Identification with the Aggressor

December 17, 2016

We’re always going to get hurt in relationships with other people. A misunderstanding, an unusual situation, or a lack of tolerance can result in conflict. But there are also situations where aggression and violence go too far, and we have to get away from the people who cause us pain.

The phrase “identification with the aggressor” was coined by Sandor Ferenczi and picked up by Anna Freud, two psychoanalysts with slightly different points of view. It’s a paradoxical behavior that can only be explained as a defense mechanism, which involves the victim of aggression or harm acting like the aggressor.

“Violence is the fear of others’ ideals.”

-Mahatma Gandhi-

Even in situations of terror and isolation, the attitude of the victim towards the aggressor can become pathological, and feelings of admiration, gratitude, and identification can develop.

A typical example of identification with the aggressor is the behavior of some Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Some of the prisoners behaved like their guards and abused their own fellow captives. This behavior wasn’t simply a way to “suck up to” their aggressors.

When you admire or love the people who hurt you

A classical example of identification with the aggressor is Stockholm syndromeThis term is used when kidnapping victims establish an emotional bond with their captor.

This syndrome has also been called a “terrifying bond” or “traumatic bond.” It’s used to describe victims who have favorable feelings and behaviors towards their abuser, and negative attitudes towards things that go against their abuser’s mentality and intentions.

woman and bear

When someone is at the mercy of an aggressor, they feel terror and anxiety, which leads to a childlike regressionThis regression is experienced as a type of gratitude towards the aggressor, whom they start to see as someone who attends to their basic needs. In this way, the victim goes back to being like a child.

The abuser feeds them, lets them go to the bathroom, etc. In response to this “generosity,” the victim feels nothing but gratitude towards their aggressor for allowing them to stay alive. They forget that their aggressor is really the origin of their suffering.

The usual method of an aggressor involves intimidating the victim when they find themselves in a defenseless state. That is, the aggressor abuses the victim when they’re vulnerable. At this point, the victim is terrified and it’s difficult to defend themselves against the harm. This behavior occurs because the victim believes that if they submit, they’ll have more of a chance at survival.

The emotional attachment

The emotional attachment of victims of intimidation and abuse towards their abuser is really a survival strategy. Once the relationship between victim and abuser is understood, it’s easier to understand why the victim supports, defends, or even loves their abuser.

The truth is that this type of situation doesn’t just occur with kidnappings. You can also see this defense mechanism in various, and unfortunately more common, situations, like abusive relationships.

Many of them refuse to press charges, and some even pay the bail for their boyfriends or husbands, even though they were physically abused by them. They even fight with police officers when they try to rescue them from violent aggression.

woman with flowers

Some conditions favor identification with the aggressor, like domestic violence or workplace harassment, for example. This mechanism is also activated in random acts of violence, like assault or rape. In any case, life can become unsustainable if it can’t be overcome.

All trauma originating from an act of violence leaves a deep mark on the heart. This is why identification with the aggressor is activated, even when there isn’t a close relationship with the aggressor.

What happens is that they fear the abuser so much that they end up imitating them, to make up for the fear produced by a possible confrontation. One example of this is when a victim of armed assault buys a gun to defend themselves. Their attitude legitimizes the use of the kind of violence they were a victim of.

From victim to aggressor

Victims of abuse run the risk of becoming abusers themselves. This happens because the victim struggles to understand what happened, but can’t. It’s like their personality gets diluted in all the confusion, which creates an empty space. An empty space that is gradually filled with characteristics of their aggressor, and then becomes identification with the aggressor.

It’s important to clarify that this whole process develops unconsciously. It’s like an actor who gets so into his character that he ends up becoming the character himself. The victim thinks that if they appropriate the characteristics of their aggressor, they can neutralize them. They become obsessed with this goal, so they try again and again, and in this dynamic they end up resembling their abuser.

woman in tree

This starts a chain reaction that results in a vicious cycle of violence. A boss is violent towards his employee, the employee is violent towards his wife, the wife is violent towards her children, the children are violent towards the dog, and the dog ends up biting the boss. Or, one population is violent towards another, which then feels like they have the right to return the violence to their aggressor. They think that they’re just responding to it, but deep down they’re imitating that which they reject.

Unfortunately, a high percentage of people who experience traumatic situations and aren’t able to overcome them or don’t seek help, will potentially reproduce the trauma in other people. To some, this might seem like an obvious consequence, to others it might seem contradictory, but that’s just the reality of it.

 

How to Identify Psychological Abuse