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Frankel, J. (2002). Exploring Ferenczi's Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship. Psychoanal. Dial., 12(1):101-139.

(2002). Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(1):101-139

Exploring Ferenczi's Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship Related Papers

Jay Frankel, Ph.D.

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.

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.

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