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Traumatic Bonding with Corporate Psychopaths
(Office Stockholm Syndrome)


Introduction

A relationship with an office psychopath is likely to prove a damaging experience, Psychopaths are 'hard-wired' for life-long set of  behaviors that include lying, cheating, cruelty, criminal behavior, irresponsibility, lack of remorse, poor relationships, exploitation, manipulation, destructiveness, irritability, aggressiveness, and job failures. Alcohol and drugs makes the disorder worse and most psychopaths are prone to drug and alcohol abuse. That means that they are perfectly able to create on the job type of situation that typically occur in abusing marriages,  in prisons, hostage taking situations, extreme sects/cults, and concentration camps.

Remember: it's a job, not a jail. Perceived "Inability to Escape" is false and self-defeating. There is always a way out, even if difficult

For a hostage in a bank robbery, threatened by criminals with guns, it's easy to understand the perceived inability to escape. With corporate psychopath situation is more nuanced.  If you a victim of a controlling and abusive corporate psychopath you need either to fight or leave. Even is job market is horrible, or, worse,, you are overpaid in the current job.  Surrender is not a option.  But abrupt jumping the ship without investigating the water is also not an option.  You need to redistribute your time to allocate a considerable chunk of it to job search. and you need to take some precautions too. For example, do not on a regular basis accept calls from job hunters on your corporate phone. List of calls might be available to your manager. 

Financial factors as well as the need to support family often complicates our ability to leave the job. When the victim decides to end the  job, it's important that they view their family as supportive, loving, and understanding – not a source of additional pressure, or, worse, guilt. Remember that you not only provider for the family you is a family asset too and as such your wellbeing in important for the health of the family even more that financial well-being.

 

One of such situations is so called Traumatic Bonding (aka Stockholm Syndrome). It  may be defined as the development of strong emotional ties between two persons, with one person intermittently harassing, beating, threatening, abusing or intimidating the other. This condition is caused by some kind of bug in human information processing or adaptation mechanisms exploited by psychopaths.

Stockholm Syndrome  may be defined as the development of strong emotional ties between two persons, with one person intermittently harassing, beating, threatening, abusing or intimidating the other.

This resulting loss of control over one's life often is manifested physically in insomnia and other symptoms of mild Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There are two main features necessary to form traumatic bonding:

  1. The existence of a power imbalance, wherein the maltreated person perceives himself/herself to be dominated by the other person. This is typical for many job situations  in the form of  manager-subordinates relationships,  army, etc.  The more hierarchical organization is the more power imbalance exists.
     
  2. The intermittent nature of the abuse. When abuse is administered at intermittent (random times) and when it is interspersed with permissive and friendly contact, the phenomenon of traumatic bonding seems most powerful. The three phases involved in the cycle of violence

     The unpredictable duration and severity of each phase serve to keep the victim off balance and in hopes of positive change in the future.

Abusive relationships on the job are probably not as destructive as marital abuse, but still produce a great amount on unhealthy investment in both parties. In many cases we tend to remain and support the abusive relationship due to our investment in the relationship. Try telling a new Marine after he or she has survived boot camp, that his abuse / hardships was in vain and they should now transfer him to the National Guard!

 Investments which keep us in the bad, abusive job relationship

Abuse in general this phenomenon can be viewed as perverted intimacy. In this sense "Traumatic bonding", aka the Stockholm Syndrome, is about hope and the search for meaning in the brutal and indifferent universe of a cubicle turned into a torture cell.  Like in case of intimacy, several types of investments keep us in the bad job relationship even when we understand perfectly well that we are dealing with a corporate psychopath:

The mechanics of bonding with abusing bosses is very similar to the behavior of many abused woman

The mechanics of bonding with abusing bosses is very similar to the behavior of many abused woman.  Theories on why battered women stay with their abusive partners have ranged from "learned helplessness" (classic method of breaking the will of prisoners) to masochism. While some of these issues (learned helplessness and a lack of resources) can be contributing factors one of the main factor can be traumatic bonding.  Clinical psychologists refer to those cases as some of the most surprising and shocking in clinical practice:

When the relationship ends, they offer comments such as "I know what he's done to me, but I still love him", "I don't know why, but I want him back", or "I know it sounds crazy, but I miss her". Recently I've heard "This doesn't make sense. He's got a new girlfriend and he's abusing her too…but I'm jealous!" Friends and relatives are even more amazed and shocked when they hear these comments or witness their loved one returning to an abusive relationship. While the situation doesn't make sense from a social standpoint, does it make sense from a psychological viewpoint? The answer is - Yes!

While the psychological condition in hostage situations became known as "Stockholm Syndrome" due to the publicity – the emotional bonding between captors and abusers was a familiar story in psychology. It had been recognized many years before and was found in studies of other controlling/intimidating relationships:

It is actually be considered to be a strategy of survival for victims of abuse and intimidation. The "Stockholm Syndrome" reaction in hostage and/or abuse situations is so well recognized at this time that police hostage negotiators no longer view it as unusual. In fact, it is often encouraged in crime situations as it improves the chances for survival of the hostages.

On the down side, it also assures that the hostages experiencing "Stockholm Syndrome" will not be very cooperative during rescue or criminal prosecution. Local law enforcement personnel have long recognized this syndrome with battered women who fail to press charges, bail their battering husband/boyfriend out of jail, and even physically attack police officers when they arrive to rescue them from a violent assault.

Stockholm Syndrome (SS) is pretty typical in office environment populated with psychopathic or authoritarian bosses too. In this case the abuser is your boss.

It's very important to understand the key components of Stockholm Syndrome as they relate to abusive and controlling relationships.

First of all Stockholm Syndrome doesn't occur in every hostage or abusive situation. In another bank robbery involving hostages, after terrorizing patrons and employees for many hours, a police sharpshooter shot and wounded the terrorizing bank robber. After he hit the floor, two women picked him up and physically held him up to the window for another shot. As you can see, the length of time one is exposed to abuse/control and other factors are certainly involved.

It has been found that four situations or conditions are present that serve as a foundation for the development of Stockholm Syndrome. These four situations can be found in hostage, severe abuse, and abusive relationships:

The rest of this article is a compilation based largely on the paper Love and Stockholm Syndrome The Mystery of Loving an Abuser by Joseph M. Carver. I adapted the key ideas to office environment and integrated other sources listed in Webliography section.  Dr. Carver  is one of the few who saw clear links between Stockholm Syndrome and Cognitive Dissonance.  Stockholm Syndrome has certain symptoms or behaviors according to Dr. Carver. These include:

Power Imbalance

Social psychologists have found that unequal power relationships with corporate psychopath can become increasingly unbalanced over time. As the power imbalance magnifies, the victim feels more negative in her self-appraisal, more incapable of fending for herself, and more dependent on the abuser. This cycle of dependency and lowered self-esteem repeats itself over and over and eventually creates a strong affective (emotional) bond to the abuser.

At the same time, the abuser will develop an exaggerated sense of his own power. This sense of power rests on his ability to maintain absolute control in the relationship. If the roles that maintain this sense of power are disturbed, the hidden dependency of the abuser on the victim is suddenly made obvious. Those are similar to sudden reversal of power in marital relationships when the abandoned battering husband tries to bring his wife back to the relationship through threats and/or intimidation.

Intermittent Abuse

When abuse is administered at intermittent and is interspersed with permissive and friendly contact, the phenomenon of traumatic bonding seems most powerful.  The three phases involved in the cycle of  abuse (tension building, battering and “honeymoon”) provide a prime example of intermittent reinforcement. The unpredictable duration and severity of each phase serve to keep the victim off balance and in hopes of change. The “honeymoon” phase is an integral part of traumatic bonding. It is this phase that allows the victim to experience positive feelings from the abuser and therefore create some kind of emotional attachment. 

Perceived threat to one's physical/psychological survival

The perception of threat can be formed by direct, indirect, or witnessed methods. Criminal or antisocial partners can directly threaten your life or the life of friends and family. Their history of violence leads us to believe that the captor/controller will carry out the threat in a direct manner if we fail to comply with their demands. The abuser assures us that only our cooperation keeps our loved ones safe.

Indirectly, the abuser/controller offers subtle threats that you will never leave them or have another partner, reminding you that people in the past have paid dearly for not following their wishes. Hints are often offered such as "I know people who can make others disappear". Indirect threats also come from the stories told by the abuser or controller – how they obtained revenge on those who have crossed them in the past. These stories of revenge are told to remind the victim that revenge is possible if they leave.

Witnessing violence or aggression is also a perceived threat. Witnessing a violent temper directed at a television set, others on the highway, or a third party clearly sends us the message that we could be the next target for violence. Witnessing the thoughts and attitudes of the abuser/controller is threatening and intimidating, knowing that we will be the target of those thoughts in the future.

The "Small Kindness" Perception

In threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope – a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abusers benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor. In criminal/war hostage situations, letting the victim live is often enough. Small behaviors, such as allowing a bathroom visit or providing food/water, are enough to strengthen the Stockholm Syndrome in criminal hostage events.

In relationships with abusers, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat are interpreted as not only positive, but evidence that the abuser is not "all bad" and may at some time correct his/her behavior. Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner, when the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse in a certain situation. An aggressive and jealous partner may normally become intimidating or abusive in certain social situations, as when an opposite-sex coworker waves in a crowd. After seeing the wave, the victim expects to be verbally battered and when it doesn't happen, that "small kindness" is interpreted as a positive sign.

Similar to the small kindness perception is the perception of a "soft side". During the relationship, the abuser/controller may share information about their past – how they were mistreated, abused, neglected, or wronged. The victim begins to feel the abuser/controller may be capable of fixing their behavior or worse yet, that they (abuser) may also be a "victim". Sympathy may develop toward the abuser and we often hear the victim of Stockholm Syndrome defending their abuser with "I know he fractured my jaw and ribs…but he's troubled. He had a rough childhood!" Losers and abusers may admit they need psychiatric help or acknowledge they are mentally disturbed, however, it's almost always after they have already abused or intimidated the victim. The admission is a way of denying responsibility for the abuse. In truth, personality disorders and criminals have learned over the years that personal responsibility for their violent/abusive behaviors can be minimized and even denied by blaming their bad upbringing, abuse as a child, and now - video games. One murderer blamed his crime on eating too much junk food – now known as the "Twinkie Defense". While it may be true that the abuser/controller had a difficult upbringing – showing sympathy for his/her history produces no change in their behavior and in fact, prolongs the length of time you will be abused. While "sad stories" are always included in their apologies – after the abusive/controlling event - their behavior never changes! Keep in mind; once you become hardened to the "sad stories", they will simply try another approach. I know of no victim of abuse or crime who has heard their abuser say "I'm beating (robbing, mugging, etc.) you because my Mom hated me!"

Isolation from Perspectives other than those of the Captor

In abusive and controlling relationships, the victim has the sense they are always "walking on eggshells" – fearful of saying or doing anything that might prompt a violent/intimidating outburst. For their survival, they begin to see the world through the abuser's perspective. They begin to fix things that might prompt an outburst, act in ways they know makes the abuser happy, or avoid aspects of their own life that may prompt a problem.. We become preoccupied with the needs, desires, and habits of the abuser/controller.

Taking the abuser's perspective as a survival technique can become so intense that the victim actually develops anger toward those trying to help them. The abuser is already angry and resentful toward anyone who would provide the victim support, typically using multiple methods and manipulations to isolate the victim from others. For example in case of marital abusers:

 Any contact the victim has with supportive people in the community is met with accusations, threats, and/or violent outbursts. Victims then turn on their family – fearing family contact will cause additional violence and abuse in the home. At this point, victims curse their parents and friends, tell them not to call and stop interfering, and break off communication with others. Agreeing with the abuser/controller, supportive others are now viewed as "causing trouble" and must be avoided. Many victims threaten their family and friends with restraining orders if they continue to "interfere" or try to help the victim in their situation. On the surface it would appear that they have sided with the abuser/controller. In truth, they are trying to minimize contact situation that might make them a target of additional verbal abuse or intimidation. If a casual phone call from Mom prompts a two-hour temper outburst with threats and accusations – the victim quickly realizes it's safer if Mom stops calling. If simply telling Mom to stop calling doesn't work, for his or her own safety the victim may accuse Mom of attempting to ruin the relationship and demand that she stop calling.

In severe cases of Stockholm Syndrome in relationships, the victim may have difficulty leaving the abuser and may actually feel the abusive situation is their fault. In law enforcement situations, the victim may actually feel the arrest of their partner for physical abuse or battering is their fault. Some women will allow their children to be removed by child protective agencies rather than give up the relationship with their abuser. As they take the perspective of the abuser, the children are at fault – they complained about the situation, they brought the attention of authorities to the home, and they put the adult relationship at risk. Sadly, the children have now become a danger to the victim's safety. For those with Stockholm Syndrome, allowing the children to be removed from the home decreases their victim stress while providing an emotionally and physically safer environment for the children.

Perceived Inability to Escape

As a hostage in a bank robbery, threatened by criminals with guns, it's easy to understand the perceived inability to escape. With corporate psychopath situation is more nuanced.  In unhealthy relationships with a corporate psychopath there is a daily preoccupation with "trouble". Trouble is any individual, group, situation, comment, casual glance, humor that may produce a temper tantrum or verbal abuse from the controller or abuser. To survive, "trouble" is to be avoided at all costs. The victim must control situations that produce trouble. That may include avoiding other co-workers, and anyone who may create "trouble" in the abusive relationship. The victim does not hate co-workers; they are only avoiding "trouble"! The victim also avoids certain topics, and anticipates every issue of the controller or abuse in an effort to avoid "trouble". In this situation, anything can become trouble for the victim who is attempting to avoid verbal aggression.

Stockholm Syndrome in relationships is not uncommon. Law enforcement professionals are painfully aware of the situation – making a domestic dispute one of the high-risk calls during the work hours. Called by neighbors during a spousal abuse incident, the abuser is passive upon arrival of the police, only to find the abused spouse upset and threatening the officers if their abusive partner is arrested for domestic violence. In truth, the victim knows the abuser/controller will retaliate against him/her if 1) they encourage an arrest, 2) they offer statements about the abuse/fight that are deemed disloyal by the abuser, 3) they don't bail them out of jail as quickly as possible, and 4) they don't personally apologize for the situation – as though it was their fault.

Is There Something Else Involved?

In a short response – Yes! Corporate psychopath are behaving like cult leaders and encircle themselves with patsies and tries to utilize the power of the group. That create an environment in which a special additional effect called "Cognitive Dissonance" take place. The concept of cognitive dissonance helps to explains how and why people change their ideas and opinions to support situations that do not appear to be healthy, positive, or normal. In the theory, an individual seeks to reduce information or opinions that make him or her uncomfortable. When we have two sets of cognitions (knowledge, opinion, feelings, input from others, etc.) that are the opposite, the situation becomes emotionally uncomfortable. Even though we might find ourselves in a foolish or difficult situation – few want to admit that fact. Instead, we attempt to reduce the dissonance - the fact that our cognitions don't match, agree, or make sense when combined. "Cognitive Dissonance" can be reduced by adding new cognitions – adding new thoughts and attitudes.

Leon Festinger first coined "Cognitive Dissonance" when in 1956 he studies a cult  in which members gave up their homes, incomes, and jobs to work for the cult. This cult believed in messages from outer space that predicted the day the world would end by a flood. As cult members and firm believers, they believed they would be saved by flying saucers at the appointed time. As they gathered and waited to be taken by flying saucers at the specified time, the end-of-the-world came and went. No flood and no flying saucer! Rather than believing they were foolish after all that personal and emotional investment – they decided their beliefs had actually saved the world from the flood and they became firmer in their beliefs after the failure of the prophecy. The moral – the more you invest (income, job, home, time, effort, etc.) the stronger your need to justify your position. If we invest $5.00 in a raffle ticket, we justify losing with "I'll get them next time". If you invest everything you have, it requires an almost unreasoning belief and unusual attitude to support and justify that investment. As Galanter puts it:

“Cognitive dissonance theory...has shown how individuals cannot easily dismiss a belief or attitude they hold, even when the attitude is directly contradicted by evidence or events. People will sooner adopt farfetched ideas to explain events than relinquish their preconceptions. In so doing, they avoid having to face the dissonance between what they see and what they have long believed. The dismissal of plain reality can happen when people are confronted by challenges to their ingrained patriotism, their prejudices, or their religious values. Under these circumstances, they may ignore cruelty, hypocrisy, or incompetence, or create elaborate rationalizations rather than challenge the principles espoused by their leaders.” (Cults, p.152)

Cognitive dissonance studies tell us we are more loyal and committed to something when a lot is in stake, when some part of experience is difficult, uncomfortable, and even humiliating. The classic example is the initiation rituals of college fraternities and marine boot camps. They all produce loyal and committed individuals. Almost any ordeal creates a bonding experience.  Investment and an ordeal are ingredients for a strong bonding – even if the bonding is unhealthy. Few bonds or falls in love by being a member of the Automobile Club or a music CD club. Being together in dangerous situation or struggling to survive against overwhelming enemy  usually produced a strong often life-long bonds. War veterans know that all too well.

The combination of "Stockholm Syndrome" and "cognitive dissonance" produces a paradoxical situation when  a victim believes that continuation of the relationship is needed for their survival.  In some jobs the victims have invested everything and placed "all their eggs in one basket". In some cases they are grossly overpaid. Keeping the job now determines their level of self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health.

Marc Galanter’s book Cults (NY: Oxford UP, 1989) explains how it works. Galanter, an NYU professor of psychiatry, spent fifteen years researching cults, from Rev. Moon’s Unification Church to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple. As a relatively sympathetic observer, he was allowed free access to Unification Church members and recruits, while also studying the Church’s detractors and deprogrammers, as well as other cult-like groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Galanter discovered that all such groups work on the same basic principle: anxiety. The target individual is drawn into the cult because it offers relief from anxiety. The mechanisms of anxiety-relief include absolute faith in the group’s leadership and ideology; group cohesion and the feeling of love and fellowship that follows from sharing this faith with others; and altered-consciousness exercises that relieve the anxieties of ordinary consciousness.

This kind of group anxiety-relief, of course, is not inherently pathological. Healthy communities do it, the great religions do it, everybody does it to some extent. Without groups to belong to, ideas and people to believe in, and altered states of consciousness to bring us peace and joy, we would be pathetic creatures indeed. The problem arises when power-hungry leaders manipulate these innate human characteristics for their own ends.

Galanter, better than anyone else I’ve read, shows how that happens. He explains that cults catch their members in a pincer-grip, by creating the very anxiety that they then relieve (Galanter, p. 85-87). The prototype for this “pincer effect” is the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages come to love and identify with their captors. Being taken hostage, of course, is an extremely anxiety-provoking situation, and the hostage desperately craves relief. But the only people who can relieve the anxiety are the captors (p. 105). Hostages often repress their very rational dislike for their captors, in favor of an irrational but psychologically-compelling identification with their victimizers, which provides relief from unbearable anxiety.

This “pincer effect” is what allows cults to get out of control. Cult leaders subtly or not-so-subtly abuse their members; the members repress the knowledge that they are being abused, and identify with their abusers. This abuse, along with the radical disjuncture between the cult and the outside world, provokes anxiety in the members; and the members respond by seeking relief in the only place it can be found—by ever-more-intense commitment to the cult’s ideology, leadership, and actions.

Both Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance develop on an involuntary basis as an attempt to exist and survive in a threatening and controlling environment. What might have began as a normal job often turns into a controlling and abusive situation due to the presence of corporate psychopath as a boss.  And when subordinates are desperately trying to survive due to unhealthy job market that does not permit them leaving the current job their personality is developing the compensating mechanism needed to lower their emotional and physical risks. All of us have developed attitudes and feelings that help us accept and survive situations. In case of corporate psychopath such attitudes/feelings are developed about jobs. The more dysfunctional the situation, the more dysfunctional our adaptation and thoughts to survive on the job. The victim is engaged in a desperate attempt to survive and preserver the job.  Abusive relationship cannot develop when a victim does not value the job and is ready to walk out at the first sign of trouble with the boss.

The role of Family and Friends of the Victim of Corporate Psychopath

When a family is confronted with a loved one involved with a controlling/abusive boss, the situation becomes emotionally painful and socially difficult for the family. While each situation is different, some general guidelines to consider are:

Conclusions

If you a victim of a controlling and abusive corporate psychopath you need either to fight or leave. Surrender is not a option.

For a hostage in a bank robbery, threatened by criminals with guns, it's easy to understand the perceived inability to escape. With corporate psychopath situation is more nuanced.  If you a victim of a controlling and abusive corporate psychopath you need either to fight or leave. Even is job market is horrible, or, worse,, you are overpaid in the current job.  Surrender is not a option.  But abrupt jumping the ship without investigating the water is also not an option.  You need to redistribute your time to allocate a considerable chunk of it to job search. and you need to take some precautions too. For example, do not on a regular basis accept calls from job hunters on your corporate phone. List of calls might be available to your manager.

Financial factors as well as the need to support family often complicates our ability to leave the job. When the victim decides to end the  job, it's important that they view their family as supportive, loving, and understanding – not a source of additional pressure, or, worse, guilt. Remember that you not only provider for the family you is a family asset too and as such your wellbeing in important for the health of the family even more that financial well-being. .

Real life situations are very complex and any and all material on this webpage can serve only as the most general outline. Some recommendations may be completely inappropriate for a particular job situation.

Webliography



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Last updated: December 17, 2014