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Week 2, Session 2: Trauma Bonding is Addictive

Hello and welcome to Week 2, Session 2.

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

You’ll need your thought diary for the homework so make sure you have it with you if you don’t already.

The goals for this session are…

  • To evaluate a short list of “red flags” that help us identify abusive people and traits
  • To explain how abuse develops!
    → What environment do our abusers create to enforce their control? And what are the ways our brain adapts to survive this system? (What happens when we’re “starved” of love?)
  • We will also set-up our next week on self-esteem, and introduce why caring for ourselves is one of the most effective tools in undoing abusive control 
    → Remember: your abuse is never your fault; abuse can happen to anyone; it isn’t your fault if you stayed; and there are reasons you feel and act the way that you do.
    Today, we hope you can gain further insight into why these continue to be our course’s 4 main truths!

Today’s grounding exercise will be…

The same way we used the textures of objects from last week, well, hot and cold are also great ways to tap into our senses - maybe stop reading for a moment, and pour yourself either a hot or cold drink, like a glass of water or a hot cup of coffee or tea. Whatever you’d like.. You can finish the drink before continuing to read, or you can sip as you go along.

Fun question: What is a word in your language that you love or connect with deeply?

Behavioural traits

Before we talk about how abuse develops, it’s also useful for us to think about some of the typical behavioural traits that a predator or abuser might have.

There is no typical profile of an abuser, but they may share some common characteristics. Here are some common examples. They may not exhibit all of these and some are contradictory to others, but these are a starting point when we look at commonalities between the types of people who abuse. You can think of these as red flags. The more flags that you spot in these, the more you should be concerned about the person in question:

  • A sense of entitlement: not only to our bodies, potentially, but our time, space, and emotional energy.
  • Low self-esteem (masked by inflated confidence)
  • Need for power and control
  • Lack of empathy
  • Previous history of childhood abuse
  • Troubled childhood
  • Intrusive or inappropriate sexual behaviour and attitudes
  • Good manipulators - through flattery or threat
  • Aggressive and dominant, controlling personalities
  • Underlying anger and power issues with women.
  • Overly self-indulgent
  • Arrogant
  • Dishonest
  • Use stressful and vulnerable situations to get in
  • They will not respect your boundaries
  • They do not wait for consent before moving forward
  • They sexually or emotionally seduce or coerce
  • They can use their position or social status to pressure you
  • Alcohol/substance abuse problems

How abuse develops

Each relationship we humans have is unique; however, there are certain patterns in behaviour that are worth identifying, particularly when it comes to abuse. A lot of us feel guilt after abuse, placing blame on ourselves that it has happened. Understanding how abuse develops and learning about these patterns helps us in recognising and believing that what happened is not in fact our fault.

With the exception of automatic reflexes such as sneezing, almost all human behaviour is preceded by some degree of conscious thought.

We know that abuse will always have a degree of planning and premeditation. Abuse does not just happen and is not an uncontrollable reflex. The abuser will have created an opportunity or an environment for the abuse to have taken place.

The opportunity is created in a subtle way, so subtle that we may not even notice it’s happening. This is often because of the trust we give them - we enter a relationship with someone, giving them our trust and love and do not initially see danger. After all, why should you? It is not wrong or weak to be loving and believe in the love you receive.

We do not expect to be abused - and, when it occurs, we find it hard to both spot and to speak up about it, as we have an emotional connection with the abuser - we often don’t want to cause them any pain.

There are several tactics an abuser may use to build up this trust and ultimately manipulate and abuse us.

As human beings we are conditioned to be social, to look to others for help/sustenance, so when someone enters our lives and offers us nourishment in the form of love, affection and attention, we form a strong emotional connection with that person.

Scientific studies have shown how this trust builds up and can be manipulated over time. For example, in one study mice were given food every time a lever was pressed - they were rewarded 100% of the time for their actions: pressing the lever, receiving food, feeling happy (as their systems flooded with dopamine - or our happiness chemical)!

Over time, however, the scientists gradually reduced the rate of reward. The mice only got nourishment 90, then 80, then 70% of the time when they pressed the lever.

Eventually, scientists reduced their feeding all the way down to 10% of the time. You would think, then, that the mice would learn that the lever was not a good source of food. However, not only did the mice still trust that they would receive food, the scientists noticed a larger increase in the amount of dopamine in the mice when the rate of reward was close to starving.

When they received less nourishment, their bodies automatically compensated by creating a bigger positive response: as the animals had learned from their previous feedings that this was the place they got food. They believed this was the one place they could go for nourishment, to survive, so they learned to compensate with a greater “reward” of positive feelings to compensate.

We can see similar patterns of behaviour with people in abusive dynamics. Commonly, an abuser will have increasing social contact with the survivor and offer gifts, special attention, love and affection - in other words that same type of “nourishment” or social food we need to survive.

Gradually, as their behaviour changes, the nourishment decreases - and abusive behaviours increase, but our brains still celebrate the positive behaviour. As we receive less and less nourishment, attention, or love, we become even more starved - so, when we finally receive positive input we are instinctively more grateful, happier, and our bonds to our abusers strengthen. We become more grateful for the love we receive - these “crumbs” of affection.

This commonly happens through the tactic of “love bombing”, in which an abuser may shower us with affection when we first meet them, or when we behave how they want, but then they pull back or else punish us when we don’t appease them. As a result, we believe the abuser is the affectionate, caring person in the relationship - because that is who they were to us during what’s known as the “honeymoon phase”...Since things USED to be good when we met them, and they USED to be kind - it now must be our fault that we have “ruined things”.

An abuser may also, through their abusive behaviour, show flashes of anger or otherwise indicate they may be dangerous. In this way, the survivor becomes aware of the potential for violence. (Which is, as you remember from our first week, still a threat. This is called coercive control.)

They may also use threats of rejection: suggesting they might leave us or icing us out and going silent to get their way, which can be terrifying if they represent the only close emotional bond we have. This is called stonewalling - and is just as cruel as a punishment.

Gradually the severity and frequency of this abuse increases, to the point we begin to doubt our experiences because of the severity, or else talk ourselves out of the abuse, because we become “addicted” to that 10% hit of food. And why wouldn’t we? Love is like food - it is not conditional. As a human being, love is just as vital and necessary to keep us alive.

And, if we are made to believe we cannot receive love anywhere else, it’s no wonder that we’d become attached to where we have it, and cling to it, whatever other messages we might hear or receive.

We hear a lot about Stockholm Syndrome, but this is actually an incorrect, oversimplified myth that was invented to discredit female victims of violence by a psychiatrist with a conflict of interest. He was part of the hostage negotiation team in the bank robbery where he had already drawn his conclusions and had refused to talk to the female “subject” he based his conclusions on.

Instead, what we’re discussing here is called  “traumatic bonding”, a much more in-depth, well-researched topic.

As a result of all this “traumatic bonding”, we survivors are likely to become more attached to the perpetrator and accept their behaviour.

When we’re afraid (if your abuser is scaring you - making you feel all those feelings we explored in our previous session), you also seek out what is familiar - even if what is familiar is harmful - as what we know is less daunting than seeking out something new. It’s easier to prepare for what we know already. It makes sense to engage in a familiar environment, where we accept the rules of how to behave.

It’s smart. It is a survival tactic - and never something you should be ashamed of. It is another way you have been staying alive.

This is why, however, when we talk about coping with and healing from abuse, in Bloom, empowerment is just as important as information.

Abusers are likely to target those vulnerable to this type of extreme and fluctuating attention - like people who have either been mistreated before and have come to accept ill-behaviours. Or, if not, they create the conditions needed for low self-esteem: by isolating their victims, by creating “crazy” and “chaotic” environments - using anger and fear to keep your focus on them at all times. They make sure you feel badly about yourself, to lessen your worth, and make you think you are alone: like the mice with nowhere else to turn to for food.

When we’re MADE to have low self-esteem and do not believe we deserve unconditional love, we’re more grateful when we receive attention from someone even if there are strings attached, and we’re more scared to lose that person - they mean that much more to us.

This is not your fault. This is how our brains have developed as humans and how we’ve been trained to feel and act by society: to love, and be loved, and show love to the people we care for.

We’re talking about these topics to help you understand the science behind abusive behaviours and gradually shift away any guilt you may be feeling.

We want to tell you why caring for yourself is just as important, because building self-esteem is actually one of the most powerful tools to undermine abusive tactics. When we believe in ourselves and what we deserve, we cut off the conditions abusers need to control us. And the more we practice care for ourselves, or expose ourselves to communities who model real love, the easier it becomes to step back from their mistreatment.

We aren’t like the mice. There are other places we can go to for love and support.

To everyone reading this today: you are worth more, have more, and ARE more than your abusers could ever be.

After all, if we weren’t stronger than our abusers, they wouldn’t have to starve us in order to be full.

The homework for this week is… We are very into our drawings at Bloom! We’ve asked you to make stick figures and stars in a dark sky. 
Today, we want you to fill up a plate. Draw a circle and fill it with pictures of things or words you love. Remind yourself of your other sources of “nourishment”: whether it’s a favourite sound, memory, or place, or person. Anything!
What communities or people care for you? What things do you enjoy in the world?
Feel free to make this art as simple or as elaborate as possible. This is your journey. You have permission to take up as much or as little space as you want.

And continue on your thought diaries. You can continue to create “stars” in your sky as facts you want to remember, to guide you through.

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