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Fast, I. (1970). A Function of Action in the Early Development of Identity. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 51:471-478.

(1970). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 51:471-478

A Function of Action in the Early Development of Identity

Irene Fast


It has been proposed that action has a particular function in the transition from pleasure to reality ego. In the ordinary course of development it serves to test the reality of self-representations and, in so doing, contributes to the integration of self-representations into a stable, coherent whole, the differentiation of self from ego ideal, the setting of the self-structure in a context of time, and the establishment of a self–world relationship based on action. In 'as if' personalities and related groups, where action does not perform its usual functions, the expected anomalies in self-structure and in self–world relationships can be observed.

This formulation has a number of implications for clinical work with persons who show transitional identity phenomena to a significant degree. In the process of treatment particular problems exist. As in any therapy a major aim is to test the reality of internal self-images, discarding the unrealistic ones and integrating the others with the rest of one's personality. For these individuals this is a particularly difficult task. Not only do conflicts and defensive networks stand in the way, as is regularly true for all patients, but the basic commitment to such reality-testing of self-representations is incompletely established. Instead, the tendency is to elaborate new identities in response to stimuli from the therapist. Large apparent gains in the ability to express negative feelings, in the integration of the self-structure, and in the establishment of a coherent value system may on further examination show themselves to be no more than new identity fragments with the same discrete and unrealistic qualities as the others. The apparent transference-readiness of such patients is often not that, and transference interpretations do not have their usual effects. Instead, the patient is acting out internally elaborated interpersonal relationships and is not committed to responding in terms of the therapist's actual characteristics. Transference interpretations in such circumstances tend to evoke enthusiastic agreement, to be received as the applause of an audience, or to be sensed as a criticism or condemnation, but they do not stimulate efforts at constructive change. The therapist tends to find himself alternating between feelings of anomie as the patient uses him for nothing more than an object for projection or an audience, and a sense of being intensely pressured to behave in ways that confirm the patient's internally elaborated image.

In the diagnostic aspects of the clinical work as well, the patient's activity should be explored for the degree to which its aim is objective achievement rather than the fulfilment of a narcissistic image. Contradictory values and orientations may reflect neurotic conflicts but also, to varying degrees, an unintegrated self-structure. High ideals may function as incentives to action but, to the extent that transitional phenomena prevail, may be acted on as though they represented present achievements. Close ties to people may indicate mature object relations but need to be examined for the extent to which the patient takes into account his friends' actual characteristics or interacts primarily with an image of his own creation.

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