Ferenczi’s notion of Identification with the aggressor
Perhaps the notion most relevant to our discussion of the formation of SPs is Ferenczi’s “Identification with the aggressor.” This notion of "identification with the aggressor” (to be abbreviated to “IWA” hereafter) is generally considered to be introduced by Anna Freud (1936)(L&P, p.207) who included IWA as one of the defense mechanisms.” Faced with an external threat (typically represented by a criticism emanating from an authority), the subject identifies himself with his aggressor. He may do so either by appropriating the aggression itself, or else by physical or moral emulation of the aggressor, or again by adopting particular symbols of power by which the aggressor is designated.”(L&P p.207)
The most characteristic of the notion of IWA represented by Anna Freud is the reversal of the role. Anna Freud thought that the child goes through an initial stage in which the whole aggressive relationship is reversed: the aggressor is introjected while the person attacked, criticized or guilty is projected outwards. It is only afterwards that the aggressiveness turned inwards.
The same tone of view was presented by René Spitz (No and Yes (1957)) who asserts that IWA is the predominant mechanism in the acquisition of the capacity to say “no”.
Spitz, R.A. (1957). No and yes : on the genesis of human communication. New York : International Universities Press.
These authors stressed the importance of the internalization of aggression, first directed toward the children, to “use” it, so to speak, as a coping strategy in order to deal with the original aggression. It is regarded as a healthy mechanism that a child needs to acquire in order to further develop their personal integrity vis a vis external world.
Recently, there are views that assert the necessity that we turn our attention to Ferenczi’s original notion of IWA, which stress rather pathological and traumatic aspect of a situation where the IWA is mobilized. One of the proponents who shed a new light on Ferenczi's original notion of IWA is Jay Frankel (2002). (Frankel, J. (2002) Exploring Ferenczi's Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12:101-139)
He stresses that although many of us attribute this notion to that of Anna Freud, (as L & P does as we saw above), Frenczi’s notion of IWA should be honored for its originality, and his notion was practically very different from IWA proposed by Anna Freud, which basically means that the victim turn the situation around and becomes aggressor him/herself. “By impersonating the aggressor, assuming his attributes or imitating his aggression, the child transforms himself from the person threatened into the person who makes the threat” (A.Freud, 1936, p. 113).
Frankel carefully guides us to explore Ferenczi’s original meaning of IWA.
Frankel states that Ferenczi introduced this term in his work in 1933 (Ferenczi, 1933), three years before Anna Freud’s work (1936)
Ferenczi, S. (1933), Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. In:
Final Contributions to the ProbleMr.And Methods of Psycho-Analysis, ed.
M. Balint (trans. E. Mosbacher). London: Karnac Books, 1980, pp. 156-
167., Freud, A. (1936), The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (rev.). New York:
International Universities Press.
One of the reasons that Ferenczi's notion did not gain recognition was because of the specific circumstances in which his idea was initially presented. His 1933 paper was presented at the Weisbaden Congress in September 1932 and published in German in the same year. Unfortunately, it was not translated in English and published until 1949. Frankel succinctly summarizes Ferenci’s idea presented in this paper.” Exploring the early memories of his adult patients who had been abused as children, Ferenczi (1933) found evidence that children who are terrified by adults who are out of control will “subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor…. The weak and undeveloped personality reacts to sudden unpleasure not by defence, but by anxiety-ridden identification and by introjection of the menacing person or aggressor” (pp. 162-163, entire passage italicized in the original). The child “become[s] one” (p. 165) with the attacker.