Brainwashing can happen to anyone, in any place, and at any time. This is not the extreme type of brainwashing commonly spoken about with prisoners of war. Rather, it happens in everyday circumstances, to very intelligent people, in the safest of places, in amounts so incremental that they are hardly recognizable. Whenever a person puts aside their own safety in favor of another person or organization, there is a potential for mild to severe brainwashing. Here are three myths about it.
Myth: Only weak people can be brainwashed.
Truth: Anyone can be brainwashed. By thinking that a person is immune to the damaging effects of brainwashing only makes them even more vulnerable. I will never forget my heart surgeon client who insisted that she was not being physically abused despite the obvious marks on her body. She said, “I’m too smart for that”. She was indeed smart but even she had come to believe that it was OK for her spouse to threaten and cause her physical harm. It wasn’t until she had a patient with the same problem that we were discussing that she finally woke up from her abuse trance.
Her husband had brainwashed her over several years to believe physical violence was acceptable. He began doing small things such as breaking or destroying valuable items, then escalated to throwing things that “nearly missed” her. Finally, when his hands made aggressive contact with her body, he blamed in the incident on her insisting that she “made him do it” because he was so angry. Then he profusely apologized giving her the $300 purse that she wanted. But the pattern didn’t stop, it kept repeating and escalating until one day, she found herself in my office wanting to die.
She too believed that only weak or unintelligent people could be brainwashed. She didn’t see at first that his abusive behavior was a form of brainwashing until she confronted him with the truth. Desperate to get his old wife back, he kept repeating the same things over and over even waking her up in the middle of the night to continue badgering her. It was then that she realized he had done this throughout their marriage. It took a year’s worth of sessions to undo his damage but once she was free, his powers of persuasion no longer worked and she left.
Myth: Religion doesn’t brainwash.
Truth: It can. Anything taken in the extreme form can be a manifestation of brainwashing, including religion. Another client of mine had been indoctrinated into a fundamental Christian organization at a young age. She believed everything they taught and happily followed all of the rules. But one day as a young adult, she was raped by a man she knew within the trusted group. When she told a “church counselor” in an effort to get some help, the counselor violated her privacy and told the Pastor. Within days, she was immediately ostracized from the group being blamed for the rape incident.
She was told by her elders that “she asked for it” because she was not wearing the church approved clothing at the time. When she protested, the elders claimed that the man said it was consensual, that she had come onto him, and he in a moment of weakness gave into her demands. She was then accused of sleeping with other men and having a promiscuous heart. Several of the men in the meeting claimed that they too had been enticed by her and she was at fault for being so attractive. These men, whom she had trusted her whole life, turned against her leaving her alone and in a state of confusion. She was asked by the elders to either admit and seek forgiveness for claiming to be raped or be cut out of the group for good.
Any organization, religious or otherwise, that hides, minimizes, or dismissed the sins of their influential, powerful, or wealthy members at the cost of the health or safety of others is brainwashing. This is a tiered status where some higher-up members are exempt from punishment while the lower members are not. It is a way of encouraging the lower members to play within their rules or risk being cut out of the group. The brainwashing happens to everyone who witnesses this travesty as they begin to believe the lies and dismiss the truth.
Myth: Brainwashing is immediate.
Truth: Brainwashing takes time, sometimes years to come to full fruition. Yet another client came in wanting to save his marriage but believed that most likely it had come to an end. They had gone to numerous therapists but nothing worked, in fact, it only got worse. It seemed like his wife was using the information she gleaned from therapy against him. Confused, depressed, and angry, he really believed that he was going insane. So he reached out for individual help in a last-ditch effort thinking that he was going to be committed as soon as he spoke.
Even as he recounted the events of the past 18 years, his thoughts were jumbled as he tossed from the present circumstances to the past without even pausing. It took several sessions just to make a bit of sense of what he was saying and although it was clear to me, it took several more sessions before it was clear to him. His wife had been gaslighting him on a small and large level. It was masterfully done and calculated to make him believe that he was going insane, but he wasn’t. The good part about seeing a therapist that regularly treats severe mental disorders is that I can recognize the real thing from a fake.
For starters, he watched the old “Gaslight” movie to grasp the concept. In it, the husband says and does things to make the wife be fully dependent on him and then tries to convince her that she is going insane so he can take her money. This case was the same in reverse. My client’s wife would make small comments like, “You didn’t say that you said this”. At first, he would protest but then she would throw such a fit that he gave in. Eventually he just blindly trusted her. She wanted him to believe that he was going insane so she could gain access to all of their wealth. Just the week before he met with me, she tried to convince him to sign a power of attorney putting her in charge of all of the assets. As he put the pieces together, he could see that her gaslighting was a form of brainwashing that took years to develop.
The best defense against brainwashing is to be aware of how vulnerable you might be to the effects. The subtleties of long-term abuse and brainwashing can turn you into a person you no longer recognize. But it is never too late to get help and change the direction of your life.