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 goes 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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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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