This column also appears in the March/April, 2011; Volume 23, Issue 2 of The Therapist, published by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT). Abstract page 75.
This two-part series examines the psychological origins and antecedents of terrorism. Object relations, intersubjective systems theory and contemporary relational psychoanalytic concepts 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.
The Emotional Terrorist Part I examined the psychological origins and attributes of terrorist-victim dynamics and the defensive processes that drive repetitious enactments. It also explored the ways that sadism represents the perversion of empathy. The Emotional Terrorist Part II explores case material to further clarify and exemplify these dynamics.
A patient arrived for a session shortly after experiencing a serious break-up and began by disparaging her lost love object. He was an idiot. I never really loved him, anyway. I’m better off without him. While these appraisals may very well have been accurate, they were also being used defensively to avoid abject feelings of jealousy, loss, loneliness and painful rejection. These intolerable feelings were more safely managed after being externalized, projected and relocated in the lost object where they could then be attacked.
Envy and rage are difficult to tolerate, even by psychologically developed individuals, as they activate unpleasant feelings of inadequacy, incompetency and shame associated with the helplessness of infancy and distasteful dependency needs, traits that conflict with subsequent developmental achievements.
Because these undifferentiated, “not-me” (Stern 2009) self-states are kept out of awareness defensively, they pose unbearable conflicts referred to as the “agony of consciousness” (Tustin 1986, p. 43) when they begin to emerge and are quickly dispatched before they can be sufficiently modulated or integrated. A state of non-experience is preferable to torment.
Preverbal pockets of early traumata and other unmetabolized self states can only be accessed or experienced initially by the therapist via non-linguistic modes of communication that rely frequently on unconscious projective processes (Ogden 1989).
As therapists, we decode or “read” patient projections by tracking ourselves in the intersubjective matrix of the transference-countertransference milieu, carefully attending to our own sensory reactions, feelings, observations, thoughts and reveries.
Following moment by moment shifts in affect, posture, gaze and relationality, we utilize our own means of empathic projection to access unconscious aspects of both self and other in the intersubjective field. In this dynamic mode, our simultaneous access to the derivatives our own unconscious processes that would otherwise remain out of awareness help us understand what has yet to be formulated and spoken.
The Alexithymic Patient
During the analysis of a deeply frightened patient whose early environmental failures rendered him unable to access even the most basic language that might enable him to identify or conceptualize his emotional states, I learned to recognize when we had hit a preverbal pocket because he would look at me helplessly and shrug. His episodic inability to give linguistic shape to the content of his affective self-states conveyed how he used the rapid dissociation of unformulated material to protect himself from terror and dread.
Successful in the trades, he and his wife assumed very traditional marital roles that required very little intimate communication, leaving them compatible but emotionally disengaged. He said his wife complained of loneliness. He didn’t know what she wanted. People hadn’t talked about feelings when he was growing up he often said. His narcissistic mother had filled him with her own projected terrors, leaving his early object world riddled with engulfing psychic voids (Grotstein 1990) rather than viable maternal representations that could be used to contain his feelings.
He had no inner mother on whom he might rely. What little paternal comfort he had was lost when his parents divorced and his father moved away.
Invisibility was his shadow companion, and he cringed away from interpersonal intimacy and avoided social gathering that made him feel “put on the spot.” He had sporting buddies but no real friends. Rather than reactivating the internalized warmth embedded in early modes of concerned relationality provided by empathic maternal attunement, his unacknowledged and unformulated (Stern 1999) feelings simply backed up and congealed.
He loathed his mother’s visits and spoke of her relentless self-absorption, how her endless talking bombarded him with palpable word-objects. There was no space for him, so he quietly endured her assaults until she left, leaving him “in peace.” Unable to recognize his dissociated and projected desires for intimacy in his wife’s requests for contact, he felt helpless as she enacted his desperate pleadings, giving voice to his wordless scream.
Our sessions were characterized by lengthy silences during which I functioned as the container for his disavowed self-states. He found these silences extremely embarrassing, frequently announcing that he wasn’t coming back again. I understood this to mean that the conflict posed by the emergence of unspeakable affective states into consciousness was intolerable, so the dissociated terrors remained selectively unformulated and desperately avoided.
Tracking my own subtle reactions, I was able to apprehend his unformulated and dissociated feeling states and sought to find symbols and words that might describe them. Once when talking about the drought, I shared my reverie of a quiet and pristine pool of water, describing his inner world as an aquifer waiting to be tapped. This was the first symbol he’d ever linked to what had always been an unnamed part of himself.
As we sought descriptive language together, his unspeakable and amorphous feelings of annihilation dread found an outlet in discourse, and he began to formulate his own emotional language and a concomitant capacity to depict his inner world. Congealed emotional terrors began to liquefy.
Spousal victim and victimizer
In clinical practice, we observe this terrorist dynamic of doer and done-to (Benjamin 2004) most floridly when working with couples.
Repetitiously terrorizing volleys might be construed as representing a game of hot potato with dissociated emotional projectiles and bad objects. Both “bad me” and “not-me” aspects of self states are launched back and forth like missiles. Disavowed and unformulated self-states are projected and subsequently attributed to the partner where they are more easily attacked. Affect often alternates between self-loathing and rage toward the partner.
The patient whose emotional fragility feels too dangerous and alien to claim, projects it onto his spouse. “She’s too emotional,” an emotionally blunted husband said of his wife. The nascent emergence of strong conflictual feelings threatened the cohesion and regulatory aspects of his self-image, activating unwelcome dependency needs that made him feel small, needs that chafed against his branding as an autonomous adult. So, he rid himself of conflict by projecting his needs, locating them in his wife and criticizing her. In turn, she attacked his remote implacability.
Rather than experiencing the full spectrum of their sensory-affective selves, they terrorized each other with projected aspects of self states that would otherwise pose intolerable conflict. Each spouse representing one half of a broken plate (Stern 2009), they enacted in turn invariable roles of terrorist and victim. Doer and done-to.
As therapists, we feel it most acutely when a couple closes ranks and directs its combined projective animus at us. You don’t care about me. This isn’t working. You’re only here for the money. Oh, I think we can talk to each other without you. Feelings of incompetence have been located within us, temporarily relieving a couple from experiencing the abrasive conflict required to resolve them (Stern 2009).
These feelings of incompetence that are experientially and dialectically incompatible with mastery can be evaded routinely by patient and therapist, compromising treatment, until the clinician is able and willing to examine conflictual aspects of her own “bad me” and “not me” self states first.
The clinical clue uncloaking a stealth projection of helplessness is a strong countertransference feeling of utter ineptitude. We must be able to claim our own “not-me” states of ineffectuality. If we disavow them, we have no option but to project them right back. Like a juggler with several balls in the air, we must take care not to throw them.
Children and families
Projective dynamics are a bit more complex when working with children and adolescents. Just as our therapeutic relationships begin to bear fruit and an attachment has been formed, the parents may pull the child from treatment, proffering transparent and superficial excuses. Some affluent parents would actually prefer that we believe they are impoverished rather than frightened. The Container-contained dynamics (Bion 1962) have been reversed, and the child is serving a psychological function that the parents will not relinquish.
The emergence into consciousness of their inner terrors would elicit unmanageable and threatening psychic conflict. Therefore, any therapeutic effort to return projections to their rightful parental owners will be resisted to maintain the homeostatic benefit of selective avoidance.
Paradoxically, enduring change and growth require a willingness to tolerate in titrated doses the anxiety-provoking affective experience and self-states so strenuously avoided.
A patient I’d seen for many years, arrived for her appointment one afternoon and told me a remarkable story about a dinner conversation she’d recently had with her mother, a very anxious woman prone to massive denial. My patient, a skilled sailing enthusiast who was very comfortable in the water, had experienced intermittent but recurrent nightmares about being engulfed by tidal waves since childhood.
While sailing, she often experienced intrusive and distressing images of being tossed from a sinking ship into turbid and roiling seas with nothing more than a flimsy kickboard for support, ostensibly to swim for help as her mother clung to the ship’s railing helplessly. While we explored this imagery thoroughly, we could never quite plumb it to the psychological seabed satisfactorily. Something elemental always seemed to be absent. Her mother provided the missing link.
Having dinner together in a seaside restaurant with a lovely view of the bay and its sleek boats, her mother casually remarked that she’d experienced recurrent nightmares about tidal waves throughout her life. My patient was stunned to realize that she’d been carrying her mother’s projected anxieties and nightmares since early childhood, beginning at a time when the family lived substantially removed from the sea. Having reversed the container-contained dynamic (Bion 1962), her mother had flooded her daughter with dissociated self-states and annihilation anxiety in which her daughter was drowning.
This anxious and helpless woman, clinging to the railing of her psychologically sinking ship, had tossed her daughter into the vast sea of her own restless and unplumbed unconscious where she was engulfed by projected existential terrors. My patient had been colonized and terrorized by her mother’s dissociated anxieties. Soothed by the insight that her tiny kickboard provided the only psychological defense her child-self could summon against the titanic force of her mother’s fierce projections, she renounced it, and her nightmare has not recurred.
In conclusion, terrorism might be construed less as an act of “evil” volition and more as an enactment of unconscious proportions, a psychological trespass that has less to do with discrete ideology, deities or politics and everything to do with mother-infant dynamics and the defensive management of strong, presymbolized affective states.
Its wounds are two-fold. The initial emotional impingement invades the sensory-affective foundations of the vulnerable infant’s body-mind as a kind of implicit soul piracy. Occurring long before the infant has developed any capacity to comprehend or object, the trauma exists as terrifying, unspeakable pockets of unformulated and dissociated experience. If this disavowed material is projected rather than linked to word-symbols where it can be understood and integrated, emotional terrorism ensues as a repetitious series of doer and done-to (Benjamin 2004) enactments.
Until they are mentalized and attain linguistic symbolization, these nameless sensory chards of “beta elements” (Bion 1962) are experienced as chaotic and remain selectively dissociated where they can be safely avoided. Often these unprocessed elements feel as if they have acquired actual mass and become embedded deeply within the flesh, and the need to expel these uncomfortable psychic elements is urgent. I often hear patients describe a compelling need to vomit or purge something that feels hard, solid and alien, to “get it up and out.”
The therapist’s state of receptivity to her patient’s unconscious experience is similar to that of an empathically attuned mother’s receptivity to her infant’s presymbolic and pre-linguistic experience (Ogden 1989). From within the encircling safety of the therapeutic relationship, terrorizing self-states derived from ruptures or deficiencies in early mother-infant exchanges may finally begin to acquire meaningful shape and form where they can be understood, integrated and defused.
WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of the subscriber to The Therapist Magazine and is copyrighted by Mauri-Lynne Heller. It is illegal to copy, distribute or circulate it in any form whatsoever without the author’s permission.
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.
Grotstein, J. (1990). Nothingness, meaninglessness, chaos and the “black hole” I – the importance of nothingness, meaninglessness and chaos in psychoanalysis. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26:257-90.
Ogden, T. (1989) The primitive edge of experience. Jason Aronson Inc., New Jersey, London.
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)
Stern, D. (2009). Partners in thought. New York, N.Y., Routledge.
Tustin, F. (1986). Autistic barriers in neurotic patients. London, Karnac.