ("If you're still triggered, it might be good for you to do another completion talk");
  • Double binds (depend on me but don't rely on me - "you are 100% responsible for arranging training for yourself AND pay me 10% of your income");
  • Double standards ("ask for what you want," when asked, "you're so needy," when triggered about the response "sounds like you don't know how to take care of yourself, why why don't you just say what you want?");
  • Peer Pressure and modeling ("bring everything to the circle," "process your triggers in the group," "you agreed to no gossiping");
  • Thought-terminating cliches ("It is what it is," "Do a completion talk," "I hear you").

There are many more manipulation techniques that you can find online. Remember that marketing is based on psychological persuasion and that persuasion is a continuum from respectful to destructive, and the context in which the influence is used matters a great deal.

There is also a list of physical manipulation in Margaret Singer's book "Cults in Our Midst," but I'll stick to psychological and emotional control. Recently a new docuseries launched on Netflix called "How to Become a Cult Leader." It depicts the process of recruiting and establishing compliance. I personally prefer "The Vow" series because it's about personal development/commercial cult that helps to understand why people join such organizations.

Why It's Hard to See the Truth?

Understanding that undue influence is brought about through establishing a good rapport and emotional connection is essential. Manipulators use the bait-and-switch technique, which is confusing and subtle. The purpose of deception is to keep the victim clueless about the influence.

Another reason why it is not easy for people to recognize mind control is because it's tough to accept that someone you trust and like has deceived and manipulated you.

David writes that "even when the victim is free of the influence of the manipulative personality, the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors persist largely because the victim believes they have made these decisions themselves. In part, because the person does not want to admit that they have been manipulated without their knowing, they don't want to believe that they have been tricked by a 'friend' or a 'teacher.'"

Read about the changes brought about using mind control in David's articles on narcissistic boyfriends and narcissistic husbands. See further explanations of the dynamics in controlling relationships in "Controlling Behavior In A Relationship - Understanding Why Things Are Done," part 1 and part 2.

Recognising Control is Important for Professionals

I believe that professional coaches, therapists, and counselors must know about the abuse tactics, the "power & control wheel," and the signs of someone being coerced and controlled because we cannot be effective in helping people when we don't understand the context in which the symptoms that they're trying to address have emerged.

Also, it's essential to understand that couples counseling and couples therapy is a waste of time when one of the partners abuses power. The partner must first stop the manipulation and coercion tactics before any work can be done.

The same applies to toxic relationships, whether in dysfunctional families or unethical organizations.

Being honest and vulnerable with controlling people puts you or your client at high risk of being abused, re-traumatized, and dysregulated for life!

Furthermore, it's important to understand that leaving a toxic relationship does not end the mind control. The relationship lives in the victim's mind for years unless appropriate support is provided. That's why for narcissistic abuse recovery, you need a therapist specializing in narcissistic abuse; for cult survivors, you need an exit counselor or a cult-survivor-trained therapist. The context matters greatly!

If you think you or your friend is under undue influence, don't hesitate to get in touch with specialized support. You can use Google or other search engines to find experts in your area. If you are in doubt, email me to see if I can help you assess the situation. Be mindful that I'm neither a licensed therapist nor trained in abuse recovery, but I have resources I can share with you.

P.S. here is the document that helps us collect negative experiences with the Radical Honesty Institute. You can share it and use it to share your own experience.

Keywords: mind control, manipulation, emotional abuse, cult dynamics, narcissistic abuse, toxic relationships, personal development, self-awareness, healing, resources

Written by
Jura Glo

With over ten years of experience guiding individuals and couples worldwide, I specialize in supporting those impacted by complex trauma.  

My personal experience navigating cults, institutional betrayal, and manipulative individuals has given me a unique understanding of the psychological and emotional impact of these dynamics.

This translates into my work and writing, where I help my clients identify core issues and co-create solutions within a safe, balanced and supportive environment.

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