Ferenczi's concept of identification with the aggressor: understanding dissociative structure with interacting victim and abuser self-states

Am J Psychoanal. 2014 Mar;74(1):48-59. doi: 10.1057/ajp.2013.40.


No one has described more passionately than Ferenczi the traumatic induction of dissociative trance with its resulting fragmentation of the personality. Ferenczi introduced the concept and term, identification with the aggressor in his seminal "Confusion of Tongues" paper, in which he described how the abused child becomes transfixed and robbed of his senses. Having been traumatically overwhelmed, the child becomes hypnotically transfixed by the aggressor's wishes and behavior, automatically identifying by mimicry rather than by a purposeful identification with the aggressor's role. To expand upon Ferenczi's observations, identification with the aggressor can be understood as a two-stage process. The first stage is automatic and initiated by trauma, but the second stage is defensive and purposeful. While identification with the aggressor begins as an automatic organismic process, with repeated activation and use, gradually it becomes a defensive process. Broadly, as a dissociative defense, it has two enacted relational parts, the part of the victim and the part of the aggressor. This paper describes the intrapersonal aspects (how aggressor and victim self-states interrelate in the internal world), as well as the interpersonal aspects (how these become enacted in the external). This formulation has relevance to understanding the broad spectrum of the dissociative structure of mind, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder.

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Crime Victims / psychology*
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Ego*
  • Humans