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Identification with the Aggressor

IDENTIFICATION WITH THE AGGRESSOR

Identification with the aggressor was first described by Anna Freud in her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, first published in German in 1936.

In that book, Anna Freud drew a distinction between defenses directed against drive derivatives (to protect the ego against instinctual demands) and defenses against affects. The former included defenses that had long been recognized, such as repression, regression, reaction formation, introjection, projection, isolation, and undoing, as well as vicissitudes of instinct such as reversal and turning against the self which still need the intervention of the ego for their operation. To these nine mechanisms Anna Freud added a tenth: sublimation, or displacement of instinctual aims. Nonetheless, Anna Freud was well aware of the adaptive function of sublimation.

Defenses against painful affects (which may be regarded as "preliminary stages of defense") include denial in fantasy, denial in word and deed, restriction of the ego (a defensive form of altruism), and identification with the aggressor, with which we are here concerned.

Jenny Wäelder, in a verbal communication to Anna Freud, had already given a striking picture of this mechanism in a five-year-old boy. Whenever the clinical material was about to touch on the question of masturbation or masturbatory fantasies, the normally inhibited little boy became extremely aggressive: for example, he would pretend to be a roaring lion and attack the analyst. He carried a rod about with him and pretended to be a devil, using it to attack the stairs and other parts of the room, and trying to strike his mother and grandmother. Matters came to a head when he began to brandish kitchen knives. Analysis showed that he was expecting punishment for what he regarded as forbidden activities. In his violent behavior he was both dramatizing and forestalling the attacks that he feared, and the kitchen knives pointed to his fear that his penis would be cut off.

A little boy whose Oedipus complex was at its height used this defense mechanism to try to deal with his sexual wishes towards his mother. Hitherto his relations with her had been very happy, but were now punctuated by outbursts of resentment. He would criticize her in the strongest terms for all sorts of reasons, of which the most mysterious was curiosity. This was not too difficult to explain: in his fantasies the mother knew of his sexual wishes towards her and rejected his advances with indignation. The indignation was replicated in his own outbursts of resentment, though he did not reproach her on general grounds but on those of curiosity. But the curiosity was a feature of his own instinctual life, not his mother's; he had found his scopophilic impulse the most difficult to master. Thus, defensively, he reversed the roles of parent and child.

These and other examples are described by Anna Freud. Essentially, identification with the aggressor points to a particular phase in the development of super-ego functioning, as she pointed out. For although external criticism has been introjected, the link between the fear of punishment and the offense committed has not yet been established in the patient's mind. Once the criticism is internalized, therefore, the offence is externalizeda maneuver that involves another mechanism, the projection of guilt. As Anna Freud put it, intolerance of other people precedes severity towards oneself.

Clifford Yorke

See also: Altruism; Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, The ; Ego psychology; Identification.

Bibliography

Freud, Anna. (1946). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. New York, International Universities Press, 1966. (Original work published 1936)

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