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Why do we hate?

Psychotherapeutic views of some of the origins of hatred by Leanne Hoffman

“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us”. Hermann Hesse

Hatred is in the air. In recent conversations with friends, family, patients and colleagues the issue of rising hatred and growing schisms in society is a recurring theme. Many are concerned about the polarisation in politics in the UK and US, as well as the inhouse fighting within groups for example the Tory, Labour or LGBT community. Extreme emotions often have an internal origin, “what isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us”. Given the current climate it seems timely to apply the insights of psychoanalysis to quintessentially human emotions given their corrosive effect on many areas of life. If we can understand what we bring to our hatred, we may hate less or with less destructiveness.

Psychotherapy believes that there is a link between the part of ourselves that we hate and the hatred we feel for others. The idea is that if we cannot bear certain parts of ourselves, we try to deal with them through mental gymnastics that can result in hatred for either individuals or groups. This explains psychotherapy’s focus on getting people to be more honest about all parts of themselves, both the aspects that they are happy to own and those that feel more shameful.

Homophobia is a case in point; when people cannot face parts of themselves which feel less certainly heterosexual, they can take this out on homosexuals. Plenty of people are not personally comfortable with the concept of homosexuality for religious or cultural reasons, but they can accept individual gay people. It is not surprising that people have found it hard to come to terms with more fluid sexual norms as it is only recently that society stopped criminalising homosexuality. However, there is a sub-sect who hate, and I would posit that the trigger is internal.

One of the most extreme and far reaching historical example of hatred is Hitler’s hatred of Jews. Though not proven there is speculation that Hitler’s paternal grandfather was Jewish, and this shame goes some way to explaining his targeting of Jews. The hypothesis would be that this was a psychic attempt to kill off the “bad” part of himself he could not bear by enacting a regime of genocide.

A modern example, especially in first world countries, is hatred towards people who are overweight. Whilst other forms of discrimination are frowned upon this form of hatred is deemed more acceptable. While there may be rational reasons for taking issue with being overweight because it is unhealthy or unattractive by modern ideals, the abuse which is meted out, often by strangers, defies logic. Given how much energy many now spend on diet, weight and exercise with the self-discipline and restriction that this demands it is not surprising that we react badly to people who “allow” themselves to be fat. Perhaps if people could accept their own feelings of wanting more, they may have a less extreme response to people they identify as overweight.

A common outcome of psychotherapy is that people’s levels of anger and hatred are reduced. The aim is not to achieve a saccharine Ned Flanders (of the Simpsons) disposition, but that by exploring and accepting problematic parts of oneself you hate less in others. It is common to find someone particularly annoying when they display behaviours which you cannot face in yourself, or that you work hard to counter.

Melanie Klein, a leading founder analyst talks about some of the early psychic mechanisms that can explain some forms of hatred. Babies do not have the developmental capacity to deal with shades of grey either in themselves or in others. So, in regard to the self the baby splits the “good” and the “bad” parts and projects negative aspects into others. These bad parts could be aggression or other destructive tendencies that are common prior to socialisation. Anyone who has experienced a baby’s bite whether to the nipple or any other part of the body will see that these behaviours are very present in early life.

When faced with others, in particular the baby’s primary carer, the child divides the carer’s attributes into the “good breast” and “bad breast”, almost as if the parent were two separate beings. Parents are only human and are both the “good” and the “bad” – in fact they need to frustrate a baby at times to stop it developing a narcissistic personality. The splitting of the “good” and the “bad” reduces as the child navigates this important developmental step, and with “good enough” parenting or experiences the baby can better integrate the two halves. However, development is not a one-way process; we can regress at any point especially at times of strain. For example, when someone dies the bereaved will often idealise the deceased splitting the “good” from the “bad”. Perhaps it is unsurprising that at a time of intense emotional strain many find it hard to think about their loved one in nuanced forms.

Projection is another psychological mechanism that has its origins in our early life and is linked to splitting and hatred. Couples often experience this when one feels an emotion that is hard to acknowledge and projects it into the other, like a metaphorical hot potato. The unconscious hope is that the other person will feel it, understand and then be able to make it better. When babies are frustrated at not getting what they want, they have a tantrum in the hope that the primary carer will make sense of the unbearable emotions. It is the same mechanism at work when we deal with unwanted parts of our adult selves. We may deal with our greed, or selfishness by placing them in others and then can hate them at a distance.

These psychological mechanisms that are present in our early life operate in most forms of hatred of others. From an evolutionary perspective we had to learn to be on guard of people outside our group as the world was a dangerous place. 1 in 3 men were murdered in ancient times in contrast to current figures of 1 in 100, 000 in Northern Europe. Traces of this ancient world linger in our unconscious bias. Others, whether they are a different, colour, race, gender, political party or viewpoint become a hook for projecting our hatred of what we cannot deal with. When we are fearful, stressed or emotionally triggered we are more likely to resort to these older psychic mechanisms. Worries about available resources can translate into a lack of tolerance for immigrants or other minority groups.

This pattern of projecting and splitting is not just found in individuals; it can also operate on an institutional level. The recent issues with antisemitism in the Labour party can be seen through this prism. Jews, like any minorities are an easy target for scapegoating or the projection of unwanted parts of our selves. My colleague, a psychoanalyst, hypothesised that perhaps Labour’s unacknowledged desires around wealth and money, attributes that are not considered to be “good” socialist values, are scapegoated onto Jews because of ancient stereotypes. It is this unconsciously surfacing that has stopped the party’s leadership taking stronger action against behaviours which run counter to their core values. I am not singling out Labour, it is an inevitable dynamic that almost all groups find scapegoats, and it is important to note that hatred is not confined to one end of the political spectrum.

This would make sense of what I find the extraordinary dispute within the LGBT community around women’s rights and trans men. The lesbian community wants to uphold women’s rights to avoid sharing public spaces such as changing rooms with men while Stonewall wants to protect the rights of trans men who identify as women. Accommodating different needs can be difficult, but there is a question around why minority groups are attacking each other and seem unable to hold each other’s rights and needs in mind. We perhaps idealistically assume that minority groups, or those who have been persecuted, are somehow above projecting their hate – they should ‘know better’. But how else would you explain this schism? Hatred and targeting of minorities happen in all groups and are equally prevalent in minorities.

When we hate or act with adverse emotional intensity towards individuals or groups, something is going on that is much more layered. Like the insomniac Princess in the fairy tale, you can tackle the uncomfortable stacks of mattresses but really it is the pea that is causing the distress. Psychotherapy tries to disrupt this narrative to acknowledge the parts of ourselves or our primary carers we have buried – the problematic ‘pea’. When this happens, we are less likely to deal with this through hating others.

By confronting the true causes of hate, psychotherapy can help to reduce the hatred, anger and lack of empathy we have for others. With this in mind, we can move away from building walls whether in Ireland, the US border or metaphorical ones within ourselves.

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