The addiction to negativity

Psychoanal Rev. Fall 1991;78(3):391-410.


In this paper, we have described a type of resistance that has attracted increasing psychoanalytic attention in recent years. Patients exposed to intense negativity during early life may develop an addiction to negative experience as adolescents and adults, and this may constitute a central organizing feature of their personality. In almost all patients, however, some moments of negativity may be observed. We have traced the developmental origins of an attachment to negativity, drawing especially on psychoanalytic investigations of preoedipal pathology. Manifestations and derivatives of early negativity include anhedonia, attachment to physical pain, fear of success, masochism, deprivation of self and others, and negative voyeurism. In discussing the dynamic functions of negativity, we place particular emphasis on two motives: the patient's desires for revenge against early objects that have been a source of deprivation and frustration; and the defensive function of negativity in helping to express as well as ward off dangerous wishes to merge with the object. Deviant forms of autoerotism are likely to be used by these patients to deal with the reactivation of early experiences of neglect and rejection. When negativity is used as a defense or method of relating to others it can lead to a severe disruption of the psychotherapeutic relationship. We have reviewed suggestions for the management of extreme negativity in treatment. Resolution of the therapist's countertransference reactions, especially induced feelings of frustration, rage, and helplessness, is crucial. Emphasis also has been placed on the patient's desires for revenge against self and object, and the manner in which these may be understood and eventually resolved. Only when patient and therapist begin to investigate the adaptive functions of extreme negativity can this pathological symptom be resolved and the patient's awareness of self and sense of autonomy be enhanced.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Behavior, Addictive*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Masochism
  • Negativism*
  • Parent-Child Relations
  • Personality Disorders / psychology*
  • Personality Disorders / therapy
  • Psychoanalytic Therapy
  • Punishment
  • Self Concept