When we feel overwhelmed by an inescapable threat, we “identify with the aggressor” (Ferenczi, 1933). Hoping to survive, we sense and “become” precisely what the attacker expects of us—in our behavior, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. Identification with the aggressor is closely coordinated with other responses to trauma, including dissociation. Over the long run, it can become habitual and can lead to masochism, chronic hypervigilance, and other personality distortions.
But habitual identification with the aggressor also frequently occurs in people who have not suffered severe trauma, which raises the possibility that certain events not generally considered to constitute trauma are often experienced as traumatic. Following Ferenczi, I suggest that emotional abandonment or isolation, and being subject to a greater power, are such events. In addition, identification with the aggressor is a tactic typical of people in a weak position; as such, it plays an important role in social interaction in general.
Jay Frankel, Ph.D. is an Associate Editor of Psychoanalytic Dialogues; Faculty and Supervisor, the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis; and Supervisor, New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, and the Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Programs at the William Alanson White Institute and the National Institute for the Psychotherapies.
The author wishes to thank Neil Altman, Ellen Arfin, Lewis Aron, Anthony Bass, Jody Davies, Judith Dupont, Susan Fabrick, Beth Lawrence, Helene Nemiroff, Fredric Perlman, Shari Rosenblatt, Brenda Szulman, and Joyce Whitby for their thoughtful readings of earlier versions of this paper and for their very helpful comments. Thanks also to Beatrice Beebe, Leah Lipton, and Karlen Lyons-Ruth for their help in locating primary source material. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 23rd Annual Conference of the Israel Association of Psychotherapy, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 7, 1999.
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And because in certain ways patient and analyst are inherent threats to each other, both partly see and identify with the other as an aggressor. The result is unconscious collusions: “tenuous agreements” to avoid areas of anxiety for both of them. The process of analysis can be understood as the working through of these inevitable collusions.