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Steinberg, B.S. (1991). Psychoanalytic Concepts in International Politics: The Role of Shame and Humiliation. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 18:65-85.

(1991). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 18:65-85

Psychoanalytic Concepts in International Politics: The Role of Shame and Humiliation

Blema S. Steinberg


This paper explores the role that shame and humiliation played in the Cuban Missile Crisis as a determinant of the behaviour of both Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy. The psychoanalytic literature on shame and humiliation is reviewed briefly, and emphasis is placed on the linkages between narcissism, narcissistic injury and failures in self-esteem. Such failures are seen to produce feelings of shame, humiliation, and narcissistic rage, followed in turn by aggressive behaviour, in an attempt to alleviate those painful affects and increase feelings of self-worth.

Both Khrushchev and Kennedy experienced narcissistic injury and humilation at each other's hands; each then attempted to repair his wounded self-esteem using the power of his respective state as an instrument of aggression. The reality testing and ego strength of both men were, however, sufficiently intact that each man was able to limit his desire for revenge and allow the crisis to be concluded peacefully. The evidence suggests that placing foreign policy leaders in positions of humiliation may stimulate their desire for revenge, invite retaliatory behaviour, and, particularly in times of crisis, run the risk of all-out war.

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