We spend our lives hoping to encounter at least a handful of people who truly understand us in an age of fast-paced living, of the self-absorbed who treat us superficially, dismiss our feelings and ignore us when we are emotionally frail. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find our ideal community with just a few clicks? If we could find acceptance, reciprocity and unconditional support, as well as valuable guidance for our social problems? A meme of ancestral wisdom says that if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

We find these communities when our need for support is so pressing that we often jump right in, taking them at face value and sharing our intimacy. They often seem to have answers to our deepest problems; they guide us in such a firm manner we assume they must know better.  We take their advice, making radical decisions about our relationships  – to later realise their knowledge was mere improvisation, their moral high ground was hypocritical and their empathy non-existent.

As  a disclaimer, this is solely my opinion, as a person who has sought comfort in online advice for various emotional and motivational issues. It is based on careful observation, honest introspection and the similar experiences of others. Also, I am not arguing there aren’t genuine communities based on abuse recovery, run by professional and empathetic people.

My focus is on the following aspects which come with forming part of  recovery groups run by wannabe life coaches for people who believe to be targets of disordered individuals (I’m trying to word this carefully).

  • A very limiting paradigm;
  • Black and white thinking;
  • A distraction from introspection;
  • The danger of a hysterical and paranoid approach towards others;
  • Toxic group dynamics echoing a cult atmosphere;
  • Replacing an abuser’s mental hold with that of the group;
  • Playing a part in other people’s game of status and recognition;
  • Suppressing one’s critical thinking to fit in;
  • Radical decisions one might regret;
  • Additional damage after putting one’s trust and privacy into the hands of the wrong people;
  • Ad hominem attacks from staff members (it has been known to happen).

We live in a world where duplicity can be found at every turn; TV programs about scams abound and we are generally worried about others misrepresenting their intentions. We are now wary of spiritual imposters as well.

The moral fraud of self-help is still virgin territory to many of us; the huge membership of these forums appears to give them validity. However, many of the recorded members were there temporarily; many were banned or left when realising the group dynamics. And the handful of devotees who have lasted for years are not necessarily better off.

When analysing what goes on there with a calm and rational mind, as opposed to their initial vulnerability, one cannot help but see how twisted the whole scene is and how different from what staff members promote.

Quite a few people who registered on forums like Psychopath Free, The Path Forward and Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers (which no longer exists but was very popular in its time) describe the same heavy atmosphere, which leads to the conclusion that toxic recovery forums are fairly common. They typically mention the following:

  • A loving, non-judgemental facade, hiding a web of gossip and paranoia;
  • Financial interests (by pushing books, CDs, counselling sessions etc which are of no use to the member and refusing to refund, in spite of a refund policy; by charging for  membership and banning people for no reason);
  • The false comfort of a support network, taken away in an instant through absurd bans;
  • Administrators and moderators on a power trip, displaying the same behaviour as the disordered people they demonise;
  • Emotional damage as a result of being duped into trusting the group.

Although these sites do not claim staff members are educated in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, recovery from trauma etc., the abundance of material they put out gives an air of authority to the untrained eye and lures people in, only to notice an establishment run by immature, petty tyrants hunting others down for imagined offences. They refer to themselves and each other as experts in these fields, even if they admit their lack of actual training. And for many new members that is enough.

The crux of the matter is one’s chance of mistaking a difficult relationship, especially during a break-up, with a full-blown encounter with a psychopath or narcissist, meant to – as they put it on PF – destroy them as a human being.

My observation is that cruel behaviour is often caused by selfishness and insensitivity, which may be temporary or repairable. There are limits of course and no one can doubt the dysfunctional nature of a person who, let’s say, tortures animals, habitually beats up their family members, stalks and threatens others etc. But many of the traits found in the ”spot the psycho” list are common among normal people, at least temporarily.

If one is trying to establish someone they know is disordered and they are steering towards confirmation, their brains will fish out the worst episodes in said relationship and will find the very instances which tick the boxes, even if there were few serious ones over a decade.

Yes, decent people are capable of rotten behaviour in certain circumstances. No one, if judged solely by their list of mistakes, would be seen in a positive light.

If you are steering in that direction, to start with, it is essential to make sure you are as objective as possible.

Being angry, in despair over the break-up, bitter, strongly disappointed etc will definitely influence your capacity to analyse matters. The same for being bored with the relationship, wanting something new  and seeking justification etc. The same with being depressed and the problems in your relationship being a marginal cause in your depression. Also, be extremely cautious if you are on psychotropics or a user of any substance which can influence you at a psychological or emotional level. Also, be extremely careful if there is any chance you might be sleep deprived or exhausted by an overly demanding lifestyle (that can result in other people’s mistakes or bad attitudes being blown out of proportion).

I honestly believe, and I am not alone by far, that true encounters with psychopaths are far more rare than these forums claim. They want you to see psychopaths around every corner and become dependant on their way of thinking, which is based on paranoia.

Members will encourage each other in that direction not only out of the mere assumption the person claiming to have met a psychopath is right in their assessment, but in order to validate their own experience as well. They will see matching aspects which may be coincidental and will apply the label. When they have spent enough time doing so, surely it becomes second nature to think they have enough expertise.

Here’s a thought regarding the similar experiences members share.

When you are baffled by the similarities and say ”well, he/she must be a psychopath, look at all these stories”, you are going by the assumption the people being discussed there are genuinely disordered. You can’t possibly know that. Hence there is a 50-50 chance you and the others are participating in mass hysteria.

The truth is most people registering on such sites are very confused. They are looking to others for answers regarding matters only they know well enough to issue such strong judgements on. 

Once they are part of such a community, they feel peer pressure just like in any other; it’s very strange but true – the need to not seem chaotic makes some of them persist on that path (that’s how many people end up staying in cults!). Adding to that the self-professed expertise of the group’s leaders. When a person starts experiencing doubts and is confident they have made a mistake by labelling another as disordered, instead of closing that window and deleting the bookmark, they turn to the group for advice, assuming they know best.

And the group will always say one thing, and one thing alone.

Sometimes it may be good advice, and sometimes it may be destructive. But rest assured it will not be custom tailored. On such forums, one size fits all. Which is why you want to avoid them.