Principle of Identity Preservation

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The principle of identity preservation stipulates that human beings are motivated by the need to preserve and maintain their identity at all costs. Superseding adaptation and the reality principle, the principle of identity preservation governs the psychic apparatus, and the drives are a function of it.

Introduced in 1961 by Heinz Lichtenstein, this principle is the response to what he calls the "dilemma of human identity" in the book of the same title. Human identity is uncertain; the ego cannot guarantee its existence, and the subject must maintain it at all costs. This notion is in keeping with this author's rejection of the idea of the dualism of the drives.

Human identity is formed through a specific use of nonreproductive sexuality during the dissymetrical interactions between mother and childmirroring experiences in which the mother's seduction triggers an irreversible "identity theme" stemming from the impact of her unconscious messages and the child's reactions. From this primary, irreversible identity there emerges a sense of the identity of the self, a creation or variation on an invariant identity theme. Identity formation can suffer disturbances; the existence of impossible "themes"such as that of nonseparation, which causes an oscillation between solitude and fusiongenerates pathological sexual and aggressive manifestations.

The principle of identity preservation underscores the importance of the "preservation of identity" or the self based on the "feeling of identity"Erik Erikson's "ego identity."

The formation of identity makes it possible to resolve Cartesian dualism by forgoing the concept of identification. A metapsychology of the self is established, to the detriment of the drives. Lichtenstein was the first to theorize the notion of identity in the sense of a principle. Robert Stoller used the notion of identity as the theoretical basis for his hypothesis regarding the core of "gender identity" and the inverted gender identity of the feminine boy as stemming from an irreversible early imprint left over from the infant's symbiosis with the mother. Traces of Lichtenstein's thought are discernible in Heinz Kohut's self psychology, although he is not explicitly mentioned: The characteristics attributed to identity by Lichtenstein are close to those of the Kohut's "Self," and the principle of identity resembles the same type of conceptualization as the "principal Self" in Kohut's The Restoration of the Self (1977)the preservation of the Self as fundamental to the psyche.

The importance given to identitythat is, narcissismin relation to the drives reverses Freudian priorities and presents the risk of a psychoanalysis that is more phenomenological than metapsychological.

AgnÈs Oppenheimer

See also: Identity.


Kohut, Heinz. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

Lichtenstein, Heinz. (1961). Identity and sexuality. In Dilemma of human identity. New York: Jason Aronson.

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Principle of Identity Preservation