Are We All Subject to Some Psychological Hostage-Taking?


What are some examples of psychological hostage-taking?


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I am sure most all of you have heard some variation of this saying in a national tragedy: “We are all victims” or “we are all leaders,” or we are all so and so. That reflects the remarkable human potential for empathetic identification with the harmed other. Certainly, we have it in our clinical work, especially when we are wounded healers ourselves.

We are hearing about a possible deal to release some of the many hostages being held in Gaza, though it is publicly unknown how they are actually doing. Being bargaining chips is dehumanizing in itself. It is known that they are of various religious faiths and nationals from 26 countries. Ages range from a newborn to an elder. That makes it likely that we all can readily identify with someone being held hostage, if not the sides controlling the war. Collateral damage is most everywhere. So, even if we are not at risk for being physical hostages, the current world’s divisiveness and conflict put us at risk psychologically for secondary trauma, grief, fear, anger, and intimidation.

Actually, the physical state of being a hostage can turn into also becoming psychological hostages. In Stockholm syndrome, hostages can come to identify with their captors as a way to consciously or unconsciously protect themselves.

There are so many other examples of some degree of what I call psychological hostage-taking, to wit:

  • We are hostages to our pasts and current circumstances.
  • We are vulnerable to cultish thinking and undue influence, especially on the internet.
  • We are limited by the rising rate of burnout.
  • We are controlled by our addictions, some of which can be considered helpful.
  • We psychiatrists are constrained by the Goldwater Rule to not professionally comment publicly about public figures.
  • We all have likely done some hostage-taking of others, as mild as that may be.

The best way to escape harmful psychological hostage-taking is through increasing freedom of mind. That is what we do in any psychiatric treatment that helps. That is what is done in hostage negotiations. That is what experts in cults do with their knowledge and practical applications. May the hostages be freed and all freedom of mind increased, and that freedom used for positive unity and healing.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry, and is now in retirement and refirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

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