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Group Helplessness and Rage

Ernest S. Wolf, MD

Chicago, IL


[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]


This paper originally was delivered at the International Self-Psychology Symposium in Dreieich, Germany, May, 2001.  It is published here for the first time.

Note post-September 11 addendum.

Our topic for tonight, the problem of group violence, is one of the most important issues facing society. Not only is this a most crucial topic for our American society but we are confronted with events that are occurring all over the globe, on all continents and in all countries. While it is obvious that the daily news pin-point the current hottest areas of conflict, such as the Middle East, the Balkans, and certain regions of Africa, there seems to be no spot on this earth that is safe from unreasoning violence. Individuals as well as groups are in danger of being destroyed. How are we to understand these phenomena?

I will attempt to bring two psychoanalytic perspectives to bear on these questions.

A classic Freudian view derives the anger that is being expressed in hostile actions to an instinctual drive of aggression which is more or less modified by the ego. In addition to this basically bio-psychological basis, Sigmund Freud also recognized some strictly psychological factors such as the common desire to turn a passive experience into an active one and thereby assert some control over one’s life and self. Freud also assigned a pivotal role to an innate self-destructive death instinct which, however, has not generally been accepted by psychoanalysts. Along similar lines, Anna Freud stressed the mechanism of identification with the aggressor as a very common dynamism. As a consequence, children treated sadistically by their parents tend to act out sadistically by identification with those parents when they reach adulthood. Melanie Klein and her followers do attribute a dominant and primarily destructive quality to an aggressive drive and its elaboration in object relations.

The other, mainly non-biological and more psychological approach to aggressive behavior is associated with Heinz Kohut as he developed it into a psychology of the self.

Talking about rageful behavior he observed that underlying the rage one often finds an uncompromising insistence on the perfection of the idealized other. The infant experiences itself still in a state of limitlessness power and knowledge, a state that we as outsiders deprecatingly call the child’s grandiosity, its grandiose self. If for a variety of reasons this infantile grandiose state of narcissism is prevented from maturing into healthy self-esteem we meet with what looks like an adult but really is a very shakily put together oversensitive and shame-prone narcissist. The fanaticism of the need for revenge and the unending compulsion of having to square the account after an offense are therefore not the attributes of an aggressivity that is integrated with the mature purposes of the ego - on the contrary, such bedevilment indicates that the aggression was mobilized in the service of an archaic grandiose self and that it is deployed within the framework of an archaic perception of reality. The shame-prone individual who is ready to experience setbacks as narcissistic injuries and to respond to them with insatiable rage does not recognize his opponent as a center of independent initiative with whom he happens to be at cross-purposes. Aggression, when employed in the pursuit of maturely experienced causes, are not limitless. However vigorously this aggression is mobilized, is aim is limited and definite: the defeat of the enemy who blocks the way to a cherished goal. As soon as the aim is reached, the rage is gone.

The narcissistically injured on the other hand, cannot rest until he has blotted out a vaguely experienced offender who dared to oppose him, to disagree with him, or to outshine him. ..It can never find rest because it can never wipe out the evidence that has contradicted its conviction it is unique and perfect. This archaic rage goes on and on and on. Furthermore, the enemy who calls forth the archaic rage of the narcissistically vulnerable is seen by him not as an autonomous source of impulsions, but as a flaw in a narcissistically perceived reality. The enemy is experienced as a recalcitrant part of an expanded self over which the narcissistically vulnerable person had expected to exercise full control. The mere fact, in other words, that the other person is independent or different is experienced as offensive by those with intense narcissistic needs.

Thus, not being in full control over self and over a narcissistically experienced world gives the afflicted individual an experience of utter powerlessness. Such powerlessness and the sense of helplessness via-a-vis the world are unbearably traumatic experiences that must be ended by any means whatsoever. The offending other must be wiped out.

Narcissistic rage occurs in many forms. They all share, however, a specific psychological flavor which gives them a distinct position within the wide realm of human aggressions. The need for revenge, for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means, and a deeply anchored, unrelenting compulsion in the pursuit of all these aims, which gives no rest to those who have suffered a narcissistic injury -these are the characteristic features of narcissistic rage in all its forms and which set it apart from other kinds of aggression.

Although everybody tends to react to narcissistic injuries with embarrassment and anger, the most intense experiences of shame and the most violent forms of narcissistic rage arise in those individuals for whom a sense of absolute control over an archaic environment is indispensable because the maintenance of self-esteem - and indeed of the self - depends on the unconditional availability of the approving-mirroring selfobject or of the merger-permitting idealized one." (Search for the Self, vol.2, pp.643 etc.)

Every individual self needs to possess and exercise a certain amount of power to guarantee the maintenance of its cohesion and boundaries, even its continuation as a separate and distinct self. The loss of power which usually is associated with being subjected to some sort of feeling helpless is for most human beings an unbearable experience. It evokes an overwhelming desire to wipe out the offending source of the threatened helplessness. This narcissistic rage is an unlimited deadly destructive rage that is not appeased even by the defeat and disappearance of the evoking threat. In contrast to angry hostility caused by frustration of a self’s ordinary aims, a hostility that diminishes as the frustration diminishes and as the desired aims finally are achieved, narcissistic rage goes on and on and on with hardly a let up in its destructiveness even when no further threat to the self remains.

The political arena allows many individuals to act out narcissistic rage as members of a group. We can understand this better when we remember that individuals who experience themselves as powerless often identify with groups by joining them. Groups that appear to have some power become seductively attractive to the narcissistic individual who is trying to escape the feeling of powerlessness. They experience the group power as their own power and any threat to the group power is experienced as an unbearable threat to their own self which then evokes unlimited rage in defense of self. Common are the hatreds that groups carry for other groups whom, rightly or wrongly, they perceive as threats to their very existence. They kill and destroy without mercy while at the same time enjoying a feeling of righteous triumph over a threatening enemy. Think of the racial assaults and the ethnic hatreds that have resulted in so much cruelty and bloodshed during the 20th century. The most minor infractions of the order established by one group could lead to an extremist massacre of even totally uninvolved and innocent outsiders. A lynching could be precipitated by as little as an assertive look or word that was equated with a threat to the established authority of the group or its leaders. The lynching mob was partially driven by an inner experience of rage in defense of a disorganized and therefore vulnerable self that felt itself challenged into potential fragmentation by the supposed offender.

What I have just described so dramatically often manifests as a less extreme form of narcissistic rage. The same dynamics, however, can be observed commonly almost every day in much more subtle and less dramatic forms. Many political leaders are intuitively aware of the narcissistic vulnerability of large numbers of voters. For example, currently in Britain, both major political parties, Labour and Conservative, are competing in attempting to toughen rules and regulations that would make it more difficult for asylum seekers to find refuge in the U.K. Many in the electorate would like to ban all asylum seekers because the vulnerability of their individual selfs is such that they feel powerless and severely threatened by these alien intruders who they imagine will take their jobs, their women, their homes, etc. This threat, of course, has little basis in reality and is a fantasy rooted in the weakness of their selfs and then projected on the outsider. Similar dynamic conditions in Germany during the economic depression of the 1930’s on top of a lost World War I provided an environment that was conducive to feeling helpless and their sense of importance and rightness threatened. In that state of weakened self one might easily experience an enhancement and strengthening of that self by putting on a uniform and, via marching with martial music under the leadership of a charismatically eloquent Führer, banish the experience of powerlessness. The whole Nazi movement can be seen as the narcissistic rage reaction of a whole people to their loss of national self-esteem.

Perhaps the hottest spots of narcissistic rage these weeks are in the Middle East. Both peoples, the Palestinians and the Israelis, feel relatively powerless and helpless vis-à-vis the other side, whether the threat takes the form of a terrorist bomb or of an F-16 fighter plane. Both sides seem to have adopted the view that through increasing violence they can destroy the other’s will and power to fight while gaining some sense of power themselves. Of course, as anyone can see, that does not work. On the contrary, the increasing violence only increases the experience of helplessness with an increase in narcissistic rage on both sides. Neither side feels understood by the other, both sides feel that to the other side their experiences are invisible and inaudible.

What can be done? Our psychological reasoning would lead us to believe that in order to reduce the rage one must try to reduce the experience of helplessness and substitute gradually an experience of having some power. The first step would seem to be an effort to really listen to each other and try to understand the other’s experience. To really feel one is being seen, being listened to most often leads to feeling understood. The experience of being understood is a self-empowering experience. We know that from working with individuals who, when they feel understood in treatment, they immediately grow stronger. But it seems that very few negotiators know this fundamental psychological truth. They usually go into negotiations with the agenda of showing how right they are and how wrong the other side is. They demand to be heard but don’t want to really listen and understand.

Politics is the arena in which skilful negotiation is the hallmark of success. Politics is concerned with the art and science of governing while the psychology of the self is concerned with recognizing and understanding one’s own sense of self and that of others. Governing, of course, has to do with the exercise of power by individuals and by groups. one’s experience of self (my shorthand for sense of self) may sometimes be enhanced via political action or circumstance, and, on the other hand, indeed, sometimes such political events may impair one’s sense of self. It is an interactive relationship of reciprocating influences such that human action to augment the self may on the surface appear merely to be directed toward changing a political situation. It seems obvious that the ability to govern depends on the availability and exercise of power. Less obvious is an individual self’s need to possess and exercise a certain amount of power to guarantee the maintenance of its cohesion and boundaries, even its continuation as a separate and distinct self. As already discussed, the loss of power which usually is associated with being subjected to some sort of feeling helpless is for most human beings an unbearable experience. It evokes an overwhelming desire to wipe out the offending source of the threatened helplessness.

With my emphasis on power and self-esteem it might seem that I view politics as merely an exercise in gradations of narcissistic rage. Let me correct that impression by adding that many other self motivations and their associated defenses can find expression on the stage of politics. Humans are born with biologically inescapable needs for oxygen, water, nutrition, and exercise. A certain level of stimulation is needed for the development of the Nervous System and the brain functions via creating order out of apparent chaos and assigning meaning to events. Thus the infant emerges with certain needs for not only physiological provisions but also for certain psychological experiences. The most important of these are necessary for a self to emerge and be maintained. We have labeled this needed input as coming from selfobjects (i.e., objects that are required for the constitution of the self) and we have classified selfobject experiences, such as mirroring, idealizing, alter-ego, adversarial, efficacy and vitalizing selfobject experiences. Thus the inborn need to constitute a self is expressed in needs to be connected, affirmed, admired and noticed as well as in needs to look up to certain others, to become aware of others like oneself, to have ally-antagonists to rub up against, to be able to make a dent on the world, and to find a certain empathic resonance in selected others, especially the parents. All these are life-long needs and they often find expression in the political arena. The need to be noticed and affirmed may lead to self-assertion in the artistic world but similarly also in the game of politics. What great satisfaction in seeing my photo on hundreds of posters and getting thousands of votes (mirroring selfobject experiences). My self doubts may diminish by getting to know others like me who seem fully accepted by most everybody (alter-ego selfobject experiences). I may also defend against feelings of unworthiness by an excessive self-assertion that reassures the solidity of my boundaries by confrontations (adversarial self-object experiences). Sharing the heroes of our common culture and religion (idealizing selfobject experiences) contributes to my feeling of well-being. And seeing myself as actually influencing and changing the world (efficacy selfobject experiences) strengthens my self organization. It is not difficult to see all these motivations expressed in political thinking and action. Narcissism in both the good and the bad meanings of this word and the defenses that early experiences make us erect against these inner strivings remain, nevertheless, the pivot for most of our feeling, thinking and action throughout life.

Addendum - November 4, 2001

This essay on Group Helplessness and Rage was written before the events of September 11. The focus is primarily on an individual’s narcissistic rage and some of the internal developmental factors that go into making individuals or groups more sensitive and more vulnerable to the experience of narcissistic injury that precipitate narcissistic rage. I now see that this approach may easily be misunderstood by not having stressed enough the great importance of the precipitating external event and its provocative effect on the vulnerable individual. Both internal and external dynamisms are important.

Not all individuals react the same even to experiences of powerlessness, and neither do all nations react the same to humiliating experiences that they are helplessly enduring. The variety of responses is testimony to the variety of defensive dynamics that individuals and nations have learned to build up in order to protect themselves. Thus there exist all kinds of forms for the expression of narcissistic rage running the gamut from barely noticed subtlety to dramatic extreme. The precipitating trauma may be the decisive factor in the choice of form that the rage is experienced, expresses itself and is acted out. Similarly, the defensive modification of the rage may also be influenced by the external circumstances. But none of these considerations cancel the basic dynamic observation that the experience of utter helplessness becomes associated with the experience of narcissistic rage.”

© 2001 Ernest S. Wolf and 3b.
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