We in the field and practice of psychology who do psychotherapy for a living generally work within the understanding that the problems we treat are a function of the personal difficulties we attribute to those “patients” who seek our services, especially when those problems are repetitious or “chronic” in nature. We may be inclined to think this way even though we all should know that isn’t necessarily the case. People and their problems are much more complex than that. In my previous blog, “Negative will: A philosophical concept that has found a home in today’s world,” based on a paper I published in The Psychoanalytic Review in 2009, I proposed how we may broaden the way we understand certain kinds of psychological problems associated with what is called a personality disorder by reconceptualizing these problems within an existentialist construct called “the negative will.” The negative will pertains to the relationships we establish between ourselves as individuals and the world we live in that involve dynamics of power and identity such as the politics of experience, identity politics, creativity versus conformity, and freedom versus belonging.
Negative Will, Defined
“Negative will” is a term I borrowed from Otto Rank, a psychoanalyst who was a close associate of Freud’s in the early 20th century. The concept itself which was taken from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche means the life force or power that is derived outside ourselves that we stand opposed to and yet through which we derive our purpose, power, and identity like the concept of negative space. It could refer to a toddler who is going through “The Terrible Two’s” for example but it may also serve as a framework for understanding and treating problems of humanity, including “neurotic” types of personality disorders as proposed by Rank, or when it manifests inversely in narcissistic disorders, as proposed in my paper. The dynamics of negative will may also be applied to totalitarian political systems that rely on a xenophobic ethic fomented by fear and subservient reverence to a charismatic ruler who exploits the vulnerabilities of his followers. In the latter case, one’s individual truth, identity, and power are traded to the leader in exchange for the security and protection he promises in return. In short it represents the dynamic between the narcissist and the “neurotic” personality writ large.
Nietzsche believed that this dynamic Rank referred to as the negative will is hidden because it is disavowed by modern civilization under the cloak of scientific “truths” and religious moral codes for the sake of maintaining power over “the weak” and subservient. In psychology, negative will is reactive. In other words, power and its validation are gained either through the toxic combination of self-aggrandizement and deceit that depends, as in the case of malignant narcissism, on validation outside oneself rather than creatively from within or in the “neurotic’s” case through what the object relations psychoanalysts call “projective identification” or idealization, i.e., identification of self through “the other” at the expense of empowerment and valuation of oneself. In politics, negative will is reactionary. It feeds off of distrust, resentment, envy, and scapegoating which is a “displacement” of these emotions, as well as surrendering power and truth to an autocratic ruler. Each party plays a role as master is to slave and vice versa, in mutually dependent enthrallment to one another and, thus, fusion of identification that is dialectical in nature.
The Influence of Otto Rank
My work on this topic has been inspired by the writings of Otto Rank, an Austrian psychologist, who first gained distinction through his association with Freud but who later broke away because of his differences in explaining and treating psychological disorders. He parted from Freud, first, because he posited that separation and individuation (The Trauma of Birth, 1924), not competition with and internalization of our parents’ values and qualities, represent the fundamental challenge of personality development. For this reason, some followers such as Esther Menaker (Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy, 1982) credited Rank as a seminal contributor to object relations theory, a more popular branch of psychoanalysis today. More importantly, however, Rank’s contribution has led to what is known today as “self psychology,” a branch of psychoanalysis that focuses on the challenges of individual identity in an interpersonal world. To be a “self,” apart from others, as an individual, relies on the capacity, developed from interpersonal experience, to validate oneself and one’s experience as separate and distinct from others. The hero and the artist were explored in Rank’s writings as archetypes for these challenges of individuation, put front and center as core concepts in Rank’s psychoanalysis, and they later became an inspiration for the more contemporary human potentials movement in psychology spearheaded by the famous humanist and innovator in psychotherapy, Carl Rogers.
Freud and Rank Contrasted
Freud’s contribution to psychology gave us a model and a method to understand ourselves at a deeper level and use that knowledge to better ourselves in order to achieve the freedom necessary to live life to its fullest extent possible. Psychoanalysis plumbs the depths of the subconscious to exhume, and then break down, all the remnants of our instinctual heritage and scars (our defenses) that formed to contain them. This chipping away at our subconscious is achieved through an intellectual, sorting-through process. For the Freudians, self-knowledge ultimately, however, reveals the tragic discovery about the irrationality of one’s wishes and defensively-constructed distortions. Without this understanding gained through analysis the likely results of our intentions and actions suffer and our ability to adapt sufficiently to civilized society might be impaired. Healthy personality development can only be achieved, otherwise, through the internalization of our parents’ admirable qualities, a process precipitated by “castration anxiety” or “penis envy,” universal rites of passage of early childhood.
Rank’s psychology, on the other hand, restores the agency of free will and authorship of identity to its original owner, the patient. For Rank, psychoanalysis’s intellectually-sourced endeavor of introspection fails in its purpose to liberate ourselves, first, because it is “high-jacked” by Freud’s premise that limits individuation within the constraints of conformity necessary for adaptation to take place. And secondly, self-knowledge must be analyzed and interpreted as smokescreens rather than as revelations. Thus, freedom ultimately means becoming liberated from the constraints of these “irrational” ideas in order to live and thrive within what amounts to the broader confines that conformity to a “civilized” world requires. The will to live and thrive said Freud must be compromised in order to live in a civilized world. The solution to the tragically dialectical relationships between the individual and her world is, therefore, at best, adaptation. The transformation Freud called “sublimation” necessary for individuation to take place, Rank believed, ultimately entails a surrender of one’s will-to-create to a greater “truth” which is in reality that of the collective’s price to adapt to its world.
Freud’s conceptualization of individuation, therefore, falls short of human potential because its aim is adaptation, not self-actualization. What may be worse, however, are the potential iatrogenic effects that invalidation of the patient’s experience, i.e., regarding it as secondary to defensive distortion, can cause. For the Freudian analyst, assuming a skeptical attitude to the experience of the patient is the pathway to insight; for Rank it can be destructive. To any patient in analysis who struggles with an acceptance of the validity of one’s identity and experience, and there are many who do, a skeptical attitude toward one’s sense of reality erodes the confidence in one’s own experience necessary to act on behalf of one’s will, what we call “self-advocacy,” especially under those situations that require the courage to do so.
For Rank, whose perspective is existential, separation from the womb and liberation from the attachment and security needs that threaten individuality, not internalization of qualities necessary for social adjustment, represent the greatest challenges for individuation. Whereas the clinical perspective of the Freudians that personal experience, such as those that pertain to identity and acts of will, are derivative in nature because they represent defenses that thwart personal development and, therefore, must be questioned, broken down, and analyzed, are viewed instead by Rank as expression of the creative will that should be accepted and embraced, ultimately serving as the lodestar that we should follow without which our “will” will be denied and hence, indeed, ultimately will be broken.
The Abuse of Power
The study of negative will offers insight about dysfunctional patterns of personality development that inhibit the actualization of human potential. It also reveals how the dynamics and abuse of power affect human relationships by means of the politics of experience and identity. While this ordinarily applies to relationships in a patient’s life, examination of the ethics of the power differential in the relationship between analyst and patient such as the cultivation of overdependence on the relationship and subservience to the analyst’s authority about the sovereignty of self-knowledge as well as other aspects of treatment may thereby become part of the treatment process. It is acknowledged that with respect to personality disorders the diagnostic model I am proposing does also rely on clinical judgment and values are assigned. Because its conceptualizations are founded on an examination of the relationship between identity and power, however, the reasons for assigning these judgments are explained according to a relational/existential rather than an authoritative clinical perspective. Finally, and not least, the concept of negative will as it applies to human relations may be extended analogically toward broader systems of human relations that have implications for societies as a whole where inequities and abuse of power and privilege are prevalent, especially as they are obtained and held through the promulgation of disinformation and scapegoating tactics.
The Dynamics of Power and Identity
When the dynamics of power prevail in human relationships it is because they are not tempered by compassion, respect, and empathy, and the stage is set for the negation of will to arise. At the broader scale, social systems, from families to national governments, the same dynamics may apply. Social systems founded on ethical principles such as equality, freedom, interdependent relationships, active participation in policy making, and investment in maximizing the common good, are consistent with Enlightenment ideals that endorse and support expression of the will of its members. By contrast, authoritarian systems negate the will of its members because they rely on brute force and disinformation to leverage power and control in exchange for the protection and security they offer.
The principles that govern the dynamics of power in social systems also apply to the personalities of individuals such that they may be sustained by a parallel process between them. It also stands to reason that authoritarian systems rely on support from individuals whose personalities endorse divisiveness and inequities of power and that they create a culture that fosters their growth. And while, certainly, not everyone who endorses an authoritarian regime has a personality disorder per se the mentality that drives both is cut from the same cloth. Conversely, it follows that the qualities it takes to build a society based on modern principles such as justice and the common good are supported by internal qualities founded on ethics and emotionally-founded relatedness. An egalitarian society becomes self-sustaining when it is more than just an abstract principle put into action through laws and policy but from its members whose education fosters the capacity to empathize, inspiring them to invest in creating a society devoted to benefiting everyone equally.
Personality structure is crystallized through self-conceptualization, i.e., how we see ourselves in relation to others. Dialectical self/other conceptualizations foster negative will, i.e., divisiveness and fixed, disparities of power in relationships inasmuch as personality expresses how we see ourselves vis a vis others through our relationships. Personality dysfunction, then, results from a fixed pattern of relationships governed by these dynamics between power and identity. They are the consequences of an experiential history of fear, isolation, emotional trauma and detachment, and a vicious cycle of idealization and distrustful disillusionment, physical circumstances and psychological states that prevent healthy self-esteem and empathic capabilities to develop as they should.
The neurotic and the narcissistic personalities stand in dialectical opposition to one another with respect to identity and power (will). Neurotic personalities, for example, suffer from low self-esteem, unfavorable self-comparisons with others, and guilt for self-assertion and creative expression. They deny their will and relinquish power in trade for security, the need to belong and for approval from others, enabled in some instances by transforming self-effacement into a virtue.
Narcissistic personalities, on the other hand, usurp power, as Machiavelli’s lion and the fox, through force and manipulation. The narcissist’s usurpation of power is motivated by arrogance and entitlement, the bookends of self-inflation. They identify themselves with superiority and invest in denying the will of others. Hence their proclivity is to induce, rather than suffer from, the aforementioned afflictions such as guilt and self-doubt of the neurotic’s. The negativity of their will is also shown through their compulsive competitiveness and relentless pursuit of validation through others.
Identity and Experience
William James, the eminent 19th-century physician, whom many regard as a founder of modern psychology and an American brand of philosophy known as pragmatism, in his classic 2-volume text, The Principles of Psychology (1890), proposed that “the self” may be studied as constituting two parts, the Self as Knower, or “subjective self,” and the Self as Known, or “objective self.” The subjective self refers to our personal experience, a point of reference from which all experience, i.e., memories, goals, attitudes and beliefs, self-concept, etc., is unified as belonging to one’s self, what the philosopher, Immanuel Kant called “the transcendental ego.” The objective self, on the other hand, refers to how we see, define, and even classify ourselves as though describing ourselves from a distance, what we may also call “identity.” Examination of both the subjective and objective aspects of the “self” illuminates how negative will may differentiate the different types of personality disorders catalogued in the DSM classification “system” within this existential/relational framework.
The following is a synopsis taken from my 2009 article, slightly revised, that describes each personality type according to this existential/relational framework. The neurotic and narcissistic types anchor opposite ends of the spectrum, representing the dialectical patterns of dynamics between negative will and identity that have been described. The remaining personality types represent various compromise formations of the same dynamic:
The neurotic types: These include the dependent, avoidant, and masochistic personality types. The challenges they face deal with self-acceptance (identity) and lack of confidence in their personal experience such that they are especially susceptible to deception, flattery, and disinformation disseminated by narcissists, cult leaders, and “crowdsourcing” from social media.
The narcissistic types: These include narcissistic, antisocial, and sadistic personality disorders. They generally identify with a grandiose image of themselves and, contrary to the neurotic types, maintain a rigid and heavily defended concept of themselves that defies challenge or modification. Narcissistic types are the influencers who rely on deceit, manipulation, intimidation, and gaslighting to undermine the confidence others may have in their personal experience and sense of self. Their investment in an image constructed from self-aggrandizement is used for purposes of self-validation and exploitation for personal gain and power. The will of narcissistic types is “negative-inducing” because their power depends on their ability, by guile or force, to constrain or elicit in parasitic fashion the will of others to be bestowed upon them.
The robustness of the narcissist’s identity, as powerful and superior, belies how dependent it is on validation from external sources in order to sustain it, an insight about the dialectics of the psyche introduced by the philosopher, Hegel. It is also in the nature of power and dominance that, once established, cling tenaciously to keep it. These are the dynamics in narcissism that, at the expense of creative self-development, reveal the tenuous foundation of the narcissist’s sense of self and reality. There remains a deep emotional investment in grandiosity and power from early childhood that resists creative maturation outside reality as they simply wish it to be. Moreover, because of their blind devotion to this image the narcissist’s contributions to relationships fall short of empathy and, through psychic operations of projective identification, render them surprisingly susceptible to idealization of others. This is the obverse side of the contempt and devaluation normally associated with narcissistic disorders, an apparent contradiction, achieved through the psychic operation sometimes referred to as “splitting” in psychoanalytic argot and revealing the dialectical psyche pathognomonic of the negative will. So it is also that, therefore, not only neurotic types may gravitate to charismatic, autocratic rulers.
The vacillating types: These include the histrionic and borderline personalities. These individuals alternately display features of boldness, impulsivity, and manipulativeness with contrary traits of insecurity, self-doubt, and dependence in human relationships. Thus, they vacillate between narcissistic and neurotic ends of the spectrum. Histrionic types tend to be more narcissistic whilst the borderline end of the spectrum is more dependent.
The ambivalent types: Here we have the obsessive-compulsive and passive-aggressive personalities. Obsessive-compulsives tend to be rigid and controlling but lacking in originality. They dominate for the sake of conformity. They are the “pedestrian enforcers.” Passive-aggressive personalities, on the other hand, manipulate, sabotage, and instigate, seeking reprisal without taking credit or responsibility. They attempt to dominate without being dominant. Whilst the ambivalent types show features of narcissism through their efforts to dominate and orchestrate, the negativity of their will is manifest by lack of creativity in the obsessive-compulsive’s case and reactivity in the passive-aggressive’s case, ambivalence that is implied by the apparent disavowal of their power and intentions to exercise their will.
The ambiguous types: These types maintain a tenuous hold on the firmness of their sense of reality and authenticity of their identity because they are built on shaky ground. The schizoid, for example, appears to maintain a strong sense of self that is in fact weakly constructed because she tends to avoid putting it to the rigorous test that interpersonal involvement entails such as affronts to self-esteem, self-doubts, and the risks of abandonment, betrayal, and bereavement. The paranoid type, on the other hand, who guards vigilantly against trusting in as well as dependence upon others, maintains an ostensibly strong sense of self through negative will because it is rigidly defined by the world set against oneself rather than creatively from within. In this case, the will is negative both because it is reactive and its source lies outside the self.
Robert Hamm Ph.D