Identification with the aggressor

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In depth psychology, identification with the aggressor (also: identification with the attacker ) describes a defense mechanism for coping with fear, the function and relevance of which was assessed differently depending on the authors' point of view. The psychoanalyst Mathias Hirsch (1996) makes a standardization, who perceives two types of the same defense process in the diverging perspectives. Thus the spectrum of this defense mechanism of productive ways of coping with anxiety extends to the damaging denial overwhelming anxiety in trauma events : Here identifies a person who is physically from an aggressor and / or emotionally abused or suppressed unconscious with it.


The person internalizes and takes over personality traits, values ​​and behaviors of the aggressor without their conscious knowledge and often against their conscious will and makes them parts of themselves . Above all, traumatic experiences in childhood, in which the level of helplessness and dependency experienced is particularly high - such as in a repressive and authoritarian educational structure or psychologically manipulative educational abuse characterized by the withdrawal of love - lead to the development of this reaction. It serves to protect one's own psychological system and has the character of a “last emergency brake” before an impending collapse of the self in the face of overwhelming attacks and affects that cannot be integrated. Mentally of great importance to help maintain the functionality of the self, the consequences of identification with an aggressor actually have a highly damaging effect on the mental integrity and well-being of the self, since the development of personal autonomy is suppressed.

Forms of identification with the aggressor are often the basis of the process that is researched and discussed as “ transgenerational traumatisation ”. Since identifications with an aggressor are potentially lifelong, the traumatizing experiences are almost always passed on directly or indirectly to the next generation regardless of voluntary intentions (see also: trauma and attachment and parents with PTSD ). In many family histories, a chain of domestic violence can be identified over several generations . The failure of the parental protective function and the habitual, ideologically-based coldness and refusal of empathy on the part of parents, as is typical for the generation of war children born in the Nazi era , can also establish such a destructive tradition. The psychoanalyst Michael Ermann sees in the identification with the aggressor a deep psychological basis of the collective “inability to mourn”, as it was described by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in 1967 for the German post-war society: “Unconscious hatred of the non-protective other creates an evil inside Introject. The identification with the aggressor leads to a contempt for one's own world of needs and evokes paradoxical feelings of guilt, as in a trauma: feelings of guilt about one's own needs that are neither recognized nor satisfied by the other. What is not reflected or understood is ultimately split off or suppressed. In repression, however, deprivations and renunciation cannot be mourned. "

The perpetrators with whom a child or adult unconsciously identifies are all persons who, from the victim's point of view, are in an absolute position of power over them and to whom the victim is physically and / or psychologically at the mercy. The person with whom the identification takes place can be older or younger, same or opposite sex, within or outside the family. A violent mother, a father or brother who uses sexualised violence, a sadistic teacher, a grandiose occupying soldier and a torturer can all be persons with whom the unconscious identification takes place. Whoever is the worst enemy to consciousness can psychologically be the one with whom identification occurs. In the autobiographies of survivors of National Socialist persecution, the mechanism, as far as it was recognized, is also occasionally brought up.

In general, the severity of the overwhelm and the duration and severity of the trauma are decisive. In the case of children as victims, additional parameters are added. Basically, an identification with an aggressor takes place as a defense against the non-existent ability of the victim to understand attacks on his own physical and psychological integrity and to integrate them psychologically. The child's natural expectation and need for protection as part of the attachment behavior collides. U. with the perception that the same adult from whom this protective function is expected is at the same time the source of threat and fear. This leads to the seemingly absurd behavior that in a situation that is hopeless for the child, such as abuse by a parent, the person who is both the abusive and the threatening person is sought refuge and protection. The denial of unbearable reality through identification can manifest itself as a paradoxical perpetrator-victim bond and traumatic fixation out of fear. Such a process can also be based on corresponding phenomena in adults, such as Stockholm Syndrome .

Such an identification can be revealed and, if necessary, canceled in the course of analytical psychotherapy that is trauma-oriented. Recognizing and removing identification with an aggressor is the prerequisite for not unconsciously and thus unwillingly passing on one's own experiences of violence . Through empathic supportive forms of treatment such as reparenting , the consequences of identification can be influenced and limited to a certain extent in a therapy.

History of the term: two theoretical positions

Anna Freud: Identification with the attacker

Anna Freud takes this type of defense into the canon of the psychoanalytic doctrine of defense mechanisms as a so-called "identification with the attacker" in The I and the Defense Mechanisms (1936).

According to Anna Freud, two elementary defense mechanisms are at work in identifying with the aggressor: introjection , which Anna Freud uses as a synonym for “identification” according to the state of theory development , and projection . What is new is the idea that introjections are not only made out of love, but also out of fear. She describes the case of an elementary school student who is noticed by grimacing as soon as the teacher reprimands him. It turns out that grimacing is a distorted reflection of the teacher's angry facial features:

“The boy who is supposed to withstand the teacher's censure overcomes his fear by involuntarily imitating what is angry. He takes over his anger himself and follows the teacher's words with his own, unrecognized expressive movements. "

She discovers a harmless variant of this defense strategy and its logic in a scene of childlike coping with the fear of ghosts: "You just have to play that you are the ghost who might meet you," the older sister advises her little brother: then he needs himself not to fear, she assures him.

Anna Freud distinguishes three forms in which the identification with the attacker can be expressed, all of which, however, are based on a turn from the passively suffered to the activity (and thus a third elementary defense mechanism): the threatened becomes the threat

  • in identification with the aggressor through direct or indirect mimetic representation (direct mirroring or deliberate role assumption) of the attacker (example of the student, advice of the sister)
  • in identification with the aggression by acting out the aggression (e.g. drilling activity after a visit to the dentist),
  • in identification with the imposing quality of the aggressor by adopting the attributes which they symbolize. (The boy copes with a painful encounter with his teacher by wearing a saber and a military cap; in this way, according to Anna Freud, he identifies with his manhood)

However, identification with the aggressor is also present when a child anticipates the punishment for fear of an expected punishment : The description describes the reaction of a boy who comes home too late and tries to avoid the expected punishment that he in turn begins to rant. The identification with the aggressor can therefore be viewed as an intermediate stage in the development of the super-ego : the instance of conscience is internalized, but not yet turned against one's own self, but rather directed in projection against the outside world. Thus, the identification with the aggressor in the sense of Anna Freud is largely in the service of the developing child.

Sándor Ferenczi: Introjection of the aggressor

In contrast to Anna Freud, Sándor Ferenczi emphasized the traumatic aspect of this type of defense, which has lasting damage to mental integrity: in a lecture on his essay in 1932, he questioned the psychoanalytic theory of language confusion between adults and children by referring to the frequency of real experiences of abuse and the Weight of such experiences for the development of a mental disorder. At the same time, he criticized Freud's early departure from the so-called “ seduction theory ”, which was replaced by the construct of the Oedipus conflict .

In connection with his lecture, Ferenczi formulated for the first time that the fear and helplessness experienced by the children force them to “ completely forget to identify with the attacker ”. According to Ferenczi, the child is filled with a desire for tender, but not for sexual or violent, relationships with adults. In contrast to adult, culpable passion, the child is on a level of "passive object love":

"It is hatred that traumatically surprises and frightens the child when they are loved by an adult and transforms them from a spontaneously and harmlessly playing creature into a guilty, fearful, self-forgetting, guilty automaton that imitates the adult."

Such perceptions exceed and overwhelm the child's ability to understand and process, which can lead to a trance-like state of emergency (" traumatic trance ") in which he " introjects " the attacker , that is, takes his (unconscious) imagination into himself to make it disappear as an external reality. This protective mechanism turns the fear that is becoming unbearable at the expense of the perception of reality into a feeling of dreamlike security. Instead of actively dealing with the threatening reality of the perpetrator, which it is not capable of, it submits to the will of the perpetrator and at the same time makes him a foreign part of himself ("introjection"). With repeated experiences of violence this can lead to a downright dismemberment of the personality (“atomization”). In such an extreme state, the child to a certain extent sacrifices his or her unfinished self, barely able to defend itself, in order to hallucinate the vital relationship with a caregiver who must be presented as necessary benevolent. The overwhelmed, emotionally and perceptually confused child feels responsible for what happened, which is understood as an introjection of the attacker's guilty feeling . This feeling of guilt becomes the source of a constant defensive conflict within the soul : the victim develops hatred , which in turn causes feelings of guilt and is therefore repressed and turned against the self in a distraction from the original object. This often leads to severe disorders on the relationship level , depression , self-harming behavior or increased, outwardly directed aggressiveness . At the same time, an untimely development and inappropriate premature maturation of emotional or intellectual abilities can take place here, which Ferenczi calls "traumatic progression":

"The fear of the uninhibited, that is, crazy adults turns the child into a psychiatrist, so to speak, and in order to become that, and to protect itself from the dangers of people without self-control, it must first know how to identify with them completely."

The increased empathy born from fear makes the traumatized patient, according to Ferenczi, almost the teacher of his therapist and forces him to be particularly honest in the service of therapy.

In his Clinical Diary of 1932 (published in 1985), Ferenczi also notes the process of robbing the good by the aggressor, which takes place at the same time as the introjection of evil and leads to a state of being alive and dead on the part of the victim. Almost vampire-like (...) the aggressor sucks a bit, i. H. the squeezed piece of the victim into itself ... and annexes the naive, fearless, calm situation of happiness in which the victim lived until then.


Today, the real conditions that lead to psychopathological disorders are systematically investigated , especially in the context of psychotraumatology , and are also emphasized more strongly within psychoanalysis. A mediation between Freudian orthodoxy ( drive theory ) and Ferenczi's pathogenetic rehabilitation of real trauma, e.g. B. the sexual abuse of children ( seduction theory ), particularly undertakes the psychoanalyst Mathias Hirsch . He sees Ferenczi's contribution as a significant extension of the teaching with regard to psychoanalytic traumatology.

For the classical psychoanalytic view, however, Otto Kernberg's demand for therapeutic tolerance towards perpetrator aggression should stand:

“The tolerance of the aggression of the perpetrator that is projected onto us is incredibly crucial for the success of the therapy, in that we can become the perpetrator and we identify ourselves as the perpetrator, making it easier for the patient to identify himself as the perpetrator ... We So we must be able to identify with the commandant of the concentration camp, with the torturer in the dictatorship, with the incestuous father, with the sadistic mother. So we must also feel the desire to destroy, the desire to throw an incendiary bomb, the desire to feel sadistic aggression, because we all have the willingness in our unconscious. "

A culturally critical understanding of the identification with the aggressor as a socialization- related and cultural deformation can be found as “betrayal of the self” in Arno Gruen's work .

The American psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin sees in the Freudian Oedipus complex is essentially the defense mechanism of identification with the aggressor in effect when identification with the power and the guilt of the father (as of Laius , Oedipus' father) through which patriarchal power structures handed down be. Her concept of the “New Oedipus” “(...) revises the old Oedipal concept of responsibility, which provided that the sons should assume the blame for the father's offense and elevated his oppressive power to law. This act of internalization had replaced the detachment from authority by identification with the aggressor and thus perpetuated the guilt-laden desire to become an authority yourself. "Classical psychoanalysis is based on the" paradoxical notion that liberation can only be achieved through the rule of the Father "is possible, and misunderstand" the need for mutual recognition of men and women. "

See also


Individual evidence

  1. ^ Anna Freud 1936; Sándor Ferenczi 1933
  2. Angela Moré: The unconscious transmission of trauma and entanglements of guilt to subsequent generations , in: Journal für Psychologie (JfP), vol. 21 (2013), issue 2; here in particular chap. 4.4. Findings from infant research and child analysis , accessed on: September 23, 2016 (archive) .
  3. Michael Ermann: Children of War in Psychoanalyses . Farewell lecture 2009, Word document (5 MB), (archive) .
  4. See for example: Rudolf Sponsel: Attachment paradoxes, pathological attachments and other attachment phenomena that are not easily understandable - also in everyday life , here subsection 1.4 (archive) .
  5. See: Mathias Hirsch (2011), chapter: Psychoanalytical Therapy with Traumatized Patients , p. 63 ff.
  6. cf. Mathias Hirsch (1996), p. 200 f.
  7. Anna Freud, Das Ich und die Abwehrmechanismen , Ffm. 1984, pp. 85 f.
  8. Anna Freud (1984), p. 86
  9. In this sense, René A. Spitz also uses the term in Yes and No (orig. Yes and No , 1957): The turn of aggression against the attacker enables learning to say no or to do in the 15th month of the toddler observed. See: J. Laplanche, J.-B. Pontalis: Das Vokabular der Psychoanalyse , ffm. 1984, first volume, p. 225. According to Laplanche and Pontalis 1967, the status of the term within classical psychoanalytic theory is unclear: in particular, its function in the context of the oedipal conflict as identification with the rival remain unclear.
  10. A lecture, however, the Ferenczi, would have gone according to the representatives of the closest circle around Freud, the so-called "Secret Committee", should no longer have given and certainly should not have published; in it culminates Ferenczi's theoretical dissent on Freudian orthodoxy. See: Jeffrey Masson : What has been done to you you poor child? Sigmund Freud's suppression of the seduction theory. Reinbek near Hamburg 1984, as well as on the problematic relationship and behavior of Freud's orthodoxy to Ferenczi's person and ideas: HW Schuch: Significant accent shifts - From genital theory to elastic psychoanalysis. especially Chapter 6: Trauma Theory . (PDF, 16 S, 598 kB).
  11. ^ Sándor Ferenczi: Confusion of language between adults and children. (The language of tenderness and passion). International Journal of Psychoanalysis, XIX. Volume 1933 Issue 1/2 (PDF, 11 pages, 3.2 MB).
  12. Schriften zur Psychoanalyse II, p. 308, in italics in the original (= Ferenczi: language confusion between the adult and the child. Quoted from: Masson (1984) p. 324). Ferenczi's lecture is regarded as the first description of this type of defense; see. on this: Masson (1984), p. 174, as well as Mathias Hirsch: Victims as perpetrators - On the perpetuation of traumatization ; in: O. Kernberg et al. (Ed.) Personality Disorders, Theory and Therapy (PTT) Issue 1, Object Relationships and Borderline Disorders, 1998, pp. 32–35.
  13. ^ Ferenczi: Confusion of language between the adult and the child. Quoted from: Masson (1984), p. 329
  14. Mathias Hirsch comments: " The real guilt of the perpetrator (which the perpetrator does not recognize) becomes the guilt feeling of the victim (who is innocent), because the introject makes guilt feelings like a hostile persecuting superego." ( Guilt and Guilt Feeling, 2012, p .14; see reading sample, PDF, 66 kB. (Accessed on August 28, 2013) ) (emphasis in the original)
  15. ^ Sándor Ferenczi: Confusion of language between adults and children. , from: Sándor Ferenczi: Infantil-Attacks: About sexual violence, trauma and dissociation , Berlin 2014, ISBN 978-3-923211-36-4 (PDF, 150 pages, 1.6 MB) .
  16. ^ Ferenczi: Confusion of language between the adult and the child. Quoted from: Masson (1984), p. 327
  17. Cf. on this: Mathias Hirsch: The history of the concept of trauma in psychoanalysis , p. 9. PDF, 181 kB (accessed on February 21, 2016)
  18. ^ Otto F. Kernberg: Personality development and trauma . In: Personality Disorders - Theory and Therapy (PTT), 1999, Vol. 3, Issue 1, pp. 5–15; Quotation in the section: aggression in the countertransference .
  19. Arno Gruen: The betrayal of the self - The fear of autonomy in men and women . 1984.
  20. Jessica Benjamin: The Shackles of Love. Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Power. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1993, pp. 171-175.