The Effects of the Narcissist’s Disappearing Act: Operant Conditioning and Learned Helplessness
What would you do if your 11 year old daughter didn’t come home for a couple of weeks? What if she said nothing to you, you had no idea where she was, or if she was ever coming back?
Or what if it was your elderly parents? They just, all of a sudden, were completely unreachable. They weren’t answering phone calls, or texts. They weren’t answering their door when you came calling to see if they were all right. What would you do or think?
You’d probably be in full panic mode, right? Both instances you would find completely unacceptable and something you would not tolerate under any circumstance. Yet many people, when it comes to their romantic liaisons, not only tolerate disappearing acts, they’ve become accustomed to them.
Narcissists are really good at disappearing. Not all of them do, mind you, but some have it down to an art form. Many people that find sites like mine are suffering, because they find themselves in love with someone, who keeps popping in and out of their lives and they don’t understand why. Many will blame themselves and think that it was something they did or didn’t do.
Some disappear because they’re living a double life. They may have a wife, or a husband waiting for them at home, or in another city, or perhaps even a steady partner. Some play Houdini, because they fear intimacy. They feel you getting too close and they cannot have you discover their true selves. Some buckle under the weight of the relationship expectations they imagine you might have, while others always have their focus on something exciting and new.
Regardless of their reasons, if your mate keeps coming and going from your life, chances are they’ve got their own play book. They’ve done this dance so many times that the process doesn’t even faze them. They don’t feel guilt at what you must be going through. They don’t feel responsible for whatever circumstance they left you in. Their focus is always on what they need and what they are feeling. They must always answer the monster within and this monster is capable of abominable behavior.
The most baffling part of a disappearing act is the reappearing act. Emotional manipulators have this incredible ability to magically reappear, after everything they’ve done, and act as if nothing happened. I can only imagine that this feeling is genuine for them, since they don’t harbor any guilt or responsibility for what they’ve done to you.
I can recall, after a particular disappearing episode, by my boomerang Narcissist, that lasted two weeks, I got a text message and my response was angry and accusatory. He was acting as if he had nothing to be sorry for and told me, under no uncertain circumstances, that he wasn’t interested in fighting and that that’s not why he contacted me. I was then punished by another week of no contact for my defiance.
This is a clear example of Operant Conditioning. Narcissist train a conditioned response into their victims through reward or punishment. They lower your defenses by inflicting punishment (leaving), which causes you immense pain and suffering, they will eventually reward you by returning (as if this is a reward) and if you accept them back with no fuss no muss, you get to win them back again, until they of course decide to leave again. If however you decide to get upset and cuss them out for hurting you, you will be punished, they will leave again until you learn not to upset them with your feelings.
After repeated disappearing episodes, their victims become conditioned machines, acting just the way they Narcissist wants. It reminds me of an experiment I remember reading about in University, where they would put a dog in a cage that had electrical current running through one half. When the shock was turned on, the dog would jump and cry and look for a safe place to stand (I know its awful). So they were conditioning the dog to stop responding to the current and just move to the half of the cage where there was no current. Then the researchers wired the cage so that the current would run through the entire cage and the dog would have nowhere safe to stand. The dog would, at first, cry and move around, looking for somewhere safe, but after repeated exposure and knowing there was no where safe to go, it became accustomed to the shocks and stopped responding completely, whenever the shock was turned on. This is called learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. – Wiki
No one likes to be in pain. We will do anything to escape the feeling. The unfortunate part of the escape process, when you’re dealing with a Narcissist, is that it puts you right back into the middle of the fire, only to be shocked and shocked some more, until it conditions no response from you what-so-ever. This is the science behind how they manage down your expectations until you give no response except the one they want, which is compliance.
A romantic partner has every right to be furious when their partner takes off. It’s cruel, disrespectful and incredibly selfish. The behavior in and of itself should be enough to show you exactly what you mean to the person causing you such heart ache. The healthiest thing we could do for ourselves is to walk away and understanding why you feel like you can’t, will, hopefully aid your decision to step off the merry-go-round for good.
On top of this,the damage that the emotional upheaval of their repeated disappearance has on your emotional and physical health must also be considered. When you are abandoned, your immediate feelings are typically, fear, sorrow, anxiety, depression…
When someone keeps treating you like you don’t matter and that you don’t deserve any better, it takes an immense toll on your self-esteem. Those repeated thoughts and feelings cement those neuro-pathways in the brain, so that your thoughts on the matter will always go through that filter.
Ester Hicks always says, “Beliefs are just thoughts we keep thinking.” So when we keep exposing ourselves to someone that has those beliefs about us and keeps making us feel that way, we run the risk of creating these false beliefs about , ourselves. When we believe something, we act accordingly. It changes our behavior and who we are and it’s a very difficult habit to break.
Feelings of being unworthy and low self-esteem, paired with feelings of helplessness and a lack of control, lead to depression and a general negative out look.
Studies have shown that anxiety and stress cause problems in immune system functioning making you more susceptible to viruses and infections, as well as digestive disorders.
The bottom line is, if your partner keeps coming and going from your life, it’s causing you a lot more damage than you realize. They are skillful manipulators and they are, in essence, training you how they want you to behave, and training you to believe that you have no control. Don’t let anyone ever do this to you. Their behavior is shaping your beliefs, your health and your behavior.
No one deserves to be treated like somebody’s option. You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t say anything so horrific that it caused them to run off. The type of person that repeatedly does this is sick and their behavior has nothing to do with you, despite what they want you to believe.
If someone walks away from you, it should only ever happen once. Every time you take them back, you are allowing yourself to be conditioned to accept that kind of treatment, to the point where it will have no effect on you at all. It will erode all of your resistance and no one should ever be allowed to run roughshod over you. If you’re doing this dance right now, make sure it’s your last turn on the dance floor. Get out now and don’t look back.
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