If you suffer from narcissistic abuse syndrome, you are dealing with trauma bonds, as well.
What is a Trauma Bond?
Trauma bonds occurs over time through the use of “intermittent reinforcement,” which is a type of behavioral “conditioning” where a reward (or a punishment) is given irregularly instead of every time the desired behavior is observed. In other words, periods of abuse are interspersed with periods of kindness (or the absence of cruelty). This cycle of “always guessing” keeps the target on high alert in survival mode. They never know when the abuser will be cruel or kind. It’s like a game of chance, like playing slot machines or Bingo. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, but it’s the possibility of winning that keeps you going back for more.
Any behavior that keeps you on high alert, or focused on your mother’s behavior, is capable of forming trauma bonds.
How are Trauma Bonds Created?
Trauma bonds are created in several ways:
Love bombing: The love bombing dynamic occurs when a narcissist, including narcissistic mothers, unexpectedly showers you with love, attention, kindness, or affection. Love bombing comes in various forms—gift-giving, forgiveness for past “offenses,” anything that makes you feel validated or special. Love bombing helps form a trauma bond because it’s a form of intermittent reinforcement: you never know when it will happen.
Verbal abuse: Shouting, name-calling, sarcastic comments, character assassination, backhanded compliments, insults, demeaning remarks, “put-downs” and shaming are some examples of verbal abuse. The abuse happens on an irregular schedule, so it’s a form of intermittent reinforcement (spoken cruelty interspersed with periods of civility and kindness.) The resulting shame causes a trauma bond.
Positive reinforcement: Although it sounds healthy, positive reinforcement can also create trauma bonds. When a person, (including children) is rewarded for doing something they didn’t want to do, or obeying without question, there’s a trauma bond created. Healthy relationships don’t require rewards.
Victim blaming: When a narcissist blames their target (or the narcissist mother blames her child) for the cruelty inflicted upon them, they will likely believe they deserve it, because they’ve been conditioned to. This belief establishes a trauma bond.
Silent treatment: When a narcissist purposefully ignores you, that causes feelings of helpless, anxiety, and fear of abandonment. Having no control over the situation, you’ll focus on the narcissist and wait for their acceptance, however long it takes.
“Moving goalposts” (aka changing the goal): Narcissists often redefine or change their expectations, sometimes several times, during any interaction. Doing this ensures a frustrating encounter for those involved. A narcissist, (including narcissist mothers) is never satisfied, and keeping you emotionally invested in their happiness creates trauma bonds.
If you struggle with narcissistic abuse syndrome you’ll often doubt your self-worth and sanity. Targets of narcissistic abuse tend to focus on their faults, failures, and inadequacies, whether they’re real or not. Sometimes these “deficiencies” began as an idea expressed by the vocal narcissist.
There are several symptoms of narcissistic abuse syndrome. Many of these are the same as those of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD,) which affects people who’ve experienced serious traumas.
Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome symptoms include:
- Accepting an imbalanced sense of responsibility
- Intrusive, or unwanted thoughts
- Unhealed triggers (physical and emotional responses to similar past traumatic situations)
- Flashbacks or nightmares where the target emotionally re-lives a traumatic experience
- Avoiding people, places or conditions linked to the narcissist or the traumatic event
- Feeling isolated, abandoned, or detached
- Feeling alert or hyper-vigilant, or easily startled (“fight or flight”)
- Negative thoughts about self and world
- Accepting misplaced blame
- Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Involvement in abusive romantic relationships
- Lost trust in family or friends
- Feeling worthless or unworthy
- Lost sense of self
- Holding the narcissist in high esteem
- Doubting their judgment and decision-making skills
- Ignoring their own needs
- Devaluing or minimizing their contributions to relationships
- Making excuses for a narcissist’s behavior
- Continually trying to please the narcissist
- Attachment issues
- Weak boundaries
If you constantly wonder about your narcissist’s emotional state, for example, what will he/she be like today? Should you try to avoid them? Or do you frequently-
- think about what you could be (or should be) doing differently to please them?
- believe your relationship problems are all your fault?
- deal with mood swings, lost sleep, anxiety, apprehension?
These are all symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome, and if you have any of them you may also have trauma bonds. The good news is that you can detach from the abuse and heal. Keep learning and doing the work.
Tools for healing:
Learn about setting boundaries
Learn about codependency and maladaptive coping skills
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Learn how to stop being a source of narcissistic supply
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
More resources to guide you in healing from childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (ebook, audiobook, hardcover, and paperback.)
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About the author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf has developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those insights with others who want to learn.
Her books and articles are the result of her education, knowledge, personal growth, and insight regarding her childhood experiences and subsequent recovery work.
Diane holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She has worked in numerous fields including domestic violence and abuse and is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer about family dysfunction. Currently, she writes about recovery from narcissistic victim syndrome and symptoms of C-PTSD on The Toolbox and has authored three books in the “Lemon Moms” series. Visit her author’s website here.
She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager, or Advocate.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.