Identification with the aggressor

In recent days I have noticed my patients, and me for that matter, having more anxiety about  current events. It seems that the events in the news are stirring up deep feelings in my patients that they have been long trying to suppress or ignore.

There is this tendency when a person has suffered from trauma to take on some of the characteristics of the ones who inflicted the trauma. It is as if the traumatized person is in some way identifying with the aggressor, or the one who abused them in the past. This may seem difficult to understand from the outside, but on closer inspection, it would appear that the identification has the effect of removing from the one suffering the aftermath of trauma the feelings of guilt, shame and vulnerability.

When some of my patients see  events in the news that stir feelings and memories of abuse, the suppressed feelings of shame, guilt and vulnerability begin to surface. For some of them, the feelings of anger and denial begin to cover over those more painful and deeper feelings so that it would appear that they are siding with an aggressor and denying any claim a reported victim might be bringing forth.

Identification with the aggressor is an unconscious defense that is used to suppress deeper feelings of guilt, vulnerability and shame. People who have been traumatized feel weak and even constantly on guard for danger. Even though the defense of identification with the aggressor is maladaptive, it does serve to hold unwanted feelings at bay.

I’ll talk more about defenses in another post, but I’d like to point out here that many of the defenses we use are done without any knowledge on our own part. In other words, they can be unconscious. This can be a bit difficult to comprehend, but suffice it to say here that our unconscious mind is much larger than our conscious scope of thinking, and there is a lot going on there. Our unconscious mind does a lot to try to protect us from danger and mental anguish. Most of the time it works out OK, but there are times when it becomes maladaptive and makes things worse. Identification with the aggressor is one of those defenses that often makes things worse for the victim. When the abused becomes the abuser, it  only serves to keep the cycle of abuse alive.

— Stephen M Taylor, M. D.



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