Emotional Warfare

A new approach to psychopathology.

Posted Feb 14, 2019

Part II in a four part blog series on a new model of mental health and disorder. 

In Part I of this four-part blog series, I shared the personal narrative of my encounter over the past few months with Edward Kroger and his theory of Emotional Warfare and the Philosophy of One Divide. This blog dives more deeply into the concept of Emotional Warfare, and the nature of the “False Self.” The next blog explores the “Anatomy of Emotional Warfare,” and the final blog explores the True Self, the Philosophy of One Divide, and how we can work toward “closing the divide” and outline the move toward human flourishing.

As I alluded to in Part I, I believe that Edward Kroger’s Theory of Emotional Warfare—especially when placed in the context of UTUA—provides a powerful new approach to understanding psychopathology. To be more specific, let me label it “psychosocial dysfunction and mental disorder.” I know that is a bit of a mouthful but let me differentiate this concept from two other related concepts pertaining to mental health/illness, specifically “mental diseases” and “psychosocial injuries.” In my language system, mental diseases are syndromes that most likely arise from neuro-cognitive malfunctions (AKA broken bio-physiology). Alzheimer’s dementia is an obvious example of a mental disease. Autism, schizophrenia, and severe OCD are also examples of mental diseases. Psychosocial injuries are another important category I want to separate out. Examples of psychosocial injury include experiencing physical or sexual abuse or trauma, the death of a loved one, a deep betrayal of a significant other, or the loss of a job or other crucial resource that “injures” the psyche. Of course, as given by a PTSD diagnosis, such injuries can lead to mental disorders.  

Although mental diseases and psychosocial injuries are key concepts for mental health and disorder, the primary thing that brings people into psychotherapy are psychosocial mental disorders. These are maladaptive cycles of thinking, feeling, acting out, and relating with difficulty to others. In more professional language, we are talking about “clinically significant levels of distress and dysfunction in the neurotic-to-borderline range of psychological functioning.” In terms of DSM diagnostic clusters, we are talking about the “internalizing conditions” like anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, adjustment difficulties, personality disorders, and related problems with low self-esteem, chronic relational conflicts, profound isolation and loneliness, and general life dissatisfaction. This represents the bulk of the reasons people seek out psychotherapy. Aligning with this claim, consider that a recent survey of integrative psychotherapists revealed that maladaptive cycles represented a potentially unifying concept that cut across the various therapy paradigms (i.e., CBT, humanistic, psychodynamic). It is my contention that Edward Kroger’s Emotional Warfare offers a powerful analysis of how to think about these problematic psychosocial patterns and processes.    

Okay, enough of the “refined knowledge” backdrop. To bring the concept of Emotional Warfare home, consider the following description:

A critical remark, an embarrassing slip up, a fight with someone you care about. Such events cause anxiety to seep through your body, as a wave of uncertainty and discomfort washes over you. Past wounds and histories of trauma and broken trust flicker in your subconscious memory. The perceived threat to your status and belonging activates a deep desire to escape the pain and emotional desperation that comes from being rejected or attacked or losing influence with important others. The primal urge to defend and escape and return to a state of perceived security is intense. It is such a powerful fear that many individuals spend their lives building fortresses of ego defenses to protect themselves from such losses and to obtain as much perceived security as possible. These strategies and tactics make up the false self, and its negative, repetitive behavior cycles lie at the root of emotional warfare.

As suggested by this passage, the key player in EW is called the “False Self,” and thus it is crucial for us to be aware of its meaning. In the theory of EW, the False Self is “birthed” via what Kroger calls “the broken trust” event, which refers to the fact that, at some point in our development we experience rejection, criticism, or abandonment in a way that gives rise to a profound sense of “emotional desperation.” As deeply social mammals, we come built to experience social rejection and isolation as profoundly aversive. Of course, individuals differ in how much emotional desperation they encounter in their lives. Some fortunate souls are relatively protected, whereas others are brutalized day in and day out (e.g., think of John Bowlby’s orphans). In addition, humans have different temperaments and thus react to aversive stimuli with varying degrees of intensity. As such, the amount of emotional desperation one might experience is likely a function of the intensity and duration of rejection relative to amount and quality of social support and connection, all interacting with the degree of emotional sensitivity of the individual.

The experience of emotional desperation triggered by rejection or abandonment or criticism is enormously painful, and thus it naturally follows that folks work to try to prevent it from happening again. Developmentally, this is the force that energizes the growth of the False Self. That is, the False Self represents the strategies and tactics and roles one develops and deploys to protect oneself from the feared loss of status and belonging. This means that the way the False Self grows is not based on magic or mystical forces, but rather on the basic processes of negative reinforcement and safety-seeking and avoidance. To the extent that deploying strategies or tactics results in the (perceived) avoidance of social rejection, then those strategies get strengthened. This is the “law of effect,” and is behavioral psychology 101 in action.

As sophisticated clinicians know, anxiety and avoidance are some of the most important frames to look at a person’s functioning. Consider how the integrative relational psychodynamic theorist, Paul Wachtel, put it in his book Therapeutic Communication, as he emphasized the centrality of anxiety in understanding the therapeutic process:

It has been clear to most therapists for some time now that anxiety and related distressing affects usually lie at the heart of their patients’ difficulties. In large measure people seek psychotherapy because they have become afraid of aspects of the world or aspects of their own experience…The task of the therapist consists to a significant degree in helping them overcome these fears and live more fully, freely and enjoyably.

Kroger’s Theory of Emotional Warfare lines up directly with this analysis. What Kroger highlights in plain language (which, of course, have been pointed out by others) is that early broken trust events trigger socio-emotional avoidance strategies which are deployed to control self and others in an effort to avoid additional losses of status and belonging. Of course, when individuals feels cornered by things they fear, they react and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a sense of security. This brings us to another important aspect of Kroger’s theory, which is how he couches it in terms of “Emotional Warfare.” The resources at stake are a sense of security, status and belonging. And in their desperate attempts to hold on to their resources and avoid losses, individuals deploy Emotional Warfare tactics.

Let’s make this concrete. In his powerful autobiography, Open, tennis great Andre Agassi talks about his profound struggles and conflicts regarding the game of tennis. Although he had exceptional natural talent, he was emotionally torn up about the game. Why? The reason from the vantage point of Emotional Warfare is that Agassi’s play early in his life was driven in large part by his “False Self.” His father was not a secure man and put enormous pressure on his children to achieve. His father saw in Andre someone who could realize his own needs for being somebody, and so he drove Andre with an iron fist to play the game and win. As such, Andre’s tennis success was fused with his status and belonging in his father’s eyes. His book detailing his early life regarding tennis, his self-concept, and his relationship with his father reads as a description of Emotional Warfare, inside and out.   

Agassi was a competitive man whose path to social influence was found in vanquishing opponents. As such, his primary Emotional Warfare tactics and processes involved an “inflated A” dynamic, meaning that when he felt vulnerable and threatened, he would move into defiance, aggression, (false) pride, and other “Self-Over-Other” strategies for attempting to secure influence and safety.

However, many go the opposite route, and engage in "Other-Over-Self" tactics. This blog describes the story of Maggie Nelson, a college student who exemplified the opposite pattern of Emotional Warfare, the “Inflated B.” Rather than externalizing and attacking, Maggie turned her hostilities inward. Terrified by the possibility of criticism and rejection, she engaged in a ruthless self-attack, seeing herself as worthless, ugly and ineffective. Such tactics functioned to keep her in a state of submission and dependency. They emerged out of her avoiding what she perceived to be a constant danger of rejection and abandonment. But these strategies and ways of responding grew and ultimately trapped her in an inner prison of Emotional Warfare, such that she became clinically depressed and made several serious suicide attempts. The therapy is well-characterized as my entering her inner zone of Emotional Warfare and attempting to help her understand its driving forces and serve as a guide on how to achieve some level of peace and acceptance, ultimately redirecting her flow toward more a productive and fulfilling way of being.

With this outline characterizing key aspects of human psychopathology in terms of Emotional Warfare deployed in the service of the False Self, in the next blog we turn to the details and examine the Anatomy of Emotional Warfare as laid out by Edward Kroger and grounded in the UTUA Framework.   

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Part I: A Key that Unlocks My Cathedral

Part III: The Anatomy of Emotional Warfare

Part IV: The True Self and the Philosophy of One Divide

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