Getting unstuck from an insidious cycle of penance and self-punishment
“Do not look for healing at the feet of those who broke you” ~ Rupi Kaur (Milk and Honey)
Many of the folks I see for complex trauma therapy are immersed in the arduous process of dismantling their bondage to a malignant narcissist (NPD). Although the humiliation of objectification and exploitation informs the victim that love was illusory, that the whole relationship was merely a deceitful fabrication devised by the narcissist to glean supply, the urgency to believe the love was real causes the victim of narc abuse to resist these painful truths.
Immersed in a trauma bond, the victim incessantly revisits heinous memories while concomitantly longing for the alluring version of the abuser. Generating complex rationalizations for why the relationship failed consummates this cyclical pattern.
Hence, the endless regurgitation of surreal psychological games and disorienting memories of episodic debasement and dehumanization are repeatedly countered with disbelief and tenacious resistance to letting go. Most troubling, trauma-bonded victims shoulder blame for the abuse. Although this insidious position of culpability keeps the victim hostage, there are critical reasons for its persistence.
To comprehend the victim’s tenacious fixation on self-blame, one has to appreciate the intricacies of trauma bonding.
Trauma bonding, a term developed by Dr. Patrick Carnes describes a pathological attachment characterized by systemic patterns of physical and/or psychological abuse. The tenacity of the trauma bond is reinforced through establishing a power differential and executing operant conditioning in which rewards and punishments are intermittently dispensed.
For the victim under siege, this process results in cognitive dissonance and a desperate need to make sense of what is happening. The victim will obsessively try to formulate patterns that explain a rhyme and reason for when and why the abuser is mistreating her, and when and why the abuser appears safe.
The narcissistic abuser will repetitiously capitalize on the victim’s propensity to address discord by denying accountability and insinuating it is either the victim’s fault or her imagination due to prior relational injuries and constitutional insecurities and instability. Desperate to rectify relational difficulties, she will modify her behavior in accordance with what the narcissist demands. That is until her efforts and assumptions are discredited by further arbitrary abuse.
With the continuation of escalating abuse and deterioration, the victim gives in completely, yielding to the abusers’ reality and assuming the blame for the abuser’s random mistreatment. Eventually, the victim becomes completely malleable to mind control and morphs into an identity demanded by the abuser.
When the trauma-bonded victim becomes over-identified with their abuser and the abuser’s world, they are trapped in a double bind of having to maintain an ostensibly positive emotional bond so as to mitigate the possibility of further harm. Given these conditions, the victim is driven to comply with the abuser’s perspective as it paradoxically assuages the unbearable pain of confusion, danger, helplessness, and deliberate cruelty.
Accordingly, blaming the self serves as a necessary locus of control.
By holding onto the notion that if one could have, would have, or should have done something different or better, the victim is afforded an illusory sense of agency. Hence, by assuming the blame for not knowing better, the victim clings to the hope that the abuse might have been avoided. Likewise, the victim deflects from terrifying helplessness and hopelessness by searching for glimpses of humanity in the abuser that are simply not there.
At this point, the victim is brainwashed and caught up in an addictive cycle of abuse.
It’s important to keep in mind that under trauma bonding conditions, the onus is always on the victim for any ‘misunderstandings.’ Moreover, the one inflicting torment is imbued with the power to stop the pain by absolving the guilty victim for their unlimited faults. As a result, victims often conceptualize their tormenter as simultaneously embodying the exalted redeemer.
Ultimately, to survive the victim will remain blind to and even justify difficult truths. With repetitive indoctrination and thought control, steadfast allegiance takes tenacious hold.
Essentially, self-blame takes the form of an instinctive trauma response known as fawning. Like the sympathetic nervous system’s repertoire of fight, flight and freeze, fawning is designed to establish safety and agency by being obsequious and obedient. Euphemistically referred to as the ‘please and appease’ strategy, fawning mitigates the experience of danger through assuaging, pacifying, and subordinating oneself to the demands of others.
To evade danger and restore temporary equilibrium, the fawner takes on responsibility for the abuser’s actions. This is especially true for victims who were subject to abuse by parental narcissists.
Groomed to function as pawns, children of narcissistic parents are trained to enable and accommodate the narcissist’s insatiable appetite for complete control. Predisposed to carrying out the role of a culpable whipping post (the scapegoat) or an aggrandized narcissistic extension (favored golden child), the children of parental narcissists struggle in adulthood with enforcing boundaries and rules of engagement.
As psychotherapist and author Pete Walker wrote, “they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.”
Furthermore, differentiating predation from trustworthiness eludes these children and is exacerbated by an insatiable craving for love that they don’t feel worthy of. To cope, the abused child must preserve the fantasy that the malignant parent is good and humane. To achieve this end they must carry the blame for the abuser’s cruelty while assuming it is their inherent badness that causes their caregiver to abuse.
Scottish psychoanalyst and father of object relations theory, Ronald Fairbairn crystallized this phenomenon when he worked at the University of Edinburgh’s Clinic for Children and Juveniles. It was there that Fairbairn recognized that children were more attached and dependent upon their abusive mothers than children in non-abusive situations.
In fact, Fairbairn discovered that the greater the abuse, the greater the attachment. This is because the child’s deepest fear is the psychological annihilation that accompanies not mattering- not being loved by their caretaker. Hence, children will desperately cling, while blaming the self for parental abuse and neglect.
This sort of child-like regression is induced in trauma-bonded adults. Due to coercive control, the abuser is imbued with omnipotent properties. This power differential induces victims to resort to primitive survival mechanisms. What unfolds parallels that of the abused child, whose very survival is unconditionally dependent on the vestiges of ‘love’ proffered by an imposing malignant caretaker.
When I manned a rape crisis hotline in the 80s, part of the training involved recognizing characterological and behavioral self-blame in victims. Characterological self-blame involves the condemning of personality traits that the victim views as responsible for the assault. For instance, this could include being trusting, naive or passive.
More prevalent than characterological self-blame, behavioral self-blame concerns criticizing behaviors that the victim views as putting her at risk. This might entail being alone in a dangerous area, leaving windows open, or permitting a stranger to enter one’s home.
Like rape victims, victims of psychological traumatic abuse try to regain control over devastating feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability by characterologically and behaviorally blaming themselves. This adaptive response is an initial attempt to manage the random chaos of traumatic assault. It offers victims a strategy in which a temporary sense of order and protection is attained.
Of course, when we persist in blaming ourselves for something we regret, we stay locked into it. We remain fixated and stuck in a state of helplessness and shame. So, although self-blame initially proffers a locus of control for victims of abuse, remaining in this place not only impedes healing from complex trauma, it also catalyzes self-hatred and clinical depression.
The only conceivable way to move from victimization to empowerment is to willingly accept the terror of one’s helplessness, so as to commence with the grueling process of complicated bereavement. This involves untangling a pernicious calculated agenda of systemic cruelty in which variable forms of confusional techniques such as gaslighting, pathological lying, and love bombing were employed to ensure domination.
Dismantling the shocking reality of intentional violence challenges the victim to not only give back to the abuser the blame they carried but to also question the moral imperative to responsibly resolve difficulties, especially with those who matter most. This undertaking urges the victim to humbly acknowledge that in spite of egregious misconduct, the need to believe that all people are inherently good and well-meaning contributed to taking on misguided liability.
The victim who relinquishes self-blame by dispensing with the mythic narrative that all people possess an inner light and the moral compass to amicably resolve difficulties becomes a survivor equipped with the capacity for discernment and discrimination. With this perspective, those who cause deliberate harm are held accountable so that further exploitation and manipulation are thwarted and blame is unequivocally placed where it duly belongs.
Sheri always provides us with articles that are insightful – this one is no different. She has a gift to make intensely complicated topics very easy to understand. We hope this will be helpful to victims out there! Thank you, Sheri!