At very early stages the infant fails to develop a sense of a containing skin. It can then only gain a sense of holding together by sticking, in fantasy, to the outside of objects, giving rise to a form of mimicry which Esther Bick termed adhesive identification. The concept first appears in a Donald Meltzer publication (1975).
Esther Bick's infant observation work showed the skin as a primary object stabilizing the ego in the paranoid-schizoid position. She described the most primitive experiences of falling apart in pieces or, even worse, as a shapeless liquid leaking out. She also described protective measures that an infant may perform with its body and its perception in order to give a greater experience of remaining coherent and contained. She noticed various muscular or verbal abilities which developed precociously as if they were methods for substituting a second skin over a leaky primary containing object.
Certain children, however, seem to have been particularly doomed to the experience of leaking, and almost all emotional experience is felt as a rent in the containing skin. Such a raw experience of bleeding and leaking may then be covered by a particular form of sticking to an object, adhering to it. That person is then incorporated as the skin that prevents leaks.
One of the consequences is that while the concentration is upon sustaining a complete surface, there is no sense of depth to the person. He feels literally that he cannot contain. Ordinary projection and introjection are not possible.
This process gives rise then to a form of object-relationship in which there is a very shallow attempt at mimicry of the object, in contrast to an identification in which the identity of the other person is more richly carved into the person's own self. This description of very early phenomena has been useful in understanding infantile autism (Meltzer et. al., 1975; Tustin, 1981).
The "skin ego" concept of Didier Anzieu (1985) is a more versatile notion, being applicable outside the psycho-analytic setting, in groups and organizations. Pierre M. Turquet (1975) also used the notion of the skin as container in large group experience.
The infantile notion of the skin and its deviations (adhesive identification and the "second skin ") can appear to have reductionist properties, since all phenomena at a later stage can be attributed to experiences at the level of developing the skin boundary. In addition, there is a problem in that the theories of the skin and adhesive identification were derived firstly from a non-psychoanalytic setting (infant observation, and in group phenomena) so that its status in psychoanalytic work, practice and theory, is disputed.
Robert D. Hinshelwood
See also: Autism; Autistic capsule/nucleus; Dismantlement; Infant development; Infant observation (therapeutic).
Bick, Esther. (1968). The experience of the skin in early object relations. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XLIX, 558-566.
——. (1986). Further considerations on the functioning of skin in early object relations: findings from infant observation integrated into child and adult analysis. British Journal of Psychotherapy, II, 292-299.
Meltzer, Donald. (1975). Adhesive identification. Contemporary Psycho-Analysis, 11, 289-310.
Turquet, Pierre. (1975). Threats to identity in the large group. In L. Kreeger (Ed.) The large group (p. 87-114). London: Constable.
Tustin, Frances. (1981). Autistic states in children. London: Routledge.
"Adhesive Identification." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/adhesive-identification
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