Earlier this week, the St. Louis area celebrated the 15th anniversary of the rescue of two young men, Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck, from the clutches of deranged captor Michael Devlin. It was called the “Missouri miracle.”
Devlin had snagged Hornbeck some four years earlier off his bike in rural Washington County, MO, and Ownby just a few days earlier. He held them in captivity in an apartment in suburban Kirkwood, MO.
Devlin had even paraded Hornbeck around presumably as family out in public during his captivity. He hadn’t had time to do that with Ownby.
The question on everybody’s mind was “How could young Hornbeck (13 years old at the time of his abduction) calmly go along with Devlin’s fantasy of being “family”?
In a phrase, it was “Stockholm Syndrome,” a condition in which hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors during captivity. In other words, they become “comfortable” with the conditions of their captivity in order to survive—even when taken hostage against their will. In these horrendous circumstances, they adapt.
To most, this doesn’t compute. It’s not rational. How could anyone tolerate, let alone adapt to a captor’s total control over their lives, to the point of acting as if they were family? How could the victim let this happen without wanting to break free?
I can compare this with almost any dysfunctional behavior pattern I might exhibit:
- If I’m being abused by my significant other, why do I stay in the relationship?
- If I want to lose weight, why do I continue to eat donuts?
- If I want to stop being a doormat to those around me, why do I continue to cave to their wishes?
- If I want to stop being bullied or gaslit… yada, yada, ya….?
All these behaviors and thousands more, I believe, are guided by our inner voices—those behavior guides that tell us to please people or be perfect or clean our plate.
But what if pleasing people isn’t serving me? Or I’m constantly berating myself for being a doormat?
I think I can make a case that we are all victims of varying degrees of Stockholm Syndrome—of being held captive by those voices in our head that tell us what to do, how to react, when to give in, and so on, that simply aren’t in our best interest.
Maybe we even know what we’re doing but it’s easier in the moment to not fight and to simply adapt.
Who’s running my life? I acknowledge that I grew up being rewarded for being in the Clean Plate Club every day of my life. Most of that had to do with my mother, the cook, feeling good about her job as chief nutritionist (although, in retrospect, I think she cared more about volume than nutrition). And her approach was reinforced by my dad who would grumble at the dinner table if I left a morsel because “on the farm we never left anything.”
So today I struggle with resisting eating everything on my plate regardless of my level of satiation. Who’s running my life? Certainly not me, or I would weigh 165 pounds. I don’t.
Who was running Shawn Hornbeck’s life? Certainly not him… or he’d have simply walked away from his captor. Evidence showed that he had every opportunity to do that. Evidence also shows that I’ve had every opportunity to stop eating any time. So who’s running my life?
My experience with coaching clients is that almost all of them catch glimpses of this type of irrational dysfunction, and maybe they even attempt to escape from time to time. Eventually, however, they opt for the comfort of captivity over the effort of escape.
Who’s running your life?