Hostage to Suffering

By Anthony Gold

On August 23, 1973, one of the most notorious bank robberies occurred. No money was stolen, and although several hostages were taken, no one was seriously injured. Yet this bank holdup forever changed the psychology of victim trauma.

As far as bank heists go, this one was fairly typical. An ex-con entered the bank, fired a few warning shots, barricaded four hostages in the vault, and demanded police provide him safe escape. The holdup lasted a few days and eventually ended with the suspect surrendering.

But what made this crime so unusual was that the hostages – ostensibly the people most likely to be victims of serious injury or death – sided with their captor and against the police.

In fact, the hostages actually defended the bank robber and expressed anger at the police for escalating the situation.

The robbery and hostage crisis took place at Norrmalmstorg square in Stockholm, Sweden, and the resulting psychological phenomenon became known as the Stockholm Syndrome.

The condition is characterized by hostages feeling empathy and other generally positive feelings toward their captors – including defending their acts. This seems completely irrational given the danger and cruelty clearly present in the criminals. Yet, nearly ten percent of all hostage crises show some evidence of Stockholm Syndrome.

How could anyone react in such a way?

In a psychological concept known as reaction formation, strongly negative emotions are subconsciously “managed” by demonstrating the directly opposing tendency. Instead of feeling fear and anger, hostages identify with their aggressors. And when victims adopt the same values as the perpetrator, then the aggressor ceases to be a threat.

This emotional bonding with aggressors is not limited to hostage crises – it can exist in any abusive situation. It’s a totally unconscious ego defense mechanism to “help” us deal with our situation – we don’t know that we’re doing it.

That’s what makes transcending the ego so difficult. It’s a maladaptive thought system that keeps us rooted in separation and the belief that the world offers us the potential for happiness.

The ego is capricious and does not mean [you] well. It uses the body to conspire against you. (T-6.IV.1;5)

But in classic reaction formation, we’ve become so identified with the ego, the world, and the body. Instead of seeing its obvious intent at deception, we take on the ego’s values as our own. And from such a perspective, the world seems to have much to offer: contentment, fulfillment, partnership, and comfort to name just a few. But it isn’t true.

All the world’s roads but lead to disappointment, nothingness and death. Seek not escape from problems here. The world was made that problems could not be escaped. (T-31.IV.2)

As we begin to see how much meaning and attachment we give to the ego and all its worldly projections, we open ourselves to another way of seeing, another way of believing, and another way of experiencing the world. One in which we are not hostage to the ego but host to the eternity of wholeness. Join us in Monday’s class where we’ll learn how to practice such a reversal in thinking. I look forward to seeing you then.

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