Admiration and the Scientology Mindset
After coming out of a cult experience like Scientology, I’ve seen a lot of former members try to make sense of the experience. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and learning in the past year since I’ve been out, trying to undo the psychological damage that being in a cult for 27 years does to you. I’m not even close to being in a place where I can say I have it all figured out but I think it’s good to take note when one hits certain milestones and I believe this is one of those. None of what I’m saying here in this article (or in any of my public writings) are an attempt to demean or insult current or former Scientologists.
I don’t imagine my experience is so different than ex-members of any other cult or religious fundamentalist group either. Life in the real world is quite different from the bubble world that all mass movements create for themselves. Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, preached that reality is agreement, and there is a certain degree of truth there, in that people in any group certainly agree to see things a certain way and actively block out anything that opposes “their reality.”
I try to stay away from labels and name calling, because I think that sort of thing is harmful to critical thinking. At the same time, though, there are certain words we use to describe motives and behaviors that fit well enough and also serve to make a point. And in this case, the word I’m looking at is narcissism.
I’m not here to say that all Scientologists are textbook narcissists. I’m saying that Scientology heavily indoctrinates its followers in narcissistic behavior and the entire culture within the Church encourages this. Perhaps it’s this way in other mass movements or closed-belief systems too.
Narcissism has been described as a kind of personality disorder. I don’t know if I’d call it that so much as a frame of mind, but that is completely open to debate. I just want to be clear that I’m not trying to saddle all Scientologists with the stigma of being “mentally ill” or bad people.
I’m writing this to try to help explain the behavior of Scientologists and perhaps offer some suggestions as to how to help those who are trying to get out of the Scientology mind-set, whether this means you personally or someone you know.
It’s All About Me
The term narcissism comes from the Greek legend of Narcissus. He was a handsome young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pond after rejecting the advances of the nymph Echo. According to the myth, he sat and stared in adoration at his reflection for so long that he eventually turned into a flower, the narcissus.
Narcissism has been defined as extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration. There’s a great article on it by Dr. Kelly Neff here.
Here are some of the characteristics of narcissism. If you take an honest assessment of these against how Scientologists act, I think you will find parallels:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
- Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends..
- Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others. According to Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, this is the defining characteristic of a narcissist.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
When I first started reading about this, I was somewhat startled to see so much of this in my own behavior back when I was in the cult, especially as a Sea Organization member. Contempt for anyone not in the Sea Org and a “holier than thou” attitude are part of the entire culture of the Sea Org. They hide this in public venues, but you should hear some of the conversations that take place behind closed doors. It took months after I left to realize that this was the source of troubles I was experiencing in the real world. To a lesser degree this exists at every level of Scientology. It is an elitist group.
Can a narcissist be created? I believe they can and I believe Scientology does exactly that. I also believe that it can be unlearned and that a person can come out of this state of mind.
In Hubbard’s Image
It doesn’t take deep psychological insight to see that L. Ron Hubbard had deep character flaws. His Affirmations (here) are his own grandiose ideas of how he should be and act, delivered to himself apparently in self-hypnosis sessions before he even started Dianetics and Scientology.
From almost the very beginning of Scientology, Hubbard molded an elitist philosophy around the benefits of being self-absorbed. I know that there are people who are going to take exception to this. I don’t claim that this experience is universal for everyone who has ever been involved in Scientology, but it’s pretty undeniable, especially in Scientology’s current state, that there is a vicious streak of self-absorption running right through the middle of Hubbard’s writings and lectures. This is no accident.
Look at one of the most basic tenets of Scientology: the Factors from 1953. These are Hubbard’s description of the most fundamental principles in all of existence. Factor #14 in part states “Thus there is matter. But the most valued point is admiration, and admiration is so strong its absence alone permits persistence.”
It’s an interesting line and one which Scientologists often ponder on. You could remove that line about admiration and the rest of the Factors still make sense. Why include it? I believe it is because Hubbard is making the point that getting admiration is not only a good thing, but in fact is the most valuable thing. This is how Hubbard saw the world and what he passed on to his followers
in countless ways throughout his Scientology writings.
Look at the final destination of Scientology – the thing that all Scientologists want so much that they will forsake family and friends, cash out retirement accounts and their children’s college funds for: the state of Operating Thetan (OT). And what is that? It’s the state of “knowing and willing cause over life, thought, matter, energy, space and time (MEST)”. In other words, it’s becoming your own personal God.
Perhaps the very epitome of this principle of admiration is David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology. His cavalier and power-hungry existence, with only the very best of food and clothing and every material need cared for (all paid for by Scientology parishioner donations), is exemplified in his statement that “power in my estimation is if people will listen to you. That’s it.”
These days, every single person who completes a training or counseling service in Scientology must write a success story where they include their personal thanks to David Miscavige for his brilliance, hard work and dedication. If they refuse to do that, the person is not allowed to complete their service and “handled” until they will write that. What kind of person demands that of their followers?
The Price They are Willing to Pay
There is a lot of lip service paid in Scientology to responsibility. I believe that this term used to actually mean something substantial for Scientologists. I certainly used to believe that taking responsibility for others and doing my part counted for something and would itself help ensure that I’d make it to full OT myself. That’s the actual reason I joined the Sea Organization in the first place back in 1995.
Today, the amount of responsibility someone in Scientology takes is measured exclusively by how big of a check they’re willing to write. People pay their way through ethics handlings after endless amounts of confessionals, eerily similar to the medieval practice of Catholic indulgences. One’s checkbook or credit card is their only passport out of any Ideal Org fundraising event.
Why do those few Scientologists who remain continue to give? Well, one reason is they seek admiration. There are other reasons too, but we can’t ignore this one. You don’t have to take my word for it, either. Here is part of a promotional piece from just a week ago called “Why We Did It” written by Johnny & Marilyn Beck after becoming “Humanitarians with Honors” (a status awarded solely for how much money they’ve given) to the Silicon Valley Ideal Org:
“We donate because it is fun. As an example, we get the honor of acknowledgement and validation from our group. That is a tremendous amount of havingness and as you know, lots of fun. And, having donated, we have another reason to admire each other and say to ourselves, hey look, I am married to a Humanitarian with Honors.
“And Marilyn and I get to look at all the other Humanitarians and Civilization Builders with tons of admiration and we can say: we know these people! They are our friends! That is admiration and so much fun.
“Admiration, to us, is a fun particle. Marilyn splurges with it and I do too. So our donations are simply a flow of admiration. They are simply a flow of admiration, firstly, to LRH. They are, too, a flow of admiration to Marilyn and myself and to other Humanitarians and very much so to our Civilization Builders.”
When it comes to doing something other than giving money, though, don’t ask them to lift a finger. When cornered and recruited to do something like join staff or go directly help in disaster relief efforts or even go out and sell Scientology books, people like Johnny Beck can’t get out of the room fast enough. As long as they are giving over their money, though, this lack of empathy and help is part of the established and acceptable culture now rampant in Scientology.
It used to be that Scientology practioners, called auditors, were considered to be the most valuable people on the planet. Auditors are a thing of the past. Scientology now is nothing more than a Mutual Admiration Society where help is not the ticket in, but your checkbook is. In the modern Church of Scientology, you can simply buy your way to spiritual freedom, even if that means leaving a trail of disconnected family and friends behind you.
The Sad Truth
It’s sort of sad but true that, generally speaking, it takes something bad happening to a Scientologist directly before they will open their eyes to the truth of what they are involved in. There are many factors at play behind this, including fear, the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, and even a kind of human inertia where a person has been part of something for so long that they can’t really muster up the energy it would take to break free from it.
I believe that the narcissistic attitude that is developed in Scientology is partly to blame for this. They may hear stories about enforced disconnections where families or long-term friendships are broken up. They may hear about some of the Office of Special Affair’s more unsavory activities such as fraud, harassment and blackmail. They may have even gone on the internet and know all about David Miscavige’s sociopathic activities. But if it doesn’t affect them personally, if it doesn’t come into their home or their place of business and bite them, they are willing to give it a pass.
The way their reasoning works is that if it doesn’t affect them and they can still make it up The Bridge to Full OT, then they have no reason to pay attention to anyone else’s suffering or grief, or the abuses the Church dishes out to its current and ex-members. If that is not the attitude of a self-absorbed person, I don’t know what is.
One Way to Help
I am not pretending to be a psychologist or presenting anything here other than my own personal opinions on how to deal with a cult member. If someone needs professional help, they should get it and nothing I am saying here implies or states otherwise.
I believe that Dr. Neff’s advice to “love them from afar” is very good advice. Scientologists (or any cult members) are loathe to change and have built up very strong defensive walls around themselves mentally to keep out critical thoughts or feelings about the cult. It is never an easy task to break through that, especially when you don’t have the person’s cooperation. It is a lot easier if you have someone like this in your life to just leave them be and let them come to their own conclusions.
Scientology’s indoctrination system creates a mindset where one is personally more powerful, more special and, in a word, better than everyone else. Its entire culture is centered around not only the concept of personal empowerment, but includes a strong “us versus them” mentality. Anyone who is not a Scientologist is suspect of working “for the bank-dominated mob” whose sole interest is destroying every Scientologist’s freedom for all of eternity.
I believe, though, that such a mindset is contrary to a person’s basic nature and that deep down they resist this “us versus them” thinking. Marc Headley, ex-Scientologist and author of Blown for Good said “The end product of Scientology is Leaving Scientology… Everything you will do in Scientology will eventually lead to you leaving. Everyone eventually leaves. PERIOD.”
But even after coming out of Scientology, it took me almost a year before I was okay with acknowledging that maybe there were some things about my way of thinking and my emotional reactions which weren’t so ideal. So it’s not an easy road out.
Leading someone out of that system of thought is tough and requires patience and perseverance. The biggest barrier is getting them to talk to you about it at all. If you can accomplish that, I think you are actually 90% there.
There are two characteristics of narcissistic behavior which I think work to the advantage of anyone who would like to help someone in this state.
(1) A narcissistic personality loves to talk, especially about him or herself.
(2) According to Dr. Lisa Firestone in her article “Is There a Cure for Narcissism” (here), “many narcissitic personalities are hiding deeper feelings of unworthiness or fears of failure.”
Get them to talk, listen patiently and see if you can direct their attention towards those things about themselves or about Scientology which they feel are not right or which they have doubts or reservations about. This goes along with my earlier article “Converting the Converted” (here). If you can find even one thing that is “real to them” that they can see is not right, and get them to talk about why that is, what that has to do with them, how that might affect them, etc., this can start a sort of mental chain reaction.
This takes time. Depending on how close you are to the person, how much they trust you and how often you communicate, this could take months or even longer. I have never seen anyone just suddenly change their entire life or belief system in just one or two conversations.
It usually took quite some time to develop this narcissistic mindset in the first place, so there is no reason it should be undone quickly, despite any of Hubbard’s rhetoric about the speed of auditing results in Scientology.
It’s not been easy for me coming out of Scientology. In addition to adjusting to life in the real world, there’s been a lot of mental and emotional baggage to sort through and work out. I’m sure this will be an ongoing process for quite some time and I know I’m not alone in this. Everyone who comes out realizes that they were taken advantage of to one degree or another. We have to review our own personal beliefs and the decisions we made over the years that led us into and out of Scientology.
People talk about the gains they had in Scientology, even after they leave. I certainly had my share of them. I never fault anyone for this or tell them that those things aren’t true. However, I think real healing comes about when we can not just hold on to the good things, but also look at some of the bad and acknowledge what it was and leave it behind. It is for that purpose that I wrote this and I hope it helps.