Power, ambition and the need to be loved.

Powerful, ambitious people like Boris Johnson want to be loved. If we want to develop any trust in our Politicians, we all as a society need to think about our own relationships to the same.

 On the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme this morning, presenter Martha Kearney was interviewing documentary film maker Michael Cockerell, who had recently made a documentary of the UK’s newly appointed Prime Minister. In the interview Kearney identified two Boris Johnsons: the ambitious one that Cockerell calls the ‘human bulldozer’ and then, as if in deep contrast, the one who ‘wants to be loved.’

Something about these exchanges jarred with me, which, I suspect for many others is not unusual when listening to morning news. Yet I wondered about this jarring aspect. Firstly, there seemed to be an element of surprise in Kearney’s voice – what was that about? Secondly, these two elements of Boris Johnson’s personality were here tacitly presented as somehow mutually exclusive. ‘Boris the bulldozer’ who would rugby tackle a ten year old boy, contrasting with a vulnerable self that wants to be loved. I mean is this really such a surprise? Don’t we all want to be loved?

The importance of making links

Of course this was a short interview and there was not time to think deeply about the psychological life of Boris Johnson, or to mentally riff upon how the two elements may after all relate to one another. Nonetheless, the media’s desire to split things into convenient packages in this way perpetuates a culture of schizoid re-presentations where we can only think in terms of one character trait at a time. As the interview proceeded however, there was an acknowledgement of the interdependence of these two elements. Cockerell talked about Johnson’s recently appointed Hawkish Brexiteer cabinet, and said that Johnson has selected those who will ‘worship at the shrine of Boris’. Cockerell’s comment simply illustrates how the need to be loved is actually very closely linked with ambition and power. To those psychologically minded this may not come as a surprise, but I think it is worth emphasising because if we don’t think for ourselves about what is presented to us, the wool can be quickly pulled over our eyes. We can very rapidly buy into the split personas that politicians and media present to us. We may get Boris the clown, ruthless Boris, the gaffe prone wag, ‘tender’ Boris in love etc. Yet over the last few years I have noticed a desire to kick back against these sometimes crassly unintegrated versions of reality. We can actually make the links for ourselves. This is so important, as the less inclined a society is to think about things for itself, the more dangerously  fragmented it becomes. I therefore want to take the opportunity to not only say ‘oh yes ambition and the need to be loved are obviously linked’ (which is the easy bit) but to think about why.

‘Time stopping’ shame  

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut postulated that we are ‘led by ideals, pushed by ambitions’ and although we are ‘driven by our ambitions, we do not love them.’ (1966, pp.250 - 251, italics author’s own). Importantly, Kohut adds:

‘if we cannot realise them, narcissistic exhibistionistic tensions remain undischarged, become dammed up, and the emotion of disappointment which the ego experiences always contains an admixture of shame’.
— Kohut (1966, p.252)

As we are wired to attach, the need to be loved is something that we all have and being loved is the best antidote to the shame ‘admixture’ there is: nobody likes to feel (a)shamed, everyone wants to feel loved. Boris Johnson’s chosen cabinet is perfect as not only do they currently ‘worship at his shrine’, thereby meeting the unconscious need to be loved, they importantly fulfil a phantasy that they will, like benign parents, protect him from the potential shame of his ambitions being thwarted regarding Brexit and beyond. This is very much the ‘ideal’ Johnson cabinet. Yet of course, as with any ideal, this can crumble and those same phantasised parents can become quite rapidly persecutory. We can therefore expect to see some more changes in the coming months at the top table. The recurring ‘you’re fired’ exchanges in Trump’s Whitehouse over the last few years have illustrated this scenario quite well. The disappointment of potentially being seen to be or accused of being actually wrong about something can quickly trigger shame. As Trump has demonstrated many times, his way of dealing with it is to disown and project it into the other which then triggers Trump like responses in the other.This is classic projective identification. It is quite understandable that this happens as there is something time-stoppingly hurtful about shame as Kohut eloquently elucidates.

‘instead of a pleasant suffusion of the body surface there is the heat of unpleasant blushing; instead of a confirmation of the value, beauty, and lovableness of the self, there is painful shame.’
— Kohut, 1966, p.253

Politicians use shame based tactics all the time as a means to wield power. This is profoundly toxic and one of many reasons why there are such low levels of trust towards them. In the UK you just need to watch a parliamentary debate to see them fling hurtful and painful insults at one other, combined with base, derisory and cruel heckling. Of course this happens all of the time too in many other areas of society on social media, leaving many people hurt and traumatised.

I think it is important therefore to emphasise the archetypal nature of shame. We all have our ambitions and our ideals; some of which we have internalised from our upbringing; others which we have thought about for ourselves. And there is nothing wrong at all with having ideals and goals; but we need to think about what our unconscious motivations might be and have empathy for those who do not possess the same ideals as us and not to judge them too harshly if they don’t. Kohut advocated an empathic attitude as one of the means of transforming the primitive fear of shame into something that can be thought about and have a closer bearing to reality. We need to find a place where we as a society can respectfully listen and think and talk about all of our relationships to power, ambition, shame and the need to be loved.

beyond ambition and the need to be loved

I am not letting Politicians off the hook here, not by any means. Too often we see among those in positions of power, persona served up as truth. There is a sad tendency among the powerful to find it hard to think about reality and instead create their own. There is also an over-reliance on the unconscious defences of lying, cheating, manipulation of information, shaming and projection. It is very hard not to respond in the same way of course, as it sometimes feels that society itself is hard wired to perpetuate such a status quo and a culture of despair (‘it was always thus and always will be’). Yet there are many among us who do believe in hope and wish to change society for the better. We realise that by talking about the way that we feel, we can help create a society that is less punitive and shaming; that by being psychologically minded and actually thinking about our unconscious motivations, we are not closing each other down, but potentially opening up a dialogue of tolerance.  I think that this goes way beyond gestures towards talking about ‘investment in mental health’ or attending mindfulness classes offered by Parliament. We can no longer afford to have people representing us who rely on such primitive modes of defence. It is therefore crucial that we continue to campaign for a society where we can at least think about what it must be like to be able to trust our leaders and feel that we can identify with them on a human level, beyond our instinctual reactions to them.


 Kohut, H. (1966). Forms and Transformations of Narcissism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 14(2), pp.243-272.