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Of What Are We?
Self Psychology and September 11

David P. Wolf, PsyD

Belmont, MA


[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]


3 October 2001
(Rev. 11/4/01)

There are two important psychological questions arising out of the September 11 attacks. One about the perpetrators: What motivates them? How could people commit such an act?  What can be done to help prevent such suffering?  The other about the victims: What has happened to us?  What are the psychological injuries to the people, the nation and the world?  And how was this tragedy able to make people from such diverse and varied places around the world all experience such a similar hurt?

The first question is not particularly interesting for me at this time. I am not very interested in the perpetrators or what was their experience of the world. For the time being I am satisfied with knowing that they were disturbed and distorted extremists. I am interested in addressing the root causes of hatred against the United States but do not believe the attacks were caused by our policies.  I do not want to frame the experience as an East-West battle as the perpetrators would like me to do.  I am satisfied, at least for now, with viewing them as individuals enacting a distorted and cult-like perception of the world.  I am comfortable with this view in part because I have followed the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan (thanks to the BBC and NPR) and have long ago concluded that they are a disturbed and destructive leadership, based on their treatment of women (loss of an entire female society in Afghanistan), of human expression, such as in artistic creativity (prohibition of music), and of cultural icons (the destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues).  I am also aware of how arrogantly we treat other nations and peoples at times.  While I believe that such treatment is the place to start changing our behavior, I do not believe it explains the Taliban.  The Taliban appear to be another power-seeking cult, using religion to aggrandize themselves without limits, to their own ultimate destruction.

The most interesting question is why do we care so much about this tragedy? Almost every single person in the United States has felt the loss within their own sense of self.  And it appears that almost as many people in Europe and around the globe experienced the same personal sense of loss.  How can psychology explain this broad and deep affective phenomenon? Why is everyone in the US in shock, feeling inner pain and sadness? More amazingly, why is everyone in Europe acting as if they were Americans, as if it happened to them? Even more amazingly, why is everyone in Japan and everywhere in the world, with the exception, perhaps, of the Muslim world, feeling similar feelings? Why does everyone in the capitalistic world feel personally victimized, as if it were an "attack on civilization", against "everyone"?  What psychological explanation can account for the almost universal feelings of loss?

The world is now, on November 4th, adjusting to the new order.  The left begins to fight with the right.  But in the week after the 11th there was shock around the globe, in almost every heart and mind.  Remember the Star Spangled Banner was played at Buckingham place, flowers and condolences were left at every embassy, and every nation sent messages of shared grief and true understanding.  How can a single tragedy have caused so many diverse people to all have a profound inner sense of hurt?

There must be some fundamental aspect of our psychological health tied up in those buildings and aircraft.  And not just our psychological well-being, but the psychological functioning of people around the world.  What psychology can explain that power to effect the experience of so many diverse people?

To begin to answer these questions we should note that the emotional reaction of the world seems to go beyond the feeling of reacting to loss of thousands of lives. We have seen tragedies where thousands of lives have been lost in disasters before without such a world reaction. I don't think the damage to the Pentagon accounts for the world's shock. Nor the terror of the diabolically cleaver multiple hijackings, as terrifying as that is.  We have experienced a multitude of horrors over the centuries, yet none has ever effected so many people around the world so similarly at the same time.

Kohut's bipolar sense of self, a tension between poles of ideals and ambitions, offers insight as to why the world has reacted as it has. Only this formulation of the self puts our need for ideals and values at the center of our experience of ourselves, at the center of our sense of self.  It was some of these ideals and values that were symbolized in the twin towers and aircraft.  So we can understand how anyone around the world who participated in the modern, capitalistic world of trade and travel would have a sense of self with symbols like the jet aircraft and the skyscraper.

Kohut describes our need for ideals and idealizing selfobject experiences. Children idealize their parents, he says, and go through a natural and gradual de-idealization process as they develop. The need for idealizing experiences that starts with our relationships with our parents gradually is replaced with other idealized objects, hopefully more abstract, more perfect, and more able to stand up under scrutiny. This process of maturation, the gradual de-idealization of one's own power, or one's parents, is traumatic if the de-idealization is too rapid or sudden.  People need support from other important people in their lives when they experience a de-idealization.  

The World Trade Center was a symbol of a relatively abstract, adult, mature ideal. It stood for free markets, capitalism, perhaps democracy, and the United States, which itself is a symbol for hope. Jet airplanes also are a symbol of our modern, technological world. The destruction of the World Trade Center by crashing a jet airplane into it - twice - took those symbols and literally vaporized them before our eyes. This event, which everyone around the world witnessed in undeniable clarity, caused what Kohut would call a traumatically rapid de-idealization experience. We were shown the vulnerability and weakness of something we had idealized. Our reaction to this loss shows that the need for ideals is great within us all. It reveals the irrational, grandiose nature of some of our abstract, supposedly mature idealizations. But the pain of the traumatic de-idealization was felt by all those people who uphold ideals of  free markets, technology, capitalism and democracy. These days, that is most of the world.

The loss of the irrational parts of the idealization is a healthy thing for society in the long run, if we cope with the experience appropriately.  We have lost symbols, not the ideas.  No one can touch the ideas which are the essence of what we need for our psychological health and well being.  We will continue to uphold ideas like free markets, technology and capitalism.  Our greatest strength lies in those ideas, not their symbols.

Our experience does not have to become a prolonged, post-traumatic injury to the United States. Our experience can be compared to that of a child who witnesses a parent humiliated before their own eyes. Like other childhood traumas, there does not have to be lasting traumatic damage if the other selfobjects in the child's world can listen, support and validate the child's experience. The world's reaction to this event has saved the United States from lasting psychological trauma. Practically every nation of the world has sent extraordinary messages of understanding and sympathy. They sincerely say they share our pain and loss. For it is truly their loss, too, as it is their ideal as well. So we comfort and validate each other and help each other cope and recover. And if we continue as we have been the past three weeks we will recover without a lasting psychological wound. We can actually be stronger and more mature as a society in the end.

2001 David P. Wolf and 3b.
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