FAQs – What made me susceptible to spiritual abuse?

My response to a question on this post: Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What came first, the thug or the theology?

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@Claire said:Does anyone know if there are certain personality types that are more prone to narcissistic behavior? And the types that are more susceptible to fall for it?”

I’ve got some thoughts on the second question. Actually, that issue of “what makes me [or anyone] susceptible to being taken in by abusive people?” comes up all the time in spiritual abuse survivor communities. It’s the core issue behind questions like, “How do smart people fall for tricks like that?” and “I don’t know why she’s picked me to pick on” and “Why did this happen to me?” Very legitimate question – and one that it seems like is common to wrestle with in an abuse recovery process.

In thinking through the years about what made myself and others susceptible to being taken in by spiritually abusive leaders, I’ve concluded that it could be anything. There is no formula or one-tactic-fits-all. But I think the main working principle is that each of us has vulnerabilities – both good things and bad things in our life – that can be exploited by someone who has no scruples. So, their “best practices” end up as our worst nightmares.

* Do you have a strong desire to know the “truth” or believe that doctrinal knowledge is what gets you close to God? Some bully pastors can provide a complete system where it’s all spelled out for you, no major work on your part required … just listen to them and say what they say, do what they say, be what they say.

* Desire for “family” or a “father figure”? They’ve got a charismatic figurehead father, plus a covenant plan to keep you in their clan for your whole lifetime.

* Are you highly relational, or may emotionally starved, and susceptible to “love bombing”? They’ll pour on attention until you’re hooked — and then they give you nothing, or maybe dangle attention in front of you just often enough to keep you linked in, or maybe even switch over to negative conditioning/guilt to keep you on the line.

* Do you have a higher need for structure and discipline, especially if you’ve spent much of your life in chaos? Some can provide regimentation to the max, just what you [think you] “need.”

* Or are you susceptible to “guilt bombing” because you’ve been trained by “negative conditioning” to respond to demands that you perform, give, serve, learn this, don’t do that, you must say this, you can’t be that, keep off the internet, don’t gossip about leaders … or else!

* Do you need supposed freedom after years spent in bondage? They’ll provide a space where anything goes!

Also, researchers on “cults” and “totalist institutions” that control people distinguish between tactics that are used for recruitment to get you to join, and retention to keep you there. They aren’t necessarily the same, and again, what works to attract some people in is what eventually repulses other people out.

Anyway, we all have blind spots, genuine needs, and legitimate spiritual aspirations that create vulnerabilities that people of neither conscience nor compassion will seek to leverage to their own advantage. And what our particular vulnerabilities are almost doesn’t matter — predators always find ways to lure in their prey. So, if their tactics don’t work on you, they likely will still work on others.

A book you might find helpful to think through the kinds of personalities that seem to be particularly prone to bullying others is: Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry.

And as you continue your journey, and maybe consider journaling, this article Is It Time To Tell My Story? may give you some helpful thoughts and questions to think through what’s happened to you and reflect on insights about what to do next.