The airstrikes against the Islamic State, a decidedly violent and oppressive group, are deeply unsettling, bringing forth memories of 9/ll and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, along with fears that America will never extract itself from this region of the world, or be safe from revengeful terrorist groups. At such times, it’s natural to become defensive, fearful, and even hopeless.
One of the things that makes America a wonderful place to live is that we feel entitled to freedom and safety and feel others are entitled to freedom and safety too. Yet rarely do airstrikes like the ones on Syria feel like a simple exercise in the protection of human rights. America has too many unresolved traumas, too many unspoken desires, for the public to trust a motive as simple as the preservation of freedom and safety.
In this blog post, I try to understand how unconscious dreams and unresolved traumas influence our defensive reactions to threat, much like the child that suffers chronic traumatization is altered by conditions of abuse and neglect. I believe we are at a time in our nation’s history when we must examine the disparity between what we have dreamed of becoming and deal with the reality of what we are: stressed, even traumatized, increasingly fragmented, yet also passionate, resourceful, and capable of honest evaluation. But first we have to let go of our defenses. Even during times of war.
The United States, perhaps like all nations and all people, is caught in unconscious, conflicting drives and denied vulnerabilities. In Dreaming Up America, historical novelist Russell Banks identified three dreams at the heart of America’s unconscious conflicts, dreams that originally drew people to America:
There was El Dorado, the City of Gold that Cortez and Pizarro dreamed of finding. And then there was Ponce de Leon’s dream of the Fountain of Youth, where you could start life over again, and the New England Puritan dream of God’s Protestant utopian City on a Hill, the New Jerusalem…. We can think of there being three braided strands, or perhaps three mutually reinforcing dreams: one is of a place where a sinner can become virtuous, free from the decadence of the secular cosmopolitanism of Old Europe; another is of a place where a poor man can become wealthy; and a third is of a place where a person can be born again. (2008, pp. 6-7)
The three conflicting impulses of these dreams — renewal, materialism, and spirituality — shape the nation, its institutions, social life, and the American psyche. They determine the myths Americans attempt to live, the fantasies that grab our imaginations, the ideals we hold, and our expectations for the future. These dreams also have a shadow side. They contain the unresolved traumas of past generations, and thus also perpetuate fear, shame, addictions, and disavowed needs. Without healing the shadow side of these dreams, the United States has no other option than to play out its conflicting state of impulses in unhealthy and destructive ways.
These disparate dreams of wealth, rebirth, and redemption have been with the American people since the country’s inception, although according to Banks, they became a source of internal tension after the Civil War. The United States emerged from this conflict as a nation state, which implied, at least in principle, the resolution of internal conflicts for the purpose of creating an integrated and interdependent nation. However, as we know all too well, this was not the case. Following the Civil War, the United States was incapable of true integration. For one thing, the Civil War was particularly gruesome. Over 620,000 people died — far more Americans than in any other US-involved conflict. (About 1,264,000 soldiers have died in the nation’s wars.) And although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not end racism or inequality, and thus failed to uphold the ideal of universal, inalienable rights laid out in the Constitution, the doctrine intended to unite us all as equals.
Thus, after the Civil War, there was a false sense of integration. To use psychological parlance, we could say the US created a false self. The creation of a false self is common to trauma survivors. It hides the split off aspects of experience and identity that either the survivor is unaware of, or fears retribution for, if others were to know the traumatized parts and the memories they hold. And Americans have suffered many traumas — including the numerous wars, slavery, oppression, racism, sexism, as well as family violence — and all reveal the failure of democracy to create a country of safe and equal citizens.
When caught in a habitual cycle of denying or dissociating parts of ourselves, event the faintest reminders are susceptible to unconscious projection onto others. When traumatic memories are particularly offensive, and contain overwhelming feelings of shame or helplessness, the need to rid oneself of the offending and unacceptable traits and emotions can lead to a search for a scapegoat, someone or something to contain the overwhelming feelings that otherwise might shatter the fragile persona that keeps them at bay.
And indeed, the United States often functions much like the trauma survivor who projects the wounded parts of itself onto scapegoats rather than risk the uncertainty of facing a traumatized past. Scapegoating happens in relation to other countries and peoples when we demonize them, and in our own country when people are devalued or brutalized due to their ethnic origins, their gender or their sexual orientation, the region of the country they live in, or their lack of resources. And often those who have been victimized later become the ones seeking scapegoats.
“Identifying With The Aggressor”
Early in the twentieth century, the psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi gave an explanation for why traumatized and victimized people might in turn victimize others. Ferenczi worked with people chronically abused in childhood, including people with histories of childhood sexual abuse. Ferenczi identified in his patients a psychological defense he called “identifying with the aggressor” (1949/1988). Despite the horror of abuse, especially sexual abuse, many children do not initially respond with rejection, hatred, or even disgust when the perpetrator is a caregiver or someone they know. Rather, in their state of hopelessness, feelings of overwhelming shame, moral helplessness, and paralyzing fear likely occur. Instead of defending against the aggressor, they may in part fuse with the perpetrator’s identity.
While this is a useful survival strategy for a fragile, undeveloped ego that would otherwise be destroyed by such violence, survival comes at a great cost: in particular, chronically abused children lose the development of a separate and integrated identity, one that includes their unique perspective of what happened to them. Instead, their psychological boundaries become wobbly rather than firm as they look to the aggressor to determine how to feel about themselves. This may lead to blaming themselves for the abuse, thus identifying in themselves the guilt and shame the aggressor refused to feel for their destructive acts. Still mirroring their aggressor, the abused child splits off these emotions, blaming that part of her- or himself for the abuse as well as setting in motion the process of splitting off other parts of the self in an effort to keep awareness of the abuse, and associated painful memories and emotions, out of conscious awareness.
Lloyd de Mause, in his book The Emotional Life of Nations, explored how these disowned and “introjected” aspects of the psyche are later projected onto others, including entire populations, in an effort to discharge offending emotions and beliefs that ignite the shame of childhood abuse. De Mause called them “social alters,” and claimed, “the social alter is the inheritor of earlier dissociated persecutory feelings and has as one of its roles the setting up of group punishments that are object lessons to us all” (2002, p. 104). Similarly, psychotherapist Alice Miller (1998) argued high levels of corporal punishment of German children in the early decades of the twentieth century contributed to large numbers becoming Nazi youths. Jews, the mentally ill, and homosexuals became the “social alter” responsible for holding the projections of moral indignation that Nazis youths once felt as victims of childhood abuse. Today such split off moral outrage has been associated with betrayal trauma (Kaehler and Freyd, 2009).
Missed Acts of Triumph & The Emergence of Structural Dissociation
Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Sándor Ferenczi, developed his own theories about the impact of trauma that are more in line with current research on how trauma leads to psychological splitting. According to Janet, traumatic memories are not only the result of actual efforts to defend against threat. Co-occurring with memories of the traumatic event are the imagined movements and actions the body wanted to take — so-called “acts of triumph” that would have led to a different history, one that involved facing down or escaping the threat. He wrote, “The patients affected by traumatic memory have not been able to perform any of the actions characteristic of the stage of triumph” (1919/1925, p. 663). The actions that would have led to escape or defense are split from awareness, or dissociated, along with the memories, thoughts, sensations, emotions, and images associated with the actual traumatic event. As psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk more recently claimed, “For human beings the best predictor of something becoming traumatic seems to be a situation in which they no longer can imagine a way out” (2006, p. xxi).
Often defense responses are suppressed when the source of threat is a caregiver on which the child depends for attachment and care. According to the model of structural dissociation developed by Onno van der Hart, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele (2006), when a child is exposed to chronic traumatization, the personality can become fragmented when defense responses are chronically activated but not carried through, much as Janet described with his notion of incomplete “acts of triumph.” Overtime, these split off defenses become aspects of the self that are not fully integrated; the person doesn’t feel entirely in control of them, especially when triggered by reminders of past traumas. For instance, there might be a “fight” part of the personality activated by a felt need for protection that results in impulsive reactions to benign situations and a general sense of mistrust. A chronically suppressed instinct to flee threatening conditions may later develop into a tendency towards a chronic sense of ambivalence and addictive behavior. When terror has habitually been split off, panic attacks and phobias might later develop. Furthermore, chronically submitting to abuse can lead to profound shame, a desire to please, and a near habitual sense of helplessness — traits that emerge when the child had to depend on a caregiver who was also abusive.
In some regards, the United States’ “false self” as a place where Enlightenment ideals of equality, safety, and justice are sometimes spoken about more than they are embodied, parallels structural dissociation’s model of the traumatized psyche as having a part of the self that tries to live a good life, but nevertheless is continually triggered by traumatic reminders, thus activating the traumatized aspects of the self that perceive the world as dangerous and threatening. And like all trauma survivors, for the United States certain defenses are preferred, while others are deemed inferior, if not as signs of weakness.
In particular, the fight and flight modes of defense, both states of high arousal, are preferred, which perhaps is true of all humans. Yet defenses likely take particular forms in response to specific cultural conditions. For instance, America is a country driven by the myth of the hero, which is witnessed in ideas such as Manifest Destiny and the inalienable right of the unbridled pursuit of wealth. Aggression (the fight response), often masked as assertiveness, is something admired and encouraged when cast as the means to advancement or attainment of a goal.
Many of the first Americans immigrated from countries where they had to submit to persecution and poverty before they were able to finally flee. Perhaps a certain way of expressing this truncated flight defense was ‘inherited’ from those first Americans, and with it a deep ambivalence that is witnessed in our deep political divisions and a tendency towards inertia, along with a preference for escapism through addictions.
The three other defenses — freeze, submit, and attach — seem to cause Americans the greatest problems. They are the ones Americans often desperately try to avoid and treat as weaknesses, sometimes derisively projecting them onto the most vulnerable members of our society as well as other peoples and nations, if not also making sure these are the only defensive responses that are possible for them.
Fantasizing & The Fountain of Youth
Perhaps our inability to deal with feeling defenseless, along with the dependency needs we deny as we devote our lives to individualistic pursuits, in part explains the preoccupation with youth and fantasy in America. According to Banks, of the three American dreams, the dream of the Fountain of Youth is the most powerful. He wrote:
“the dream of the Fountain of Youth may yet prove to be the strongest of the three, since it carries within it the sense of the new, the dream of starting over, of having a New Life. It’s essentially the dream of being a child again, and it’s the dream that persists more strongly than the other two and is today perhaps most vivid of the three” (2008, p. 7).
I have seen the influence of the dream of the Fountain of Youth in the theories of psychotherapy in which the first years of life are perceived as the most significant, and innocence must somehow be redeemed for wholeness and healing to occur. I have also witnessed this dream when working as a trauma-focused psychotherapist with people who have fragmented in the face of chronic traumatization. I have seen this too in my response to my own early life trauma. Along with the truncated defenses, there is often an isolated and innocent part we unconsciously tried to protect from abuse.
Protection of an underdeveloped part of the self may be an instinctive response to early life trauma. Part of early life development occurs in what psychologist Donald Winnicott called transitional spaces that are the psychological spaces of play, where children learn to engage with symbolic material, challenging distinctions between reality and fantasy. According to Winnicott, it is often this transitional space and the play with symbolic material that is disrupted when abuse happens to the very young. Rather than being the source of creative imagination, the transitional space becomes a place of retreat from reality in which fantasizing comes to dominate. According to Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched, “Fantasizing is a dissociated state, which is neither imagination nor living in external reality, but a kind of melancholic self-soothing compromise which goes on forever—a defensive use of the imagination in the service of anxiety and avoidance” (1996, p. 35).
I wonder: Has America’s failure to deal with its past traumas, especially those resulting from wars, racism, economic oppression, and family violence, kept it stuck in fantasy worlds and unfulfilling dreams? Is this why two of the world’s greatest fantasy producers — Hollywood and Las Vegas — took root in its soil?
In the latest round of globalization, the buying of fantasies is particularly pronounced. Often with good intentions, children and adults alike nevertheless become entrapped in dependency on fulfilling their fantasies, arguably in attempts to address split off, unconscious needs and desires. Banks made a related observation:
“It’s a very dangerous situation. We’ve colonized our own children. Having run out of people on the planet to colonize, run out of people who can’t distinguish between beads and trinkets and something of value, having found ourselves no longer able to swap some beads and axes for Manhattan Island, we’ve ended up colonizing our own children. We’re now engaged in a process of auto-colonization. The old sow is eating its own farrow. We’ve dismantled that City on the Hill that was largely spiritual and replaced it with El Dorado, the fantasized City of Gold. … We’re seeing something different take place now, something altogether new on this planet — a fascist plutocracy presiding over a world population of disenfranchised and distracted consumers and would-be consumers” (2008, pp. 110-111).
Yet the transitional space of the imagination from which fantasies emerge is not necessarily pernicious. Fantasy and the imaginal aspects of psyche are not themselves problematic, for they are also the source of acts of triumph. Rather, it is the normalization of dissociated states of consciousness, along with the conditions that lead to the continual activation of defenses that is the problem. Dissociation is potentially adaptive when it becomes the source of creative solutions that might have gone unidentified while attending to the realities of traumatizing conditions. Furthermore, as Kalsched observed, the imaginal is also a source of psychological escape where we can self soothe the wounds of trauma, especially when real world solutions aren’t available.
In cultures where dissociated defenses sometimes take the form of trance or possession, dissociation also communicates the victimhood engendered by social inequalities that have become ingrained aspects of society. Rather than a psychopathology, dissociation and its disorders are a signal for the need to reunite members of the group, and for the need to reveal their hidden wounds, especially when alienation, scapegoating, and conflict have threatened social cohesiveness.
Yet in America dissociation has become paradoxically both a normative state as well as a sign of psychopathology, depending on how disconnected from ‘reality’ a person appears to be. It has completely lost its potential as a sign for the need for greater social cohesion and integration.
Dreaming in the Present Moment
America historically has relied on notions of psychopathology to identify those who might threaten the creation of a democracy in which justice, equality, and protection can prevail. This approach has failed miserably. Collectively, we are the outcome of centuries of engineering our own conditions of captivity, cut off from the natural world as well as our natural existence within it. Everything about us is tainted with the “abnormal.” Instead of focusing on psychopathology, it’s time to look at the conditions of our captivity and what options we have made available to ourselves. If we do, we might notice that the manipulation of our capacity to fragment in the face of overwhelming, if not threatening conditions has led to a rather precarious state, despite that these same defense responses also make possible living rather isolated lives while feeling somewhat satisfied by the distracted pursuit of fantasies. But we are smarter than our captive conditions might suggest — largely due to all those split off parts.
Researchers have more reliable evidence about the human condition than was present when the experiment of “America” as a democratic and free nation began many centuries ago. We now understand the necessity of healthy attachment during the first years of life for later healthy relationships, and by extrapolation, for healthy societies. We now understand the nature of the body’s defense system and what happens when we live in conditions of chronic stress. And we have identified circumstances, such as adverse childhood experiences, that lead to the continual arousal of the defense system, thus contributing not only to later diseases, but also the intergenerational transmission of traumatic stress, and hence more abuse, more violence, and more wars. We also have a model of what a healthy psyche looks like, and it involves neurobiological integration within an individual who is also integrated within a safe and supportive community. (Of note: Emotional regulation is key, not high IQs.)
I once read that the Dalai Lama thought Buddhist psychology should be subjected to the rigor of modern neuroscience, which he believed was a reasonable arbiter of the truth of human nature. I believe we need a similar relationship with research on the neurobiology of trauma as well as clinical research on the impact of chronic traumatization so we can learn to live as a collective without chronic stress and heightened defenses. Such an appropriation of this body of research to the institutions and relationships that undergird American society would not necessarily lead to the end of all conflict and a state of enduring peace, but it might get us as close to such a state as humans are capable of creating. We will always have to deal with the biological legacy of having evolved bodies that can survive hostile conditions. Consequently, we likely won’t ever create Shangri-La, but such research could help us become more discerning and less reactive in the face of threat, more able to be self-aware and less driven by the need to project our disowned parts onto others, or escape from the world in fantasies and addictions.
We will never be able to stop others from feeling hostile towards America, yet we can create a sense of safety within ourselves, our families, our communities, our states, and ultimately our nation. We don’t have to wait for conditions to be “right”; we can begin by committing to the present moment and full awareness of all that we are.
“Right here, right now” is sometimes said to mindfully bring oneself back to the present moment where there is the choice to slow down and with gentle curiosity listen to habitual patterns of fear, anger, shame, and distress, seeing them as emotions that were originally meant to protect or connect us, and nonjudgmentally letting go of all the beliefs that suggest something is wrong with oneself and the world. Often this can be very difficult to do, and we need support from others. Especially when defenses are activated, each second can become a choice to make peace with one’s surroundings and with oneself that must be continually renegotiated. Yet with practice and time, a greater sense of inner safety emerges, along with dreams of a safer future — the kind of dreams that would lead to a safe and equal America, if not world.
Banks, R. (2008). Dreaming up America. New York: Seven Stories Press.
De Mause, L. (2002). The emotional life of nations. New York: Karnac.
Ferenczi, S. (1949/1988). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child: The language of tenderness and passion. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 24, 196-206.
Janet, P. (1925). Principles of psychotherapy. London: Allen & Unwin. (Originally published in Paris, 1919).
Kaehler, L. A., & Freyd, J. J. (2009). Borderline Personality Characteristics: A Betrayal Trauma Approach.Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 1(4), 261-268.
Kalsched, D. (1996). The inner world of trauma: Archetypal defenses of the personal spirit. New York: Routledge.
Miller, A. (1998). The Political Consequences of Child Abuse. The Journal of Psychohistory 26(2), 573-585.
Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Van Der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., & Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2006). “Foreword”. In K. M. Pat Ogden, Clare Pain (Ed.), Trauma and the body. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Written By Laura K Kerr, Ph.D
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