Thanks to an ongoing cycle of intermittent reinforcement, many survivors of toxic relationships go through this, much like kidnapping victims and hostages do.
Trauma bonding is often a bigger issue for people who also grew up in toxic and abusive homes, partially just because it feels like “normal” to them.
As Warwick Middleton said, “The capacity for dissociation enables the young child to exercise their innate life-sustaining need for attachment in spite of the fact that principal attachment figures are also principal abusers.”
What is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding is often used interchangeably for the term Stockholm Syndrome.
“In 1973, Jan Erik Olsson walked into a small bank in Stockholm, Sweden, brandishing a gun, wounding a police officer, and taking three women and one man hostage,” writes Rachel Lloyd.
“During negotiations, Olsson demanded money, a getaway vehicle, and that his friend Clark Olofsson, a man with a long criminal history, be brought to the bank. The police allowed Olofsson to join his friend and together they held the four hostages captive in a bank vault for six days.”
Lloyd continues: “During their captivity, the hostages at times were attached to snare traps around their necks, likely to kill them in the event that the police attempted to storm the bank. The hostages grew increasingly afraid and hostile toward the authorities trying to win their release and even actively resisted various rescue attempts. Afterward, they refused to testify against their captors, and several continued to stay in contact with the hostage-takers, who were sent to prison.”
“Their resistance to outside help and their loyalty toward their captors was puzzling, and psychologists began to study the phenomenon in this and other hostage situations. The expression of positive feelings toward the captor and negative feelings toward those on the outside trying to win their release became known as Stockholm syndrome.”
Similar to Stockholm Syndrome, it’s a condition that causes abuse victims to develop a psychological dependence on the narcissist as a survival strategy during abuse.
“Many survivors have such profound deficiencies in self-protection that they can barely imagine themselves in a position of agency or choice,” writes Judith Lewis Herman. “The idea of saying no to the emotional demands of a parent, spouse, lover, or authority figure may be practically inconceivable. Thus, it is not uncommon to find adult survivors who continue to minister to the needs of those who once abused them and who continue to permit major intrusions without boundaries or limits. Adult survivors may nurse their abusers in illness, defend them in adversity, and even, in extreme cases, continue to submit to their sexual demands.”
This video explains how trauma bonding directly affects our decision-making ability and why it causes it to feel so hard to let go and move forward from a toxic relationship.
“Their experiences led them to create assumptions about others and related beliefs about themselves such as ‘this is my lot in life’ and ‘this is what I deserve,'” writes Christine A. Courtois. “Some also learned that personal safety and happiness are of lower priority than survival and that it may be safer to give in than to actively fight off additional abuse and victimization. When abuse is perpetrated by intimates, it is additionally confounding in terms of attachment, betrayal, and trust. Victims may be unable to leave or to fight back due to strong, albeit insecure and disorganized, attachment and misplaced loyalty to abusers. They may have also experienced trauma bonding over the course of their victimization, that is, a bond of specialness with or dependence on the abuser.”
What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is a form of psychological stress or discomfort that happens when you simultaneously hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.
Often affects narcissists as well as their victims at different times and for very different reasons.
Are you struggling with cognitive dissonance during or after narcissistic abuse?
Trauma bonding is a real experience created by narcissistic abuse – and it is challenging to struggle through. Understanding what you are experiencing can hopefully take some of the confusion, fear, or anxiety out of it so you can begin healing. This is one reason it is hard to leave and let go of a narcissist. I know that when you have been affected by narcissist abuse and are trauma bonded there is a lot going on but know that bit by bit you can free yourself from the trauma bonds and the narcissist.
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“Most people in the psychology field believe that if we do not get a child to bond at a deep level with someone by age eight, we have lost them. We can never recover them and teach them empathy. Never.” ~Patti Henry, Author of The Emotionally Unavailable Man
Emotionally unavailable people in relationships can often be appealing to people – especially those of us who like to help “fix” people’s problems, those of us who enjoy solving a good mystery, and those of us who may have experienced an overly emotional person in a toxic relationship. In some cases, you can potentially take steps to connect with an emotionally unavailable person and actually create some positive change in both of your lives. But in the case of the emotional unavailability being a side effect of NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) or otherwise on the cluster B spectrum – or even with someone who just has strong narcissistic tendencies but who hasn’t been officially diagnosed with the personality disorder – you’re going to be fighting a losing battle if you try to create genuine connection.
What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?
Someone who is emotionally unavailable refuses to let his or her guard down. People who have been hurt or rejected often in their past may take this position without realizing it. They may find it difficult to trust new people or anyone at all if there has been significant trauma in their lives. In many cases, these people can be helped with counseling, coaching or even simple discussions with their loved ones. Toxic people, such as narcissists, who are emotionally unavailable might also be helped through counseling or therapy, but usually refuse to get or accept help as they don’t see anything wrong with their behavior.
How does it feel to be in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable?
Whether the emotionally available person is your partner, your parent or your best friend, you might find yourself feeling very lonely and even rejected by this person. You might feel unloved, and you might feel like their repeated rejection of your attempts to connect are related to a big wall this person puts up around him or herself. You feel like this person isn’t there for you in the way that a normal parent, partner or best friend would be. It’s a one-sided kind of relationship.
Can an emotionally unavailable person change or heal so they can become more emotionally available?
This depends on whether you’re dealing with a toxic narcissist or a “regular” person. In both cases, the behavior is most likely a subconscious way to self-protect themselves. They refuse to allow themselves to be vulnerable to you in order to reduce the chances that they might be hurt or rejected again – or to manage their own emotional response if it (inevitably, in their minds) happens to them again.
However, with narcissists, we need to consider the fact that they have impaired empathy, which could also appear to be emotional unavailability. And we must remember that while it’s theoretically possible that a narcissist could create true change in their lives, it’s also highly unlikely that they will. That’s because most narcissists are unable or unwilling to take any sort of responsibility for things that go wrong in their lives and their relationships – so they generally look to blame someone else (with deflection and projection) and see themselves as victims or at least innocent bystanders.
How do you deal with an emotionally unavailable person?
If you’re dealing with someone who is capable of change, it could just take some time and some talking to work the situation out. You could sit down and have a conversation with this person and ask thoughtful questions about how they feel and why. Do your best to make that person feel safe and comfortable with you and like they can trust you, and then show them this in your own actions and behavior.
If you’re dealing with a narcissist or another kind of toxic person, the game changes. In this case, it’s unlikely that the person will change at all, nor will they be willing to admit they have a problem, to begin with.
“It is not the bruises on the body that hurt. It is the wounds of the heart and the scars on the mind.” ~Aisha Mirza
Emotional abuse, which may also be referred to as psychological abuse, is a pervasive and painful form of abuse that is often overlooked by even the victim. As difficult as it can be to detect, it can affect literally every part of a person’s life and can lead to other psychological and physical health issues.
While you might not see physical scars on a victim of emotional abuse, there are lifelong psychological scars that never go away. However, you can heal from emotional abuse if you do so intentionally, and there are a number of ways you can get help if you’re dealing with emotional abuse.
“There are far too many silent sufferers. Not because they don’t yearn to reach out, but because they’ve tried and found no one who cares.” ~Richelle E. Goodrich
What is Emotional Abuse?
Emotional abuse is a form of abuse in which a toxic person subjects or exposes you to repeated behavior that often results in long-term psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder).
Emotional abuse is underestimated by most people, even sometimes its victims. However, it can cause mental and physical health issues that last a lifetime. Emotional abuse is used to control victims and can be inflicted in a variety of ways. Due to its pervasive nature, emotional abuse can be difficult to detect. The abuser’s goal is to slowly wear down the victim’s self-esteem in order to cause the victim to depend on them. This causes the victim to be vulnerable to being abused and controlled. It leads to the victim feeling like they’ll have nothing without the abuser, or they may simply feel trapped and unable to get away from the abuser.
This leads the abuser to develop a sort of power over the victim that leads to the victim developing a sort of “learned helplessness.” This might mean the victim is afraid to make some (or all) decisions without checking in with the abuser, or it could mean that they feel unable to do certain things themselves due to restrictions imposed on them by the abuser. For example, a victim might not go to the grocery store without getting a list or a budget from the abuser first, even if they run out of something important, for fear that the abuser will verbally attack them for doing so.
What are the steps you need to take to heal from emotional abuse?
The stages of healing from emotional abuse are as simple as they are overwhelming. You need to understand how to identify toxic people, and what abuse looks like. Plus, you need to work on building your self-confidence and release your codependence on the abuser. There are three primary stages in recovery. And don’t forget self-care.
How to Stop Gaslighting in Relationships (Plus the Original Gray Rock Story) and Tips for Using the Gray Rock Method (Safely)
Communicating with a narcissist can be incredibly frustrating, especially when it matters that they comprehend what you’re saying. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt exasperated when trying to have simple conversations with narcissists who are actively gaslighting.
“Guilt can prevent us from setting the boundaries that would be in our best interests, and in other people’s best interests.” ~Melody Beattie
Narcissists have this way of manipulating your emotions by playing the victim and holding little “pity parties” for themselves. They play the martyr. They make you responsible for their emotional well-being. Often, that means giving you guilt trips that are not only unfounded but also extremely unfair. However, since narcissists have no empathy (and often no sense of remorse), and since they seem to believe their own lies, they can seem very sincere – and you might find yourself believing that you’re to blame for whatever it is they’re trying to blame you for.
Unless you’re a psychopath, you’re going to feel guilty occasionally. It’s basic human nature. In most cases, guilt is the result of harming someone else on some level. But narcissists use your basic human nature against you in order to get you to do what they want – to achieve some outcome that is desirable to them.
Maybe they guilt you into staying with them, or into doing their bidding. Maybe they even guilt you into giving them your time, your money or your energy. In any case, let me reiterate: narcissists use guilt as a tool to get what they want from you. And if you’re an empath, chances are you’re hypersensitive to the effect you have on other people – which makes it much easier for the narcissist to use guilt to manipulate you.
Things Narcissists Say to Guilt You
Narcissists will say anything they can think of to guilt you into doing what they want. There are no limits to how low they’ll stoop. A few examples of things narcissists say to guilt you may include things like:
I work so hard to pay all the bills. The least you could do is …
I can’t believe, after all I’ve done for you, that you ….
You really don’t love me. If you did…
Well, my friend’s wife/husband always does _____. Why won’t you?
Why You Need to Stop Feeling Guilty
Narcissists are, by nature, sadistic and in addition to using guilt to get you to do what they want, they may also use it to punish you and to drive your self-esteem into the ground. Many survivors of narcissistic abuse are prone to guilt and to beating themselves up for even the tiniest of infractions. In fact, the nature of the abuse (and of the narcissist) leads many of us to turn the responsibility for the problems in our relationships to ourselves for a very specific reason: we KNOW we cannot change the narcissist, but we also want to resolve the issues. So if we blame ourselves, we can try to modify our own behavior to resolve the issue. In reality, if the narcissist remains abusive (which they nearly always will), we can actually further victimize ourselves and lose even more of our own identities by trying to bend over backward to keep them happy.
Ultimately, by living with and aligning ourselves with this narcissist-induced guilt, we are effectively giving up our right to be happy, to feel safe, and to be ourselves in favor of keeping the narcissist’s ego in check. It’s time we stop doing this and start taking back our lives!
How to Stop Feeling Guilty
“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” ~ Christopher K. Germer
Start by recognizing your own value and being compassionate with yourself in a way that you haven’t before. And, as you’re working through this, try to see the situation for what it is; put your emotions aside and look at it from a clinical, scientific point of view. And then, step by step, begin to pull it all apart so you can see what you’re really dealing with. Use the following techniques to get over your guilt and move forward with your life.
Is the guilt legitimate, or not?
Determine why you feel guilty. Be sure you understand why you’re feeling guilty. What did you do wrong? Did you really do anything wrong? Imagine you were supposed to meet your spouse at their work party, but you got a flat tire. Avoid feeling guilty for things outside of your control. If you missed the party because you forgot about it, fell asleep on the couch, or lost track of time, you should probably feel some guilt!
Decide on a response.
The first step out of guilt is responding appropriately. This might include an apology if you’ve actually done anything wrong. Maybe a detailed explanation is in order. Maybe you’ll lay out a plan to show the other person that your transgression won’t happen again. You might make it up to the other person in some fashion. Maybe you’ll agree to rub your spouse’s feet every day for the next month. Maybe you’ll take your daughter out to dinner. But if you’re dealing with a narcissist who has unfairly put you on a guilt trip, the best response is gray rock.
Stop beating yourself up!
Be willing to forgive yourself. Once you forgive yourself, the guilt is gone. If you actually did something that warrants guilt, try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine that the error you made happened to you. You’d probably forgive the other person without too much fuss. You should treat yourself at least as well! Notice how much easier it is for you to forgive someone else than it is to forgive yourself. You should be the best friend you’ll ever have. Treat yourself like it.
Write a letter.
You can write a letter to yourself, to the person you harmed, or both. No one writes or sends letters anymore – that makes them especially meaningful. It’s also a great way to purge your thoughts and your guilt. The other person will be impressed, and you’ll feel a lot better. And when we’re talking about a narcissist, maybe your letter focuses on the truth of the matter (that, in many cases, you’re not actually guilty of anything) – and maybe you only write the letter to get it off your chest. Sending it may prove to be an exercise in frustration when the narcissist twists it and intentionally sees the worst possible perspective of what you’ve written.
Do something positive that will boost your self-esteem.
Volunteering can be great when you’re feeling guilty. Show yourself that you’re a good person. Make a donation. Help someone with a problem. Give away some of your stuff. Take some action that will allow you to feel good about yourself.
Make changes instead of feeling guilty.
Rather than feeling guilt, which helps no one, make some changes to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again in the future if you’ve actually done anything to feel guilty about. Should you eliminate a bad habit, procrastinate less, or get more organized? Maybe you need to value others more than you do currently. What are some positive changes you can make that are related to the cause of your guilt?
At some point, you have to let it go and get on with your life. There’s no value in holding on to guilt. Guilty feelings suggest that you did something wrong and need to learn from it. So, learn from it. Then, move on. And, if you’re dealing with a narcissist in your every day life, start considering the value of doing that. Can you leave? Can you minimize contact? Consider starting to PLAN for your future without the narcissist.
Everyone has felt the pain of guilt. Narcissists know this and use guilt to control and manipulate you. If you actually did something that warrants feeling guilty, it’s important to resolve the issue as well as you can, forgive yourself, make amends, and move on. There’s no value in punishing yourself for an extended period of time. You made a mistake, so do the best you can to fix it.
If you are just being manipulated by the toxic person in your life, you need to see it for what it is and release the guilt. It isn’t healthy and it is keeping you stuck! Now it’s time to set yourself free. Allow yourself to move forward from your guilt.
Feeling sorry for the narcissist? Watch this video to learn how to stop (and why you should).
Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Resources
The QueenBeeing SPANily, Official – We consider this to be the best narcissistic abuse recovery support group on the web. Offers several subgroups and features a vigilant, compassionate admin team full of trained coaches and survivors, supporting more than 12k members. SPAN is an acronym created by Angie Atkinson that stands for Support for People Affected by Narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships.
Other Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups– We also have separate groups for each stage in your narcissistic abuse recovery, as well as some for those who have moved past recovery and are evolving into the next stage of their own life. Survivors have unique and individual needs, even when they’ve moved on – so we’re still here for you.
One-on-One Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Coaching – If you prefer to get more personalized support in your recovery, you might like to schedule a session with one of our coaches to plan and execute your own narcissistic abuse recovery plan.
Find a Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Therapist – If you’re looking for a therapist for narcissistic abuse recovery, either because you cannot afford coaching and want to use your health insurance or because you have additional issues you need to address that do not fall within the realm of coaching, you will want to find the right therapist for you – and as far as we’re concerned, that therapist must understand what you’ve been through. This page offers assistance to help you do exactly that.