Heroic Self

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The heroic self, as understood by Riccardo Steiner (1999), refers to the creative person's specific need to associate with, to compete with, and to surpass, the heroes of their own or of some other cultural tradition. Although the heroic self is principally a component specific to the creative personality, it is present, in varying degrees, in every single person.

Steiner's notion of the "heroic self" is derived, through the work of Daniel Lagache, Hermann Numberg, Alain de Mijolla, André Green, Jacques Lacan, and other French authors, from the phenomenological differentiation of the various aspects of the ego as originally described by Freud in his paper entitled "On Narcissism: an Introduction" (1914c). In this work, Freud spoke of the existence of an "ideal ego" and of an "ego ideal," and later he also mentioned the existence of a "superego." The heroic self is one of the ways in which the ideal ego manifests itself. Forming part of the constitutional endowment of the creative personality, it has, of course, constitutional aspects. Yet, understood from a Kleinian point of view, the heroic self can either be fostered or inhibited, from the beginning of life, by the reverie, or by the lack of reverie, shown by the mother and the parental couple. Later on in life, it can also be fostered, or inhibited, by relatives, by teachers, by cultural or other institutions, depending on the attitude these have towards the potential heroic self of the creative personality.

The heroic self manifests itself through what Steiner calls heroic projective and introjective identifications. The way in which it manifests itself depends on the individual's previous vicissitudes. If, for instance, the heroic self has been properly fostered by the creative person's family, or by their educational environment (by a teacher, school, etc.), at a certain moment the creator will start to feel the specific need to identify parts of the self with the heroes of their own or of some other cultural tradition. They will do this via heroic projective identifications, as they will also be able to introject those same heroes via introjective identification. Particularly interesting, developmentally speaking, is the period Freud called "the family romance," and during adolescence, when it is often possible to observe the first manifestations of the heroic self, although Steiner insists that the unconscious roots of the heroic self have to be traced back to the earliest object relationships and to the way they have been dealt with during the depressive position phase.

Conceived in this way, the heroic self constitutes an important aspect of the creative process. Due to the creator's constant interaction with its chosen tradition or peers, the creative process can never therefore be conceived to be developing in a socio-cultural vacuum, nor can it ever be understood as being a purely subjective process. In other words, there can never be a relationship between the creator and their unconscious which excludes all relationship with the tradition or the peers of the creator's heroic self.

For various psychopathological reasons, and as a result of events experienced during the course of infantile and adolescent development, the heroic self and its heroic introjective and projective identifications can be deeply disturbed and, in some cases, can almost cease to exist. All this can result in a megalomanic distortion of the heroic self, which comes to feel narcissistically and destructively superior to any form of dependence on peers or cultural traditions. In such cases, creators isolate themselves and refuse to learn from peer or cultural traditions. The disturbances can also manifest themselves as a profoundly paralyzing and melancholic "apathic" which again leads to impossibility of the individual being able to relate constructively to peers or cultural traditions, or to be able to learn from them.

In order for the creative personality to be able to use their own heroic self and their heroic projective and introductive identifications, it is vitally important that help is given to the damaged creative personality, via psychoanalytic treatment, to repair not only their own internal and external objects, but their heroic self as well. This leads to it being possible for the creative personality to learn from their heroic peers, or from the heroes of the chosen tradition. And, in the case of genuinely creative personality, it leads to a capacity to tolerate the specific anxiety related to the need not only to bypass their biological parents and their creativity, but also to bypass and to compete constructively with the great heroes of their cultural tradition, and, sometimes, with great heroic peers. Particularly important is the possibility for the creator's heroic self to be able to identify with the creative intercourse of their parents, at least in fantasy. This does necessarily mean that the creator has to generate children! Very often, their "children" are their creative results. All this is possible, according to Steiner, if the creator and their heroic self have achieved a good enough, even if not absolute, capacity to function according to what Klein and her followers have called the depressive position (Segal, 1991).

The notion of the"heroic self" and its heroic projective and introjective identifications may help one to acquire a better understanding of certain general aspects of the creative process, particularly those concerning the creator's relationship with the cultural tradition or traditions to which they belong, or of which they make use in their own work. It can therefore lead to a better psychoanalytic understanding of cultural movements such as classicism, romanticism, futurism, and the like, because these all involve a particular unconscious and emotional relationship between creativity, individuality, originality, and the role played in it by tradition. It can also shed light on the way it is possible, from a psychoanalytic point of view, to evaluate a creative work in general. Even the reader, the literary or art critic, and so on, all have to mobilize their heroic selves and their heroic projective and introjective identifications in order to understand and evaluate a creative work.

If one looks at its psychopathological manifestations, the notions of a megalomanic psychopathic heroic self (and this is something Daniel Lagache has pointed out at an individual level) can help to clarify some aspects of what could be called a "folieà plus," which is to say a stimulation of the megalomanic and psychopathic aspects of the heroic self at a mass level. In order to do this, the mass needs a megalomanic and psychopathic leader. All this could help towards a better understanding of the unconscious roots of the power which appeals to groups and to the masses, based on their reference to the "heroes," past or present, of a particular cultural or historical tradition, not least certain past and present-day religious figures and movements. These heroes, religious figures and movements have been used, and continue to be used, in a distorted and destructive way by both old and more recent totalitarian and fundamentalist regimes.

Riccardo Steiner

See also: Creativity; Ego ideal; Ego ideal/ideal ego; Grandiose self; Heroic identification; Myth of the hero; Self; Trauma of Birth, The.


Lagache, Daniel. (1982). La psychanalyse et la structure de la personnalité. In his Oeuvres (pp. 163-78). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (Original work published 1962)

Segal, Hanna. (1991). Dreams, phantasy and art. London: Routledge-The Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Steiner, Riccardo. (1999). Some notes on the Heroic Self and the meaning and importance of its reparation for the creative process and the creative personality. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 80, 685-718.