Identifying With The Aggressor
I am fascinated by the incredible survival instincts human beings have. Our intuition and instincts are so profound and accurate. Likewise, listening to our body and trusting our gut reaction has often helped us survive life or death situations. When we are in a life threatening situation, whether it’s being bullied, attacked or faced with a perceived inescapable threat, it is human nature to do whatever is necessary to survive. Quite often when feeling threatened we will sense and “become” precisely what the attacker expects of us—in our behavior, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. The phrase “identification with the aggressor” was coined by psychoanalysts Sandor Ferenczi and picked up by Anna Freud. Identifying with an aggressor is a defense mechanism, which involves the victim of aggression or harm becoming what the aggressor demands of them, acting like the aggressor and/or empathizing with their abuser.
This may feel confusing, why would those who have been victimized terrorize others in the same capacity they were tormented? Why would someone terrorized make excuses or try to protect and understand the position of their abuser? We see this phenomenon again and again in Stockholm syndrome, gaslighting, kidnappings, domestic violence, workplace harassment and abusive relationships. There are two main theories that explain why someone who identify with an aggressor. Psychoanalysis Ferenzci, described a process in which the patient identifies with the aggressor primarily to know the tormentor inside-out, so that the aggressor’s needs can be preempted and responded to. This example can be seen in domestic violence where a partner may analyze an abuser’s mood, facial expression and body language in order to protect against an attack. This is a process of hypervigilance and accommodation. Psychoanalysis Anna Freud, on the other hand, described a phenomenon in which the aggression in question is taken in (identified with) and then the cycle of abuse is repeated as a survivor of abuse becomes an aggressor and repeats the cycle of trauma experienced on another. Our behavior is complex and it is possible to fear an abuser so much that we may end up imitating them, to make up for the fear produced by a possible confrontation. An example of this is when someone who is a victim of gun violence may end up purchasing a gun to defend themselves. This attitude can often normalize or justify the form of violence they were the victim of.
Have you ever struggled with complex feelings of attachment to someone who violated you? I’m writing this blog to let you know that this isn’t something to feel ashamed of and you aren’t alone. The term ‘Stockholm Syndrome,’’ was coined at the end of a six-day bank siege by by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot and psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg. This syndrome refers to symptoms that may occur in a person who is in a hostage situation or otherwise held prisoner. Typically, these feelings can be described as sympathy toward captors or the development of a bond, love, empathy or a desire to protect their captor or captors. Someone who is the victim of Stockholm Syndrome may even develop negative feelings towards the police or those trying to intervene and rescue them. We see examples of Stockholm Syndrome when abused spouses refuse to press charges and crave reuniting with their oppressor, abusive workplace policies where people employ fear leaving because they feel this situation is their best option and in cases of cults,kidnapping and hostage holding.
In understand the complexity of why someone would identify with an aggressor, it is my hope we can have greater empathy for ourselves and others who struggle. The good news is that healing and support is available for those who are survivors. If you or someone you love is a survivor of abuse and struggle with identifying with the aggressor, below are 4 tips of support. We all are worthy of love, respect and healthy relationships. While it is possible to love someone who mistreated us, we need to stay grounded in knowing violence and abuse cannot be minimized or justified in any circumstances. Sending loving and supportive wishes to those working towards healthy relationships.
Tips of Support for Those Identifying With An Aggressor:
1. Understand the role of Repetition Compulsion: Sigmund Freud describes repetition compulsion is a defense mechanism unconsciously utilized as an attempt to rewrite history. When we have early trauma in our childhood we may inadvertently attract similar situations of abuse and rejection as a hope to overcome our past pain through recreating it and hoping to create a different ending. However, recreating trauma doesn’t heal it. We need to be able to get in touch with the parts of ourselves that are wounded. If we had abusive early caregivers, we easily could be attracted as adults to those who remind us of those early attachment objects. To those who struggle with identifying with the aggressor and are utilizing repetition compulsion to cope, I support you in going deeper. Look at those you bond with and gravitate towards. Do the therapeutic work to see if you have unresolved early wounds and then work through that with a therapist vs an abusive partner.
2. Abuse is Never Justified (Regardless of what you did or said): When someone is a victim of abusive behavior, gaslighting is very common. Gaslighting is a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and ultimately lose her or his own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth. Abuse is NEVER justified or acceptable. Yet in a 2014 study it has been reported that in 29 countries around the world, one-third or more of men say it can be acceptable for a husband to "beat his wife." Perhaps more surprising: In 19 countries, one-third or more of women agree that a husband who beats his wife may be justified, at least some of the time. We must continue to reject any belief systems that excuse or validate abuse! Under no circumstances is abuse ever deserved or the answer.
3. Hold Contradictions: While it’s confusing, it’s also very possible to love someone who hurt you. When I previously worked in Children’s Protective Services, I would see children become distraught when removed from abusive homes. Our emotions and relationships are complex and complicated. It is very possible and real to love someone and also acknowledge their behavior is dangerous, unacceptable and damaging. To those struggling with identifying with an aggressor, you don’t have to stop loving someone who hurt you. Hold those heavy contradictions. Don’t deny your feelings of love. But protect yourself, acknowledge the behavior isn’t healthy and love that person from a distance.
4. Practice Self-Compassion & Get Support: Shame and self-blame are very common emotions for survivors of abuse to experience. Please remember: The things that you suffered were not your fault and not the result of anything you did! No one wants to endure trauma and abuse. Likewise, when you are forced to endure abusive situations, it becomes really challenging to honor your self worth. That does not mean that your struggle is permanent. Practice self-compassion and find support. Psychotherapy will help you learn how to increase your sense of self worth and heal from past trauma. You aren’t alone and regardless of how intense or long ago your trauma was, healing is always possible.
Can you relate to this post? If yes, please send me an email and let's set up a complimentary phone call. Sending you peaceful thoughts and wishes for brighter days.