Stockholm Syndrome: Why Do We Love Our Tormentors?

I always wondered how we could have sympathy for someone who took us hostage. Plus, with what we constantly hear in the press, I am terrorized by the idea of experiencing this. Indeed, this is a psychological phenomenon that kicks in and allows us to survive. The term "Stockholm syndrome" appeared in the 70s and occurs when the victims adopt the vision of their tormentor, even defend him! But, why do we act in this way with a person who mistreats us or even worse, someone who puts our life in danger?


What is Stockholm syndrome?

In 1973, there was a bank robbery in Stockholm. During this event, hostages; who were mostly bank employees, were held for several days and they ended up developing empathy for their captor. More incredibly, they defended him and even visited him in prison after his arrest.

So to give a simple definition of Stockholm syndrome: it is when we understand our abuser, because he is able to explain and rationalize his actions. Although we are a victim, we are able to put ourselves in our persecutor's shoes and develop positive feelings toward our captors, in other words; it’s a survival strategy.

🧠In the most serious situations and especially under intense psychological stress, victims are afraid of dying. Since they end up escaping alive, they feel grateful and indebted. This is what happens in a hostage situation like the one in 1973.

Why do we come to love or feel sympathy towards our attackers?

Stockholm syndrome is a means of survival. Often, following a state of shock, our brain will adapt in order to protect us. It is a psychological phenomenon that allows us to "bear the unbearable". Here, our mind will adopt this defense mechanism to adapt to a situation where we are in danger.

Our behavior adapts when our life is threatened as in the case of the hostage victims. But we react in the same way when someone displays both mental and physical abuses towards us. When developed in everyday life, it can be even more perverse. It is not a hostage situation, but is an example of repeated violence that gradually destroys mental health and self-confidence.

Stockholm syndrome doesn’t just apply to hostage situations

It also impacts the relatives of those victimized

Stockholm syndrome is a mechanism that can be found in situations of abuse in the private sphere. It is even more marked when the persecutions last over time. When we are mistreated by someone in our intimate circle, a very strong link unites us with our aggressor and it becomes harmful. In the long run, we get used to the violence and we are even thankful that our abuser does not go further.

The Stockholm syndrome in a couple takes many forms: intimidation, humiliation, persecution, physical or sexual violence. Moreover, the tormentors are often narcissistic perverts. Edmundo Oliveira, a criminology researcher, explains that in the case of domestic violence, women rarely denounce their aggressors and they continue to live under the same roof. The abused women keep silent, because there is a paradoxical feeling between affection and fear. Some are relieved to be alive and think that this silence can save them.

Can it occur at work?

Stockholm syndrome can be found in a professional setting. For example, it can take the form of a supervisor or co-worker who persecutes, intimidates or harasses us. When it happens the first time, there is a surprise effect, but once this reaction is soon over and we do not act. There is a hierarchical effect so we minimize it by finding excuses for the person.

➡ According to the Havard Business Rewiew, Stockholm syndrome in the workplace is more prevalent than it used to be. The fact that getting a job is more difficult than it used to be contributes to the increase in this phenomenon. Running away from their job and their toxic boss is not an option, so the employee finds themselves stuck in a toxic situation.

How can you break the cycle?

Realize and speak up

Regardless of the situation and the relationship you have with your abuser, you must be able to recognize that you are a victim. When you are under the influence of someone, you tend to accept behaviour that is typically unacceptable. Listening to the reactions of those around you is often a good way to become aware of the situation. Being belittled, humiliated, mistreated or physically harmed should never be considered normal or commonplace.

Once you are aware of this, you must break the "harmful bubble". Talking to a friend, a doctor or a therapist is a good way to get out of this psychological phenomenon. Hearing from someone that what you are going through is not normal, helps to make you aware of the seriousness of the situation.

>>> This is a must-read: How to help a close victim of a narcissistic pervert

Treating Stockholm syndrome

The best way to treat it is to consult a therapist. A psychological follow-up will help us to react and to set limits with our tormentor. In order to do this, we must express our feelings and explain what we are experiencing. This change in behavior will have an important impact on the aggressor. In more serious cases, you should not hesitate to ask for help or even to file a complaint, or even to go to safety when you feel that your life may be in danger.

Editorial opinion: Are you a victim?

Stockholm syndrome can be experienced on a daily basis, whether it is in the workplace or even in a relationship. If you realize that you are subjected to certain actions that you should not tolerate, contact a therapist to assess your situation. There are many very effective therapies to free yourself from this torment.

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