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Fight or Flight

fight or flightRyan was telling me about the rage he sometimes feels when people get into his space, or “impinge” on him, linking it to the trauma of a forceps birth and spending his first weeks of life in an incubator, tubes stuck into his head.

He also feels enraged when he enters a crowd with too many people around him. Upon entering Walmart, and seeing all the other shoppers, the thought will come into his head, “I’d like to kill someone.”

The rage seems to come up in response to an impingement from the outside that feels threatening.

It made me think about my most recent post on After Psychotherapy, about the origins of the “bad object,” along with feelings of fear and hatred directed toward it. I had one of those aha moments, a simple and obvious realization: given that we humans have the fight-flight-freeze mechanism built into us for responding to perceived threats, then of course infants respond with hatred toward the bad object and want to fight it off or even kill it. We’re genetically programmed to respond that way.

Murderous rage in those who suffer from borderline personality disorder also makes sense: because they live in a world of highly idealized and dangerous objects, they are continually responding to perceived threats in ways dictated by biology.

As the session went on, it also became clear that the rage was functioning as a kind of psychic glue. Under the pressure of his experience, Ryan unconsciously feels as if he’s going to fall apart; the rage binds him together and makes him feels powerful. Again this seems like part of the fight-flight-freeze mechanism.

Melanie Klein talked about the felt awareness that one’s life might be extinguished — that the potential for death is inherent in human flesh — as the original “bad object” inside, which is then projected outside. So if Ryan feels that he might disintegrate (die), it is felt as a bad internal object; he then projects it outside and experiences it as some external threat (those Walmart shoppers) he’d like to fight off or kill.

I feel as if I finally understand that unfortunate term, “the death instinct.”

Man running photo available from Shutterstock

Fight or Flight

Joseph Burgo PhD

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APA Reference
Burgo PhD, J. (2012). Fight or Flight. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 17, 2018, from


Last updated: 18 Aug 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Aug 2012
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