We have heard of the Fight or Flight instinct that occurs when we sense we are in danger, our bodies become ready to either fight or run to save our life. We are rarely told about the freeze response. The deer in the headlights response where you know you are in danger but can’t move. It is the thing nightmares are made of.
In the 1960’s (prior to laws preventing cruelty to animals) a researcher, Martin Seligman did an experiment where they placed a dog in a kennel divided down the middle with a low barrier. They shocked the dog with electricity and the dog learned that if he jumped to the other side of the kennel he didn’t get shocked. Then they tied to dog so he couldn’t jump over the barrier and shocked him. Later when he had the opportunity to escape the electric shocks he didn’t, the dog would just lay down and whimper. The dog had learned that he was helpless to stop the shocks and just gave up. (God that makes me sick to the stomach to even talk about it but it makes my point).
You can read more about the experiment here.
I know in my case, after the initial love bombing stage, when the abuse started I was very strong in my objections to the treatment. The first time I caught him with a personal ad I was ready to walk out but he cried and convinced me to give him another chance. When we fought I would walk out, I wasn’t taking any of his bullshit. After 10 years of it I didn’t even react. His sister was staying with us and when he didn’t come home all night she was amazed at how calm I was. In fact I had no reaction whatsoever. One day I was really sick and she called him at work and told him I needed to see a doctor. She told me that he had said he was coming right away and to tell me to get my coat on. I didn’t move. She said, “Come on, he said he was on his way and to be ready.” I told her to tell me when he pulled in the driveway and I would put my coat on. He didn’t show up for hours, I knew he wouldn’t rush home, I was surprised he came home at all.
I am sure most victims can relate when I say that throughout the 10 years I was with him I would be consumed with figuring out how to make him happy. I would have an epiphany and think, “I’ve got it! I know how to fix this and make him happy.” My hope would be restored and I would be filled with optimism only to have that not work either. There was no making him happy, no matter how I reacted, it was never good enough. I I got angry, didn’t react, explained calmly and rationally, left him, stayed, nothing made a difference and what made him happy one day made him angry the next. Nothing was certain.
I credit his sister with saving my life because it was through her anger over his treatment of me that I realized exactly how dangerous and dysfunctional the relationship was. I STILL struggled to leave, I was afraid, of what? who knows, I was just afraid and had decided this was my lot in life. Like the dog in the experiment I just laid down. You can call it Learnd Helplessness, or just giving up but;
I became frozen.
I purposely picked a sing-a-long video so you can read the words, this song actually has a very good message.
Some people may freeze sooner in the relationship, if they were abused as a child they may already feel they are helpless to help themselves and they may have a harder battle making themselves leave. I tend to be the type of personality that will get beaten down and feel hopeless but somewhere deep inside I find the strength or deep down I know, I can do this, I refuse to give up. Stubborn? it is an Aries trait after all.
There are a few woman new to site who are still being controlled by their ex narcissist, even divorced, he is with the new woman and they are still allowing him to control their lives and wondering why he doesn’t just go away. They never just go away peacefully, the victim must make the move and that can be very scarey for reasons even the victim doesn’t know.
I came up with an analogy yesterday to describe it in a way victims might be able to relate to.
Have you ever been sitting on the couch watching TV or whatever, totally relaxed and feeling safe when all of a sudden the power goes out and you are in total darkness? Instantly you go from feeling safe to terrified because it is so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your own face. A minute ago you knew there was no danger because you could see the room, you knew no one was there but as soon as it’s dark you imagine all sorts of things. Like as a child and in the darkness you imagine monsters are in the closet or under the bed but as soon as someone comes in and turns the light on the monsters disappear, even a little night light in the room can make you feel safe to fall asleep.
When the power goes out I freeze at first, then I know I have to get up and find the flashlight or some candles. I force myself because I know I can’t see in total darkness forever and logically I know there is no one or nothing in the room that is going to hurt me. I might trip over a shoe or bash my shin on the coffee table but I know where the flashlight is and find it. Once I turn it on my fears start to melt away, I am able to lock the door, making myself feel even safer, I can find the candles and before too long the house is glowing from the flicker of a dozen or so candles and I actually enjoy the coziness of the candles.
The narcissist blocks all the light from your life, logically you know that in order to see clearly you need to have light but taking those first few steps is so scary. Let us, the ones who have gone before you be you flashlight, your light in the distance saying you will be ok, come towards the light and away from the darkness. Once you get away from the darkness you will see that there is nothing to fear, you will see clearly what the darkness was hiding and as you light candles, you will start to enjoy the warmth.
But, you and only you can take that first few steps towards the light.