Hero Worshipping and Splitting: Intergenerational and collective trauma, and the narcissistic wound in the Burmese psychology

As I started writing on this paper, I noticed my hesitation. I had asked myself, who am I to assume this position of knowing about the psychology of the people from Burma? What a bigot of me to prescribe some diagnostic labels to a group of people! This had been the same doubt I have had since the beginning of my training in the field of psychotherapy. The humility, though conducive to curiosity necessary for learning and assessing, does not allow me to own my voice and be an agent of change within and beyond the therapy room. My anxiety around authority had disempowered me as a therapist. Fortunately, I had a wonderful supervisor who reframed authority in a way that helped me move beyond my fears. Being aware that I was a writer, she described authority as having the capacity to author, particularly in the context of the therapy room. My authority in the room will help me author the therapeutic processes and therapist-client relationship. The client, when his or her own authority can be realized, will author his or her own life story. Authority does not have to be oppressive or abusive. And it is with this tool, I have redirected myself to move beyond my fears and write this paper.

I share my writing process because it illustrates the underlying belief behind the Hero worshipping and black-and-white splitting that seem to occur frequently in the psychology of people from Burma (now known as Myanmar.) I myself am not immune to this mentality. The above example is one way it has manifested. With my conscious effort to recognize and reflect upon my anxieties, and my having had a reparative experience that I could internalize and use, I have the necessary tool to mediate my splitting between good and bad, the powerful and the powerless, to gain a sense of space so I can hold both equally suspended within me.

My initial defense was to become the Anti-Hero and reject my authority. I could not hold any identification with the oppressor. I am not one of them, I tell myself secretly. However, I am also acutely aware, I am very much privileged with my educated upper middle class background, and Burman heritage with Buddhist affiliation that composes the majority of the population in Burma. Even as I acknowledge this part of my heritage, I find myself rejecting it by recognizing my immigrant experiences that held a different social class status, and my grandparents’ Karen and Mon ethnicities. There is a constant tension that exists between these two poles and it takes consistent effort to not swing too much to either extreme. This is a snapshot of my psyche as a Burmese therapist. I believe it is not too different from the snapshot of the collective psyche of the people from Burma.

Splitting occurs because holding two seemingly polar opposites become too unbearable and the only way to reduce the tension between the two is to cut off one from the other. To hold both realities without any resolution will be crazy-making as it is hard to make sense of such paradoxes that seem to annihilate each other. The mind has to protect itself from breaking apart like mismatch puzzles or otherwise risk becoming crazy. Thus it finds a way to defend against the disintegration. One of the split-offs then becomes disowned and projected out onto others, or it becomes repressed and “forgotten” within the self. My defense was the latter. Often times, I observe the former within my community. It usually takes the forms as Hero-worship and projective protests.

Hero worship is a form of idealization. Idealization is the recognition of only the positive and desirable qualities within the person or entity. The negative and undesirable qualities are ignored completely, and in such, split off. This is not realistic as often times, any person or entity has both desirable and undesirable characteristics. Idealization also runs a risk of disappointment and a felt sense of betrayal when the undesirable qualities eventually become revealed. The previous concealment can then feel like dishonesty but the person feeling this does not realize it is he or she who had hid or pushed them out of mind in the first place. The felt sense of betrayal, even if self-inflicted, translates to a loss of trust, and can color the past, current and future experiences with the demoted idol. As such, the idol now becomes the villain, and another split happens, where only the negative attributes are recognized. Sometimes, there isn’t a shift from one pole to another in the splits, and the characters are quite fixed at each pole. In this case, there is much rigidity and no room for situational adaptations to the person’s perceptions. In short, there is no room for empathy.

Idealization and splitting has much to do with the person’s sense of self. Hero worship is a projection of the person’s identified values onto the other. Idealization and splitting are closely related to some kind of narcissism of the person. For a nation of persons, the entity is the national self. National self or narcissism of a nation can manifest and express itself in nationalism. Narcissism itself is not necessarily dysfunctional or disordered. There is healthy narcissism just as there is unhealthy narcissism. There is a healthy sense of self and an unhealthy sense of self. Healthy sense of self shows up in compassion or loving-kindness toward oneself and toward others, positive self-esteem, and self confidence. Unhealthy sense of self shows up in a self-destructive manner through shame, negative self-esteem, and self deprivation, or in an anti-social manner through apathy, bigotry, and abusive behaviors toward others. For an unhealthy narcissism to develop, there must have been an injury to the normal development of self. This injury is a narcissistic wound. For a nation of people, what sort of narcissistic wound could be inflicted?

Colonialism is one significant source of injury to a nation’s narcissism. When a country’s sovereignty is superseded and introjected by another country’s rule, and when the native people are not allowed to express themselves in the manner they have identified with, their sense of national self becomes wounded. Burma was colonized and lost its monarch and sovereignty in the mid to late 19th century. This injury to the nation was the trauma that become passed down from generations to generations. Without a way to heal, the trauma lives on, even after Burma regains its independence.

The re-traumatization happened with the military dictatorships that plagued the country for five decades. It is a repetition compulsion, an attempt to heal itself, through the reenactment of authoritative rule over the country’s people. It is an unconscious effort to identify with the perpetuator in order to regain control by being in the position of those who once held power, and to change the course of history. However, like begets like, so such reenactments only further entrenched the nation in the negative cycle of trauma. Since the oppression still lives on to this day, the trauma never truly ends. In such, the people of Burma also has a collective trauma. Those who seemingly are not involved in politics of the country also share in the trauma of those who are involved and punished. This is because they are aware of what the consequences are for activism against the oppression, and there are lived and real accounts of such consequences. It is a vicarious trauma. Moreover, living under an oppressive regime affects day to day life, from quality of basic education to economic difficulties, and from poor infrastructure to poor health care and social welfare. These are the daily micro-traumas that are in the collective memory of the people. This is how the wound is left open, over a century after the country was colonized.

Burma as a country needs to heal from this narcissistic wound if we are to become a healthy nation. We have to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma that is manifested in the splitting and Hero worshipping. How we can do this in the context of our cultural legacy is a great challenge. It is not just about terminating these unhealthy ways of relating to each other as a people. It is about transforming the known unhealthy ways into adapted healthy ways. We need to create something different, not necessarily something completely new. This is an important consideration because of the very nature of our narcissistic wound. We have been silenced or cut off from our heritage during colonization, and from our past and from each other during military rule. We have a need to feel honored and empowered in keeping some sort of consistency in our identity as a nation. Otherwise, the change will be too shattering and can feel like breaking apart and falling into pieces without a common thread or lifeline to hold on to.

The various extremist and fundamentalist reactions and conflicts that are sprouting left and right currently in our country is an attempt to defend against this shattered sense of the national self during a time of incredible change. Holding on to radical ideologies and nationalism is a way to hold on to a lifeline so that things do not fall to pieces for those involved. For them, it truly is a life or death battle. If they do not hold on, the intense fear is that they will experience a certain death in their national self. Who would want to die without a fight? Much as I do not condone such hatred and abuse by radical movements, I am understanding of the fears they face, and the dire need to fight against those fears. For I question myself too, when I see young girls wearing mini skirts in Burma these days. The Burma I remember is one where the folks wore traditional longyi and hta-mein. I wear skirts, pants and short dresses in the United States of America, and the way I can visibly and symbolically show my Burmese pride and affiliation is by wearing hta-mein. Then I remind myself that I too wore short skirts and pants when I was younger, even when I was traveling in Burma. It had nothing to do with my Burmese pride then, and everything to do with habit and comfort, and pure fashion sense at my developmental age of youth.

It was when I was at the height of my youth at 15 to 18 that I was introduced to my Burmese heritage very intimately through cultural arts and teenage friendships with fellow Burmese. By age 18, I already developed such a sense of pride of my heritage that I dreamed of returning to Burma as an adult to live once I become independent and skilled enough to do so. Yet, I still wore short skirts and tight jeans as a young adult. The matter of fact is I am bi-cultural, having grown up in diaspora, so I would be holding two sets of cultural practices within me.

In many ways, youth, in general, are bi-cultural. They grow up with the cultural traditions of their heritage but also are exposed to and value the culture of the new generation as they make their journey into their future as adults. We could extend this to people of all ages in Burma experiencing rapid changes during the reform process. They are bridging the old and new worlds. Whether they have solidly integrated both old and new cultures of being, or are mono-cultured by either holding on the old ways vehemently or embracing the new ways enthusiastically, the people are faced with a crisis of cultural identity re-formation and re-affirmation. As identity is a crucial part of sense of self and narcissism is closely linked to the psychology of self, conflicts in the crisis of cultural identity formation can impact the narcissism of the national self. Any impediment on cultural identity formation will injure the sense of national self and develop an unhealthy socio-cultural narcissism.

So what does all this psychological jargon in previous paragraph mean to common people? It means the mindsets and habits of people are working through a period of change, regardless of their desire to change or not. When faced with the inherent uncertainty and the unfamiliarity that comes with the territory of change, it is human nature to be hesitant about change. Any problems that are unresolved from this hesitancy can affect the person’s way of thinking and behaving in their new world. If the person’s way of thinking and behaving does not match the changes that are happening in the surroundings, it can be unhealthy for the person and the people around him or her.

I use the term ‘unhealthy’ often here so I will define what I mean by unhealthy. When something interferes with the proper functioning of the person and the people around him or her, it can be considered unhealthy. A simple example is smoking of cigarettes. Smoking is unhealthy because it interferes with the smoker’s health, and second hand smoke also harms other people’s health. An example in human psychology is poor communication skills. When a person cannot express his or her thoughts and feelings effectively, they do not get what they need or want. When it starts to interfere with the person’s ability to be in a relationship, such as getting and giving love and support, the poor communication skills become unhealthy for the person, because it deprives the person of much needed love and support, especially during stressful times. This often leads to depression and anxiety which, when left unaddressed, can develop into an unhealthy mental health state of a full fledge disorder in the person or in the relationship.

On the other hand, there is health when there is proper functioning of the person for him or her wellness and the wellness of others around him or her. Since life is inevitably full of ups and downs, health in the psychology of a person does not mean lack of challenges or tensions, but rather the ability to face and overcome these existential variances. In this sense, health is the capacity to recover and function through tough times. In the larger context of a community or a nation, communal health is the ability to manage variances and function within differences amongst people, particularly around their lineages, traditions, and values associated with their personal identities. In short, health of a nation’s narcissism is linked to the capacity to experience differences.

How far or how close is Burma to attaining this narcissistic health will depend on how its narcissistic wound will heal. It will depend on how integrated our people can become, and how much of the split offs can return to co-exist in harmony, side by side.

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