Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Self-Destructiveness in Adolescence

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Self-Destructiveness in Adolescence

Article excerpt


* Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, George Washington University. Mailing address: 3141 34th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20008.



One of the key psychological emergents in the formation of early human attachment is idealization. During infancy, it is likely that this is the normal way the infant perceives its caretaker, and the caretaker the infant. When the relationship between infant and caretaker is positive, the infant regards the mothering figure as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-rewarding. The mere proximity of mother, the sound of her voice, the smell of her body, the touch of her hand, the image of her face, the experience of her breast, all give rise to a sense of elation. There is a quality of elevated uplift, of heightened responsiveness, of joy in engagement. In particular, there is an awareness of joining with something supernal, something larger than the self. What they are describing in fact is the early experience of idyllic unity.

Nor are mother's perception of her infant far removed in quality from this sense of glow. Baby is adorable, infinitely huggable, good enough to eat. By the same token, for baby, this preverbal kind of emotional surge can have an equally powerful sweep in a negative direction. The experience of rejection, rough handling, abandonment, neglect, abuse--these in turn can produce equally vivid and equally intense feelings of loss, injury, fear, despair, a sense of worthlessness, and an overall sonority of profound dismay. These painful feelings are as total and as exaggerated as the elated ones noted above, albeit in the opposite direction.

The value of such early idealization is self-evident. The positive version would underlie the attachment behavior of both mother and baby. To the extent that mother perceives baby as wonderful, beautiful, ultimately cute, and totally fascinating, she will be drawn to care for it and keep it close, warm, well fed, and safe. To the extent that baby continues to regard mother in these ideal terms, it will need her, seek her out, feel drawn to her, and keep close to her. Phylogenetically, this would have had enormous survival value (Note 1(1)).

As development proceeds, the tendency to idealize develops as well. This process is fundamental to the further elaboration of both negative and positive inner images; with continuing growth, the cluster of ideal formations becomes ever more complex and multifaceted. There is a sense of self and other with negative valences, and a different cluster with positive attributes. The power of these positively or negatively idealized presences continues to wax, for, in time, they take their place among the central regulating agencies in the formation and functioning of personality.

In particular, they are of critical importance as the structures within the psyche that set the goals for personality functioning. To be sure, as they take form, these ideal structures will have a variety of functions. Before exploring them however, it should be recognized that they persist as relatively distinct islands within the dynamic and fluid structural configuration of personality. As adults, we know them best as a sense of ideal presence, e.g., our vision of what is noble, uplifting, and awe inspiring in our ethical and spiritual lives on the one hand, and our awareness of the wicked, the demonic, and the ultimately evil in the dark side of humanity, on the other. As such, their power to lead us, motivate us, and to drive behavior is of considerable proportions. As we experience ourselves drawing near to the one set of ideals or to the other, our moods, affects, and the overall emotional toning of our lives will be radically affected. We must always keep in mind that as structural components, these ideals are the products of preverbal experience initiated during the early months of life. Although they do develop alongside the other functions and aspects of personality, to a considerable extent they never lose their preverbal character. …

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