The Archetype of the Saboteur: Self-Sabotage from a Jungian Perspective

The following article by Michael Vannoy Adams is a presentation delivered at the conference of the Object Relations Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, New York, February 25, 2012.

Although I am a Jungian psychoanalyst, I have an interest in all the varieties of psychoanalysis - among them, object relations psychoanalysis. At this conference on objects and archetypes, with an emphasis on the saboteur, I have the responsibility to address that topic from a Jungian perspective. I hope that what I have to say will be of theoretical and practical value. I have entitled this presentation "The Archetype of the Saboteur: Self-Sabotage from a Jungian Perspective." What I propose to do is to compare and contrast object relations psychoanalysis and Jungian psychoanalysis, to discuss sabotage, and to interpret a dream that explicitly includes a saboteur.

It is, of course, Fairbairn who introduced the term "internal saboteur" into psychoanalytic discourse. What attitude did Fairbairn have toward Jung? "Personally I have always been inclined to depreciate controversies which assume a 'Freud versus Jung' complexion, on the grounds that considerations of truth should take precedence over scholastic argument," Fairbairn says. "At the same time it must be recognized that between the tradition of Freud and that of Jung there are disparities which it is hard to reconcile." In spite of these difficulties of reconciliation, Fairbairn adopts a conciliatory position. He says that if "my views have the effect of to some extent mitigating such disparities and providing a measure of common ground upon which the two traditions may meet, then it seems to me a very happy circumstance." Fairbairn says that if "I chose to follow the path mapped out by Freud instead of that mapped out by Jung, this was certainly not because I considered Freud invariably right and Jung invariably wrong" (1955: 111). Historically, for Freud and most Freudian psychoanalysts, Jung and Jungian psychoanalysts have been personae non grata. In contrast, Fairbairn has an attitude of equanimity, not enmity, toward Jung and Jungian psychoanalysts.

There are important similarities between object relations psychoanalysis and Jungian psychoanalysis, and there are important differences. Some differences are theoretical and practical, while other differences are terminological. Object relations psychoanalysis emphasizes objects, while Jungian psychoanalysis emphasizes images. In a sense, what object relations psychoanalysis calls "objects," Jungian psychoanalysis calls "images" - among them, "archetypal images."

The word "archetypal" is an elegant, perhaps a pretentious synonym for the word "typical." The psyche comprises an innumerable number of archetypes. "There are as many archetypes," Jung says, "as there are typical situations in life" (1936, CW 9,1: par. 99). These typical situations, I would emphasize, are not necessarily universal. Situations in life are only more or less typical. There is a continuum of typicality, with the unique at one extreme and the universal at the other extreme.

There is no entry for "saboteur" in the index to the Collected Works of Jung (or, for that matter, in the index to the Standard Edition of Freud). I know of no occasion when Jung so much as mentions the saboteur. Sabotage is, however, a typical situation in life, and, in that respect, the saboteur is what Jung means by an archetype.

The word "sabotage" derives from the word "sabot," which is the name of a wooden shoe that people have worn for centuries in various European countries. In the Netherlands in the fifteenth century, weavers who believed that technology would render them redundant threw sabots into the wooden gears of textile looms. Sabots were clogs that workers used to break cogs. Had Freud written an article on the "saboteur," he might have entitled it "Industrialization and Its Discontents."

Sabotage is a devious, stealthy, furtive, clandestine, surreptitious operation. In addition to industrial sabotage, there are other varieties of sabotage - among them, military and political. The variety of sabotage that interests psychoanalysts most is psychological sabotage, especially self-sabotage. Psychoanalysis addresses how individuals sabotage themselves. Every individual is a self-saboteur, and psychoanalysis enables individuals to become conscious of how they sabotage themselves.

In the novel Zuckerman Unbound, Philip Roth has a character describe self-sabotage. The literary agent of the fictional novelist Nathan Zuckerman is Andre Shevitz, who says to Zuckerman:

"You set out to sabotage your own moralizing nature, you set out to humiliate all your dignified, high-minded gravity, and now that you've done it, and done it with the relish of a real saboteur, now you're humiliated, you idiot, because nobody aside from you seems to see it as a profoundly moral and high-minded act! 'They' misunderstand you. And as for those who do understand you, people who've known you for five and ten and fifteen years, you'll have nothing to do with them, either. As far as I can tell, you don't see a single one of your friends. People call me to ask what's happened to you. Your closest friends think you're out of town. Somebody called me up the other day to ask if it was true that you were in Payne Whitney." (2007: 198-9)

Zuckerman responds sarcastically: "Oh, am I supposed to be in the bin now too?" (2007: 199). Back in the day, when psychoanalysis was the most popular psychotherapy, Payne Whitney was, of course, an expensive, exclusive, very private loony bin for rich and famous New Yorkers - many of whom, I assume, committed acts of self-sabotage.

The day after I accepted the invitation to speak at this conference, I happened to watch The Ed Show on television. The topic, synchronistically, was sabotage. Ed Schultz said:

"You know, the word 'sabotage' has been an undercurrent of conversation in America about, 'Well, you know, the Righties, they're just trying to sabotage President Obama so he won't get re-elected.' 'Sabotage' is a hell of a word. Let's see, Google's definition is: 'Deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct (something), especially for political or military advantage.' Now, when I hear the word 'sabotage,' I'm thinking about war, that's what I'm thinking about - I'm thinking about major confrontation, but, or course, 'political'" (November 3, 2011).

Schultz, a liberal Democrat, believes that conservative Republicans, who oppose all bipartisan compromise, are ideological saboteurs, attempting deliberately to destroy, damage, or obstruct President Obama for political advantage.

Historically, sabotage and the saboteur have been themes in popular culture. For example, Alfred Hitchcock directed two films with those motifs - Sabotage in 1936 and The Saboteur in 1942. Sabotage for military advantage was a special concern during World War II. In America, the most famous - or notorious - example was the case of eight Nazi saboteurs. In June, 1942, German submarines deposited four of them on Long Island near Amagansett, New York, and four of them on Ponte Vedra Beach near Jacksonville, Florida. The Nazi saboteurs had waterproof crates of dynamite, $175,000, and handkerchiefs with the names and addresses of contacts in invisible ink. All eight of them were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. On appeal, one was sentenced to life and one to 30 years. The other six were electrocuted.

Just as the archetype of the terrorist has assumed cultural importance in recent years, so the archetype of the saboteur assumed cultural importance in the 1940s. In this respect, perhaps it is no accident that Fairbairn first mentioned the internal saboteur in an article that he published in 1944. Were Fairbairn a contemporary psychoanalyst, he might have employed the term "internal terrorist" rather than the term "internal saboteur."

Although Fairbairn is an object relations psychoanalyst, as he defines the "internal saboteur" it is not an object but an ego. In this respect, Fairbairn mentions three egos - "a central ego and two other subsidiary egos." These three egos he describes as "(1) a central ego (the 'I'), (2) a libidinal ego, and (3) an aggressive, persecutory ego which I designate as the internal saboteur." He says that this tripartite classification of egos has "a universal application" (1944: 101). The internal saboteur is an internal aggressor and an internal persecutor. It is, in effect, an anti-libidinal ego that attacks the libidinal ego. "The attack of the internal saboteur upon the libidinal ego," Fairbairn says, "must obviously function as an extremely powerful factor in furthering the aims of repression" (1951: 173). I would emphasize that, for Fairbairn, the internal saboteur is not a "bad object" - or, in fact, any variety of object - but an anti-libidinal ego, the function of which is to attack the libidinal ego and, in the process, to repress objects. That is, it is the ego - or, more specifically, one of three egos, an aggressive, persecutory ego - that, through repression, sabotages effective relations with objects.

In preparation for this presentation, I consulted the indexes of all the books that I own on object relations psychoanalysis. It surprised me that the term "internal saboteur" hardly ever appears as an entry. Even Fairbairn employs the term only infrequently. In an article that he published ten years after he introduced the term, Fairbairn says that, although he "previously employed the term 'internal saboteur,'" he prefers "the term 'anti-libidinal ego.'" He adopts the term, he says, in order to emphasize the "ego-status" of the anti-libidinal ego and to align it terminologically with the central ego and the libidinal ego (1954: 17n.).

An anti-libidinal ego, as the prefix "anti-" indicates, is an ego that is "against" libido. In contrast to Freud, who defines "libido" as sexual energy in particular, Jung defines it as psychic energy in general. An anti-libidinal ego employs repression against the expression of energy, whether sexual or psychic. As a Jungian psychoanalyst, I prefer the term "internal saboteur" to the term "anti-libidinal ego," for, in contrast to "anti-libidinal ego," which is an abstract concept, "internal saboteur" is a concrete image. Images are more specific than concepts, for, in contrast to concepts, images have distinctive qualities and action capacities. It is the distinctive qualities and action capacities of images that are the necessary and sufficient condition of any psychoanalytic interpretation that purports to be accurate.

In this respect, the internal saboteur is an exquisitely exact image that provides an eloquently precise description of the process by which the ego represses - or, more specifically, sabotages - what the unconscious attempts to express. The image "internal saboteur" is poetic. It is much more vivid, vital, and evocative than the concept "anti-libidinal ego," which is prosaic. To me, the term "internal saboteur" is not just a rhetorical conceit. It is a superbly expressive term that enables psychoanalysts with a sensibility for subtleties, to visualize - and not just verbalize - the nuances of a process that is integral to the psyche. Were I a Freudian psychoanalyst with a wish to fulfill, it would be that Fairbairn had retained the concrete image "internal saboteur" and not replaced it with the abstract concept "anti-libidinal ego" and had contrived equally ingenious images for the concepts "central ego" and "libidinal ego." Had he done so, object relations psychoanalysis would be much more descriptively graphic than it is.

Fairbairn published few interpretations of dreams, but he does present a theory of dream interpretation that is a radical repudiation of the theory that Freud presents. Freud says that all dreams, without exception, are wish-fulfillments. In contrast, Fairbairn says that at least some dreams are not wish-fulfillment dreams but "state of affairs" dreams. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud employs the expression "state of affairs" when he interprets a dream, but when he does so, he says that the dream was a wish-fulfillment - "a particular state of affairs as I should have wished it to be" (1900, SE 4: 118-19). Grammatically, for Freud, the state of affairs in dreams is invariably in the optative mood. It is the expression of a wish. In contrast, Fairbairn mentions a patient who recounted dreams that "defied all efforts to bring them into conformity with the 'wish-fulfilment' theory, and which she herself came to describe quite spontaneously as 'state of affairs' dreams," and which, he says, dramatized "actually existing endopsychic situations." That is, the dreams of this patient were dramatizations of states of affairs not as she wished them to be but as they were. Eventually, Fairbairn concluded that "dreams are essentially, not wish-fulfilments, but dramatizations or 'shorts' (in the cinematographic sense) of situations existing in internal reality" (1944: 99).

In a lecture that Jung delivered in 1931, thirteen years before Fairbairn published the article in which he repudiated the wish-fulfillment theory of dreams, Jung says of the dream of a patient: "It shows the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is: not as I conjecture it to be, and not as he would like it to be, but as it is" (1934, CW 16: par. 304). He says: "The view that dreams are merely the imaginary fulfilments of repressed wishes is hopelessly out of date" (1934, CW 16: par. 317). Although Jung does not, as Fairbairn does, employ the term "'state of affairs' dreams," he says that dreams express the situation in internal reality as it is, not as the patient wishes it to be. Both Jung and Fairbairn consider dreams to be an expression of the situation as it actually exists in internal reality, or, as Jung says, "the actual situation in the unconscious" (1916/1948, CW 8: par. 505). To this extent, Jung and Fairbairn adopt a similar position in regard to dreams.

In addition, however, Jung adopts a position different from Fairbairn. For Jung, the dream not only expresses the situation as it actually exists in internal reality but also "rectifies the situation" (1916/1948, CW 8: par. 482). That is, the dream includes what Jung calls a "compensatory function" (1916/1948, CW 8: par. 483). In dreams, Jung says, images - among them, archetypal images - emerge from the unconscious in an effort to compensate the partial, prejudicial attitude of the ego.

For Freud, all dreams are wish-fulfillments. In contrast, for Jung, most if not all dreams are attitude-compensations. The images that emerge from the unconscious in dreams present for consideration alternative perspectives on the maladaptive, dysfunctional attitude of the ego. For Jung, the attitude of the ego is essentially defective. The ego tends to be anxious and defensive rather than curious and receptive. The basic function of the ego is to preserve the status quo. As a result, the ego tends to repress or exclude from consideration the images that emerge from the unconscious.

From a Jungian perspective, these images attempt to contact and impact the ego in order to compensate the attitude of the ego. They do so in an effort to transform the ego - that is, to render it more conscious. In this respect, the images that emerge from the unconscious in dreams are what I call "images of transformation." Ironically, it is not the unconscious that is unconscious. Rather, it is the ego that is unconscious, and what it is unconscious of are the images that emerge from the unconscious. The tendency of the ego is to react anxiously and defensively, rather than respond curiously and receptively. The ego tends to be resistant rather than inquisitive. It does not effectively engage the images but apotropaically employs the defenses of "fight" or "flight." The ego attempts to defeat, even demolish, the images or to evade them. At the extreme, the ego is schizoid or even paranoid and utterly impervious to the compensatory influence of these images.

Jung introduced into psychoanalytic discourse the terms "introversion" and "extraversion." There is also, of course, "perversion." Sabotage is "subversion." To "subvert" means to "turn over from under." Topographically, the unconscious is a subconscious. The unconscious is an "underconscious." From under the ego, the unconscious attempts to overturn the ego. From the perspective of the ego, the unconscious is intrinsically subversive. No wonder the ego is so anxious and so defensive. Ultimately, the unconscious as such is a saboteur, for it attempts to sabotage - or to subvert - the partial, prejudicial attitude of the ego.

In the psyche, what sabotages what? Is it the ego that sabotages the unconscious, or is it the unconscious that sabotages the ego? To the extent that the ego is an internal saboteur, it sabotages the unconscious - that is, it represses what object relations psychoanalysts call "objects" or what Jungian psychoanalysts call "images." Objects or images that emerge from the unconscious may also, however, sabotage the ego. To the anxious and defensive ego, objects or images may be internal saboteurs.

Consider, in this respect, a dream that a patient recounted to me in analysis. I presented the dream in an article that I published fifteen years ago. This conference affords me an opportunity to reconsider the dream. Of all the dreams that patients have recounted to me over the years, it is the only dream that explicitly includes a saboteur as an object or image. There were two versions of the dream. This is the first version:

There's a criminal entity in the architecture of a building. I'm a detective. I'm moving from one space to another, one room to another, one floor to another. I'm pursuing the entity. I have an eerie sensation. The entity is just around the corner. I follow it, but I'm trying to keep it from harming me. There's a set of tools that belong to the evil character. I think to use the tools against him. He becomes aware of my presence. Then I'm running down the hall, holding a tool back toward him. (Adams 1997: 31-2)

This is the second version:

I follow the character into a room - out of curiosity. It's as if I'm going upstairs, moving into a room. I'm moving from an old building into a new building. I find an evil character and his assistant. I'm coming upon a sabotage plot. That's what the tools are about. I grab the tools - an electric drill set, a small drill and several different attachments for different things. It's a glorified, super-duper electric drill set. I take it so that they can't sabotage anything. I grab the drill and turn it on. I look menacingly at the evil character and his assistant. I run away out of fear for my life, because they aren't intimidated by the tool. They're chasing me. I don't see them, but I know what's happening. (Adams 1997: 32)

Had the dreamer recounted to me only the first version of the dream, it would never have occurred to me to say that the dream is about sabotage. It is only in the second version that the dreamer specifically identifies the dream as a "sabotage plot."

In any interpretation of a dream, it is important to note what the ego and the objects or images in the dream are doing. When this dream begins, the ego is in a building, which, since this is a dream, is, of course, not an external space but an internal space. The scene is a psychic space - in a word, the unconscious. What is the ego doing? It is moving. More specifically, it is moving "from an old building into a new building," and, in that building, it is moving "from one space to another, one room to another, one floor to another." The ego is also detecting. It is a "detective." What the ego detects are two objects or images. According to the ego, one of these objects or images is a "criminal entity" or "evil character," and the other is an "assistant." What are these objects or images doing? According to the ego, they are perpetrating a "sabotage plot." In this dream, it is not the ego that is an "internal saboteur," as Fairbairn defines it, but the entity or character and the assistant that are "internal saboteurs."

What does the ego do in relation to these objects or images? It does what the ego does in most dreams - I might say, in almost all dreams. That is, the ego employs defenses such as "fight" and "flight." In this respect, this dream is a typical, or archetypal, dream. Although initially the ego relates to the criminal entity or evil character with "curiosity," ultimately it relates to this object or image with anxiety. It reacts defensively against the entity or character. The ego attempts to prevent this object or image from "harming" it. The entity or character has a "set of tools" - or, more specifically, a "super-duper drill set." The ego takes the drill so that the criminal entity or evil character and the assistant "can't sabotage anything." It grabs the drill, turns it on, and looks "menacingly" at the criminal entity or evil character and the assistant. In effect, the ego threatens the objects or images, as if to fight them. These objects or images, however, "aren't intimidated," and, as a result, the ego flees them. When the dream ends, these objects or images are "chasing" the ego. Such are the distinctive qualities and action capacities of the ego and the objects or images in this dream. The dream expresses the actual situation in the internal reality of the dreamer. That state of affairs, as it is, comprises an ego that is anxious and defensive in relation to objects or images.

What the ego and the objects or images do in a dream is important, but equally important is what they do not do. For example, the objects or images in this dream do not attack the ego. The entity or character and the assistant have a drill, but they do not harm or even threaten to harm the ego with that drill. The ego merely assumes that they intend to harm it. It is, in fact, the ego that looks at these objects or images menacingly, attempts to intimidate them, and threatens to harm them with the drill. What or why the entity or character and the assistant intend to drill, the dream never says. The noun "drill" means an instrument with a pointed, revolving end for boring holes. The verb "to drill" means to act with penetrating effect. To drill, I would emphasize, is not necessarily to sabotage. This ego never entertains the possibility that a "drilling" might be helpful rather than harmful - in fact, just what a defensive ego needs. In this dream, the ego merely assumes that the entity or character and the assistant have the drill with the intent of sabotaging. The ego never questions these objects or images, and, as a result, they never answer the ego. There is no dialogue between the ego and the objects or images. In this dream, as in most if not all dreams, the ego defends first and asks questions later, if ever. This ego is assumptive, not inquisitive. The ego never inquires what the entity or character and the assistant are intending to do - it merely assumes that they are plotting to sabotage. All that these objects or images do in the dream is to chase the ego. Why the entity or character and the assistant chase the ego the dream never says, although they do so only after the ego threatens them with the drill.

From an object relations perspective, the "criminal entity" or "evil character" is a "bad object." From a Jungian perspective, it is a "bad image." Or at least that is how, I would emphasize, the ego of the dreamer regards this object or image. That is, the entity or character is not necessarily "bad" intrinsically. It is the ego that imputes "badness" to the object or image. The ego calls the entity or character "criminal" and "evil." The object or image is "so-called" by the ego. That the entity or character is criminal and evil is the immediate impression that the ego has when it encounters the object or image. This impression is the opinion of a suspicious ego. There is no indication in the dream, other than the imputation of the ego - or what I might call "the word of the ego" - that the entity is criminal or that the character is evil. The ego merely assumes that the intent of the object or image is nefarious, although there is no independent evidence in the dream to corroborate that it is. None of the distinctive qualities or action capacities of the entity or character substantiate such a conclusion. An object or image that the ego regards as "bad" may be, in fact, "good." The ego may be unconscious of what is good for it.

After the patient recounted this dream to me, he speculated that the saboteur was "an aspect of myself" and that perhaps "I don't feel pleasure in things because I'm sabotaging them." The problem was not, as he had previously believed, in external reality but in internal reality. It was not, he said, that "outside forces were meddling in my affairs." The problem, he now realized, was self-sabotage. The patient defined a "saboteur" as someone who "targets something for destruction," and he defined "sabotage" as "a tactic that affects the capabilities of a so-called enemy." Sabotage, he said, is a "covert operation" (Adams 1997: 32).

The patient had no knowledge of object relations psychoanalysis, but, intuitively, he identified what Fairbairn calls the "internal saboteur" with what D.W. Winnicott calls the "false self" (1960). The saboteur "presents one face to the world, a fake self," he said, "and hides what he's doing." Sabotage, he said, entails "secrecy." The patient then suddenly remarked to me that a word had spontaneously occurred to him. The word, an example of what Freud calls a "free association," was "self-destructive." Earlier in life, the patient had indulged in self-destructive behaviors - among them, a heroin addiction. Now, however, he had goals. "The goals don't give me any pleasure," he said, "but I want to achieve them - but I want to sabotage the process" (Adams 1997: 32). These two "buts" expressed perfectly just what a paradoxical - and just what a perverse - relation the patient had to what Freud calls the "pleasure principle" or to what Fairbairn calls the "libidinal ego." The internal saboteur in the psyche of this patient was an anti-libidinal ego or false self that was "against" the pleasure principle and the libidinal ego.

This dream is an archetypal dream. It is so typical that I might say, hyperbolically, that it is the universal, recurrent dream of all individuals - the very same dream that they dream over and over again, repetitively, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. I mean that in this dream objects or images emerge from the unconscious, and the ego, as it almost always does in dreams, immediately regards these objects or images as "bad" - that is, harmful rather than helpful - employs the defenses of "fight" and flight," and attempts to repress the objects or images. I might say that the ego of this patient has a "sabotage or be sabotaged" attitude toward the unconscious. What is problematic is not the archetype of the saboteur as such but the adversarial attitude of the ego toward the archetype. From a Jungian perspective, it is this attitude that is the sine qua non of self-sabotage.


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Roth, P. (2007) Zuckerman Unbound, in Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue, 1979-1985, New York: Library of America: 117-262.

Schultz, E. (November 3, 2011) The Ed Show, MSNBC.

Winnicott, D.W. (1960) "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, Madison, CT: International Universities Press: 140-52.