The term “brainwashed” can often sound like something out of a sci-fi movie. Unfortunately, it is a very real thing and doesn’t require a hypnotist or special equipment to brainwash someone. This psychological abuse can come from kidnappers, oppressive governments and many times even family members. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton created a list of the steps taken by abusers to brainwash their victims. He referred to this abuse as “thought reform” and became a leading researcher in the techniques used by abusers on their victims.
Assault on Identity
Abusers will attack their victim’s self-identity to the point that the victim’s personal beliefs and values are weakened and then changed. For example, a husband might tell his wife, “You’re not a real woman! You can’t even take care of your children correctly.” Once the woman is convinced she’s a bad parent, the husband would move in and change her views on how to raise their children. This often involves her going against her original parenting beliefs. An abusive parent might tell their child who has a special talent, “I don’t know why you think you’re so special. You have no talent whatsoever.” This would be followed by, “You ought to work on something worthwhile like [insert a job that would benefit the abuser].”
The abuser shames their victim for everything. Arguments are started over small things and sometimes are completely made up. The victim grows to feel shame for just about everything and often feels they deserve to be punished.
The victim is forced to denounce their family and friends, which is another attack on their identity. The victim feels so guilty about the separation that he/she is left in a psychologically weakened condition. Separating someone from the people they love helps the brainwasher to start with a clean slate. The victim no longer has a support system and people reminding them who they really are.
The victim will eventually reach a breaking point that is quite similar to a nervous breakdown. They may fall into a deep depression, have convulsive fits or cry inconsolably. This is all based on the individual’s loss of self. They are losing sight of who they really are and the fear is overwhelming.
The brainwasher is not blind to what is going on. As soon as they notice their victim is reaching a breaking point, they will offer some leniency in the form of small acts of kindness. The victim, who is looking for any sort of relief from their sorrows, may have a deep sense of gratitude towards their abuser for giving them a break from the darkness.
The Compulsion to Confess
After being offered some leniency (or kindness) by their abusers, victims often feel the need to confess to “repay” their abusers for being kind to them. This is the victim’s way of relieving themselves of the overwhelming guilt and preventing the abuser from attacking them again. It may sound something like, “You were right. I was talking to my friends again and they were giving me bad advice about you” or “Yes, I was thinking about leaving. I was being stupid. I’m sorry.”
The Channeling of Guilt
The victim becomes so overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame that they will become confused about what they’re actually guilty of. This leads to a constant feeling of just being wrong. This confusion allows the abuser to channel those feelings of guilt onto whatever they want. Usually the guilt is focussed on the victim having lived a bad life. Example, “You know why you feel that way? It’s because you’ve spent years living like a slut. If you stopped thinking the way you do, you’d be much better off” or “You’re depressed because your mother taught you to only think about yourself. Why don’t you try considering me for a change?”
Reeducation: Logical Dishonoring
The exhausted victim is finally offered a solution. It’s their “wrong” beliefs and principles that are the source of their problems. This means that it’s their teachers (e.g. parents, friends, family) and their ideologies that are at fault, not the victim. Looking to feel some relief, the victim grabs hold of this belief and begins to confess more. Example, “You’re right. My friends were all dating in college. I thought it was okay, so I dated a lot in college” or “My parents always taught me to stand up for myself. I didn’t realize I was instigating so many fights between us.”
Progress and Harmony
The rejection of their old beliefs and principles leaves room for new beliefs and principles in the victim’s life. The abuser quickly enforces their “correct” ideology on the victim, which is typically the opposite of the victim’s old beliefs. The abuser portrays the new way of life as harmonious and suited for the victim’s needs. Example, “Look how much happier you are now that you quit your job.” The abuser will treat the victim better once the new ideology is adopted.
Final Confession and Rebirth
The victim sees a brighter future with the new ideologies of their brainwasher. There will be less abuse, less criticism and guilt if the abuser’s ideology is adopted. The victim usually confesses any final secrets he/she may have and takes on the burden of the new ideology. There are often rituals associated with this “rebirth.” Abusers might require the victim to make strong statements, vows or swear allegiance to them. There may also be physical acts, such as burning or throwing out things of the past. The victim is officially brainwashed.