What Is The Narcissists Intermittent Reinforcement?

Have you ever met someone who seems to yo-yo between being incredibly charming and supportive to suddenly being cold and distant? Maybe they disappear for days or weeks at a time, only to return to lavish you with attention again. If so, you may have come across a narcissist who is using a tactic known as intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement is a manipulative and often toxic way that narcissists use to keep their victims hooked on them. It involves a cycle of reward and punishment and is designed to keep you guessing about what to expect from the narcissist. This sort of behaviour is incredibly damaging to the mental health and well-being of the narcissist’s victim.

So, why do narcissists use intermittent reinforcement? It ultimately comes down to control. By keeping their victims in a constant state of uncertainty, they are able to maintain power and ensure that their victim’s attention and energy remains focused on them. It also allows the narcissist to emotionally manipulate and exploit their victim, as they can tease them with the promise of love and affection, only to cruelly withdraw it when they see fit.

Narcissists also use intermittent reinforcement as a way to keep their own emotional needs met. They thrive on the attention and validation of others, but quickly grow bored or uninterested once they feel they have secured it. This erratic and unpredictable behaviour ensures that their victim is always seeking to please and impress them, ensuring a steady stream of narcissistic supply.

This cycle of intermittent reinforcement is driven by the narcissist’s need for control and power. By flip-flopping between affection and withdrawal, the narcissist can keep you on your toes and ensure that you remain reliant on their approval or attention.

The concept of intermittent reinforcement actually comes from the field of psychology, where it is used to explain addictive behaviours in animals. Researchers discovered that when rats received food intermittently, as opposed to every time they pressed a lever, they would continue to press that lever relentlessly, even when the food rewards stopped coming. The same applies to narcissists’ victims, who become addicted to the intermittent and unpredictable bursts of affection received.

So, what are some examples of intermittent reinforcement behaviour from narcissists?

Firstly, they might give you compliments with no apparent reason or context. This could be something like telling you how beautiful or talented you are out of the blue, but then not offering any further validation or acknowledgement.

Secondly, a narcissist might play games with your emotions, purposely causing you to feel confused or unsure of their intentions. For example, they might cancel plans last minute or seem disinterested in spending time with you, only to then express desire and affection later on.

Another behaviour could be giving gifts as a way to control you or gain favours. A narcissist might buy you an expensive present, only to use it as a way to guilt or manipulate you into doing what they want.

Finally, a classic behaviour of narcissists is gaslighting. This is when they manipulate your perception of reality, making you doubt your own memory or judgement. For example, they might tell you that they never said something hurtful to you, even though you distinctly remember them doing so.

These are just a few examples of intermittent reinforcement behaviour from narcissists. If you feel like you’re experiencing any of these behaviours from someone in your life, it’s important to seek support and boundaries to protect your well-being.

Victims of narcissistic abuse may experience a range of negative effects, caused by intermittent reinforcement.

One of the most significant impacts of intermittent reinforcement is the creation of a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. Narcissists often use unpredictable behaviour as a means of controlling their victim’s emotions and actions. They might act affectionate and loving one minute and be cold and distant the next, leading the victim to feel confused and unbalanced. This uncertainty can lead to anxiety, depression, and even physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach upset.

Another impact of intermittent reinforcement is a loss of confidence and self-esteem. Narcissists often use intermittent reinforcement to maintain their power over their victims. Their manipulative behaviour can make the victim feel as if they are not good enough or worthy of love. This can erode the victim’s self-esteem over time, leading to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.

Finally, victims of narcissistic abuse may develop a sense of dependency on their abuser. Intermittent reinforcement can lead victims to believe that they need their abuser to feel loved and validated. This can create a cycle of abuse where the victim becomes trapped in the relationship, unable to leave and unable to move on.

Here are some self-help steps you can take to break free from the cycle of intermittent reinforcement:

  1. Acknowledge the abuse: The first step to breaking free from narcissistic abuse is to acknowledge that it exists and understand its impact on your well-being.
  2. Seek support: Reach out to someone you trust and talk about your experiences. Consider seeing a therapist who is trained in helping victims of narcissistic abuse.
  3. Create boundaries: Set clear boundaries that involve them respecting your privacy and space, including limiting or cutting off contact with them.
  4. Practice self-care: Prioritise your well-being by engaging in activities that make you feel happy and positive.
  5. Focus on your strengths: Make a list of your strengths and affirm your self-worth regularly.
  6. Stop blaming yourself: Recognise that you are not to blame for the abuser’s actions and behaviour.
  7. Get educated: Read and learn about narcissism so that you can understand the characteristics and how to remain safe from it.
  8. Set goals: Set achievable goals and work towards them. This will help you regain your sense of control.

Recovering from narcissistic abuse is a lengthy and challenging process. Still, with time and effort, it is possible to break free from the cycle of intermittent reinforcement and reclaim one’s sense of self.

Overall, intermittent reinforcement can have a lasting impact on the victim of a narcissistic relationship. If you or someone you know is experiencing this type of abuse, it’s essential to seek help and support from a trained professional. Breaking free from the cycle of narcissistic abuse is possible, but it takes time and effort. Remember, you deserve to be treated with love and respect, and no one has the right to make you feel otherwise.

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Elizabeth Shaw is not a Doctor or a therapist. She is a mother of five, a blogger, a survivor of narcissistic abuse, and a life coach, She always recommends you get the support you feel comfortable and happy with. Finding the right support for you. Elizabeth has partnered with BetterHelp (Sponsored.) where you will be matched with a licensed councillor, who specialises in recovery from this kind of abuse.

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