How to Recognize a Narcissist
I spent twenty-five years of my adult life in a cult, under the influence of a narcissistic sociopath. You may suspect your spouse, family member, or boss is a narcissist; or you may have niggling doubts about your spiritual or political leaders and find yourself in a complicated set of circumstances, wondering why and how you got involved or how to untangle yourself from the narcissist’s web of deceit and control. You are far from alone.
The following are lightly edited excerpts from my newly released book, The Followers: “Holy Hell” and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders; How My Years in a Notorious Cult Parallel Today’s Cultural Mania. This is a story about 150 men and women insulated within our own small, clandestine community. We called ourselves the Buddha-field. One member, Will Allen, even made a movie about us, called Holy Hell. After twenty-some years it came to light that the teacher was sexually abusing many of the members. What a surprise! It’s a tale as old as civilization: Narcissistic leader turns community of idealistic followers into a cult.
It took me years to recognize and escape the psychological prison of cult life. In the writing of this book, I set out on a journey to explore these questions: How could I have believed this guy? How could I have made the moral compromises I did, and for so long? How could I have failed to recognize a classic narcissist? I’ve since read extensively about cult mind control, propaganda techniques, the pathology of narcissists and sociopaths, and the innate human urge to belong. All sources, scholarly and otherwise, point to one conclusion: Narcissists and their followers operate on a constantly reinforced message of perceived “specialness.” Narcissism demands to be fed; and when fed it grows, eventually subsuming followers in a toxic tidal wave that forces them to sink or swim for freedom.
How can we recognize when we are under the spell of a narcissist? The fundamental common trait of a cult leader, or of narcissists in general, is they believe they are superior individuals who should be listened to, obeyed, and envied. Almost all cult leaders are pathological, even sociopathic, narcissists. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-V), the standard used by mental health professionals. The DSM-V describes narcissism and sociopathy as follows:
Narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration. . . . Exploitation, Entitlement, Empathy-Impairment.
Antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy) is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.
Malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Includes Psychopathy [which is] defined as a lack of empathy, not just empathy-impairment.
Examples of malignant narcissism are all too common among today’s famous and not-so-famous. The italicized passages preceding the examples below come from the DSM-V. As you read the descriptions, you may well be reminded of someone you know.
Narcissists often fraudulently claim qualifications, experience, titles, entitlements or affiliations which are ambiguous, misleading, or bogus. Narcissists excel at deception and should never be underestimated in their capacity to deceive.
The teacher to whom I was once devoted had many names throughout the years: Michel, Andreas, Dorothy, Cindy, Bob, Jeff, and Puff (as in the magic dragon). I kid you not. He probably had a few more names after he fled to Hawaii, but his real name was Jaime Gomez, LOL, hardly a fitting name for how he thought of himself. His final selection was “RayJi,” which literally means God King, so from here on I will call him—Jaime Gomez.
Narcissists are great con artists. Think about it. They are so good that they succeed in deluding themselves. Jaime was a complete fraud and a cheat in every aspect. A total con! He plagiarized everything from the start. He even had disciples do the studying and write his dissertation for his Religious Doctorate, so he could get a certificate as a religious pastor. He would write notes and underline great quotes from many Indian masters and saints, write a script, memorize it (even the jokes), and use them in his Săt Săngs (teaching sessions), as though they just blossomed from his eminent wisdom. He used cheap parlor tricks, spies, and informants to facilitate his magical, psychic predictions and public disclosures of people’s secrets that made him look omniscient.
Similarly, renowned narcissist Donald Trump paid someone to take his SATs, and his sister did his homework. He masqueraded as a publicist to brag about himself in the press, just as Benito Mussolini, a journalist, often wrote his own propaganda. Trump had no experience in government; he built his entire candidacy upon the notion that because he is rich, he must also be smart and therefore qualified to be President of the United States. All those buildings with Trump’s name on them created the illusion that he has a vast empire of real estate; but the secret to his asset mirage was to license his brand. The only real estate he owned in many of those buildings was the gold letters on the face. Adolf Hitler wasn’t a great statesman, either; he was an out-of-work artist. He failed the entrance exam of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and he was rejected twice by the institute.
Narcissists are convincing, practiced liars and when called to account, will make up anything to spontaneously fit their needs at that moment. They are highly manipulative, especially of people’s perceptions and emotions. They are evasive and have a Houdini-like ability to escape accountability.
Narcissists have one goal, and that is to serve themselves and their insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement, by whatever means possible, with no regard to ethics. One may typically find these individuals selected as CEOs on corporate boards. They’re skilled at self-promotion and shine in job interviews—confident and charismatic. Then, once they’re in power, we find out who they really are—arrogant and entitled. Instead of being confident, they’re merely impulsive. They lack empathy and exploit others without compunction. Donald Trump has routinely evaded accountability in his business dealings for decades by settling lawsuits or filing countersuits and blaming others when accused.
Besides pathological lying and deception, mythmaking is a common narcissist characteristic. Lies and outlandish stories help build a bigger-than-life persona. Jaime touted that he went into the cosmos for three days and received a message that he needed to change the name of the meditation techniques he stole from Prem Pal Singh Rawat, aka Maharajji. Newspapers published exaggerated stories in which Mussolini wasn’t at all tired after threshing for four hours and described myths of his victories in boat races. Vladimir Putin goes face to face with tigers, and even bears fear him. Narendra Modi fearlessly rescues crocodiles. Saddam Hussein had a movie made about how he walked a thousand miles from Syria to Egypt with a bullet in his leg, after his alleged heroic assassination of Abd al-Karīm Qāsim, the Iraqi prime minister.
Narcissists use excessive charm and are always plausible and convincing when peers, superiors or others are present (charm can be used to deceive as well as to cover for lack of empathy).
In the beginning, Jaime was just a seed of what he would eventually become. He was humorous and seemed to be wise, kind, and otherworldly. We trusted him and allowed him to push us beyond our boundaries to be vulnerable and open. Cult leader Jim Jones, who led over 900 of his followers to their death in the Peoples Temple Massacre, was known to be extremely likable and charismatic. Even though Mussolini had fierce critics among American journalists and political commentators, in the 1920s a wide range of powerful individuals and mainstream media publicly voiced their enthusiastic admiration for his style and persona, pitching him as a strong male leader with a nationalistic brand of effective governance. Fidel Castro, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all had magnetic personalities. How many times have we seen Donald Trump as a maniacal fool at his rallies? Yet many have said, after meeting him one on one, “You know, he’s really a nice guy!” It’s all theater to a narcissist. Sociopaths have a different personality for every encounter. Especially in front of a camera or a crowd.
Narcissistic sociopaths are sadistic and toy with your devotion to them. Your welfare and wellbeing are irrelevant.
Out of extreme insecurity, malignant narcissists must convince themselves they are superior; thus, their means to their goal have no limits or ethical boundaries. Even knowing what they’re doing, they may not care due to their lack of empathy for anyone else, and because they are emotional sadists. And it really helps when their followers support their notion of superiority. The malignant narcissist will do whatever it takes to feed their insatiable ego. They determine their followers’ desires and fears and capitalize on them. The ability to compartmentalize is a skill exhibited by many narcissistic sociopaths. Jaime was a chameleon; he would become whatever you needed him to be. Some narcissistic sociopaths prey on sensitive, empathic individuals; others just prey on the impressionable or the emotionally damaged. Many of us in the Buddha-field had a childlike innocence and gullibility about us. The more sincere, humble, and less ambitious we strived to be, practicing our spiritual principles, the easier it was for this clever narcissistic sociopath to manipulate us for his own gain and pleasure.
One of the extraordinary characteristics of a narcissist is the ability to always turn the tables on you. They flip-flop from benevolent one minute to malevolent the next. They do whatever works for them at the time, but they will never take responsibility for anything. If you dare confront them on their bad behavior, they will always turn it back on you.
The following is a chilling description of a narcissist from the Narcissism Book of Quotes: A Selection of Quotes from the Collective Wisdom of Over 12,000 Individual Discussions by Sam Vaknin:
“Does he want to hurt you? Well, now, that would imply that he thinks of you as a human being—a narcissist doesn’t. What he wants is to secure supply. If he cannot do it by means of flattery, he will do it by means of cruelty. The goal is to get you to give him what he wants. He doesn’t especially care which method he uses, so long as he finds one that works. I know that sounds cold. It is cold. That is the mind of a narcissist. Cold and devoid of empathy. Because he lacks empathy, he probably doesn’t know or care if he hurts you, unless he’s using bullying as a technique for extracting narcissist supply from you. Even then, he couldn’t care less what that does to you, apart from eliciting the desired response. If it makes him feel better about himself to belittle you, he will do that, but the ultimate goal isn’t to make you feel bad, the goal is to perpetuate the myth of his own perfection and simultaneously control you. If by hurting you it gets you in check, makes you take on his failings as your own, and makes you work twice as hard for his approval, it’s a bonus for him. If he doesn’t need to employ cruelty in order to accomplish either of the above goals, he won’t. It’s that simple.”
They crave affection and admiration from others and have a Jekyll and Hyde nature—can be vile, vicious and vindictive in private, but innocent and charming in front of witnesses; no-one can (or wants to) believe this individual has a vindictive nature—only the current target sees both sides.
Jaime was often a tyrannical maniac behind closed doors. In a fit of rage, he would scream at his entourage and carry on like a spoiled child while in the privacy of home or in his car on the way to an event, then step out in perfect stillness like an angel descending from heaven. Occasionally I witnessed him yelling at a dancer in his ballet class, and when he saw that I was watching, he would wink at me, as if he wasn’t serious—just giving a disciple a teaching. One time, followers had to change the position of new couches because he walked by and bumped one corner, then started screaming at people. He told them they needed to bring the old couches back, because he couldn’t be bumped. “Are you trying to kill me?” he yelled.
Narcissists possess an exceptional verbal facility and will outmaneuver most people in verbal interaction, especially at times of conflict, they are unusually skilled in being able to anticipate what people want to hear and then saying it plausibly.
After hearing the story about the couch, I confronted him about this, and he explained he was just creating scenarios so people could have an outlet to express their love and devotion.
Originally, Jaime would say “connect to God’s love,” but in a few years it became “connect to MY love.” I and some elders were confused about this new decree. I asked him about it. He said, “Well, Radhia, some people, not you (he knew better, so he knew how to play me), need a living example of God, that they can see, hear, and touch. I am just being that for them.” He seriously considered it a sacrifice. In essence, narcissists want others to worship them. Many combine gaslighting to get others to submit to them. In a big way, these external facades become pivotal parts of their false identities, replacing the real and insecure self.
Narcissists are control freaks and have a compulsive need to control everyone and everything you say, do, think and believe; for example, will launch an immediate personal attack attempting to restrict what you are permitted to say if you start talking knowledgeably in their presence—but aggressively maintains the right to talk (usually unknowledgeably) about anything they choose.
Narcissists believe they are untouchable, inhabitants of a special reality, one parallel to ours but never met. Outrageous behavior is the narcissist’s hallmark. Every narcissistic authoritarian must control their brand—their image within the society—in order to maintain absolute allegiance. They cannot appear to be anything less than infallible. (Narcissists cannot be losers!) The more power they have, the more ruthless they become towards anyone who may undermine their credibility. I have often heard of this characteristic in celebrities, corporate executives, and politicians, especially narcissistic dictators. They ignore expert advice and treat those who differ with contempt and hostility, while demanding absolute loyalty. Trump, for example, is known to demand an oath of loyalty from anyone he hires or appoints to a position. He considers himself an authority on all subjects and ignores briefings from experts in every field—from military operations, though he never served in the military, to immunology and virology (think Dr. Fauci). The list of officials and experts he hired and then fired is startlingly lengthy.
Similarly, Jaime hated anyone taking attention away from him. He couldn’t tolerate anyone appearing smarter or more talented than he was. My father was a lawyer; thus, I was more familiar and connected with the legal system, so Jaime often chose me to consult with private detectives and lawyers on his behalf. After I consulted with the lawyers and informed him, he would talk to the group in class about the status of the situation and totally make shit up. I would then respectfully correct him. Colossal mistake! He would yell at me, publicly humiliate me, and tell me to stop being such a know-it-all.
Narcissists display a compulsive need to criticize whilst simultaneously refusing to value, praise and acknowledge others, their achievements, or their existence.
Occasionally, when he wanted to do a new ballet, Jaime would look for ideas. One Christmas, I designed a stage set I thought would be a grand theme for a ballet. Having worked for W.E.D (Disney’s theme park division), I was adept at making models, and I made him a very detailed, hand-painted, multi-paneled miniature. He looked at it, said “Hmmph!,” then waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. A minion took it and walked away. I later found it in the trash. If it wasn’t his idea, it was not only worthless, but he would make a point to demean or dismiss you. Sometimes people would do or make lovely things for him, and Jaime would eye it and say, “That’s pretty—pretty ugly.” Everyone would laugh and think he was just playing—or even showing us a lesson—by modeling the opposite of what one would expect any decent human being to say. Now I realize he meant it. But we all just shrugged it off because no one could imagine anyone could be that brazen, that nasty—particularly someone we looked to for spiritual guidance. He must have been joking, right? Nope!
Narcissists often exhibit unusual and inappropriate attitudes to sexual matters, sexual behavior and bodily functions; underneath the charming exterior there are often suspicions or hints of sex discrimination and sexual harassment, perhaps also sexual dysfunction, sexual inadequacy, sexual perversion, sexual violence or sexual abuse.
Like sexual vampires, narcissists often use sex to satiate their lust for ultimate power. Their weak and fragile ego craves control beyond normal boundaries or desires. And when denied, they turn vicious and dangerous. The example of Harvey Weinstein comes to mind—a serial sex abuser who evaded accountability for decades. Once, while conducting a “therapy” session with a very good-looking heterosexual man, Jaime asked him if he’d ever had sex with a man. He had the young man work on getting over any inhibitions regarding homosexual sex while under hypnosis. Like with many others, he suggested in the session that this man take his clothes off, to get over his shyness. The young man told me he knew what Jaime was trying to do and wasn’t having any part of it.
Narcissists undermine and destroy anyone who they perceive to be an adversary, a potential threat, or who can see through their mask. Adept at creating conflict between those who would otherwise collate incriminating information about them. They are also quick to belittle, undermine, denigrate and discredit anyone who calls, attempts to call, or might call them to account.
After the man left the session, Jaime called all of his friends and told them to be careful. He said, “This guy tried to come on to me, and although I refused, everyone should know he will lie about it and say I, your ‘master,’ tried to seduce him.” Your innocent, pious, celibate master. In another parallel example, Trump is facing a defamation suit in the New York State Supreme Court, filed against him by the journalist E. Jean Carroll, who wrote that “Mr. Trump raped her in 1996 in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman in New York.” He has vehemently denied the allegations, calling Carroll a liar who was just drumming up publicity with the intention of selling her book.
There are so many examples of the damaging effects of narcissistic behavior in our personal relationships, societal interactions, and leadership positions I could write a book on it. Wait, I just did. But it’s important to understand that the narcissist and their followers have a feedback loop. Everyone has a little narcissism in us. It only becomes a pathological, malignant malady when fed. Experts say that unlike many other diseases, narcissism is incurable because the narcissist will never see that they have a problem. It’s always everyone else. So it is up to us to recognize and protect ourselves by avoiding the narcissist wherever possible; withdrawing our fealty; or starving their insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement. We must not expect or wait for them to change. They never will; and the more we feed them and let them get away with it, the more dangerous and powerful they become.
For more information visit my website www.radhiagleis.com
This guest post was authored by Radhia Gleis
Author Radhia Gleis is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist, CCN, MEd. biochemical analyst and educator for over 33 years. She has appeared as a featured guest on numerous radio and television shows including Fox News, Austin. She hosted The Health Revolution and Let’s Get Healthy on Talk 1370 AM, KLBJ, and The Wellness Connection podcast on Voice America. She was the host and executive producer of three YouTube series: Wake up America; How the Body Works; and The Natural Way. She was featured in the internationally viewed movie, Holy Hell, which was broadcast on CNN and named one of Sundance Film Festival’s and Netflix’s top 10 documentaries. It can now be viewed on Amazon Prime.
The Followers: “Holy Hell” and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.