It all begins with a group of people. This group is very tight such as found in could be a gang, work environment, cult, religious organization, political party, sorority/fraternity, or really any organized group or close family unit. There is a leader, usually set at a higher level then its members and some type of exclusivity such as a ritual and/or financial commitment to join.
On the surface, everything is fine. But this group is different. People who try to leave or do leave the organization are ostracized, threatened, stalked, and/or tortured. The leader demands complete loyalty and any deviation from that is punished. Anyone outside of the group who criticizes the organization is treated poorly and/or threatened.
So how does the group maintain its membership when outsiders are treated so badly? They use group psychological abuse. Often, it’s not obvious such as a punch to the face, name-calling, guilt-tripping, physical isolation, and neglect. Rather, it is more calculated or even secretive. Sometimes the abuse is conducted within a group setting which causes the member to feel even more alone and ashamed.
This idea of the individual versus a group could happen in a variety of settings. For instance, it could be a new employee entering an established team, a spouse coming into their in-law’s home, or a new believer approaching a church. Whatever the environment, the unit is pre-established with its own set of rules and standards.
Not too long after joining the group, the new member is met with unreasonable expectations and abusive treatment designed to demonstrate that the new person is not part of the group, yet. Instead, the member has to experience several layers of group psychological abuse before they are officially indoctrinated. Here is how it is done:
- Indifference. It didn’t matter what Susie said, her comments were returned with a blank stare and an instant change of the subject. Even when she was on point, in agreement, or added a new perspective, she received nothing in return and was treated with disregard.
- Discounting. When John shared how he felt hurt by a remark, he was told, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” His emotional responses to hurtful statements were discounted, minimized, and villainized. This was done to make his behavior look abusive, instead of the group.
- Snubbing. Angie did not come from the same strict religious background that everyone else experienced. However, she had grown in her faith and knowledge in the last several years. Yet, whenever she would make a spiritual comment, she was instantly snubbed with silence or the occasional roll of the eyes.
- Disinterest. After spending years with this same group, James realized that the only one who never shared his story was him. As he approached the subject, he was immediately met with disinterest. He still persisted but as he was speaking, slowly each member got up and physically left the group.
- Coldness. Just walking into the room, Elizabeth could feel the coldness towards her. She was eight months pregnant and not one person asked how she was feeling or offered her a place to sit. Everyone else experienced warm greetings and conversation, but she was shunned.
- Censuring. While in the middle of talking about an experience, Matthew was told he could speak no further. “We don’t talk about that here,” was stated very clearly. His remarks were not inappropriate however; he was being censured because no one else in the group had the same shared experience.
- Exposing. Mary shared her previous abusive relationship confidentially with one person in the group. At the next gathering, another person made a stabbing remark that clearly indicated her private information had been exposed to the group without her consent or knowledge.
- Unappreciative. In an effort to connect with the group, Tom decided to offer his help on a project. Even though he performed the task well, there was no show of thanks. Yet everyone else who worked on the project, even those who did it grudgingly, received appreciation.
- Sarcasm. Just when Hannah started to feel part of the conversation, one person made a sarcastic remark directed at her. The expression on Hannah’s face was one of hurt to which the person replied, “I was only joking.” Immediately, she felt isolated from the group yet again.
- Denigrating. Over a period of time, it became apparent that Daniel’s reputation had been denigrated by the group. Regardless of the strides he made, there was a constant air of not forgetting and not forgiving his previous behavior.
It doesn’t matter if the group does these behaviors at a conscious or subconscious level; it is still hurtful and wrong. Eventually, the new member realizes the difference and either try harder to fit in or leaves the organization. This is precisely what the established organization wants. By filtering out the ones who don’t keep trying from the ones who do, this ensures that only the ones who tolerate and respond to abuse remain. This is how the organization knows its group psychological abuse is effective.