Intermittent Reinforcement And Toxic Gratitude Being grateful for crumbs thrown at us in a relationship damages our mental well-being

Psychologists claim gratitude is good for our brains. Positivity gurus and law of attraction specialists imply that feeling grateful attracts abundance in our lives. Well, there is a plus side to gratitude but not many discuss the dark side of this emotion. Survivors of childhood trauma are more prone to being stuck in the cycle of toxic gratitude. Moreover, it keeps them stuck to their past, and susceptible to further abuse.

Childhood trauma means living with ongoing inconsistency and instability. One day ‘Mom‘ is in a great mood while the next, she is a raging lunatic. Or in the morning ‘Dad’ is charming and helpful while in the evening he is a violent drunk. Sometimes moods change in minutes. It is highly confusing for a child. One moment it’s all lovey-dovey and next you are cursed for being born.

Intermittent Reinforcement And Toxic Gratitude
Intermittent reinforcement in childhood sets us up for toxic gratitude as adults

Development of Toxic Gratitude

Growing up in this ongoing environment of intermittent reinforcement messes up our minds.  We learn to be grateful for crumbs. This not only affects our self-worth and self-esteem. It also keeps us trauma bonded to our abusers.

Intermittent reinforcement plays a big role in traumatic bonding. A trauma bond is a very strong attachment to an abuser that develops not in spite of, but because of the abuse.

Furthermore, powerful emotional attachments develop from two specific features of abusive relationships: 1) Power imbalances and 2) intermittent good-bad treatment.

Later, as adults, we are caught in this dark web of gratitude.

What is Intermittent Reinforcement?

According to psychologist B.F. Skinner’s theories on Operant Conditioning and Behaviorism, Intermittent Reinforcement is rewards are given intermittently or some of the time. Studies have proven that this kind of conditioning actually elicits the desired results more effectively than continuous positive reinforcement.

However, growing up with this kind of not-knowing when-where-how situation jeopardizes our brain development. We suffer from cognitive dissonance as to the reality of our situation and who we really are.

The neurochemistry of love and attachment, particularly in the presence of abuse, distorts our reality and keeps us trauma bonded to our abusers.

Neurochemical Addiction

Experiencing inconsistent behaviors during childhood affects our neurochemical delivery system. We are caught in a love-hope-anticipation-disappointment state. Hopefully hypervigilant, desperate for love. Oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline all surge through our bodies at the same time.

Additionally, intermittent reinforcement super-spikes dopamine release. We get addicted to the anticipation high we experience expecting good behavior. Though we fear getting kicked, rejected, or ignored we keep hoping that things will change. After all the past has shown that our abuser can be decent. But we are only deluding ourselves.

When we keep tolerating bad behavior, why will anyone change?

Nonetheless, hot and cold behaviors of a toxic relationship exacerbate our dangerous attachment to our abusers rather than deterring it – creating an addiction that is not unlike drug addiction.

Intermittent Reinforcement and Dopamine

Small Kindness & Gratitude Bond

As kids, we are dependent for our survival on the adults in our life.  Instinctively, we learn to make do with scraps of kindness thrown our way. After all, something is better than nothing. Most often,  gratitude has been brow-beaten into our psyches.

My father would start his rant about our ingratitude and how he sacrificed his life for us kids. He’d say,

‘I could have put you’ll in boarding, re-married, and enjoyed my life after your mother died’

As a child, the idea of abandonment is frightening and painful.  Not having any support from any extended family made me even more vulnerable to any perceived kindness.

Eventually, I succumbed to the grooming of an older man who kept me dependent on him. And I was filled with gratitude for scraps he threw my way, after all, I was deformed as he kept saying.  I was deeply grateful that he a married man wanted to be with me, considering I had scoliosis.

Fake Generosity, Exploitation & The Gratitude Trap

There are kind people in this world but one has to be aware of those fakers who put on the cloak of kindness just to exploit.

When my mother died, a relative assured me in front of my mother’s dead body,

‘think of me as your mother.’ I was so relieved.’

Two weeks post my mother’s death she came to my home and told my father she was taking me for the weekend. I was thrilled. The next day she scheduled work to be done. Since her sons did not bother with doing anything, I too went off to play. The moment the woman returned, she began ranting and targeted me since I was a girl and I was 1 year older than her oldest.

In her twisted mind, 11 years was old enough to support her in her quest to be the ‘Social Worker of the World‘. It never occurred to her that kindness begins at home.

However, I was filled with gratitude that as long as I did her work, she didn’t shout at me, unlike my father.

I did not know then she was the classic altruistic narcissist whose main characteristic is false generosity.

The Altruistic Narcissist’s Intermittent Reinforcement

Narcissism and fakeness go together. With a narcissist, it is all about ‘how great they are.

However, most narcissists are skilled actors appearing especially giving, caring, loving, and supportive. Initially, they lure you through their unbelievable  “generosity” or “selflessness”. And most get snared in their trap – the trap of indebtedness.

Recently, I managed to extricate myself from one such do-gooder narcissist – a social worker whose modus operandi is to support the suffering who have no place or person to go, and in return, you become their anytime, everyday slave. Between bouts of rage, she doles out gifts of food, clothes, or outings. However, the bottom line is servility and obedience. Life-long gratitude for a debt that cannot be repaid.

Fake generosity is all about manipulation, self-aggrandization, and emotional dominance. And it is done out of selfishness.  Not for your good but for the narcissist’s betterment or to increase his/her face value.

So be aware of gift horses.

Gratitude & Indebtedness

In a good relationship, there is equal serve and return.  However, it does not mean that once someone does something you have to immediately need to repay them. Gratitude is a positive emotion but being reminded of your debt is not true kindness. If in a close relationship you constantly feel indebted, then something is not okay with that relationship.

Because of my childhood indoctrination, I always felt inadequate, feeling overly grateful for the smallest of things, and would immediately try to repay the giver. It was bloody stressful keeping track of what I owed and how to repay.

Getting Out Of The Gratitude Bondage

Feeling grateful for the good in our lives is good for our mental health. However, in a relationship being forced to be grateful for our partners, friends, colleagues, etc, honoring our basic rights as human beings is toxic for our mental well-being.

A good relationship is about consistency, love, respect, and honesty. It is not manipulation, control, and dependence As adults, we need to get over our ingrained habit of putting up with intermittent good behavior. Either they change or you have to become strong enough to leave. There is never an excuse for mistreatment or other insidious forms of emotional abuse.

Remember, you deserve a life free of abuse and exploitation. You deserve healthy relationships which nourish you, not deplete and exploit you. And it is up to you to choose what’s best for you. Don’t tolerate or be with someone out of misplaced gratitude.

Image Source: Pixabay

Further Reading

Making Peace With The Past – Harold Bloomfield

Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships –  Carnes Ph.D., Patrick

In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative – by Simon Ph.D., Dr. George K

Trauma, Bonding & Family Constellations:  Healing Injuries of the Soul – Franz Ruppert

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