What is Infantile Regression?
Infantile Regression is a marvelous unconscious defense mechanism that is triggered when a person is exposed to terror by someone who is suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. When a person has been subjected to narcissistic abuse, in effect they display many of the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome that is also found in hostages or prisoners of war. Narcissists render their victims to mental emotional and physically terror, a terror that must be denied if the individual is to survive the unrelenting onslaught of abuse. Trying to survive under these conditions, the victim is reduced to becoming pretty much like an infant that first comes into the world; that is, helpless and dependent on its survival from a main caregiver, which usually the infant’s mother.
Nature is a wonderful thing; it pre-programmes the infant for survival by providing it with a way to bond with their primary caregiver. In effect this is the infant’s first emotional attachment in a frightening world, and they instinctively bond with someone who possesses the attributes for maximizing their survival, that is, a caregiver that displays a sense of power, security, safety, and compassion. In effect, every child instinctually goes through the process known as Stockholm syndrome as a natural defense mechanism against its own annihilation.
The natural instinct to bond:
This natural instinct to bond remains primed and ready to be triggered whenever there is a primal desire to survive at any stage during the person’s life. We see this happen in all kinds of situations whenever a person perceives themselves to be put in extreme fear or danger. There are many examples of this happening, this is a phenomenon seen in narcissistic abuse, prisoners of war, in kidnappings, and in domestic violence. For example, during the time of Hitler’s concentration camps, many prisoners bonded with their captors in order to get food. When people are held captive by kidnappers, they bond in hope of being allowed to live. In domestic violence, the battered partner surrenders to the will of the abuser in order to save themselves from further hidings and humiliation.
When a victim is held hostage to narcissistic abuse:
When a victim is held hostage to narcissistic abuse, in order to survive their ordeal they respond with primitive adaptive behaviour, and their behaviour becomes unconsciously quite infantile around their captor. It is as if their maturity evaporates and is replaced with infantile survival mechanisms. This response is called Infantile Regression (a defensive retreat to an earlier infantile pattern of behavior). Infantile regression is a marvelous defense mechanism, totally unconscious, and out of the control of the victim. In order to understand how and why it happens in narcissistic victim syndrome, it is first necessary to understand how an infant survives when they first enter a hostile world.
When an infant enters the world:
When an infant enters the world they are quite helpless and fearful. In order to face many frightening challenges, they must bond with a caregiver (usually the mother) in order to help them modulate their physiologic arousal (the physical and psychological excitation that one feels when one is afraid). However, sometimes the very person who the child looks to for comfort becomes their source of danger. When this happens, the child learns to maneuver itself in such a way as to re-establish a sense of safety. Rather than losing the hope of protection of their primary care-giver by turning on them in a hostile manner, the child unconsciously turns inward and blames itself (this allows it to back down, and calm itself). In effect, their fear makes them anxiously obedient in order to attach once again to the frightening mother for soothing and a safe base (which it needs for normal social and biologic development).
So in the face of extreme danger, not just infants (but anybody in danger), turn to their nearest available source of comfort in order to regain a state of both psychological and physiologic rebalance. But, what happens when there is no source of comfort available, but only a cruel narcissistic abuser who threatens and beats their victim into the ground? Nature kicks in, that’s what happens, and the individual turns to inbuilt unconscious survival defense mechanisms, because if they did not, they would be annihilated by their own levels of negative arousal. The victim of abuse unconsciously goes into a state of infantile regression. Where once they became obedient and clung on to the hostile care-giver (mother), they repeat this behaviour by surrendering themselves obediently to their captor (trauma bonding, as seen in Stockholm syndrome) and organize their life completely around pleasing the captor. That way they survive in the war zone. This behaviour of negative reinforcement has been seen universally where ever people are held captive.
The sequence of events:
In narcissistic abuse the victim experiences extreme terror over and over, often over many years. The behaviour follows a sequence of events; first the tension gradually builds, the victim is then caught in an explosive exchange with the narcissist, this is then followed by calmness and feelings of being loved. Each time the process follows the same path of submission and reconciliation, which further consolidates the attachment between victim and victimizer. Faced with such madness, unable to take flight or fight, the victim is rendered helpless, and does into a Freeze Fright response. They are then apt to follow a typical post-traumatic response where they dissociate emotionally. They block out the pain (numbing), and they build a fantasy of fusion and symbiosis just as they had learned to do in childhood with their parents alternating outbursts of affection and violence. This is Stockholm syndrome in action.
So Infantile Regression is a powerful defense mechanism that is triggered when a person is exposed to terror and unable to fight or take flight, overwhelmed by helplessness, their only redress is to freeze (Frozen Fright). The victim’s total focus now is on survival, and they unconsciously returns to an earlier level of behaviour that provided satisfaction whenever they experienced high arousal stress. In effect, they become obedient, placid, compliant, and submissive whenever their life is threatened, considered, and then spared by the captor. This leads the victim to form a pathological transference bond with their aggressor as they did with their parental figures. These two components–traumatic psychological infantilism and pathological transference–form the crucial elements in the Stockholm syndrome. It is important that the therapist reassure victims of narcissistic abuse that their behavior during captivity was fully acceptable; it was the right thing to do because it kept them somewhat safe and alive.
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This is so creepy and so accurate. Anyone who has seen a couple like this will recognise the infantile behaviour of the poor, broken victim but may not understand the dynamics. They may wonder what the victim sees in the narc, why the victim allows the narc to treat her / him so badly. The cycle of lovebombing-rage-discard-hoovering can last years if the victim is staying for the sake of the children / out of low self-esteem.
Can someone with this syndrome sort of come out of it when separated from their narc, but then immediately revert back when they’re back with their narc?
Thank you so much for this great article and all your work. I feel so ashamed for my submissiveness and appeasement around the narcissist. I even collapsed on the floor, crying and begging for mercy just to make him stop his cruel words. This behaviour is so against my cognitive values of being a strong woman, even a feminist. To understand the behaviour as biological survival reaction makes it more understandeable. I still avoid people out of fear of this behaviour again. I never thought I would react like this when under attack and I fear my own biology now, even if it helped me survive.
I’m wondering about infantile regression. I’m back around the narc mother and I’m worried about staying safe. How can i protect myself from infantile regression? It what are red flag behaviors of it? I need the contact but I’m also recognising the danger. What is the worst thing about infantile regression? Does one slip in and out of it frequently or is it a prolonged, timely condition that doesn’t go away without profound change? Can i control it? Can i identify it? Can I be accountable to a healthy support person in this area of my life, like a counselor? I want to be careful. Thank you. Any insights are welcome m thank you
I have just come out of a two year nightmare living with my mother, who is narcissistic to the Bone. Frozen. Lost, confused, grief is calming down. Worst thing I could’ve done to move back in with her at 48 yrs old. She opened a DHS case on me and we were a year-and-a-half into it… I couldn’t function so I moved back in with her, even tho I was already so vulnerable,grief-stricken. I’ve been raising my six children for 30 years and she finally got one only the joke was on her and DHS said she too was unfit! so he’s with my sister but the whole thing should have never happened! He is the last of my 6 children, he’ll be 14 in September, the most evil thing that’s ever happened to me. Is been 4 yrs of hardcore work! Got told in trauma therapy that she simply could not help me, again I had a therapist throw up their hands. 5 days a week 5 hours a day for 12 months I sat in intensive outpatient and learned DBT and CBT skills and about domestic violence and on and on and on it was the best thing I ever did for myself but coming out of the pit literally caused me suicidal ideation for the last 2 years. I broke my hip at the end of February and for some reason when I came out of surgery I had had an attitude adjustment. the grief was gone, my desire to use drugs was gone and I’m actually smiling and laughing again. I can hardly believe it! it was all the things I learned in this website that has allowed me to understand what the f–k is wrong with me!
NOTHING! NOTHING WAS WRONG WITH ME EXCEPT MY MOM’S VIOLENT, RAGING NEVER CEASING NARCISSISM THAT WAS THE ONLY THING THAT WAS WRONG WITH ME. And I forgive her too. Thank you if you stuck around long enough to hear the end. peace be with you
I fell hook line and sinker for my narc 20 years ago. He was shy, awkward and swept me off my feet. There were red flags but I was blind.. then we married. I got a taste of what was to become more regular behaviour; a black eye from a Thomas the tank engine train belonging to our two yr old because I questioned him about why he abandoned me to go out with friends. This was a week before our wedding and I went ahead and married him. What was wrong with me! There was the time he hit me while I drove home from a wedding because I gave out that he left me and flirted with other women. Yes he was charming and had good points but the worst moment was when after he came in drunk and sprawled out on the bed..a text at 2am from a woman. Turns out he was on a date the night before our 6th wedding anniversary. Of course i go crazy. He says that he needed attention. I’m confused but forgive him. Everyone makes mistakes! He convinces me he will be a good husband. I forgive and a week later another woman’s name. Appears on his phone. He says it was an older lady he was comforting through a bereavement. I believe. Him. Ten yrs later he is out of control. Drinking Money we don’t have. Rocky relationships with his kids, rages worse than ever. Then he’s on tinder, doesn’t arrive home from a night out two days before Christmas and rages on Christmas Day. I have had enough! I am a shell! I tried to help him but a friend mentioned the word narcissisti in passing. Like a guardian angel sent to help I google and there is my husband, a covert narcissist. A fixed personality disorder. Now I’m no psychologist but he ticked most boxes. Anger, grandiosity, selfish, lazy, sociopath, addicted to women and alcohol, devalued me, lack of empathy, lack of responsibility and never apologised for the mayhem and crazy behaviour, I was sad because it looked like there was no hope of resolution. We separated a week ago. It’s like he can’t believe I’ve asked him to leave. It was a Godsend finding out what’s going on. I would have have been dead with stress. I’m suffering flashbacks and have anxiety but I know I will get through this . Thanks to websites like yours. Thanks x
Very interesting article about Infantile Regression in a Narcissistic relationship. My ex partner was married to a narcissist for 22 years and I wondered if it is possible that he still has Infantile Regression as he appears child-like and goes into tantrum mode if any disagreements occurred. I had often wondered if he was suffering from PTSD but am also thinking that he is a covert narcissist. Whatever the cause, I had to leave as this wasn’t an adult relationship but more like dealing with a man child.
Wow,this is all very new to me,my son and I discovered he’s married to a narcissist and going through the Stockholm syndrome. I also have discovered my mother was a narcissist. My son is my only child but lives abroad and we’re helping each other come to terms with dealing with this horrific realisation. There is a small child involved and my son has been a stay at home dad for 5 years who gives his son lots of love and security but can’t live with his wife no more but doesn’t want to leave his son with the mother.(she has no maternal instinks)which we found odd from the beginning.she abandons her son regularly. I’m so grateful I found you.
Thankyou for your insight. I survived a narcissist SIL, my partner sadly didn’t. She was hell bent on destroying our relationship, and finally succeeded. My ex, went to live with her, and the abuse I experienced post separation was inhumane. Physical, financial, emotional, psychologicalol, and our daughter was involved in it all too. 8 months post separation, I discovered my ex had tracked down my ex husband, to deClare his concerns about my daughters welfare. Concerns he had created. My ex husband told me, after the event, and that my ex had insisted on using the name Lee, when my ex husband referred to him. Lee was his birth name, he was adopted and renamed at 6 weeks old. It would seem the only way he could continue to do what his sister demanded, was to regress back to his newborn baby state.
Hi Chris, Sorry to hear that you have just discovered that you may be the victim of NPD. This is both a painful a bewildering discovery. I hope you can go easy with yourself, and get a good support in place while you process what happened to you.
Funny you should mention “SHAME” because that is what my 2nd book is all about….. Not just the narcissist’s shame, but the effects of their projected shame on the victim. It is a long time coming to fruit, because before I could do the book justice, I had to visit the depths of my own shame, and that turned out harder than I was expecting it to be. I thought I had done the best part of my healing work, but writing this book brought me to a whole new level that I had never reached before. It brought me right into the Cellular Memory, the database where all one’s biographical shameful experiences are held; as if just waiting to be replayed when conditions are right. So you can imagine, this took me away from the writing of the book, forcing me to become an inner witness to the ravages of shame; both the shame that was projected onto me, and those shame imprints that I caused myself because of my own dysfunctional reactions. I can laugh now, but I was not laughing while on the roller-coaster ride through time and space, repressed and dissociated frozen memory….. a totally transpersonal experience. I have come across Brene Brown, and love her work…… but coauthoring was not something I even imagined doing. But thank you for your kind words. Christine
Just to let you knowMelissa, There are two versions of my book, one is an eBook available from my website, cost $15.95 Here is the link: https://narcissisticbehavior.net/the-3-faces-of-evil-book/ You can download it immediately once you have paid by Pay Pal.
There is also the Physical Book, and you can get direct from me. It costs $15.95 plus postage
(if you are in the Republic of Ireland it will cost $3.00 postage if anywhere else in the world it will cost $5.50 postage). I shall need to know where you would like the book to be sent. Once I know where to post the book I can send you a Pay Pal Money Request, which will make it easier for you to purchase. You can put your address on the form, that will make it easier for me. Hope that answers your question for everybody. Warmest regards.
I’m in shock have never heard of infantile regression as it relates to narcissistic victims syndrome. I am fascinated by all of this and have discovered a new hobby my focus; recovery from this God awful disorder. I have been nationalistically abused since childhood, and married for 30 years with a person I now know was a narcissist. It was mind baffling living and forever having to be the center of rages, stonewalling,gas-lighting,spiritual,and physical abuse, which emotional neglect, ptsd, and many other symptoms of living under this so very long. Communication was next to nil and I became a shell. Towards the end of the relationship I would completely shut down and sleep. I am now ending a second short relationship with someone with scary similarities to my ex husband. I so totally can relate to this infantile regression as I see this behavior in myself, when my ex texts, calls,or comes by. And I saw this type of behavior in the 2nd relationship as this person did things that were totally not acceptable in normal relationships. I see my own regression! Now that I recognize this I feel stronger. I am now trying to focus on finding myself, don’t really feel I have ever had the chance to know me,really! Thanks for your awesome information, hope to buy your book soon! When can we buy the actual book,(not eBook). I’ve heard you speak on podcasts and enjoy your insight and expertise. Thank you so very much.
I experienced infantile regression while trying to have a discussion with my older siblings about our elderly mom. I was 50, my sister 56, and brother 59. I had no idea why it happened so I googled it (loss of bladder control during stress). I understand now that my sister is a malignant narcissist and has been since before i was born. Due to neglectful parents she was my primary care provider. I have no recollection of abuse per se but feel ive blocked something.
I just left a situation involving one of these people. Fortunately the other female in the house stood up to him as did I. I was terrifies especially when he was going to put me on the street but luckily God intervened and gave me my own place. Now I live next door to the S.O.B. and I don’t even acknowledge that he exist and there is nothing he can do. Oh what a bitch payback is.
I found this piece really interesting, I wasn’t aware of infantile regression.
My marriage was ended by my Narc last summer.
I was naturally distraught. During our time together I experienced all the Gas-lighting triangulation lack of empathy projecting blaming criticising and rage though that wasn’t as frequent. They were mostly very controlled themselves and like to unbalance me.
I did find I fell into this infantile regression myself when we broke up, I felt completely incapable of taking care of myself-even though I had lived a life alone and ran an apartment with all that entails before I met my partner. It was as if I had become an infant completely dependant on another to survive. I was terrified of going out into the world alone. I had been completely managed down.
Now a year later I feel like I’m back to the person I was before I met them, confident strong well able to take care of myself, running our home which I still occupy. The power these people manage to take from a victim is incredible.
I feel my experience has been a true gift to me though. I recognise I was raised by a narcissist mother and as such was pre programmed to seek out similar partners. This is a part of me I need to look at very carefully and learn to trust my instincts when they pick up a red flag with someone else.