This column also appears in the January/February, 2011; Volume 23, Issue 1 of The Therapist, published by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT). Abstract page 90.
This two-part series examines the psychological origins and antecedents of terrorism. Object relations, intersubjective systems theory and contemporary relational psychoanalytic theories are used to define and highlight the constellation of specific dynamics implicated in terrorist enactments, particularly the ways they replicate salient interactive patterns of early mother-infant communication. This resonant, harmonic unit, characterized by interactive modes of touch, gaze and projection, establishes the creative sphere wherein an infant comes into selfhood and begins to develop nascent capacities for relationality, empathy and morality. Emotional terrorism begins when a mother is unable to contain and modify her infant’s projected anxieties or, in reverse, projects her own, initiating a repetitious cycle of terrorist-victim or “doer and done-to.” Clinical and cultural implications of sadism, the perversion of empathy, are also considered.
Terrorism, that shapeless haunt of latent danger associated with unpredictably nihilistic provocateurs and paranoiac agitation, is as readily identifiable as the plot of a Cold War spy thriller, yet not as easily understood.
What is terrorism, we might ask, and what, if anything, distinguishes it psychologically from other forms of violence. What makes it so, well, terrifying?
As psychotherapists, how do we begin to think creatively about terrorism and its origins in ways that might disrupt the futility of rancorous recriminations and swift retaliation? What can we learn from theory of mind and the psychological antecedents of terrorism to relieve the persisting and polarizing impasse of victim and victimizer, what Jessica Benjamin (Benjamin 2004) described as doer and done-to?
Can we use our theoretical knowledge and expertise to expand the narrow scope of conceptual thinking that delimits conventional understanding of terrorism? Might we then redefine terrorism in ways that generate more enduring solutions than those provided by political and military pundits? Are there ways to formulate less intrusive and more durable interventions to manage the amorphous dread and collective vigilance that suffuses the atmosphere like toxic vapor?
While preemptive or retaliatory militaristic actions successfully manage discrete acts of terrorism, they do nothing to dismantle the terrorist-victim dynamic that drives intimidating violence, leaving us mired in impasse and stalemate. The antecedent psychological dynamics informing terrorist violence must be considered with gravitas equal to that of the disruptive behavioral discharge. Lasting success will be more difficult to achieve if we obstruct the latter without concurrently understanding the former.
To loosen the conceptual stricture and rigid dialectics that dominate civic dialogue and circumscribe public policy, it is crucial to understand that the cycle of terrorist violence begins in the mind.
Psychoanalysis, with its richly diverse theoretical compendium, might illuminate the psychological dynamics of terrorism with a crispness and precision other paradigms lack. Certainly, it would contribute a thoughtful dimension to a serious dialogue. Psychoanalytic thinking posits that behavior reflects mentation and understands that mental life begins in infancy.
Therefore, it is imperative to examine the intersubjective sphere in which the budding infant mind begins to develop. The early interactive modes of mother-infant communication and the projective processes crucial to early mental life represent the prototypical dynamics for those that subsequently galvanize the emotional terrorist.
The vitality of mutually regulating infant-mother communication
Projection denotes a normative, in fact, essential mode of infant communication. Along with touch and gaze, it is one of the primary, post-natal emotional languages characterizing rudimentary mother-infant communication long before a child acquires the capacity for verbal discourse. Winnicott (Winnicott 1963) proposed the phrase “maternal preoccupation” to describe the immense emotional and relational changes occurring in new mothers as they care for infants. This heightened state of attentive focus insures infant survival, because only a mother (or father or primary caretaker serving maternal functions) is sufficiently identified with her infant’s needs to meet them fully.
An empathically attuned mother receives her baby’s emotional projections like spoken language. Organizing and returning these bits of sensory affect in ways her infant experiences as regulatory and containing, he is comforted. An infant may think he has magically fulfilled or hallucinated his own sensory-affective needs, when it is his mother who has perceived and gratified them seamlessly.
Creating an environment in which her infant can safely mature, he begins to establish a nascent sense of himself as an individual whose unencumbered development was best described by Winnicott (Winnicott 1963) as “going on being.” Within this exquisitely cultivated surround, the unfettered infant is free to grow and begin to develop mental and relational capacities.
Bion (Bion 1962) referred to this rhythmic interpersonal dynamic intended to reduce infant fears as “container-contained.” During communicative exchanges, mother and baby establish a mutually resonant and harmonic unit. The subtlety of these early communicative interactions creates a sense of “thirdness,” a co-created, trusting intimacy that relieves the solipsistic isolation of the intrapsychic mind and brings the infant into relationality. As Winnicott (Winnicott 1960) wrote, “There is no mother without a baby, and there is no baby without a mother.”
If the mother is unwilling or unable to contain and organize her child’s sensory-affective experience or, in reverse, projects her own unmetabolized anxiety onto her child, the overwhelmed infant has few options for deliverance. Feeling his very existence at risk, he will either split himself off from this undigested emotional matter or use projection to rid himself of what he cannot yet tolerate.
It is this disorganized, unmetabolized emotional experience and the means by which it is kept out of awareness that ultimately pose a threat. Lacking linguistic symbolization and eluding conscious awareness, it can only be acted out or discharged behaviorally.
The psychologically undeveloped maneuvers of the vulnerable infant grasping for survival eventually become the emotional propellant fueling terrorist enactments. We are terrorized and scorched by the exploding fragments of projected traumata.
Projection, empathy and morality
Projection – the movement, shifting or sharing of sensory-affective experience in the absence of spoken language – is really a neutral dynamic having psychological implications well beyond infancy. While it most often recognized as a defensive method employed to rid the body-mind of intolerable sensations or affect, projection may also be used in the service of creating experience-near, interpersonal bonds.
Projection used to locate a part of oneself in another to share or understand that person’s subjective experience constitutes the intrinsic basis for empathy and subsequently, ethical and moral life. The acquisition of empathy is a developmental achievement, a byproduct of the healthy projective exchanges between mother and infant. An infant must experience empathy before he can express or return it.
Clinical psychotherapy might best be defined as a science of empathy distinguishing it from the empiricism of research psychology. Empathic attunement is the singular clinical feature common to all psychotherapeutic modalities. As practicing psychotherapists, whatever our theoretical orientations, we routinely rely upon empathy as a point of departure to approach and convey understanding to clients and patients in ways that facilitate trust and evoke change.
Empathy is a two-person interpersonal dynamic not a one-person act of benevolence.
In fact empathy guides ethical conduct throughout life. Moral choices reflect not simply the religious or secular laws that demand them but the earliest moments of flickering consciousness when a mother’s gaze, touch and responsiveness communicated safety and welcome.
Laws exist to regulate behavior when empathy and ethics have failed.
Sadism – the perversion of empathy
Conversely, sadism represents its perversion. It is well known that the Nazis employed whistling bombs during the Blitz of London, because they knew empathically that the shrill crescendo of approaching incendiaries would terrify people below. Theirs was a well-crafted mode of emotional terrorism.
Empathically attuned children know just how to injure their parents. Nothing wounds more acutely than hearing an angry toddler shriek, “I don’t love you anymore.” The father who regards himself as his child’s best friend will cringe every time he hears his enraged offspring declare, “You’re not my best friend anymore.”
In our current mass-media surround, sadism is frequently exploited for cheap entertainment by pop-culture “therapists” who use brutality to shred the fragile defenses of vulnerably desperate client-participants by attacking their exposed psychological viscera most cruelly. Rather than working to build psychic structure, they use empathy to shame and humiliate. To amuse and entertain.
Televised “reality” or talk show programming is the bloodsport that has replaced the coliseum as the purveyor of vicarious sadism in the contemporary milieu.
Slathering at the celebrity slag heap, fans project their vicious envy, delighting in the public humiliation of the inconsequential and accomplished alike, often the same people they had idealized as demigods the day before. John Lennon’s murder thirty years ago might be attributed to the terrorizing enactment of one such emotional fan who idealized then vilified a celebrity-stranger.
Externalization and projection of unmetabolized envy and murderous rage was followed by an actual murder in an ineffectual attempt to kill off unformulated, dissociated experience. The media delivered death like episodic soap opera melodrama, unable to distinguish the significance of actual murder from the base sexual voyeurism permeating its customary medley of mindless tattle.
Dissociation and unformulated experience
The mind is very adept at devising creative tactics to manage unbearable feelings and traumatic experience. Sometimes they are defensively and selectively kept out of awareness by avoidance. Existing as content without form, they have yet to be sculpted by thought and language (Stern 2003). For a vulnerable infant, these defenses insure survival, which is why they are often extremely difficult to modify later in life.
Dissociation and projection permit the temporary evasion of anxiety, but emotional stasis is maintained at the expense of learning and change. Though evacuation removes or minimizes the psychological irritant and often leaves the emotional terrorist feeling vigorously self-righteous, serious problems arise when the disavowed attributes are attributed to someone or something else and attacked.
In futile Sisyphean style, the proverbial scapegoat must carry away communal guilt sins of “badness” each successive year, because the shameful feelings they evoke are never claimed and examined. They can only be split off and dispatched. The disavowed traits are psychologically transferred ritually to a neutral animal, preferably one young and untainted. After carrying collective contamination into the wilderness of the unconscious mind, the young animal is destroyed, pushed off a cliff, ostensibly taking the badness with it. Banished but not vanquished, the badness exists as unsymbolized, dissociated experience that can only be enacted. This emotional content without symbolic form (Stern 1997) requires increasing degrees of defensive vigilance to circumvent its emergence into consciousness.
Consider for a moment that the one-way transfer of existential terrors from one body-mind to another might be construed as emotional terrorism. Terrorist enactments, as we have come to know them in both secular and religious configurations, have their origins in the breakdown of communication between a mother and her infant.
Attachment to primary caregivers teaches an infant how to experience and manage feelings of love and hatred. The qualitative reliability or deficiency of these early relationships forms the emotional substrate of our relational template. If an infant’s defensive repertoire isn’t modulated by parental care, psychological maturation is hampered, and existential terrors remain unmetabolized, intolerable and unmanageable.
In these instances, unbearable feelings of envy, longing, desire and rage do not remain simply unformulated and emotionally shapeless within the intrapsychic mind. They are externalized and cast out. Once ejected, they are located elsewhere just as an infant projects unbearable feelings of distress onto his mother who can (hopefully) better tolerate and organize them. No military engagement or body of law can assuage the unmediated, existential terrors of infancy and early childhood.
Reciprocity and Mutuality
Ideally, an infant’s archaic projective communications are part of a two-pronged interpersonal dynamic defined by mutual acknowledgment and reciprocity. Received by his mother who organizes and returns them in digestible and titrated doses to help him develop increasingly differentiated psychic structure and relational capacities, they transpire within a mutually regulating intersubjective field.
Projections associated with terrorism are missing the regulatory and clarifying half of the exchange. In this configuration, distressing affect is evacuated from the body-mind like a painful gas bubble but remains devoid of clarifying thought or symbolic language that might render it meaningful or psychologically useful. Without the reparative and integrating response of an attuned parent or therapist, unbearable experience or affect is simply jettisoned like shrapnel and located elsewhere. Unable to be used for learning, it can only be projected and attacked repeatedly.
Without the completing circle of communication, the “bad” qualities of these emotional projectiles are attributed to the external objects where they have been lobbed and are subsequently attacked “out there.” While rage and envy may be temporarily subdued, enduring change is precluded, because the attack-retaliation cycle presents no viable opportunity for emotional refinement or growth.
Paradoxically, terrorism is less about hatred of others and more about self-hatred aged into vindictiveness that has been defensively misattributed to someone or something else and then attacked. An individual with a developed sense of personal agency and only benign degrees of envy has no psychological need to destroy others. We must distinguish clinically and politically between gratifying terrorist enactments and acknowledging the subjective realities of others in an attempt to promote mutuality and collaborative solutions.
Working with children
Board game imbroglios with young children offer wonderful opportunities to observe and modify defensive projection in action. Because luck rather than skill is too often involved, a child who is not winning quickly grows frustrated and resorts to cheating.
My nephew and I were playing such a game one afternoon when he happened to select a color card that sent him back to the beginning square of the game. I could see his entire body collapse with disappointment and downcast, he began to peek furtively at the underside of the cards to his best advantage. His usual habit was to decide mid-game that he wanted to do something else.
I observed him for a while, weighing options, and finally remarked that he seemed very interested in winning and was very clever about doing so. He responded with a crafty smile. As we had played this game together many times, I risked going further, adding that this was a game of luck, and that winning wasn’t always possible. Was it? He smiled again and skillfully shifted a card or two. “He cheats all the time,” his friend proclaimed from the kitchen where he was enjoying a snack, and at that moment, my nephew reached emotional saturation. Quickly externalizing and projecting his frustration, he shouted, “You cheat! You cheat!” and fled the room.
Object devaluation accompanies the psychological assault. One of the first things the mind does to relieve the disappointment of being deprived of something it wants but cannot possess is to devalue as part of the attack. This is an attempt to “sour the milk.” The bad feelings of deprivation, envy, lack or loss are projected and superimposed on the unavailable or lost person or object of desire and then attacked vindictively.
For an hour or so after our rupture, my nephew said he didn’t want to play “that stupid game” ever again. The game had been temporarily personified with projected badness. After spending some conversational time together outside, he felt able to resume our engagement with enthusiasm and an increased tolerance for the vagaries of Candy land.
The Emotional Terrorist Part II examines theory and case material in depth, offering clinical examples with couples, families, children and individuals.
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Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond doer and done to: an intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73:5-46.
Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from Experience. London: Tavistock
Stern, D.B. (1999). Unformulated experience: From dissociation to imagination in psychoanalysis. In: Relational psychoanalysis, the emergence of a tradition. Hillsdale, HJ: Analytic Press. (Original work published 1983)
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The theory of the parent-infant relationship. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41:585-595.
Winnicott, D.W. (1963). Dependence in infant care, in child care, and in the psycho-analytic setting. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 44:339-344.