Identification (With the Aggressor)

Authored by: Jay Frankel

Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalytic Political Theory

Print publication date:  September  2019
Online publication date:  September  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138696310
eBook ISBN: 9781315524771
Adobe ISBN:


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Within the broader framework of psychoanalytic conceptualizations of identification processes, Sándor Ferenczi’s concept of ‘identification with the aggressor’ constitutes a core understanding of children’s response to abuse. In response to an assault, the isolated, terrified child subordinates herself to the aggressor’s will. She gives up her self, and ‘becomes’ what he wants her to be, both as a survival response when danger threatens, and as a tactic to ensure continued belonging to the family when rejection looms. Compensatory narcissistic fantasies may provide a feeling of specialness that numbs and replaces insecurities and despair; but in fact, along with accommodation on mental and moral levels, they facilitate compliance with the aggressor. Identification with the aggressor often continues as a persisting tendency; this tendency is often found in children and adults who have not been grossly abused, suggesting that more subtle acts like emotional abandonment and narcissistic exploitation can have long-standing traumatic effects. Its pervasiveness suggests that it may be an built-in response potential triggered by a fear of social exclusion, which may have evolved to maintain the social hierarchy and cooperation necessary to a species relying on a group survival strategy. This phenomenon may shed light on the puzzle of authoritarianism, notably, why so many people are drawn to authoritarian leaders and movements, often against their own real interests, suggesting that identification with the aggressor is the intrapsychic core of authoritarian attitudes.

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