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Identification (defense mechanism)

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Identification is a term that is used in different meanings in psychoanalysis. The roots of the concept can be found in Freud's writings. Freud established five concepts of identification of which the three most important concepts will be discussed below. We finalise with the current concept of identification as is mostly seen in psychoanalytic thinking today.

Freud, IdentificationEdit

It is possible to differentiate between two ways of defining identification. One is “what it is”, such as: it is a door, a window, a person, etc. The other is "just as if"; not simply imitation, but assimilation of oneself with a subject. So one identifies oneself with (characteristics of) an object. For instance, I identify myself with a characteristic of my father and transform myself to assimilate this characteristic in my personality. I become a little bit like him. This latter has been used by Freud to define the formation of a personality. The three most prominent concepts of identification as mentioned by Freud are: Primary identification, Narcissistic (secondary) identification and Partial (secondary) identification[1].

Primary identificationEdit

Primary identification is the original and primitive form of emotional attachment to something or someone prior to any relations with other persons or objects[2]. This means that when a baby is born he is not capable of making a distinction between himself and important others. The baby has an emotional attachment with his parents and experiences his parents as a part of himself. ‘The breast is part of me, I am the breast’. During this process of identification children adopt unconsciously the characteristics of their parents and begin to associate themselves with and copy the behaviour of their parents. Freud remarked that identification should be distinguished from imitation, which is a voluntary and conscious act. Because of this process of emotional attachment a child will develop a (super)ego that has similarities to the moral values and guidelines by which the parents live their lives. By this process children become a great deal like their parents and this facilitates learning to live in the world and culture to which they are born[3].

Narcissistic (secondary) identificationEdit

Narcissistic identification is the form of identification following abandonment or loss of an object. This experience of loss starts at a very young age[2]. For example: the baby is hungry, but the breast of the mother is not available. Narcissistic identification has the role to replace the lost object by introjection. Introjection implies that something is taken in from the object. The baby internalises the image of the breast and fantasises about it. This type of identification of the ego with the abandoned object can be seen as ego formation. The process of narcissistic identification is defensive in nature, it is an attempt to soften the frustrating experience of loss. An example: wearing the clothes or jewellery of a deceased loved one[4].

Partial (secondary) identificationEdit

Partial identification is based on the perception of special quality of another person[2]. This quality or ideal is often represented in a 'leader figure' who is identified with. For example: the young boy identifies with the strong muscles of an older neighbour boy. Next to identification with the leader, people identify with others because they feel they have something in common. For example: a group of people who like the same music. This mechanism plays an important role in the formation of groups. It contributes to the development of character and the ego is formed by identification with a group (group norms). Partial identification promotes the social life of persons who will be able to identify with one another through this common bond to one another, instead of considering someone as a rival[3].

Identification in Psychoanalytic thinking todayEdit

Much has been written on identification since Freud. Identification has been seen both as a normal developmental mechanism and as a mechanism of defence[5]. Many types of identification have been described by other psychoanalysts, the most prominent of which is Anna Freud’s concept of identification with the aggressor (1936)[5]. Others include counteridentification (Fliess,1953)[5], pseudoidentification (Eidelberg, 1938)[5], concordant and complementary identifications (Racker, 1957)[5], and adhesive identification (Bick, 1968)[5]. Nowadays the term identification is predominantly used by psychoanalysist in the sense of identification of oneself with[1].

Current definition IdentificationEdit

Psychological process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property or attribute of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides. It is by means of a series of identifications that the personality is constituted and specified[1].

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.-B. (1973), The language of psychoanalysis. The Hogarth Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 W.W. Meissner, 1970. Notes on Identification I. Origens in Freud, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 39, 563-589.
  3. 3.0 3.1 (5 May 2007)
  4. Hart, H. H. (1947), Problems of Identification. Psychiatric Quarterly, 21, 274-293
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Sandler, J. (1987). Projection, Identification, Projective Identification., International Universities Press, Inc., Madison Connecticut.. ISBN 0823643700.

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