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Is Narcissistic Brainwashing a Real Thing?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Are Narcissists Able to Brainwash People?

Narcissistic Abuse and Guidance with Randi Fine

Can a narcissist brainwash you?

Narcissists can be incredibly skilled at using classic elements of thought-control and brainwashing. To get free of narcissistic thought control it is essential to spot the distortions narcissists deliberately and instinctively practice. Applying critical thinking skills can inoculate you against their campaigns {14 Thought-Control Tactics Narcissists Use to Confuse and Dominate You: Dan Neuharth, PhD, MFT }.

How does a narcissist try to control you?

Narcissists also gaslight or practice master manipulation, weakening and destabilizing their victims; finally, they utilize positive and negative emotions or moments to trick others. When a narcissist can't control you, they'll likely feel threatened, react with anger, and they might even start threatening you {How Do Narcissists Control You?: Taylor Bennett }.

What part of the brain controls brainwashing?

In order for brainwashing to occur, the relative strength of the schemata must be altered. This is done by manipulating a person's emotions, their brain's aptitude for change and stress, and their prefrontal cortex {Brainwashing 101: Claire Gianakas }.

What happens to the brain during brainwashing?

Brainwashing is said to reduce its subject's ability to think critically or independently, to allow the introduction of new, unwanted thoughts and ideas into their minds, as well as to change their attitudes, values, and beliefs {Brainwashing: Wikipedia }.

How long does it take to become brainwashed?

Recognize that brain-washers often offer rewards when the victim has “turned.” Once the victim is completely broken and complacent, he or she can then be retrained. This can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years, depending on the circumstances of the brainwashing. {How to Recognize and Avoid Brainwashing: Natalie Feinblatt, PsyD }

How brainwashing works

How Stuff Works contributing writers Julia Layton and Alia Hoyt cited the following in their co-written article entitled How Brainwashing Works:

Singer R. Kelly arrives at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on June 6, 2019, in Chicago. The singer appeared in court to face new charges of criminal sexual abuse. Several women accused him of brainwashing them into sexual servitude.

In the late 1950s, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton studied former prisoners of Korean War and Chinese war camps. He determined that they'd undergone a multi-step process that began with attacks on the prisoner's sense of self and ended with what appeared to be a change in beliefs. Lifton ultimately defined a set of steps involved in the brainwashing cases he studied:

  1. Assault on identity

  2. Guilt

  3. Self-betrayal

  4. Breaking point

  5. Leniency

  6. Compulsion to confess

  7. Channeling of guilt

  8. Releasing of guilt

  9. Progress and harmony

  10. Final confession and rebirth

Each of these stages takes place in an environment of isolation, meaning all "normal" social reference points are unavailable, and mind-clouding techniques like sleep deprivation and malnutrition are typically part of the process. There is often the presence or constant threat of physical harm, which adds to the target's difficulty in thinking critically and independently [Changing Minds ].

We can roughly divide the process Lifton identified into three stages: breaking down the self, introducing the possibility of salvation and rebuilding the self. Let's examine them in more detail:

Breaking down the self
  • Assault on identity: You are not who you think you are. This is a systematic attack on a target's sense of self (also called his identity or ego) and his core belief system. The agent denies everything that makes the target who he is: "You are not a soldier." "You are not a man." "You are not defending freedom." The target is under constant attack for days, weeks or months, to the point that he becomes exhausted, confused and disoriented. In this state, his beliefs seem less solid.

  • Guilt: You are bad. While the identity crisis is setting in, the agent is simultaneously creating an overwhelming sense of guilt in the target. He repeatedly and mercilessly attacks the subject for any "sin" the target has committed, large or small. He may criticize the target for everything from the "evilness" of his beliefs to the way he eats too slowly. The target begins to feel a general sense of shame that everything he does is wrong.

  • Self-betrayal: Agree with me that you are bad. Once the subject is disoriented and drowning in guilt, the agent forces him (either with the threat of physical harm or of continuance of the mental attack) to denounce his family, friends and peers who share the same "wrong" belief system that he holds. This betrayal of his own beliefs and of people he feels a sense of loyalty to increases the shame and loss of identity the target is already experiencing.

  • Breaking point: Who am I, where am I and what am I supposed to do? With his identity in crisis, experiencing deep shame and having betrayed what he has always believed in, the target may undergo what in the lay community is referred to as a "nervous breakdown." In psychology, "nervous breakdown" is really just a collection of severe symptoms that can indicate any number of psychological disturbances. It may involve uncontrollable sobbing, deep depression and general disorientation. The target may have lost his grip on reality and have the feeling of being completely lost and alone. When the target reaches his breaking point, his sense of self is pretty much up for grabs — he has no clear understanding of who he is or what is happening to him. At this point, the agent sets up the temptation to convert to another belief system that will save the target from his misery.

The Possibility of Salvation

First, the brain-washer shows leniency. With the target in a state of crisis, the agent offers some small kindness or reprieve from the abuse. He may offer the target a drink of water or take a moment to ask the target what he misses about home. In a state of breakdown resulting from an endless psychological attack, the small kindness seems huge and the target may experience a sense of relief and gratitude completely out of proportion to the offering, as if the agent has saved his life.

Next, the brain-washer offers an opportunity for confession. For the first time in the brainwashing process, the target is faced with the contrast between the guilt and pain of identity assault and the sudden relief of leniency. The target may feel a desire to reciprocate the kindness offered to him, and at this point, the agent may present the possibility of confession as a means to relieving guilt and pain.

Guilt is the real reason many subjects are in pain. After weeks or months of assault, confusion, breakdown and moments of leniency, the target's guilt has lost all meaning — he's not sure what he has done wrong, he just knows he is wrong. This creates something of a blank slate that lets the agent fill in the blanks: He can attach that guilt, that sense of "wrongness," to whatever he wants. The agent attaches the target's guilt to the belief system the agent is trying to replace. The target comes to believe it is his belief system that is the cause of his shame. The contrast between old and new has been established: The old belief system is associated with psychological (and usually physical) agony; and the new belief system is associated with the possibility of escaping that agony.

Next, releasing the guilt is a key step. The embattled target is relieved to learn there is an external cause of his wrongness, that it is not he himself who is inescapably bad — this means he can escape his wrongness by escaping the wrong belief system. All he has to do is denounce the people and institutions associated with that belief system, and he won't be in pain anymore. The target has the power to release himself from wrongness by confessing to acts associated with his old belief system. With his full confessions, the target has completed his psychological rejection of his former identity. It is now up to the agent to offer the target a new one [Singer].

Rebuilding the Self

Once those critical early stages of brainwashing are complete, it's time to move on to a more harmonious, if destructive relationship.

The subject is then presented with a path to alleged progress and harmony. In other words, "If you want, you can choose good." At this stage, the agent stops the abuse, offering the target physical comfort and mental calm in conjunction with the new belief system. The target is made to feel that it is he who must choose between old and new, giving the target the sense that his fate is in his own hands. The target has already denounced his old belief system in response to leniency and torment and making a "conscious choice" in favor of the contrasting belief system helps to further relieve his guilt: If he truly believes, then he really didn't betray anyone. The choice is not a difficult one: The new identity is safe and desirable because it is nothing like the one that led to his breakdown.

Next comes the final confession and rebirth: I choose good. Contrasting the agony of the old with the peacefulness of the new, the target chooses the new identity, clinging to it like a life preserver. He rejects his old belief system and pledges allegiance to the new one that is going to make his life better. At this final stage, there are often rituals or ceremonies to induct the converted target into his new community. This stage has been described by some brainwashing victims as a feeling of "rebirth" [Singer].

A brainwashing process like the one discussed above has not been tested in a modern laboratory setting, because it's damaging to the target and would therefore be an unethical scientific experiment. Lifton created this description from firsthand accounts of the techniques used by captors in the Korean War and other instances of "brainwashing" around the same time. Since Lifton and other psychologists have identified variations on what appears to be a distinct set of steps leading to a profound state of suggestibility, an interesting question is why some people end up brainwashed and others don't.

Certain personality traits of the brainwashing targets can determine the effectiveness of the process. People who commonly experience great self doubt, have a weak sense of identity, and show a tendency toward guilt and absolutism (black-and-white thinking) are more likely to be successfully brainwashed, while a strong sense of identity and self-confidence can make a target more resistant to brainwashing. Some accounts show that faith in a higher power can assist a target in mentally detaching from the process. People who've suffered abuse in childhood, have been exposed to eccentric family patterns and who have substance abuse issues are also more likely to be influenced [Curtis ].

What are the side effects of being brainwashed?

Victims of brainwashing often internalize their anger which leads to depression, anxiety, and sometimes suicide. Many survivors, with and without treatment, are devoid of the personality they once had. They have been robbed of their self-esteem and autonomy {ABA: Modern-Day Brainwashing: Therapist Diversity Collective }.


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