Beauty and the beast

What is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological term used to describe the paradoxical phenomenon of the relationship that develops between a captor and its hostage. In such a relationship, to the amazement of onlookers, the hostage expresses empathy and positive feelings towards their abusive captor, and often they will display a desire to defend them.

Seen through the lens of the psychoanalytic view, Stockholm syndrome is not a new phenomenon, it is in fact the same principle that can be witnessed in the developing infant. When a baby is born, they come into the world pre-programmed to bond with their significant carer, usually their mother. This instinctual bonding is the baby’s first emotional attachment bond with someone who displays power, compassion, comfort, security and safety; everything that maximizes the infant’s survival. So putting it simply, every infant experiences Stockholm Syndrome as a defense mechanism against its own annihilation, and it remains primed and ready to be triggered whenever there is a primal desire to survive trauma at any stage of life thereafter. When Stockholm syndrome is experienced as a result of narcissistic abuse, the victim, in effect, is regressing to a state of infantile dependence, and the infantile survival mechanism is likely to kick in involuntarily.

Understanding Stockholm Syndrome:

The psychological term, Stockholm Syndrome was coined by the criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot in 1973, after he assisted the police during a bank robbery in Stockholm in which four employees (3 female and 1 male) were held hostage by two captors for six days. During this relatively short time it was noted that the hostages had managed to develop a strong emotional attachment to their captors. It would seem that the hostage’s empathic feelings toward their captors were due to acts of kindness they had been shown during their ordeal. Unbelievably, these small acts of kindness seemed to negate the fact that their lives had been threatened, and even after several months after being released, some of the hostages still wanted to defend their captors. In fact, so strong were their feelings, that amazingly, two of the women demonstrated how much they had bonded; one woman became engaged to one of her captives, while another raised legal funds to aid their defense.

The Stockholm episode sparked off great interest and research into the phenomenon of emotional bonding between captors and captives, (abusers and victims). Psychology wanted to know if what was witnessed in the Stockholm Bank incident was a unique occurrence, or was it more common than was thought. Since then, studies have revealed that this behaviour (positive attachment) in the captives does indeed occur in many situations, for example; narcissistic abuse, battering (men and women), abused children, incest victims, rape victims, cult members, prison camps, pimp-procured prostitutes, prisoners of war, etc.

Stockholm Syndrome knows no bounds, it can be found in all kinds of interpersonal relationships in the context of social, cultural and other influences; For example, families, intimate relationships, friendships, marriage, parent-child, the workplace, social clubs, associations, schools, Churches, Cults etc. That means that the abuser can be anybody from: a father or mother, a brother or sister, a husband or wife, a son or daughter, boyfriend or girlfriend, a boss and employee, or indeed, any role in which the abuser is in a position of control or authority. This phenomenon is so wide-spread, that in fact, virtually anyone can become a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, it seems that all that is required is the four following conditions be present:-

1. That there is a perceived threat to the captive’s existence, and they fervently believe that the captor will carry out that threat.
2. That the captive experiences small kindnesses from their captor within a context of terror.
3. That the captive is isolated from any other perspectives other than those of their captor.
4. That the captive perceives they have an inability to escape.

It is vital to understand that the bonding behaviours detected in Stockholm Syndrome are notable examples of “emotional bonding and defending” (Stockholm Syndrome) are to be found in many instances that made news headlines over the decades. For example:-

• the cases of 25 year old Mary McElroy in 1933, who was kidnapped for a ransom, and held for twenty-nine hours in captivity;
• 19 year old Heiress Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974;
• The passengers of the flight TWA 847 that was hijacked in Athens in 1985;
• Jaycee Lee Dugard’s abduction in 1991 and held for 18 years by her captor;
• 10 year old Austrian girl Natascha Kampusch abducted in 1998, and held for eight years in a windowless cellar.
• 11 year old Shawn Hornbeck kidnapped and held for over four years in 2002;

There are many other cases, but in all of these cases, Stockholm Syndrome provided each of the victims with the necessary psychological shift that was necessary to survive their ordeal until such time that they were rescued.

The Part of Stockholm Syndrome in Narcissistic Victim Abuse:

So what does Stockholm Syndrome have to do with a client presenting with Narcissistic Victim Syndrome as a result of narcissistic abuse? The short answer is “a lot”. For that reason, it is important for a therapist to understand and recognize the components of Stockholm Syndrome. Without this understanding it is hard to fathom out why a victim stays under the control of the narcissist abuser for so long. A common question many therapists ask the victim, especially if it is an abused and battered women, is, “Why did you stay so long in that abusive relationship?” More often than not, the answer is, “Because I loved him”. This may be your first clue to being in the presence of a victim who is showing signs of Stockholm Syndrome. Aware of the strong bond between herself and the narcissistic abuser, she internalizes this feeling as being “in love” with him (or her). Your client is totally unaware of the dynamics involved in the bonding process that occurs with abuse and prolonged trauma. What she is trying to do is to describe the feelings for the narcissist in the only way that she knows how. Desperate to be understood, she may even try to defend her feelings by saying something like, “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I just love him”. The truth of the situation is that she has no idea that she is the victim of narcissistic abuse, neither is she aware that she is suffering the effects of Stockholm Syndrome, therefore, she does not have the necessary information to make sense of the dynamics created by the bonding process. From the many case studies of hostages, we can see that the bonding can occur within a matter of hours, however, in the case of domestic narcissistic abuse, you are more likely dealing with a victim who has been held in a hostage situation with their narcissistic abuser for many years without any intervention (especially a child who had the misfortune to having a narcissistic parent). Trying to exist while living within a spiral of behaviour that includes the extremes of constant threats and kindness (intermittent good-bad treatment); the victim goes through a process of feeling loved, while at the same time they are having their self-esteem shredded. These two elements together cause a power imbalance that can create the phenomenon of Trauma Bonding.

Living within a narcissistic environment there is a need for the organism to protect itself. As you can see, the victim has indeed been living like hostages in a war-zone for a prolonged time. They have been deeply submerged into a hostile environment, an environment where they live with the constant threat to their survival on all levels of the self (physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually). One component of the Stockholm Syndrome is the belief that their abuser will harm or kill them if they don’t comply. They have learned this lesson the hard way by oppressive behaviour and possibly severe beatings, and the constant threat that there is worse to come if they don’t tow the line (i.e. having witnessed extreme violence themselves, or witnessing it happening to another family member). With no perceived safe way of escaping, the victim responds with an adaptive behaviour called Cognitive Dissonance in order to reduce their anxiety.

Stockholm Syndrome as an adaptive behaviour to narcissistic abuse:

What happens in Stockholm Syndrome is that a primitive survival instinct takes over in the victim as a threat to life becomes imminent. It is a complicated process that helps them to tolerate the indescribable narcissistic abuse they are being subjected to on a daily basis. Even when things are going well, the victim is controlled by fear that things can change in an instant. In their survival mode, the victim gets to see the world from the narcissistic abuser’s perspective, and they begin to focus on their needs (rather than their own) in order to buy some safety. Because of the real dangers involved, the victim gives up any hope of escaping, and dissociation becomes a comforting friend. Unable to take “flight or fight” from their detestable life, the victim goes into a “freeze” response (where they become immobilized). Interestingly enough, this freeze response can be seen in animals that are under the threat of death by a predator. The animal feigns death by playing “dead”, ordinarily the predator will lose interest in its prey if it is not moving (not showing fear). Like the narcissist, there is no fun in a kill without a chase, and perhaps the victim knows, (somewhere in their reptilian brain) how to repel the narcissistic “stress monster”. Over time, the victim becomes grateful for small mercies from their abuser, and they perceive any show of kindness or affection from them to mean that the danger has passed (for the moment at least); and for a while they can relax from their high arousal state of anxiety. Indebted to their benefactor for that reprieve, they convince themselves that their captor is really a “good guy”, and a pathological transference is established. As a result, a very profound behavioral and attitudinal reaction occurs within the victim in which they feel that they are both loved by, and in love with the narcissist; that way they can reciprocate with kindness and affection when really they are seething with anger (survival mechanism). This keeps the victim safe in that it represses their anger, thus staving off the narcissist’s reactions to rejection and abandonment that would be triggered if met with hostility. Often, in fact, the victim will put themselves in such a self hypnotic trance of being in love with the abuser that they will defend their narcissistic persecutor to the outside world, and will even fight off attempts by others to rescue them. This makes it difficult for extended family to intervene, as it causes great confusion, and the family member may even become fearful that the victim will bring the wrath of the narcissist upon them. The victim also has a tendency to adopt a “pleaser stance”, which any therapist can easily detect. This pleasing behaviour is another strategy born out of a need for “keeping safe”; It is through the pleasing stance that the victim achieves a state whereby they can manage to comply with the abusers demands, give them what they need, and appear to always “go with the flow”. By being the pleaser, the victim manages to keep themselves safe from the inexplicable narcissistic raging attacks that come out of the blue when their narcissistic supply (the victim) fails to take part in the narcissist’s convoluted dance.

Stockholm Syndrome: A regressive mode of adaption to narcissistic trauma.

In the past, one of the problems of not identifying narcissistic victim abuse arose because, when it came to domestic violence, there was no understanding about the victim’s attachment to the abuser. Domestic violence historically was treated as a “private matter”, therefore it was viewed as a misdemeanor offense by the police and criminal judicial system. Police were reluctant to make arrests in these instances, however, when they did, they became very frustrated when the victims (mostly women) would drop the charges against the offenders. As a result these victims were viewed by the police (and families) as having some form of pathology that was somehow creating the domestic abuse in the first place. Confused and abandoned (by their own self and society) the only safe place the victim could turn to was possibly their family physician. Time and time again the doctor would see these broken victims come into the surgery. Oblivious of the aggressor bonding that is taking place, all the compassionate doctor could do was to put a temporary sticking plaster over the physical wounds of the victim until the next incident occurred.

The importance of trauma bonding has been under-represented in research, very few professionals are aware of it, even professional psychotherapists. What confounds most people is how (or why) this “Trauma Bonding” can actually happen. If we were to apply logic to the situation regarding the victim’s attachment to the abuser, then most of us would say that using fear and threat with anybody is not a good strategy for gaining their co-operation and loyalty. Yet what I am about to reveal is that actually fear and threat, in a perverse way, is a very successful strategy indeed, because ironically, research shows that fear immobilizes and deepens attachment. As far back as Freud, it has been known that victims, in order to survive, would resort to a psychological process known as identification or interojection. Identification with the aggressor is a version of introjection that is found in Stockholm Syndrome. In Stockholm Syndrome, the victim adapts to the traumatic situation by unconsciously going into a regressive mode, essentially you can say, that they flip over and return to childish infantile patterns of behaviour. This regressive mode models their earlier experiences (as a child) when they first learned to identify with their first aggressor (usually the Mother) and form an emotional tie in order to reduce their stress and anxiety whenever they experienced fear. By regression I mean, that the victim makes a backward movement in psychological time to their earliest experiences of “bonding with the enemy” in order to manage their stress whenever they were afraid (part of the phase in the development of the super-ego functioning). No matter what age we are, when we are distressed we find ourselves becoming primitive or childlike, we return to our childish infantile patterns, and we retreat back into our old tried and trusted preliminary stages of defense (as seen in Stockholm Syndrome).

Living in the environment where there is narcissistic abuse, the victim in effect is living like a hostage under threat with their captor; this causes them to regress back to a time when they felt both helpless and extremely dependant on another for survival. Under these conditions both Cognitive Dissonance (a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously), and Stockholm Syndrome (the return to childish or infantile patterns) develop on an involuntary basis. In Stockholm Syndrome, what occurs is the same principle that is seen in the developing infant. In order to survive, the child needs to develop an emotional attachment to a care-giver that displays power and compassion; usually this is the domain of the mother or primary care-giver.

In Stockholm Syndrome, we witness the emotional attachment (Trauma Bonding) that has developed incomprehensible between the victim and their narcissistic abuser. Most people find it hard to believe that this can happen, so how does it happen? It is easier to accept that this can happen when we understand that, right from the very beginning of life, the human condition has a biological need for attachment in order to survive, especially during times of stress and danger. The child paradoxically is in a dilemma; both terrified of his new world, yet desperately in need of a caregiver for survival, the child takes “flight” into a dissociative response that allows it to maintain an idealised attachment relationship with that care-giver for their survival. Bonding with a care-giver (usually mother) creates connection and safety, and provides a familiar face that either justifies or soothes their fear away. How the infant bonds is imperative, because it is the blueprint for all future relationships. As adults, this biological need that is seen in the child does not change or go away with time. It seems that we are always at the mercy of looking for emotional attachment, especially when embroiled in dangerous narcissistic abusive relationships in which we are rendered helpless. Those same hyper-active responses seen in the child can be triggered later in life if the adult is in a similar threatening abusive relationship where they can be literally annihilated. Under such threat, the individual regresses to an infantile state. It is this traumatic psychological infantilism that becomes responsible for creating an inner drive in the victim to cling to the narcissist. Captivity makes the victim so infantile and so frightened, by the time the trauma bond is created between the victim and narcissist, the regressive state renders the victim to become placid and compliant in their behaviour with their hostage (like a child with its mother when they are in trouble). So rather than “aggressor bonding” being a mad behaviour, I see it as a very intelligent behaviour that aids survival. Unfortunately, the downside is that it also prevents many victims from leaving their violent partners. In Stockholm Syndrome, traumatic bonding is especially likely to happen if two specific structural features present in the abusive relationship: 1. There is an existence in the power imbalances and 2. There is intermittent good-bad treatment (Dutton & Painter).

1. Power Imbalance with the Narcissist:

If you are the victim of Narcissistic Victim Syndrome, from the very beginning of the relationship there would always have been a power imbalance, and that would have become magnified with time as the narcissist controlled the dyadic relationship. While the narcissist grows in power, and develops an inflated sense of self where they become omnipotence; the victim, on the other hand, becomes almost powerless, they lose self-esteem, their judgments become impaired, and increasingly they become more dependent on their narcissistic abuser. At this point the effective bond is forged. However, in order to keep the power balance, the narcissist must keep absolute control over the dyadic relationship, this is achieved using a strategy of fear and threat to maintain the power differential.

2. Intermittent good-bad treatment:

The second feature of traumatic bonding is that the narcissist uses “good and bad treatment” intermittently. At times the abuser maltreat the victim to the point of terrorizing them, and then at other times they show them acts of kindness; showering the victim with love, care and attention, even promising to never abuse them again. This has the effect of subjecting the victim to alternating states of emotions where they go through periods of aversive/negative arousal, and the relief/release associated with aversive arousal (Dutton/Painter), thus, alternating between good and bad conditions. This triggers the victim into a regressive mode, and they return to childish infantile patterns of behaviour of bonding with the aggressor.


• Stockholm Syndrome is the emotional trauma bonding of the victim with their narcissist abuser in order to survive their ordeal of living like a hostage under threat.
• Under these conditions both Cognitive Dissonance (a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously), and Stockholm Syndrome (the return to childish or infantile patterns) develop on an involuntary basis.
• In Stockholm Syndrome, what occurs in the victim is the same principle that is seen in the developing infant. Both infant and victim are in a fearful world. In order to survive, both need to develop an emotional attachment to a care-giver that displays power and compassion. The child turns to their care-giver for bonding, where they get a mix of discipline and loving; While the victim turns to their narcissistic abuser (through the Trauma Bonding), where they experience the power imbalance and intermittent good–bad treatment.
• It is the psychological infantilism in the victim that becomes responsible for creating an inner drive in the victim to cling to the narcissist, and resent police or family from rescue attempts.
• This results in the victim seeing from the perspective of the abuser, putting them first, settling for small kindnesses and losing their sense of self.
• This surrendering of the self to the narcissist results in the victim being totally dependant upon their abuser.
• The narcissist abuser takes on the role of the parent, while the narcissistic victim is denigrated to that of a child.

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Christine is a Psychotherapist, Educator, Author and Supervisor of mental health professionals for over 28 years. She was part of a team in the Trauma Unit of St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dublin, and has worked specifically with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse in her private practice for many years.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.
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