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Psychic Structure


Psychic structure defines the dominant organization of an individual's mind, manner of establishing relationships, and way of dealing with conflicts. Structure must consequently be seen as a whole. It must also be seen as fundamental, registering its influence at a level deeper than what is apparent in the individual's personality, character, and manner. It is not innate, however. Individual psychic structure history is combined with hereditary or biological factors, since structure and genetics are not mutually exclusive.

Structure retains a unity and an immutable form, according to Freud in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a [1932]), where he compares the ego to a crystal that is formed and also breaks along certain lines. Yet it is not invariable, because it is a living organization that is constantly adapting, and because it can fail to maintain its equilibrium in certain modes of decompensation.

In effect, components of the dominant conflictcastration anxiety, loss of the object, or problems of identitysimultaneously explain the origins of psychic structure, its points of fragility, and the form of breakdown, through neurosis, depression, or psychosis. Depending on the structure in question, the defenses put into play will take on different meanings while sometimes retaining the same form: projection in the phobic subject is not the same as in the delusional subject. Also, symptoms insufficiently define the psychic structure, according to Jean Bergeret in La violence et la vie (Violence and life; 1994). While obsession occurs more frequently in depressed patients, it is also present in many cases of psychosis, where it plays a different role, and it is also capable of becoming dominant in an obsessive structure, just as protest or the demand for vindication can be permanently inscribed in a paranoid structure.

The typical stability of neurotic, psychotic, or perverse structures contrasts with the uncertainty of borderline organizations, where a narcissistic fragility produces a specific type of instability"unstable states, stable structure," as Daniel Widlöcher put it in his foreword to Otto Kernberg's book on borderline conditions. Lastly, psychosomatic breakdown is caused by lack of structure, unless structure is considered at the level of organic function, which is no longer exactly a mental phenomenon.

In all cases, the unity of psychic structure can be defined according to different perspectives, which may converge at various points but do not completely overlap. For example, there are pregenital structures, with their archaic, oral, or anal relational modalities, and genital structures, with their more refined oedipal apprehension of the object. Taken together, these different notions of structure offer a less nosographic, more dynamic approach to the notion of structure, as Maurice Bouvet (1967) explained.

Augustin Jeanneau

See also: Structural theory.


Bergeret, Jean. (1994). La violence et la vie. Paris: Payot.

Bouvet, Maurice. (1967). La clinique psychanalytique: la relation d'objet. In his Œuvres psychanalytiques, Vol. 1. Paris: Payot.

Freud, Sigmund. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Widlöcher, Daniel. (1979). Preface. In Otto Kernberg, Les troubles limites de la personnalité. Toulouse, France: Privat.

Further Reading

Boesky, Dale. (1988). The concept of psychic structure. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 36(S), 113-136.

Loewald, Hans W. (1978). Instinct theory, object relations, and psychic-structure. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 26, 493-506.

Schafer, Roy. (1988). Discussion of panel presentations on psychic structure. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 36(S), 295-312.

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