Working With Hostile Introject: Part I, Its Genesis and Function

Perhaps the most difficulty clients in psychotherapy have is learning to deal effectively with the  internal sub-self that is critical and hostile toward themselves. .Many  psychological theorists have described  it.   Freud called it the super-ego, Eric Berne the Critical Parent, Friz Perls  the Topdog. 

Where it comes from:  The critical internal parent stems from the child’s  “swallowing” critical comments, either overtly or covertly communicated in childhood by parents, siblings, other relatives, teachers, other children.  Because the child has a limited perspective and is rather concrete, what is said or expressed toward the child is interpreted in a simplistic way.  For example, the child spills his milk and the mother says in an angry tone, “You careless boy; why don’t you watch what you’re doing.”   She’s just angry that she has to clean up the spilled milk,  but he, assuming that  his mother knows what is true about him, has no choice but to believe that he is careless and clumsy, particularly if this kind of criticism is leveled at him frequently.   He then tells himself that he’s careless when he makes a mistake and, what is more important, does so in the same hostile way that his mother told him.

Note that internalizing these kinds of comments are not the only internalizations the child is doing.  He or she is learning a lot about the self and the world, about relationships, what is right and wrong, what gets praise and what gets criticism.  The development of an internal overseer is an important developmental step.  If he can warn himself to be more careful, he can avoid the criticism of his mother.   If, however, what the child hears from others is mostly critical and/or the criticism is expressed in an angry, judgemental  way with little or no  praise to balance things out,   this internal guide takes on a very negative tone and is correctly described as a critical parent.  .

Note also that the negative messages  don’t have to be actually stated.  Children are very sensitive to visual and auditory cues.  The mother may just sigh and look disgusted, and the child may then experience something even worse than hurt and scared:  shame.  I  have found that,  when the  messages of disapproval during childhood were more subtle, it can be even worse for the person to identify what went on to create feelings of inadequacy and shame.

How it functions in adulthood:  When the person grows into adulthood, this critical sub-self is still expressing, often unconsciously, hostility, making negative judgments and dire predictions toward the person.  The result is often poor self-esteem, a fear of trying new things, poor interpersonal relationships, pessimism about the future, and shame about past transgressions.  Frequently, the person expresses the same negative messages towards people in his or her life:  children, spouses, employees at work, etc.  Because the critical sub-self doesn’t learn from results that throw into question it’s judgments and predictions, and has an omniscient tone, its negative messages to the person don’t change.   And the individual tends to believe what the critical sub-self expresses to him or her.  This is particularly true when the “messages” are expressed unconsciously.  If something happens or the person does something that disconfirms the critical sub-self–for example, success in some endeavor–the critical sub-self will find some way to explain away the success.”   “Well, you were just lucky.”  Or “you certainly fooled them!”  For example, I once had a client who was very intelligent, but thought she was stupid because when she did something that belied that view of herself, she would explain it away.

The stance of the recipient toward the hostile introject:  Just as a child is not merely a helpless victim of the hostility of the parents’ and others’ negativism, the recipient of the hostile introject is not merely a helpless victim.  The counterpart of the Parent/Hostile Introject/Topdog is termed the Adaptive Child by Eric Berne and the Underdog by Fritz Perls.  That part of the person learns ways to try to meet his or her needs while, at the same time, trying to deal with the introject in the best way it can.  And these ways are every varied.  For some, the Child is docile and just accepts and believes what the introject is communicating.  For others,  it’s rebellion.  For example, the person may be addicted to sweets, so he or she may think about having some ice cream or candy.  The hostile introject says “no, you can’t have that.”  And the Child, in effect, says “Screw you; I’m going to do it anyway.”    The important thing is that this is all going on unconsciously.  All the person is experiencing is some anxiety, perhaps even excitement, and rushes to get the sweet.  Needless to say, it’s not really enjoyed.

Why trying to help clients get rid of the hostile introject is impossible and why the therapist must have a nuanced, objective attitude toward it:   Because many therapists suffer from the presence of a similar  hostile sub-self, they often tend to see this part of the self as an enemy,  and their critical attitude towards it can become communicated to the client.  They may  even encourage the client to get rid of it.  Or they may feel sorry for the client’s continual self-condemnation, and try to give the client another, more “realistic” view of himself or herself.  Attempting to help the client get rid of the hostile introject is impossible, for the critical sub-self is the major intra-psychic  figure in the client’s inner world.  That’s one of the reason why the person experiences anxiety and depression when he or she is alone; the hostile introject keeps him or her company.    When the person is involved in some activity or relationship in which he or she loses himself or herself in an engrossing experience , those negative messages may not be sent.   

If the person could get rid of it, he or she would feel lost and alone.  For, although the person or persons from whom the client internalized this part of the self might have been very destructive, it was at least something to relate to. We humans are first and foremost relational beings and need contact with other humans, even if it’s only in fantasy.  It is also why, when a person had a loving but weak parent and a hostile but powerful parent, he or she tends to internalize the attitudes of the latter toward the self rather than the former.   It may seem paradoxical, but the greater power of the internalized critical significant people during childhood provides more of a feeling of grounding than the more benign figures.    If the person could somehow get rid of it, he or she would be faced with an internal void, an emptiness, that can feel terrifying.

Another important function of the hostile introject:  In discussing this issue with a client recently, I was reminded of  another, very important  benefit many people get from their demanding, critical internal sub-self:  it drives them toward achievement.  I have had clients tell me that, if they changed it or were magically able to get rid of it, they feared they would stop being driven to succeed in their businesses or professions.  The messages are something like this:  “Unless you {get all A’s in your classes} {make a million dollars before you’re thirty} {be the best salesmen in your company}  you’re a total wash-out.”    Of course, the hostile sub-self doesn’t praise the person when success is achieved, but pushes him or her for more achievements.  Like the parent who says, when the child comes home with 5 A’s and 1 B:  “Well, why didn’t you get all A’s?”