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Understanding the Defense Mechanism of Identification with Aggressor

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Anna always admired her boss, Tom, for his command over the room and his decisive manner. Though she initially disapproved of Tom’s often abrasive methods, she found herself increasingly mimicking his style – rebuking her colleagues with a sharp tongue, all in the name of ‘effective leadership.’

Anna’s gradual shift exemplified a complex defensive strategy free from her typical empathetic approach, where she began to align herself with Tom’s authoritative traits, despite previously finding them objectionable.

This tale offers a look into the psychological concept known as Identification with the aggressor, a defense mechanism where someone adopts the characteristics of an individual perceived as threatening, to avoid confrontation and reduce anxiety.

Understanding Defense Mechanism of Identification with Aggressor

Identification with Aggressor

Definition

Identification with aggressor is a survival strategy developed in our psyche. It occurs when a person emulates the characteristics, behaviours, or traits of someone they perceive as a threat, often an authority figure or someone in a dominant position.

Mechanism

This defense mechanism typically arises from situations where an individual feels overwhelmed or intimidated. To cope with the fear or distress caused by an aggressor, the person subconsciously takes on their attributes.

By identifying with aggressor, the individual seeks to appease the threatening figure or gain a sense of control. The unconscious plays a crucial role here, guiding the process without the individual’s explicit awareness, impacting their long-term behaviour and self-concept.

Examples:

In everyday life, this identification can manifest in various scenarios:

  • A bullied child starts to exhibit aggressive behaviours towards their peers, copying the actions of their bullies.
  • An employee who, after enduring belittlement from a superior, begins to adopt similar disparaging attitudes toward their subordinates or peers.
  • Victims of abuse may identify with their abusers as a coping mechanism, justifying or replicating the abusive behaviours in other relationships.

Theoretical Perspective

The concept of Identification with aggressor traces back to the early 20th century, initially explored by Sigmund Freud and later refined by his daughter, Anna Freud, in her work with children facing hostile situations. It was during these formative years of psychoanalysis that the intricate ways individuals adapt to threatening circumstances began to be understood.

Types of Identification with Aggressor

Identification with the aggressor can take various forms, depending on the context and individual:

  • Defensive Identification: Adopting traits from an aggressor as a defense against personal feelings of vulnerability.
  • Survival Identification: Used in extreme situations, such as hostages aligning with their captors (as seen in Stockholm syndrome) as a survival strategy.
  • Adaptive Identification: Occurs when individuals emulate assertive or authoritative figures to succeed in environments where such traits are rewarded.

Identification with the Aggressor and Related Concepts

  • Role Reversal: Taking on the role of an aggressor in different contexts, asserting control previously lost.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: A well-documented psychological response where hostages develop sympathy, loyalty, or affection toward their captors.
  • Mimicry: A more general psychological behaviour where individuals imitate others without the emotional component of feeling threatened or coerced.

The Impact of Identification with the Aggressor

Impact of Identification with the Aggressor

How it Helps

  • Self-Protection: In the short term, identification with the aggressor can serve as a psychological shield, providing a sense of safety and control in threatening situations.
  • Adaptability: This mechanism may allow individuals to adapt and thrive in environments where aggressive traits are the norm or valued.
  • Conflict Avoidance: By aligning with the aggressor, individuals may be able to avoid direct conflict and reduce tension in their environment.

Problems it Can Create

  • Loss of Self: Ongoing identification with an aggressor can erode a person’s sense of self and authenticity, leading to confusion about their own values and beliefs.
  • Relationship Strain: This defense mechanism can strain personal relationships, as loved ones may not recognize or relate to the changed behaviour.
  • Perpetuating Aggression: Identifying with the aggressor can lead to the continuation and normalization of aggressive or abusive behaviours, as the individual unwittingly reinforces the cycle of aggression they initially sought to avoid.

Examples in Different Areas

  • In Families: A child raised in an authoritarian household might become overly controlling or strict, replicating the oppressive environment they grew up in.
  • In Romance: Someone who has identified with an aggressive partner may unconsciously seek out or recreate similar dynamics in future relationships.
  • At Work: An employee might use intimidation tactics learned from an overbearing manager to gain respect or assert authority.

Identification with the aggressor can be a double-edged sword—providing immediate coping advantages but potentially leading to lasting negative outcomes. Understanding both sides of this complex response is essential for recognizing when identification has shifted from a temporary coping strategy to a problematic behaviour pattern.

Identification with the Aggressor in Therapy: A Therapist’s Perspective

In the therapeutic setting, therapists often encounter clients who exhibit behaviours and outlooks that are not inherently their own but have been adapted from figures of authority or aggressors. Recognizing these instances of identification can be pivotal in helping clients move toward healthier patterns of behaviour.

Client Challenges

Clients may have difficulty understanding why they react overwhelmingly or aggressively in certain situations, especially if these reactions feel incongruent with their self-image. For example, a patient might display domineering behaviours at work but express feelings of guilt and confusion about these actions during therapy sessions.

The Therapeutic Goal

Therapists aim to assist clients in identifying and understanding the roots of their identification with the aggressor, helping them differentiate between self-protective adaptations and their authentic selves. By bringing awareness to these patterns, therapy can provide clients with alternative strategies for dealing with conflict and perceived threats.

Navigating the Complexities

Therapists must approach the topic cautiously, as clients may be initially resistant to acknowledging the influence of their aggressors on their behaviours. In therapy, identifying the source without directly confronting or naming the concept of identification with the aggressor can be effective.

This indirect approach allows clients to explore these behaviours more openly, reducing defensiveness and fostering insight.

The therapeutic journey involves guiding clients through a process of unlearning these defensive adaptations, promoting self-discovery, and encouraging the development of behaviours that genuinely reflect their values and beliefs. 

Overcoming Identification with the Aggressor with Cognitive Hypnotic Psychotherapy: A Guide for Therapists

Guide for Therapists

In cases where clients have developed patterns of identification with aggressor, Cognitive Hypnotic Psychotherapy (CHP) can be a powerful tool to effect change.

CHP is an integrative therapeutic approach that aims to resolve clients’ concerns through a blend of conscious cognitive work and access to the unconscious mind using hypnosis. This method helps clients address both the surface symptoms and the underlying causes of their difficulties.

Techniques to Aid in Overcoming Identification with the Aggressor

  • Cognitive Delayering: Therapists help clients peel back the layers of learned behaviours to reveal the core beliefs and feelings driving their identification with the aggressor.
  • Hypnotic Regression: Guided hypnosis allows clients to revisit past experiences that may have led to the adoption of the aggressor’s traits, providing insights and opportunities for healing.
  • Emotional Empowerment Technique (EET): EET helps clients identify and release trapped emotions associated with past traumatic experiences. By addressing these emotions, clients can gain insight into how they have internalized the behaviours or attitudes of their aggressors.
  • Corrective Therapy: This technique involves revisiting past events in a safe therapeutic environment to reframe and reinterpret them. Clients can correct distorted perceptions and beliefs formed during traumatic experiences, helping them disidentify from the aggressor.
  • Self Validation & Integration Therapy (SVIT): SVIT focuses on validating the client’s experiences and integrating fragmented parts of their personality that may have been influenced by the aggressor. This process fosters self-acceptance and reduces reliance on maladaptive defense mechanisms.
  • Inner Advisor: The Inner Advisor technique involves guiding clients to connect with an inner wise figure or advisor who provides support, guidance, and alternative perspectives. This helps clients develop healthier coping strategies and diminish identification with negative influences.
  • Transformational Metaphor: Using metaphors to create stories that resonate deeply with clients’ subconscious minds can facilitate transformation by providing new ways to view themselves apart from their aggressors’ influence.
  • Parts Integration: This NLP technique addresses conflicting parts within a client’s psyche—one part identifying with the aggressor while another seeks autonomy—and integrates them harmoniously for more balanced behaviour patterns.
  • Ho’oponopono: A Hawaiian practice involving reconciliation and forgiveness; it helps individuals release resentment towards themselves or others (including aggressors), promoting emotional healing.
  • Inner Child Healing: Focusing on nurturing wounded aspects of one’s inner child affected by aggression allows for deep emotional healing , reducing tendencies toward adopting aggressive traits .

By employing CHP, therapists can help clients untangle the complex web of identification with the aggressor, empowering them to reclaim their sense of self and develop more adaptive coping mechanisms.

Conclusion:

Identification with the aggressor is a multifaceted psychological phenomenon that serves as a testament to the remarkable adaptability of the human mind. While it may initially provide a sense of safety and control in threatening situations, prolonged identification with an aggressor can lead to a loss of authenticity, strained relationships, and the perpetuation of harmful behaviours.

Ultimately, understanding identification with the aggressor is not only crucial for personal growth but also for fostering more compassionate and harmonious relationships within our families, workplaces, and communities. By shedding light on this complex psychological response, we can pave the way for greater self-awareness, empathy, and the cultivation of environments that promote mutual respect and personal empowerment.