Mod 3: Knowledge


We have already talked a lot about how your emotions can lead you badly astray if you buy into the stories they tell you. As a victim of narcissistic abuse and a codependent, your narc and your nature have conspired to write quite a novel of total fiction. Your emotions will read this fiction book to you whenever they have the chance. A big part of your healing is to learn to distinguish this false and destructive tale from the facts. In this section we’ll learn how the big, bad book of your abuse was written.

Stockholm Syndrome

You may have heard of Stockholm Syndrome in the case of kidnap victims who come to adopt their captors as allies, resisting rescue and siding instead with their abusers. As illogical and bizarre as this seems to an outsider, it is prevalent enough to demonstrate that human beings can be manipulated into believing and trusting in the very people who imprison and torment them.

Stockholm Syndrome is named for a 1973 bank robbery incident in Stockholm, when bank employees being held hostage resisted release and defended their captors. It is sometimes referred to as “capture bonding” or “trauma bonding.” The experience of being captured and held results in the victim forming a bond with the perpetrator—a bond that can sometimes resist with supreme tenacity all attempts to break it.

Narcissistic abuse has much in common with the experience of being kidnapped. Victims of both situations:

  • Believe they cannot presently escape from staying with their abusers.
  • Are threatened or punished if they don’t comply with their abusers’ wishes.
  • Depend solely on the good will of the abusers for comforts as well as mere survival.
  • Are in a weaker position than their abusers.

It’s not surprising then that narc victims so often succumb to Stockholm Syndrome. While they are not physically held captive like hostages or people who have been kidnapped, they are in a similar position psychologically.

Why does Stockholm Syndrome occur? There are various theories about this, but the common thread is that the human psyche, under siege by long-term, unrelenting abuse, becomes overwhelmed by the threat. By identifying with the abuser, the mind can get out from under this threat. We don’t fear those with whom we have chosen to take sides. There’s no threat if you completely comply with and agree with the person threatening you.

The unfortunate thing about this Syndrome is that when the threat is removed—say, the narc breaks up with you and moves out—the dysfunctional bond doesn’t necessarily dissipate. Bonds, by their very definition, are self-sustaining emotional ties, not related to how you are treated or your proximity or any other factor.

If you feel an inexplicable tie to your narcissistic abuser, which seems to defy all logic and be utterly out of your control, hopefully now you at least have a name to give the phenomenon.

How heartless “training” creates a trauma bond

Let’s pause for a moment and consider the difference between training an animal and raising a child. Both use behavior modification techniques, a system of punishments and rewards to reduce wrong behavior and encourage right behavior. However, there are definite differences in how these techniques are used with an animal and a child.

Let’s say you’re training your dog to stay on the sidewalk when you go on walks. As he keeps himself to the pavement, you offer encouraging words and the occasion pat or treat. If he steps onto a lawn, you say, “no!” and pull on his leash. If he steps on the lawn because he sees a squirrel, you understand why he did this, but you treat him just the same: with a “no” and a tug on the leash.

With a child, you adapt your responses, based on the greater complexity of a child’s mind. The first time a child gives in to peer pressure, you treat him with understanding and provide warnings of the consequences—in other words, reason with him. If he persists in making the same bad choice, you may resort to punishments like withdrawing privileges. One child may act out because she’s being bullied in school, while another simply because he wants to get his way and is testing your resolve. You will deal with these situations quite differently, because you have empathy for how your child feels and what his or her motivations are.

When a narcissist deals with a victim, he uses an approach like dog training. There’s no empathy, no nuance. There’s no weighing his desires against yours and compromising. It’s very simple: if you don’t do what he wants, he will punish you in the most painful way he knows how. If you do what he wants, he won’t. Occasionally he will reward you, but only if that’s necessary to firm up your training. In other words, he’ll be meaner to you than he would be to a dog.

To make matters worse, sometimes you may get punished for an infringement you never anticipated. That’s just to “keep you on your toes,” to “teach you who’s boss.” If you were just punished for breaking rules you know about, all you’d need to do is obey all the rules and then you could relax, right? Well, it’s very important that you never get to relax. It’s crucial to keep the threat always in play.

The result is that you can’t help feeling punishment is unavoidable. It can be reduced by “good” behavior, yes—but never eliminated altogether. This situation is quite comparable to imprisonment and the abuse experienced by those held hostage or kidnapped.

The punishments are bad, to be sure…but not as bad as the constant, free-floating fear of punishment. That’s something that you just can’t escape and can truly drive you to madness. So in an attempt to get out from under it, your mind chooses to move your allegiance to your abuser. This may not alleviate punishment, but if you feel like you’re on your narc’s side, it can fool your mind into feeling safer.

Some people build a stronger and stronger bond with their narc over time, to the point that they have overpowering feelings of connection reason just can’t touch. If the narcissist chooses to end the relationship, this sort of victim is absolutely shocked. To her, the bond feels unbreakable, and the ease with which the narc moves on is agonizing to see. This is compounded by the fact that the victim herself can’t seem to let go, even after being abandoned.

More on brainwashing

Let’s move on from the Stockholm Syndrome problem to some of the other ways a narcissist chains his victim to him. What all the following techniques have in common is that they are applications of the narcissist’s unwavering belief in his own false ideas. In other words, he decides you have certain faults, or at least that it will benefit him if you believe you have those faults, and he imposes that belief on you. He does this by refusing to alter his opinion, punishing you if you won’t agree, having no compassion towards you, and feeling/showing no remorse for his abusive opinions.

Erosion of self-esteem

Most narcissists, to one degree or other, make a career of putting down their victims. They insult them, compare them unfavorably to others, and keep up a tirade of assertions that the victims are flawed in many ways. They do their best to convince you that you are so worthless that you’re lucky to have someone who will put up with you. Or perhaps that you’d never make it if you try to get by without them.

Fostering your need to be needed

On the other hand, some narcs will do the inverse of the former approach. They will convince you that they just can’t get by without you. This is less appealing to a narcissist’s ego, of course. They never enjoy pretending to be the weak one. But you may have decided, like Lucy in the story, that your narc needs you to be happy, and if this is keeping you bound to him, he’ll be happy to feed that idea if it serves him. If you show any sign of pulling away, he will guilt you into abandoning that idea. This is a very common approach used by narcissistic mothers.

Keeping you trapped by circumstance

Narcissists are big fans of self-indulgence and as such, often get themselves and their loved ones into serious financial trouble. They spend too much on themselves, and may have addiction problems that cost a lot, especially drugs and gambling. Add to the mix their enjoyment of convincing their victims they are inept and weak, or need to focus on homemaking and attending their needs, thus discouraging the victim from being financially independent. And finally, throw in their complete lack of shame and remorse when it comes to taking money from their victims. Now you have a fine recipe for the narc putting you into dire financial straits, a lot of debt, no job, etc. The added reward for the narc’s bad behavior is that they have made you all the more involved with and dependent upon them.

This part of the problem is not in your head. This is true, factual dependence that can be hard to deal with even if you have your full faculties. Of course, the narc’s brainwashing techniques reduce your ability to cope all that much more.

Convincing you you’re crazy

“Gaslighting” is another term that is often used in connection with narcissistic abuse. The term is based on a famous play called “Gas Light” in which a man convinces his wife she is losing her mind by secretly manipulating her environment while insisting no changes have occurred. Narcs play fast and loose with the facts, refusing to acknowledge things you see plainly, while insisting other non-existent realities are actually true. They lie, deceive, and cheat without any remorse, their consciences clear. They, being narcs rather than normal humans, engage in behaviors that make no sense, insisting all the while in their own sanity and your craziness.

These crazy-making techniques teach victims they cannot trust their own beliefs, feelings and instincts. This makes it hard to understand what it happening to you, causing you to surrender to the narc’s firmly held opinions of reality instead.

Addicting you to drama

Pay attention, folks, because this is a big one. The long-term, dysfunctional processes involved with loving a narcissist can really warp your perspective of what love is.

In my counseling I often hear people say, “My new boyfriend is really nice, but he doesn’t make me feel like my ex did. This is nothing like that was, and I really miss it. Am I crazy to still want someone who was so cruel to me?”

You remember my story about the New Guy who asked me out in college. As I mentioned, this guy was super nice, considerate, really into me, flattering, and devoted. All of which freaked me out. My experiences with trying to appease and please my father had taught me that to be loved a person had to work. If there was no work involved, if a guy simply cared for me as I was and without my doing anything in particular, I could only conclude that guy was deluded. He wasn’t feeling real affection, or maybe he was mistaking me for someone I wasn’t. It didn’t make me feel loved—it made me feel weird and uncomfortable.

Max, on the other hand, provided me with the kind of relationship I was used to having with a male. That is, one in which those rare occasions when you pleased the guy were huge highs that sent you soaring. Being with him was a challenging test every day, and if I did well I could feel proud of myself and like I had value. Meanwhile, the lows of failing were horrible, of course. But the process created a cycle of drama that I believed was exactly what happened when you were in love.

Another phenomenon that can happen is that over time, you come to feel that your narc is the one true arbiter of your worth. In other words, to prove to yourself you’re a good, desirable mate, you have to prove that to him. Until you pass that test, you can’t love yourself and be happy. Of course, the problem is that it’s impossible to pass that test. Nevertheless, many people can’t let go of being with their abuser because leaving them would mean never having a chance to pass the test, and therefore certain failure.

It’s all about the chains

All these techniques work together to bind you to your abuser. And that is his ultimate goal: power over you. The allegiance-switching of Stockholm Syndrome and the erosion of the will by brainwashing come together to render you so emotionally bound to the narcissist that separation is overwhelmingly difficult.

These chains formed by mind control are mistaken by your poor, addled mind as things like missing the narc, being unable to go on without him, feeling guilty for losing him as if it were all your fault, feeling ashamed and like a failure, hoping desperately for reconciliation, and despairing that you cannot be happy on your own.

Odds are that while all this is happening, on a certain level you’re able to see that what you feel is irrational and makes no sense in view of reality. You know you’re better off without the narc. Sometimes you feel relieved and happy that he is gone. You recognize the misery you have been through is something you don’t want to continue.

So on top of everything else, you feel crazy and/or stupid for the emotions you’re experiencing.

This, as they say, sucks. Is there no way out of it?

Well, there is, but it won’t happen overnight. We’ll talk about what you can do to hasten your getting out of this pickle in the Mod 3 Concepts for Healing….

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