Earlier papers have shown that the pathology of the psychoses and also of many character disorders is the result of defects in ego development, and that the symptoms are end-results not of a healthy ego's defences against unresolved infantile conflicts but of a fundamental inadequacy of the ego itself. This conception of 'ego-defect' neuroses demands a more comprehensive analysis of normal ego development than has yet been attempted, and forces us to realize that studies of the ego have been largely concerned with defence mechanisms that presuppose an ego of considerable maturity. This paper is concerned with the impact of emotional and realistic forces from the environment on the development of 'partial ego-functions' and in particular with the causes and effects of identification in infancy.
Identification originates in the wish to be like another individual in some way and leads to the assimilation of the desired traits as stable and permanent elements of the personality. Identifications which contribute to basic ego development result from much earlier and more primitive relations of the infant with its object than do those which lead to super-ego formation. They involve partial rather than total cathexes of the object and are responses to frustration of primitive needs rather than to prohibitions resulting from highly complexobject relations. In contrast to super-ego identifications they arise from a two-person relationship, being the result of ambivalence towards one object, the mother.
Although ego-identification is presumably initiated by pleasure in imitation, significant and lasting identifications are the result of ambivalent relationships and are related to envy of the power of the frustrating object. It can be assumed, therefore, that the infant's first identifications occur only when there is some kind of recognition of external objects as such and some kind of awareness of frustration by them. This presupposes a certain development of the discriminating powers of the special senses and some perception of recurrent internal tensions and of their recurrent pleasurable relief in association with partial perceptions of the mother. As soon as association of some aspect of the mother with anticipation of gratification has taken place, motor activities such as cries of hunger cease to be simply responses to need and become emotional demands.
The helplessness and frustrations which produce ambivalence are resolved by attaining the power to do a thing oneself. Ego-identification may either produce the ability to exert the power originally attributed to another, or, if this is still physiologically impossible, it may result in the use of substitute partial functions in which the power is exerted in phantasy. The specific functions attained by identification vary greatly, depending on the stage of emotional and ego development prevailing when the specific conflict occurs.
The common use of 'identification' and 'introjection' as synonyms is unjustified. 'Introjection is a wish to incorporate, a phantasy; identification a process', which may on occasion be associated with phantasies other than oral-sadistic. It is closely related to the process of learning. Although the ego's executant functions appear spontaneously when the necessary physiological mechanisms have matured, the manner and extent of their use and the preference for some over others are largely the result of identifications, and failure of essential ego-identification in infancy will result in some defect of ego-function in adult life.
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(1952). The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 20, 1951, No. 1. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 33:75