Vajra Blue

Mindfulness and Compassion. Understanding trauma in young people.

Stockholm syndrome for the soul.


The last thing that most of us would expect, is to find ourselves justifying the actions of people who held us hostage, or who had abused us in some other way. Especially if we had been in fear of our lives.

Yet this is precisely what happened over five days in August 1973.

In the aftermath of a failed robbery attempt,  several bank workers were held hostage at the Kreditbanken in Normalmstorg in Stockholm.

The robbery had gone badly awry and the robbers were unable to make a clean getaway, being cornered in the bank by the police. For five long days there was a stand off as the robbers negotiated with the authorities.

During this time, the hostages trapped in the bank were in fear of their lives. To the surprise of a majority of onlookers, and commentators, many of the victims of this robbery became emotionally attached to their captors, to the extent that they even turned down help from those attempting to negotiate their release.

After their ordeal was over some of the hostages even defended the actions of the bank robbers to the media.

The FBI database suggests that eight per cent of hostages, held in similar circumstances, show signs of what we now call Stockholm Syndrome. This is a process of identification with an oppressor, and is especially likely if underneath there is a shared belief system. A similar identification is something that many of us show towards our own thoughts. A kind of Stockholm syndrome of the soul.

Human beings are a social species with a long period of extrauterine growth and development. We call this period childhood. During this time we absorb many lessons about how to be human; in our family, in our town, in our country and in our wider culture.

Human beings are a social species.

Some of these lessons are explicit: drive on the left/right. Family/individual comes first. Big boys don’t cry. Girls wear pink and boys wear blue. It is the nail that stick up that gets hammered flat. Many of the ideas which we develop about human interactions we pick up at our parents’ knees, so to speak, as we learn from the example they set in the way they speak and behave. What it is to be a man or a woman, how to vote, what opinions to hold, are often handed down through the generations in this way.

A feeling of having the power within the universe to live our own lives.

We develop a sense of personal identity while we go through this period of maturation. “What am I like?” is a question that is answered by the way others behave towards us, and how we respond to this feedback. If our parents are “good enough”, giving us room to learn, and a secure base from which to explore the world, we will probably develop a strong sense of self, with well-developed self-esteem and a feeling of having the power within the universe to live our own lives, and to make sensible choices for our selves. More importantly perhaps we will also develop resilience – the ability to bounce back and to cope when life fails to go the way we planned.

This healthy form of development can go off course for many reasons. Illness in ourselves or our family members, parental death, mental health problems in our families, war, abuse (especially when this involves betrayal abuse) are just some of the causes for the developmental trajectory to go astray. All are things which contribute to our receiving less than optimal care and attention in our early years. Where we do not get the necessary emotional care in our childhood we can develop problems forming attachments, the close early relationships with some of our close carers that allow us to develop emotional and relationship skills. The associated insecurity that accompanies poor attachment, can cause widespread problems in relationships and our ability to be happy as our life goes on.

We internalise many beliefs about ourselves and adopt specific, often automatic, behaviours based on these beliefs. These behaviours are designed to help us survive in the social environment created by our family and culture. How people treat us, talk to us and talk about us, also becomes internalised, forming part of our self image. For many folks these internalised beliefs about the self are negative and derogatory, telling us what is wrong with us and leaving the impression that we are flawed and in some way no good as people.

Usually these ideas are completely false and out of date. However, because they have been part of our view of ourself growing up, and have been reinforced by our environment and the expectations imposed by our cultures (personal and social), we come to see them as true, and rarely if ever challenge them. In my work I meet many A star students who seem to believe that they are stupid, as they only score in the high nineties, and seem to be incapable of seeing themselves in any other way. Many of the less academically able students seem to have a well developed sense of their personal abilities in other fields that allows them to thrive.

Such beliefs contribute to our problems in life, socially, personally and in our studies and employment. We come to focus on what is wrong and completely miss what is right with our world. When things go against us we see them almost as inevitable ” I am never lucky in love”. ” I am just too stupid to learn this”. ” I cannot do anything right”. ” I could never …….” etc. We identify with our thoughts and let them hold us hostage. They interfere with our life, happiness and relationships. Worse we seem to agree with them and find justification for them in our current behaviour.

Such beliefs contribute to our problems in life.

One of the most effective ways to deal with this kind of situation is through the development of compassion directed towards the self. Compassion towards others and the self is a key element of most of the world’s religions. Evolutionary biology would suggest that it is a vital element of human behaviour as it increases the ability of communities to survive.

Self compassion requires that we sit with our distress and try to change our thoughts, rather than simply allow our currently unhelpful reflex behaviours to continue. The ability to examine our life and self to enable us to make the changes that will lead to greater freedom.

Benefits of such a practice include:

  • A reduction in depression.
  • Less anxiety.
  • Reduced anger and hostility.
  • Less perfectionism.
  • Greater resilience in the face of life’s everyday ups and downs.
  • A decrease in rumination.
  • The ability to cope with emotions.
  • Less fear of failure and a greater ability to learn and be open.
  • Reduced levels of stress hormones in the body.

Compassion is one of the four “divine abodes” of the mind that the Buddha taught us to develop. The practices designed to help with this show the Buddha’s keen understanding of human nature. The first stage is to develop compassion (or loving kindness, sympathetic joy or equanimity) for the self, only then does the practice move on to other people specifically and then generally.

Such a practice helps us to be kinder to ourselves and to become less stressed living in our world, gradually becoming more and more able to take events less personally and see them for what they are – the everyday ups and downs of life that are the normal variations in our existence.

I will discuss some simple ways we can all develop more compassion for ourselves in a later post.


Author: SandySB

Child and adolescent psychiatrist. Parent. Blogger.

Comments are closed.