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von Broembsen, F. (1989). Transformations of Identity: Referent Location, Agency, and Levels of Integration in the Progress from Potential Self to Existential Identity. Am. J. Psychoanal., 49(4):329-338.

(1989). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49(4):329-338

Transformations of Identity: Referent Location, Agency, and Levels of Integration in the Progress from Potential Self to Existential Identity

F. von Broembsen, Ph.D.

Existential doubt, the painful perplexity about who, or what, one is, sometimes even uncertainty as to whether one actually exists, is a frequent experience among people suffering from personality disorders. This crisis in the sense of one's identity has been described as sometimes relating to an overemphasis on role identity (von Broembsen, 1989), an overemphasis that tends to define the legitimacy and value of the individual in terms of a referent external to the self.

Since role identity is a crucial component of a vital self, it is important to track the vicissitudes of role identity in the process of identity formation, as well as to identify the various factors contributing to, or hindering, self-integration and identity consolidation.

It will be useful to acknowledge at the outset the distinction, first made by Greenacre (1958), between the concept of identity and the sense of identity. The first is defined by Lichtenstein (1977) as the capacity to remain the same in the midst of change. The sense of identity, on the other hand, is “the consciousness of such continuity of sameness.”

The concept of identity has a quasi-objective quality, in that it refers to the actual substance of the self. If this sameness-through-change is not “perceivable” in the appearance of the other, or in his or her actions (Strauss, 1959), it is at least “intuited” in our interpersonal experience of the other.

The sense of identity is far more problematic. It is the individual's subjective experience of his or her continuity within the incremental, successive definitions of the self. This subjective experience presupposes a reflective consciousness, a self-cognizant “I” (Eissler, 1958). It presupposes a self endowed with a potentially integrative capability.

These implications of a sense of identity suggest the existence of an innate entity, of some intrinsic purpose in the self, the “final cause” of which is the individual's identity.

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