Breaking Free from Narcissistic Trauma Bonds: Healing from the Emotional Wounding
If you suffer from narcissistic abuse syndrome, you are dealing with trauma bonds, as well.
Any behavior that keeps you on high alert, or focused on someone’s behavior, is capable of forming trauma bonds.
What is a Trauma Bond?
Trauma bonds occur 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.
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 helplessness, 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.
Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome
- 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 the 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.
Could you be feeling the effects of Narcissism Awareness Grief? Download the free chapter to find out:
from Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism
Tools for Healing
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Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism, by Diane Metcalf
For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers.
My mom didn’t hug or kiss, smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She never seemed happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day and wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did. My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities, and at times, she ignored me, not speaking to me for days, weeks, or even months. When she felt sad I was expected to emotionally care-take her. When she didn’t feel like parenting, I was responsible for my siblings. When she lost her temper she hit. When I was disobedient, there were bizarre punishments.
I was not allowed to express feelings, ask questions, or show initiative or curiosity. My feelings were discounted, minimized, or invalidated. She re-wrote my memories, and I was expected to believe her version. I was to obey, stay quiet, and not question.
If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. If there is manipulation, power struggles, or cruelty in your relationship, this book can help. If you second-guess your memory, doubt your judgment or sanity, or continually seek your mother’s withheld affection, attention, approval, or love, this book can explain why.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
Learn more about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.