Stockholm Syndrome: when the victim empathizes with his abuser

Stockholm Syndrome: when the victim empathizes with his abuser

Stockholm syndrome


  • 1 History of Stockholm Syndrome
  • 2 When Stockholm Syndrome occurs
  • 3 Main symptoms of Stockholm syndrome
  • 4 Why does Stockholm syndrome occur?

Stockholm Syndrome History

On August 23, 1973, a thief armed with a machine gun entered the Stockholm Credit Bank in Sweden. His name was Jan-Erik Olsson and he was an inmate who was on leave, and told the terrified bank employees, "The party has just begun!" Among his demands was to bring three million Swedish crowns, a vehicle, two weapons and Clark Olofsson, a criminal who was serving a sentence at the time. The authorities relented and Olofsson joined Olsson, who had taken four hostages, three women and one man. The hostages were held for 131 hours. They tied them up and kept them in the bank until, finally, they were rescued on August 28.

During their captivity, the hostages felt more fear of the police that they were going to rescue them than of the kidnappers. After his release, a hostage declared: "I fully trust them, I would travel all over the world with them." In his interviews with the later media, it became clear that the hostages supported their captors and against all odds they feared the law enforcement who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel in some way that the captors actually protected them from the police. Is empathy with the captors It reached such an extent that the hostages refused to testify against him at trial, even one of them created a legal defense fund to help defray the fees in case of criminal defense. Clearly, the hostages had "joined" emotionally with their captors.

The psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, Swedish police advisor during the assault, he coined the term "Stockholm syndrome" to refer to the hostages' reaction to their captivity.

But this case of the Stockholm bank is not the only one that exists. February 1974 Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of communication mogul William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped by the Simbionés Liberation Army (SLA). The family paid $ 6 million to the terrorist organization to be released, but the girl did not return with her family. Two months later she was photographed wielding an assault rifle during an SLA robbery at a bank. Apparently he had joined the organization and changed his name to Tania's.

When Stockholm Syndrome occurs

This is how this psychological condition became known as "Stockholm syndrome". But many years before this syndrome was known, it was common to see it in people who had been victims of some type of abuse such as:

  • Prisoners of war
  • Abused women
  • Children who have suffered abuse
  • Victims of incest or violations
  • Prisoners in concentration camps
  • Relations with controlling or intimidating people
  • Members of sects

Stockholm syndrome can also be found in family, partners and other interpersonal relationships. The abuser can be a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, father or mother, or have any other function in which the abuser is in a position of control or authority.

Stockholm syndrome actually occurs with all kinds abusive and controlling relationships. But to understand why victims support, defend and even love their abusers, we must know how the human mind works.

Main symptoms of Stockholm syndrome

Each syndrome has its own symptoms and behaviors, and Stockholm Syndrome is no exception. Although a definitive list has not yet been established, there appear to be certain characteristics that are present:

  • Positive feelings on the part of the victim towards the abuser / controller
  • Negative feelings on the part of the victim towards family, friends or authorities trying to rescue / support them
  • Support and defend the motives and behaviors of the abuser
  • Positive feelings from the aggressor towards the victim
  • Supportive and help behaviors by the victim
  • Inability to carry out behaviors that can help in their release or detachment

Stockholm Syndrome does not occur in all cases with hostages or situations of abuse.

Apparently there are four situations or conditions that serve as the basis for the development of Stockholm Syndrome. These four situations can be found both in kidnapping situations and in abusive relationships and are:

  • The presence or perception of a physical or psychological threat that the abuser could carry out.
  • The presence of a small kindness on the part of the aggressor perceived by the victim.
  • The situation should last at least a few days.
  • The isolation of perspectives other than those of the abuser.
  • The apparent inability to escape the situation.

Why does Stockholm syndrome occur?

One way in which these feelings and thoughts develop is what is known as "cognitive dissonance". This phenomenon explains how and why people change their ideas and opinions to support situations that do not appear to be healthy, positive or normal.

In theory, an individual routinely seeks to eliminate information or opinions that make him feel bad or uncomfortable. When we have two sets of knowledge (opinions, feelings, comments from others, etc.) that contradict each other, the situation becomes emotionally uncomfortable for us. Although we could face a situation in which we must change our interpretation of the facts, few manage to do this. Instead, We try to reduce the disharmony caused by a contradiction of opinions or feelings with “logical” arguments to return to coherence and therefore to safety.

This falls within a vision where the situation leads the victim to generate a "Dissociative state" where he denies the violent and negative behavior of the kidnapper developing an emotional bond towards him.

On the other hand, studies indicate that we are more loyal and committed to something that is difficult, uncomfortable and even humiliating, such as initiation rituals in university fraternities or in the military training camp, for example. All these tests, however contradictory it may seem, create an experience of union. In the movies, many couples fall in love after great dangers and disasters, such as after going through a terrible accident, being harassed by a murderer or abandoned on an island, or being involved in a terrorist attack. Apparently, going through moments of anguish and ordeal are ingredients for a strong union, even if this union is unhealthy.

Another theory is that of emotional inversion. Abusive relationships produce a lot of unhealthy experiences on both sides. In many cases, the victim tends to stay and support the relationship of abuse due to the time and emotions he has invested in the relationship.

But it is not simply our feelings for an individual that makes us maintain an unhealthy relationship. Human relationships are complex and we often only see the tip of the iceberg. For this reason, many victims who defend their aggressor or maintain an unhealthy relationship, if asked why, do not know what to answer.

Unfortunately, the reasons why a Stockholm Syndrome is generated are not yet known, to date they are all hypotheses about its origin and nature of the process.

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