How You Acquire an Ego (Erikson and Kohut with Daria Żukowska)

Uploaded 9/10/2022, approx. 25 minute read

Okay, so hello, everyone.

We have a special guest. Yes, most of you probably know him, but I would love to introduce him.

So here we go.

Professor Sam Vaknin is the author of the pioneering work on Narcissist Abuse, Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. He's a visiting professor of psychology, Southern Federal University, Rostov-Don, Russia, and a professor of finance and psychology in SIAS, Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies.

Hello, professor.

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Actually, when the war started in Ukraine, I left my position in Russia. I'm a professor only in the West, in the CIAS consortium of university.

Okay, I understand. So thank you for that, then.

And yeah, so today I would love to speak with you about one, I think my favorite topic in developmental psychology. I just love this one.

It's about separation and individuation. I know that you've got many of these kind of videos on your YouTube channel, but I would love to make this one for Polish community. They're asking about you and especially about conversation with you.

So yeah, I prepared some questions. And yeah, the first question maybe that I have for you, it's about symbiosis. What does it even mean that Erich Fromm was writing about that, talking about it? What does that mean in the practice for us? Why is it so important? And what is going on with us when we are like, you know, loses the integrity that we are merged with another person, self? What is it about? What is it all about this? And why is it so?

I think one of the crucial thing.

Yeah, for us.

The symbiotic phase is the phase of development postulated by several psychologists, for example, Stern and others. And they describe a situation where there is a merger between the infant between the baby and the mother, in the sense that the baby cannot tell apart the mother, but baby doesn't regard the mother as a separate entity. But the baby considers the mother an extension of himself or considers himself as an extension of the mother, one, one organism.

Now, symbiosis is mediated visually, according to the prevailing the orthodox view, it's mediated visually, the baby sees mother, mother sees the baby and the baby sees itself through the mother's gaze.

Initially, the mother caters to all the needs of the baby. Baby wants to eat, mother is there in one way or another. Baby is sheltered, baby is fed, swaddled, diapers, you know, mommy is there for all the needs of the baby. And the baby doesn't satisfy a single one of its needs.

In other words, the baby is totally helpless. It is easy to understand why the baby regards mother as an extension, because mother fulfills all the needs of the baby 100%.

But gradually, mother starts to frustrate the baby. The baby wants to eat, mother is not available, she leaves the room. The baby doesn't want mommy to leave the room, but she leaves the room. The baby cries, mother doesn't pay attention to the baby, etc.

These frustrations, these cumulative frustrations teach the baby that he is not motherand mother is not he. And the baby exits the symbiotic phase.

However, the symbiotic phase is crucial in developing a sense of security or safety, what Mary Ainsworth called the safe base.

So the symbiotic phase is very important in giving the baby the foundation to trust the world and to attach to people securely, and to feel loved, to feel lovable. So it's a super crucial phase.

Now, the symbiotic phase has been disputed since then, by many scholars, and they think there's no such phase and so on. So there's a lot of argument, but this is generally the symbiotic phase ends with another phase known as separation individuation.

So ask me the right question. How would you describe it?

Yeah, I would love to try to ask this question.

Yes, Mahler was writing about these sub phases, about the process of separation and individuation. And we've got four phases that she mentioned about.

And yeah, my question about that is, how does these phases affect us? And why they are so important for a child and for us as adults later?

So yeah, and why it's really difficult, especially when we fail to not going through these phases. And I think this is important.


Margaret Mahler was the first to describe separation and individuation. She worked with children. She observed children, actually, as distinct or as opposed to many current theoreticians who never worked with children in their lives. And they write books about child psychology. She actually worked with children. There was a period that she worked in a kindergarten. She really knew children very well.

Similar to Melanie Klein. Melanie Klein also spent most of her career working with children.

And by the way, Melanie Klein didn't have a single degree in psychology, one of the main psychologists of the 20th century, as Winnicott. Winnicott was a pediatrician and so on.

And so separation and individuation started with Mahler, but continued to be developed for many decades.

Actually, one of the important scholars of separation and individuation is Severino.

Severino wrote several works on the topic and so on and so forth.

Now separation and individuation, I will not go into all the details right now, but separation and individuation essentially means the ability of the infant to explore the world safely without fear of punishment or repercussions, without fear of bad consequences or outcomes. The child regards the mother as a safe base. The child believes that he can go out, explore the world, which is separation, and then come back to the mother, come back to the mother in order to recharge the battery of safety.

And then so exploring the world involves grandiosity. I will come to it a bit later.

And so the mother encourages the child's grandiosity in effect by telling the child, yeah, you're big enough to take on the world. You're 18 months old, you're a big boy, you can take on the world, or big girl, yeah. And you can always come back to me, because I will always be here, and support you, and I encourage you to separate from me.

The good mother pushes the child away. The good mother frustrates the child. That's the good enough mother, according to Donald Winnicott.

And so this is the separation.

As the child continues to separate and explore the world, and much later, the child comes across other people. They're known as objects in psychology, for some reason. So the child comes across objects, other people, and develop what we call object relations.

As the child continues to explore the world and other people, the child begins to realize that he is separate from mother in the true sense. So he becomes an individual, divided, divided from mother. It's a bit of a traumatic process. It's very terrifying to go into the world. When you turn your back on money, and you go out to the street, you can't be sure that she's still there. So you need to have something called object constancy. You need to believe that mother is there, even if you don't see mother, even if there's no visual cue of mother. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of grandiosity, a lot of trust, a lot of love. It's a very fraught process. And so it's not surprising that this process often goes awry, goes badly.

And in many, many people, the separation is not completed. If the mother is insecure, if the mother is narcissistic, if the mother is depressed, absent, unable to love, unable to attach, rejecting, etc., the child will not be able to separate. He will be terrified to lose money.

And then when the child doesn't separate, he never becomes an individual.

So clinically, this kind of child remains stuck at around two years old and never, ever grows up emotionally. He can grow up cognitively. He can grow up as far as tasks, you know, skills, skills, acquisition. He can grow up to function socially perfectly, but emotionally deep inside, he remains two years old, never separated from money, never separated from mother.

And we will come to it a bit later if you wish. That's generally speaking.

Yes, of course, I would love to because it's, I think really, especially the object constancy, it's so important.

Like, for example, borderline doesn't have it, right? So like the ability to keep the image of others, like when they're not in the room, for example, right? So I think, yeah, it's really, it's really important.

And even what you mentioned about like, what you also speaking in your videos, like that mother like narcissistic or absent or sick, mental or in other way.

Yes, it's absolutely important.

And yeah, like with your permission.

Yes, because everyone when you say separation, individuation, people talk about malice or others, but actually separation, individuation is a crucial part of many, many, many psychological theories.

And so I would like to read to you something about Ericsson and something about code.

Okay, I'm not a friend of code, but we'll come to it in a minute. Let's start with Ericsson.

Yes, in 1950, Ericsson extended the theory of reality, what he called reality relationships, relationships reality.

And at that time, Ericsson delineated a sequence of phases of ego development. And I want to focus on one of these phases, which is actually separation individuation, but he doesn't use this term. He uses some other term.


Yes, please.


So I'm reading from the Freud Encyclopedia.

Ericsson identified the task of the second phase in ego development as resolving tensions concerning autonomy, shame and doubt.

To develop autonomy, said Ericsson, the child must feel that the trust in the self and in the world established previously will not be jeopardized by the wish to make choices.

In other words, the child must feel safe to explore the world. The child must feel that he will not be punished.

The nature of the relationship, this is Ericsson, the nature of the relationship between adult and child during this phase will influence the balance achieved between the child's cooperation and willfulness and between self-expression and self-suppression.

Ericsson described this process as follows, and I'm quoting from Ericsson.

From a sense of self-control without loss of self-esteem comes a lasting sense of autonomy and pride. From a sense of muscular importance, a loss of self-control and parental over-control comes a lasting sense of doubt and shame.

So he described the situation where the parents don't let the child go. They are over-controlling and he says such a child will live the rest of his life without shame.

A quote is, as I said, no friend of mine. I disagree with about 90% of quotes, and that's on a good day. On a bad day, I disagree with everything. But on a good day, I think he made a major contribution to describing the process of interaction between mother and child on the way to separation and individuation, and what happens if separation and individuation fades.

He never used the term separation and individuation. Everyone invents his own language, so do I, by the way, and if we have time during this or maybe the next session, I will describe my new work on separation and individuation.

But still, you can immediately see it's separation and individuation.

So I'm going to read to you and to the viewers some things that Kohout had written.

A self, said Kohout, comes into being during the early months after birth.

I strongly disagree, but I'm still quoting.

Certain environmental inputs impinge on inherent structures resulting in the formation of a self. Certain experiences evoke a sense of self. Those experiences that are needed to establish and to maintain a cohesive self-experience, they're called self-object experiences.

So Kohout identified six experiences that you need to have as a child in order to develop a self.

If you don't have these experiences, something really bad happens.

And I'm going to read to you the six experiences, and then I'm going to read to you what Kohout says happens if you don't have these experiences.

So these are the six experiences. They are called essential self-object experiences.

The first one is mirroring. Mirroring experiences, recognize and affirm the subject, the baby, is highly valued, perhaps even admired.

The second experience is idealizing.

Idealizing experiences, says Kohout, are needed to link or merge the subject with an admired, calm, wise, beautiful, and strong other who possesses these valued characteristics that the subject lacks.

What Kohout says is, the baby needs to idealize the mother, and then he can merge with the mother and take on her qualities, the idealized qualities, not the real ones.

The third experience is what he calls twin sheep or alter ego.

These experiences enhance the subject self by demonstrating that it is all right to be like another person.

Then there is adversarial self-object experiences. They allow the subject to be antagonistic without evoking injurious responses. They are needed to open a path for healthy self-assertion, negativism, and anger in the service of strengthening the self.

He says you need to have some bad experiences, conflict experiences, because when you experience conflict as a baby, you learn to manage anger, and you learn not to be afraid to fight with other people.

This you need to have a healthy self, for example, to put boundaries.

Then he continues to say, you remember we are talking about the six types of experience that create the self, and this is Colin's work.

Vitalizing self-object experiences consist of effective attunements by the caregiving other.

This is stern, actually, not cold. They are an essential ingredient for the emergence of a cohesive self.

The other person, the mother, must be very emotionally attuned to the baby and react appropriately.

The last experiences are the efficacy self-object experiences that authenticate the self by enabling the self to decisively affect and alter some aspect of another person.

So what happens if these six experiences are disruptive?

If you don't have these experiences, the mother doesn't mirror you. She makes you feel unsafe when you try to be yourself. She doesn't allow you to express negative opinions or to criticize her or to be angry at her. She doesn't allow you to be self efficacious. She does everything for you, doesn't let you do anything, doesn't let you be in touch with reality, isolates you, vitalizes you, instrumentalizes you, parentifies you.

What happens when the mother does all these things to you? She denies you some of these six types of experiences so you don't have a self.

And Kohl describes what happens when the mother is not a good enough mother, when she's effectively a dead mother.

And yes, I'm talking about mother all the time because it's the mother, not the father.

I've been asked these questions numerous times. The father has no role or no important role in the formative years. The father comes much later.

The father teaches the child how to act socially. He socializes the child.

The father teaches the child skills.

Yes, it's very important, skill acquisition. All this is true, but that's after the child is fully formed, the mother informs the child.

And so what happens if the mother is the wrong mother, according to Kohl? He says, in this case, there are disorders of the self. These are disorders of the self come result from faulty, deficient, or absent self-object experiences.

The normally needed appropriate self-object, milieu, may become dramatically distressful during the time before the first emergence of a self.

And then you have, he says, a deformed self. Usually a deformed self is severely damaged as in psychosis and borderline personalities. Injury endured during the time between the first emergence of the self and the final consolidation of a cohesive self is usually not as disabling. It results in a fragile self, perhaps with a narcissistic personality or a behavioral disorder.

And finally, unfulfilled selves are manifested mostly as disorders of later life, often around the crisis with much anxiety, depression, when a person is confronted with life itself and with having deviated from a life plan that was laid down.

So what Kohl says is you need six types of experience that the mother provides you with in order to form a self. And then if these experiences are missing, the mother is not good enough, you will have a deformed self, which is a serious problem, or you will have a fragile self, or you will have an unfulfilled self.

So he's describing actually separation, individuation, just using many other terms, which are his language. I am developing now a new theory of separation individuation, so we can discuss it a bit later, or now, as you wish.

Could you share your point of view, your theory with us then? I think it's a good idea if you mentioned already about that. I would love to hear and I think our viewers also.

Thank you. So please do. What is separation individuation? I think separation individuation is about a conflict between I am not, I am not a separation, I am not mummy, yes? So I'm not.

And then I am, I am not, I am separation, individuation, becoming me. I make a distinction between three phases of separation individuation.

The current thinking is that there's one. One, I think there are three. The three separation individuation phases in my work are the infantile phase, which is the commonly known phase described by Mahler, Sepp, Werf, Erichsen, numerous others, Anna Freud. So this is the known separation individuation phase.

But I'm adding to others the separation individuation phase in adolescence, and the separation individuation phase when you go out into the social world, when you develop object relations, full object relations, in a social context.

So three separation individuations.

Now, each of these stages, separating and individuating as a baby, separating, individuating as an adolescent, and separating, individuating as a social creature, as a social being, each of them can be disrupted. If you have a dead mother, the infantile phase is disrupted. If you have strict parents, parents who don't allow you to become you, then you are disrupted as an adolescent. You can't separate individuate as an adolescent.

And as a social being, you are not allowed to separate. You are not allowed to be autonomous and independent, because institutions, for example, countries, states, don't allow you that. They insist that you conform.

NAMI states, total institutions, they don't allow you to become you.

When you try to deviate, you are a dissident, you're arrested, you're put in prison, you're punished. Whenever you try to act totally, independently, and autonomously in today's modern world, institutions will punish you.

So there is an obstacle to social separation, individuation.

Now, each separation, individuation phase leads to another self-state.

So I disagree with Kohut, and previous to that I disagree with Jung, and I disagree with Freud, that there is a single self. I don't think there's a single self.

There was a psychologist, Philip Bromberg, and Philip Bromberg proposed that we don't have a unitary self. We don't have a single self, but we have self-states. We have many states of selfhood.

And I agree with Bromberg.

And I think my new work on separationindividuation explains how we end up having several self-states, because each separation individuation phase leads to another self-state.

For example, the infantile separation individuation, the separation during infancy as a baby, leads to the autonomous self-state. The autonomous self-state can be either grandiose, I'm a baby but I'm taking on the world, I'm exploring the world on my own, I'm Columbus, you know, I'm 18 months and I'm Columbus.

So there's grandiose. Or the autonomous self-state can be insecure or fearful. If there is a dead mother, the baby will feel unsafe. He will not go out into the world. So his autonomous self-state will be insecure.

So we end up with two self-states related to the infantile phase of separationindividuation.

The grandiose autonomous self-state or the insecure fearful self-state.

Similarly, in adolescence, we develop another self-state. It's the peer self-state. The self-state that is created and influenced by peers, by people of the same age group. The peer self-state, again, you can have two types. You can have the defiant peer self-state. It's the self-state that tells mother and father to mind their own business. I'm grown up, I'm going to do whatever I want, I'm going to have it my way, my way on the highway. This is typical adolescent behavior. Typical adolescent behavior indicates a defiant peer self-state.

The other option, if the parents don't allow the adolescent to have his or her own life, if the parents are disciplinarian, strict, insecure, narcissistic, psychopathic, overbearing, domineering, punitive, punishing, this kind of parents, the adolescent cannot separate from the parent. So he develops a conforming peer self-state.

Again, the second phase of separation individuation, individuation, the adolescent phase, creates a new self-state, the peer self-state that can be defiant in your face, I'm my own person, or conforming in a way, if you wish, submissive.

Similarly, the last separationindividuationis from society. We enter society, but we still want to feel like individuals. We don't want to feel like a statistic. We don't want to feel like a number.

So when we enter society and begin to interact with other people, even in an intimate relationship, we are putting boundaries. We are saying, I stop here and you stop, you stop and I stop. I stop. Boundaries is a form of separationindividuation.

So the social phase of separationindividuation creates a third self-state, self-state number three, the social self-state.

And again, we can have two types. The healthy social self-state is collaborative, it works with other people. The unhealthy, the pathological social self-state is avoidant.

Let me summarize this because it's a bit, it's a lot.

There are three phases of separationindividuation, in infancy, later in adolescence, later when you go out into society and begin to have relationships, interpersonal relationships in the workplace, intimate, other.

In each of these phases, there could be a disruption, there could be a problem.

And then the self-state created by the separationindividuation phase can be healthy or pathological.

In the first infantile separationindividuation phase, we create the autonomous self-state. If it is healthy, it is grandiose, we call it healthy narcissism. If it is pathological, the autonomous self-state will be insecure or fearful, it will have an insecure attachment style.

Similarly, in the second phase of separation, individuation, the adolescent phase, we create a self-state, the peer self-state.

It can be healthy, defiant, or it can be unhealthy, pathological, conforming, submissive.

Lastly, when we go out into society, we try to put boundaries. Even in romantic, intimate relationships, we try to put boundaries. Boundaries is a form of separation, individuation.

If we succeed, we have a healthy social self-state, collaborative. If we fail, we have a pathological social self-state, and that is avoidant.

So disrupted self-states lead to mental illness. An unhealthy autonomous self-state leads to borderline, narcissistic, paranoid problems, covert problems. An unhealthy pathological peer self-state leads to antisocial behavior, schizoid, avoidant, codependent, or people pleasing.

And the disrupted or pathological social self-state leads to asocial behavior or exaggerated, ostentatious, pro-social behavior, communal behavior.

That in a nutshell is my new work on separation, individuation.

What actually I'm saying is these phases are not limited to childhood. Many of these phases are lifelong, and we react with separation, individuation to every new environment.

Adolescence is a new environment. Going out into the social world is a new environment.

Having an intimate relationship is a new environment.

Each of these challenges render us children, regress us to childhood. These are new challenges.

We are like these babies who are just discovering the world, so we again separate, individuate.

And again, something can go wrong. And if something can go wrong, we end up with mental illness or dysfunction.

Thank you for that. I'm smiling because you mentioned about this self-state that we spoke already in our last video, and I cannot agree more, even, because my second question that you already answered, I guess, was to ask you about the secondary separation and individuation phase, because I do agree with you that it's not only when we are infant, it will be impossible, because I do agree, and I'm also working with my clients, with self-state.

I'm not working like you have only one self, and that's it. I do agree with you, and yeah, Peter Bloss was writing about secondary separation and individuation phase, and that was my question, actually, as he was writing about new development opportunity to isolate and shape self-state.

So my question was, what are the goals here?

But you already mentioned about fears, about separation to parental objects.

What I'm writing down also was regression in the service of the ego or trial morning.

So that was my also question, but you already spoke about that in your theory.

So yeah, it's a therapeutic opportunity.

We have five more minutes left, by the way. If you have additional questions, I would rather answer your questions if you have any other questions you would like to ask.

Yeah, I actually do, but maybe I will give you the chance to, what question you would like to answer, because I have two or three, so please, I will just answer them.

So yeah, what are the features of the family system that they can be really disturbance for our developmental in separation and individuation phase? What are the difficulties for women and men, especially about the body when we are faced, especially the secondary separation and individuation phase?

And another question, the last one, but not least one, what advice, of course, for parents and for adults you can give, because I think, yeah, it's really good to know how the good parent, good enough parent, and good enough parent, parent food should look like, I think.

So choose, please.

Yeah, I try to combine all three, actually.

Each time we are confronted with a new environment, all our childhood mechanisms are triggered, childhood defenses like splitting, but also childhood processes like separation and individuation. Each time we confront a new environment, there is a risk of disruption and consequently of mental dysfunction or mental illness, even, but each time we face a new environment, there's also an opportunity to fix what had gone wrong before.

So challenging ourselves to exit the comfort zone and to find ourselves or place ourselves in new environments is a chance to separate and individuate properly, is a chance to fix what had gone wrong, for example, in the first infantile separation and individuation.

And so there's a therapeutic opportunity.

Actually, what a good therapist does, he provides exactly this. He provides an environment which allows for a reenactment or replay of processes that had gone wrong before in the hope that under controlled circumstances in a containing environment, therapists can somehow get it right where, for example, parental figures got it wrong.

I have a video about good enough mothering, which I encourage your viewers to watch if they're interested in this question, but I will summarize, I will relate to one feature which is counterintuitive and very shocking to many mothers.

As I said before in this conversation in other videos, the good enough mother frustrates the child and pushes the child away. The good enough mother does not idolize the child. She does not pamper the child. She doesn't spoil the child. She doesn't isolate the child from reality. She pushes the child into the world, knowing full well that the child is going to be hurt, is going to suffer, is going to experience losses, knowing that there will be damage.

But these are the engines of growth. The mother who frustrates her child makes the child realize that he must survive without her. The mother who pushes the child away forces the child to explore the world. The mother who shows the child that she is not all good, but she has bad aspects, shortcomings, failings, he is a mother who allows the child to integrate, integrate his view of other people so that he can have healthy, long-term, realistic relationships with other people.

In other words, it's a mother who opposes splitting. I think we just ran out of time and I ran out of things to say, so it's good, perfect match.

Okay, so some professor, thank you so much for that and yes, thank you so much and talk to you soon. Talk to you soon, thank you for having me.

Thank you, thank you, bye.

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