Trauma Bonding: Growing up with a narcissistic mother

Last night I sat up until 1am writing my draft letter to my mother about going no contact. Somehow I ended up reading about Stockholm Syndrome and how that relates to growing up with a narcissistic parent.

I already had an understanding of what Stockholm Syndrome was but had never really applied it to myself in any way. I then started reading about trauma bonding and realised that it was something T was trying to explain to me just the other day.

I had said to T the other day that I sometimes feel guilty that I am not in contact with my mother, that I haven’t tried to fix things with her and that I am planning to send a proper no contact letter soon. I told T that I didn’t know why I was feeling guilty because I knew that my reasons were very valid, but that I couldn’t help it.  T told me that years ago, she worked in a job where she would have to remove abused children from their mothers/parents and that the children although black and blue, or starved and malnourished or neglected, would kick and scream to stay with that abusive parent.  I was shocked as she told me this.  She explained to me that babies and children were automatically programmed to bond with the caregiver – it was natural and was in fact a case of life and death. I guess she explained trauma bonding to me but just didn’t us that exact phrase.

Reading about both trauma bonding and Stockholm Syndrome really helped me last night. It has played on my mind a lot since and has really helped me to understand the reasons why I find it hard to detach completely from my narcissistic mother.  It helps me to understand where the guilt, shame and panic come from.

When a baby is born they bond automatically with their caregiver.  They bond for safety and for survival.  I read today that it is basically a defense mechanism to prevent the baby being annihilated. They attach to stay alive.

These are the 4 conditions that need to be in play for a victim to experience Stockholm Syndrome:

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 captor experiences small kindnesses from their captor within a context of terror.
3. That the captor is isolated from any other perspectives other than those of their captor.
4. That the captive perceives they have an inability to escape.

Obviously these conditions can relate to many victims of many different types of abuse, but I refer to my experience and that of growing up a daughter of a narcissistic mother.  You will be able to see how all 4 conditions were active.

A child bonds with their abusive caregiver in order to survive. Literally. They do not know any different.  They get good bits every now and again, that eternal dangling carrot – which makes the child just try harder and harder to get the love and approval it so needs and desires.  A child clearly cannot escape.  The child learns to blame its mother’s shortcomings on itself.  If only it was smarter, better behaved, prettier, more fun. It teaches itself that it is not mother’s fault. Mother after all is a strong, competent and all-poweful protector.  The child therefore is faulty.

For a child, even when things appear to be going along nicely, the child is in no doubt that this will be short-lived and that at any moment, the narcissistic mother will snap back to her aggressive, cold, unhappy and angry ways.  The child therefore tries its hardest to keep her happy. It becomes hypervigilent to the highest degree. Keeping mum happy is the safest thing for it and so it complies in whatever way is necessary.  You see then that the child is living in constant fear. It has a constantly activated fight or flight system.

Imagine then, if the struggle is that hard for a child when things appear to be going nicely, how awful it is when things are NOT going nicely.  I can’t talk on behalf of other children of narcissists, but for me, it was an extremely scary time. You have the emotional pain of the cold, distant and unloving mother but you also have the raging mother, the mother who is pulling apart your character, taking away anything that you love or enjoy – including, for me, people I loved like stopping me from going to my nan’s.  Basically if mum wasn’t feeling good – nobody was. Those times were hellish.

Eventually the child learns to be grateful for any small mercies.  To try hard to keep mum happy. To protect mum from anything that may set her rage off.  For me this was entertaining my sister, feeding her, bathing her, helping her with her homework (to lessen poor mum’s load), cleaning the house and doing the washing (again, poor mum had enough on her plate), trying to predict anything and everything that she could need. Then, when the narcissistic mother showed some kind of remorse or kindness (if you can call it that) the child feels indebted to the mother and relates this feeling to both loving and being loved.  This feeling of being in love is what makes the child (perhaps an adult by now) viciously defend the mother from anyone that may question her.  You can see then, why children that grew up with such a distorted view of “love” can find themselves in abusive and dangerous relationships as adults. You can see how these children become codependant.  Their template for healthy relationships was unhealthy to say the least.

The same dynamic applies in physically violent relationships.  The same conditions apply and the same trauma bonding patterns play out.  The victim is triggered back to their childhood way of relating and the fear of annihilation is again, very real just as it was when the victim was a baby and needed to protect itself by bonding with its mother.  Again, this is where people-pleasing and hypervigilence come in.

I have been very lucky not to end up in a violent relationship, but I watched my mother being the victim of domestic abuse several times. I could never understand why she stayed, why anyone would stay, her reason that she loved him always infuriated me – I guess now I understand it a little better. After all, she grew up feeling the same way herself . Thank God I didn’t follow in her footsteps.

My T has told me this is also the reason I never found myself attracted to the “nice guys”.  I confused normal for boring and dysfunction and possibly abuse, for love.  Now when I hear young girls saying they fancy the “bad guys” it makes me shudder.

 

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