The Effort to Drive the Other Person Crazy

Part 1: A review of psychoanalytic work on how we do what we do to each other.

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Harold Searles was a brilliant, controversial psychoanalyst who worked with patients at Chestnut Lodge for over 15 years. Chestnut Lodge, a well-known sanatorium in Rockville, Maryland where patients with chronic psychiatric illnesses lived and received intensive treatment, ended its over century-long life, metamorphosing from boarding house to hotel, asylum, and finally proposed high-end condos before succumbing to a fire of unknown origin in 2009.

Many of the patients with whom Dr. Searles worked had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1950s and 60s. While some may have met modern criteria for a psychotic illness, it is likely that a large number were suffering with complex post-traumatic and related dissociative disorders. In retrospect, many of the people with whom he worked had endured significant developmental trauma, abuse, and neglect, evident in the case histories discussed.

Searles’ deep insights are intensely valuable, his writing copious and densely technical. Among his many titles are classics such as The Patient As Therapist to His Analyst, a paper “devoted to the hypothesis that innate among man’s most powerful strivings toward his fellow men, beginning in the earliest years and even the earliest months of life, is an essentially therapeutic striving”; The Nonhuman Environment, in which Searles explores the developmental role of how relations with objects in the world influence later human relationships; and The Effort to Drive the Other Person Crazy, in which he catalogs the many facets of how people drive one another “crazy,” and why. Let’s take a closer look.

Human Beings Can Be “Crazy-Making”

Searles writes that driving the other person crazy is but one factor among many contributing to the development of psychological problems. However, most of us can relate to being driven crazy, having someone “mess with” us, gaslight us, or otherwise relate in a way that is both confusing and emotionally disruptive. Per Searles, “the initiating of any kind of interpersonal interaction which tends to foster emotional conflict in the other person — which tends to activate various parts of his personality in opposition to one another — tends to drive him crazy.”

This is the essence of emotional manipulation, be it deliberate or not, conscious or unconscious — inducing in the other a state of inner conflict that impedes the ability to think clearly, ultimately leading back to a state of incapacitation and vulnerability. Malicious actors may do this on purpose to take advantage; others do it on autopilot without any clear intent. It is often hard to tell which is which. While there may be times where the effort to drive the person crazy is associated with developmental progress, sometimes a part of therapeutic interactions which necessarily must address inner conflict, most of the time it isn’t from a place of health.

Searles describes several modes of driving the other person crazy, and the motives behind doing so. In Part 1, we’ll review the different modes that people use to “drive each other crazy.” In Part 2, we’ll look at the reasons why — the motives.

Ways We Drive Each Other Crazy

Drawing attention to areas of the other person’s personality that are at odds with how that person sees themselves. For example, repeatedly and aggressively pointing out self-contradictory behaviors or “hypocrisy” when someone who says they care about the environment keeps throwing recyclables away in the trash, or someone who acts superior to others and criticizes their lack of attention to detail does a sloppy job when it suits them. This directly calls mutually exclusive parts of the personality into awareness at the same time.

Behaving sexually seductive with a person when “it would be disastrous” for the other person to respond in kind. This often applies to sexually inappropriate situations during childhood and adolescence, including both inappropriately seductive behavior from adults as well as frank abuse. Stereotypically, this is a parent with poor boundaries, a mother or father who asks inappropriate questions or shows around a child or adolescent inappropriate adult desire and behavior e.g. while getting ready for a date, acting flirtations toward them. In adult life, this might be a friend or colleague who is flirtatious and enticing when there is no possibility of greater intimacy, such as efforts to tempt another into unwanted marital infidelity knowing the other person is not happy in their relationship — known as “mate poaching” or more colloquially “taking advantage of the friendship.”

Stimulation and frustration of non-sexual needs. This is also known as a “double-bind,” in which one puts another in an impossible position by demanding mutually contradictory things from them. It typically involves switching back and forth between being loving and inviting, and hateful and rejecting. This could be a parent who accuses a child of not being affectionate enough, and then when the child tries to be more affectionate the parent criticizes them for doing it the wrong way or at the wrong time, or acts cold and uninterested. Similarly in adult relationships, drawing the person in, and then pushing them away, keeping them walking on eggshells.

Relating on disjointed levels at the same time. Some people are able to jump around among different self-states seemingly randomly, often an impressive feat of mental gymnastics. This may leave us in a state of wonder, but it can also be confusing, mystifying real relatedness and leaving us disoriented. It typically requires that the other dissociate different facets of identity, jumping around among for instance being serious and determined; playful without any sense of gravity; genuinely confused when you act like you don’t know what is going on. Searles describes a patient who after therapy was “freed from the delusion that he had not one mother but many different ones.”

Changing emotional state senselessly and frequently. This is related to changing self-states, but is more basic in that it is only the emotional state, and not the overall way of relating, which changes unpredictably. Searles suggests this may have roots in early adaptation to a poorly integrated, unstable primary caregiver, patterns of emotional unpredictability passed from parent to child (though there are many other causes of emotional instability). In adulthood, we see people who give off mixed signals, perhaps communicating anger or threat in their non-verbal behavior, while consciously being unaware of their facial expressions, tone of voice, or body language. When you ask if they are upset, sometimes they will make the connection, but often they won’t — sometimes with an escalation of negative emotion.

Changing conversation without any shift in emotional tone. Similar to the prior two modes, but inverted — the other person shifts from one topic to another, often from those of little consequence to those of grave import or personal significance, with no change in tone or other marker that the topic has shifted. This can be unnerving, even creepy or inhuman, and often relates to emotional numbing and detachment.

Motives for Driving Others Crazy

These are the modes, the interpersonal patterns which frequently evoke unconscious conflict. We can see them in others more easily than in ourselves, typically. In the next section, let’s look at the often counterintuitive reasons for driving one another crazy Searles uncovered in his long clinical career. Some may be surprising.

See The Effort to Drive the Other Person Crazy — Part 2.

References

Searles, H. F. 1975 The patient as therapist to his analyst In Tactics and Techniques in Psychoanalytic Theory P. Giovacchini, ed. New York: Jason Aronson, Inc.

Searles HF (1965). The effort to drive the other person crazy — an element in the aetiology and psychotherapy of schizophrenia. In Collected Papers on Schizophrenia Related Subjects, p. 254–283, London: Karnac.

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