Object-Images, Ego Formation, and Personal Identity: A Christ-Centered Approach

(This article is) an attempt to provide an understanding of object-images and ego formation, as essential elements of personal identity, laying the foundation for understanding of identity formation in Christ Jesus.

 

An answer to the central question of identity can give the person a sense of his or her position in the world, and the social groupings within which he or she interacts with others.  The mature ego engages with others and acts “as an intermediary” 1 in order to fulfill the individual’s legitimate wants and needs, foremost among them being the need to give and receive love.  A growing and healthy ego and a well-grounded sense of personal identity position the person to interact with others in ways that are effective and satisfying.

A certain number of persons who enter counseling practice have negative attitudes about themselves and/or their life circumstances.  They might be thought of as having a poor self-image or low self-esteem. The paper proposes that the issue actually involves a need for: (1) ego flexibility, and (2) a willingness to lightly hold onto one’s present sense of personal identity in order to promote a deeper, fuller realization of who we are.

Research by Quoidbach, Gilbert, and Wilson, indicates that people can have “a fundamental misconception about their future selves,” 2 about who they can become, limiting available options and choices.  These investigators conclude that people “regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives,” 3 that is, they believe they have answered the identity question in the present moment once and for all.  The authors refer to this as “the end of (personal) history illusion.” 4  This fallacy can also be expressed as a person answering the question “Who am I?” with the answer “I am now who I will always be.”  Contrary to this illusion, which “bedevils decision-making,” 5 this author proposes that ego and personal identity are not static but dynamic parts of the person, capable of healthy,purposeful growth, and development.  This growth can take place as the person strives to increasingly resemble the role model he hopes to reflect to others.

The next three sections represent an attempt to provide an understanding of object-images and ego formation, as essential elements of personal identity, laying the foundation for understanding of identity formation in Christ Jesus.

Object-Image Formation

An “object-image” 6 is an inexact and incomplete internal representation of a significant person in one’s life.  The image is perceived through a prism of needs, emotions, desires, and experiences with the person.  An object-image is referred to as a “unit of internalization.” 7  Kernberg also refers to object-images as “self-object-affect units,” which are “primary determinants of the ego,” 8 and considers the process to involve “the internalization of interpersonal relations.” 9  (The process is one of introjection, and the term “introject” is, perhaps, more descriptive for some; a dream image is a somewhat related idea).  The object-image crystallizes around the memories, associations, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions associated with the significant individual.  The object-image is a repository imbued with such mental contents, and develops outside of conscious awareness.

The very young child perceives those who internally become primary object-images through the eyes of need-fulfillment.  The mother satisfies longings, and is “loved” for what she gives.  There is no true reciprocity, just need, tension, need satisfaction, and tension reduction.  “During formative years, {one’s} inborn needs, acquired wants, and personal experiences play a large part in personality (and ego) formation.” 10  The object-images of the ones who fill those needs undergo a process of internalization such that the child eventually “possesses” the “loved” object-image internally even when the mother, and the father, are not immediately available to the child’s senses.  This initial internalization is the beginning of formation of the “I”, or ego.  The early initiation of self-awareness is rooted in other-awareness.

The young child grows into a toddler in the third year,  slowly becoming aware of his or her separate existence.  At some point in early development, the child has the ability to retain images of significant others, such as the mother and the father, and can distinguish between them, and those others identified as “strangers.” The object-images of caregivers gradually become firmly rooted in the child’s mind as he relates to those images in a way similar to the way in which he relates to the corresponding adults.  With ongoing contacts, there is increasing definition and permanence with regard to these significant object-images.  Object constancy helps to provide some sense of security for the young child as he or she makes tentative forays into the outside world.

Ego Formation

Object-image constancy is a developmental stage wherein the caregiver is not lost to the child’s mind when the caregiver is absent.  This begins at approximately 18 months. 11  If the caregiver is absent prior to this time, so is the caregiver’s object-image.  For the very young child, when the mother leaves the room, the mother no longer exists; hence, the potential beginning of separation anxiety. Object-images gradually form and coalesce through growing constancy and permanence to carry on within the child this initial stage of ego development.

With object-image constancy, the child begins a process of identification (early identity) with the caregiver’s object-image such that there is little or no distinction in the young child’s mind between the caregiver’s object-image, and the child’s self-image.  Self and other are one.  Such is the initiation of the newly forming ego’s union with “loved” object-images, and the beginning of “unity, or tendency to unity, which is particularly characteristic of the ego.” 12    

The ego continues its formation through the process of individual object-image internalization of significant others, and gradual formation of object constellations.  In Freudian terms, “The ego is an organization dependent on the free intercommunication of, and the possibility of, reciprocal interplay between, all its constituent elements; its origin (is found) in striving for union and unification (of and among object-images) and this compulsion to synthesis increases in direct proportion to the strength which the ego attains.” 13  Ego formation has, as a significant part of its foundation, a striving to adhere, and be one with the object-images of those significant others encountered in the immediate environment.

Such organization and formation occurs, of course, outside of conscious awareness for the child.  A person’s ego, “… a coherent organization of mental processes,” 14 is nevertheless rooted in personal history unavailable to the conscious mind.  “(A person’s) present personality (and ego) structure occurred long before (he or she) was in a position to (be aware that such structuring was taking place).” 15  Thus, object-images unconsciously exercise a powerful influence on personality, and are considered to be the building blocks of the ego, causatively involved in its development.  These object-images, and the internalization process, “constitute a crucial determinant of the ego” 16 and ego organization, and occur outside of personal awareness.

The ego is a growing, dynamic structure including important changes that take place over the course of a lifetime. Though the internalization and development of object-images involves an unconscious process as described above, the resultant ego is capable of purposeful activity and growth. It is a developing psychological structure that is made up of both unconscious dynamics and, hopefully, increasingly conscious awareness.

Thus, object-images, and constellations of them, comprise the developing ego from an early age in the child’s life, and this process continues well into adulthood. In fact, such object-images, beginning formation in early development, experience “important modifications over the years under the influence of ego growth and later object relations.” 17 Kernberg adds, “Actually, the enrichment of one’s personal life by the internal presence of selective, partial identifications representing people who are loved and admired in a realistic way … constitutes a major source of emotional depth and well-being.” 18 The ego, at its healthiest, is a fluid, developing, psychological structure that includes increasing awareness and purposeful growth. It is a dynamic structure within the personality that forms by “organizing object (-images) and object constellations into a coherent whole … into a dynamic, unified structure.” 19 The ego, an essential structure within the human psyche, can grow and develop in healthy ways by being receptive to positive influences from relationships with loving, mature individuals.

Identity Formation

The ego is a significant component in the conceptualization of personal identity, of who I am and who I am not, “me” and “not me,” out of which flows intentional, purposeful behavior. At its healthiest, the ego is a developing part of personal identity. A growing ego includes becoming aware of significant aspects of one’s personality which were previously unavailable to consciousness.

The answer to the question of identity, “Who am I?” evolves over a person’s lifetime. Certainly how a person thinks about herself, how she identifies herself, and with whom she identifies, changes dramatically during the course of major developmental periods of life. A person has one set of thoughts and feelings about himself as a child, another as a teenager, still another as a young adult, a growing and changing identity at middle age, and another as an older adult. At early developmental stages, the young person is strongly influenced, for good and/or bad, by those adults in his or her life who have responsibility for her care and growth. At later developmental stages, an individual needs to become increasingly responsible for his own ego’s  health and growth.

Fluidity and Identity in Christ

A client in counseling, who had recently gone through a divorce, stated: “I’ve been thinking about identity. I’m having an identity crisis. I’m not a husband anymore. I thought: Who do I want to be?  Do something good. It’s biblical–to be like Christ.”  The believer’s identity is bound up in his or her Creator’s identity. Scripture states 20 that a believer is “…to be conformed to the image of (God’s) Son…” (Rom 8:29), “…renewed in the image of his Creator” (Col 3:10), and transformed increasingly, “being changed into his likeness” (2 Cor 3:18). A person is to remain open, flexible, amenable to change and growth, being formed more and more into God’s image. A fluid ego refers to being open to engaging in an expanding, broadening, and deepening process that involves growing realization of the person’s true identity.

However, the ego, “the real seat of anxiety,” 21 fears change. It is these fears that God seeks to challenge and loosen. This fear of change can result in rigidity, or a rejection of fluidity. Being fluid means the ego is open to being re-formed, a change, or end, to present formation. This can be related to an ontological or existential fear:  fear of dying, the end of ego structure  as presently experienced.

Nevertheless, believers are advised to not hold onto “all too rigid definitions of our own identities (but instead) to broaden our identity boundaries.” 22 Keenan further states that we can be too “attached to our self-constructed identities, to who we think we are.” 23 A more accurate understanding of ego and personal identity would be to conceptualize this way: who I am thus far. The client, mentioned above, put it like this: “It makes a lot of sense to hold on loosely to who you are, because I have held on tightly to who I am.  I have been opposed to changing. I got too comfortable with being mediocre.”

We are to think anew about our identities as an integrated part of a larger whole. Then, we can become intimately and mystically identified with who God is, his identity. Our identities can come together without loss of uniqueness because God has not created assembly-line robots, but persons with free will and a distinct identity. Empirical evidence clearly shows that of the billions of humans who live, and have lived, no two are identical. Even identical twins have differing personalities. Each person’s uniqueness is guaranteed by our unique Creator. The client continues: “Everybody wants to be unique, but everybody wants to be part of a greater whole, become more like God, part of a whole, yet individual.”

Identity revolves around not only a sense of who I am, but also who I am becoming. A clear sense of identity provides direction, a vision of where one is headed in life. There is purpose and a reason for being. This is in distinct contrast to both nihilism and Nirvana, the latter referring to “the extinction of individual consciousness” 24 and the former defined as the belief “that existence is senseless and useless, (denying) any objective truth and especially moral truths.” 25

Identity is also related to integrity, unity of being, who I am as a whole person; not fragmented, scattered, nor confused, but one in being with Christ for those who want to identify with him, and be united to him. As identified with Christ, a person is connected and oriented, joined to One who is infinitely greater, One who has stooped to the level of humanity, so as to raise humanity, and ennoble human existence.

Identity in Christ is the ground of being for believers, providing stability during times of difficulty or turmoil. A person’s identity in Christ doesn’t change when external conditions change. There is a balance between too much change (chaos) and too little change (rigidity). There is equilibrium and permanence, along with the ever-present potential for healthy growth, a movement and a rhythm, a healthy flowing back and forth, repeating the pattern of emptying, renewal, and resurrection.

Seeking answers to the question, “Who am I?” addresses an essential mystery, the meaning of human existence. What is a fully-functioning person?  What does it mean to be human?  Who are we in Christ Jesus? Why does he love me?  Why does one love me that much?  The question speaks to human worth and dignitythe value of each human being. Since Christ willingly experienced a cruel, barbarous, and tortuous death for the sake of each human being who would accept him, and his saving grave as payment for sins, what are the implications for the value and worth of each individual?

Identity in Christ Jesus means identifying with limitless availability, involving on-going newness of being. It means boundless possibilities for who we can become with Christ present in us. The greater reality is that we are in him, and he is without limit. As we assess and explore who we are in Christ, the natural limitations of earthly existence do not apply, and our being can be re-defined in radical ways. Our earthly existence comes to an end; our existence in Christ, begun here on earth, is unending and open-ended, abounding with possibilities. “All things are possible to him who believes” (Mk 9:23; Mt 19:26), and that includes a radical restructuring of our understanding of our existence, our definition of who we are, and who and what we can become. We are challenged to regularly re-conceptualize the way we know ourselves, and re-consider the limitations we place on identity, and on the nature and purpose of existence.

What is Christ’s identity that we are to emulate and assimilate?  He identifies himself, in part, with being sustenance for the world: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:48); “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51); I am “the bread of God (who) comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (Jn 6:33). Jesus forms his identity “around the bread and wine…” 26 He revealed himself as life-giving and nurturing, a model for human behavior. The client referred to “living Bread … who Jesus says he is. I want to be more like that. This is all about identity.”

Christ “draws us to incorporate ourselves within his mystical body, to practice insight into our self-enclosed identities,” 27 and to identify with our Creator. It means letting go of our ideas about who we are as human beings, because we can never comprehend the full mystery of human existence. He reveals our unfolding identities to us, over time, as we become “integral and functional parts of a larger whole … and this is healing precisely because it enables us, following the Master, to broaden our identity boundaries.” 28

Faith-imagination, scripturally informed, infers the following insight into who Jesus says we are, or who we are to become: “Your identity is being formed internally, more and more, in my image. Do not hold onto who you are, or who you think you are. You are to be open to changing and growing in this life, and growing within. You are to be conformed to my image (Rom. 8:29). You will bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor 15:49). You are being changed, more and more, into my likeness (2 Cor 3:18). You are putting on the new man who is being renewed after the image of his Creator (Col 3:10).”

“Your idea of who Christ is can never be full nor complete. Neither can your understanding of who you are, that also can never be complete in this life. You have, have had, and will have, many ideas about yourself and others. You need to remain open to new forms and understandings of who and what you are, of what it means to be made in the image of God. You are my on-going creation.  I form and re-form you as you participate more fully in my life.”

In view of the above, the ego, in being continuously loved, is encouraged to change and grow in response to that love, emanating from some mysterious Source within. A person’s Creator, through constant love and acceptance, challenges us to think of him, and life, in new and ever-changing ways, re-arranging and re-defining our ideas of who we are. A person’s identity can be routinely, and purposely, re-defined in response to this Life within. God can re-arrange and re-define personal identity in unpredictable ways. We can be re-created in response to life, God, and others. Individual human beings in this earthly life have a certain capacity for change and growth. An individual here on earth need not reach some stage where growth stops. Through God’s word and sustaining Bread, he becomes more and more a greater part of the human person. Yet, we do not lose our personal identities, our essential character, but can become increasingly, on the outside, who and what we are on the inside:  real, genuine, and true to ourselves, God and neighbor.

Each human person faces the same challenging questions: “Who am I?  Who and what am I becoming?  Who and what can I be?”  We are challenged to love the developing ego, and trust the Almighty in his infinite wisdom, and on-going creation, of our personal identities. The client states: “When you’re struggling to be like Christ, who he is, it gives you a good identification or sense of yourself. There’s no guesswork in it. It gives purpose and meaning to your life.”

Identity Transformation

The Greek fathers teach that we can enter into a journey of “divinization” or “deification.” We are allowed to share continuously, and progressively, in the very nature of God (cf. 2 Pet 1:4). They state that “we are, by grace, what he is by nature. That is, indeed, a radical re-orientation of anybody’s sense of identity.” 29

The apostle Paul knew that his ego had been transformed, and his identity re-defined: “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). He let go of an identity in profound recognition of the existential truth that he could no longer rely on his physical senses, his memory, his associations, or his personal history to tell him who he was, or what his being was like. Jesus, in restoring Paul’s physical sight after three days of blindness (Acts 9:8-18), at the same time opened his spiritual eyes to see, and his spiritual ears to hear, that is, to see and hear God. He gave Paul a new identity, changing his name from Saul, a king’s name, to Paul, a name that refers to humility, even though Paul’s gift was wisdom (2 Pet 3:15). Christ began to teach Paul how to let go in order to obtain the greater good, as Scripture teaches about Christ wherein he identified with the human race: “His state was divine, yet, he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross (then raised and given) the Name which is above all other names…”  (Phil 2:6-9).

Thus, Scripture speaks to us about Christ’s identity which was divine, yet, he did not cling to that identity, but emptied himself to become human, and to serve; and having served mankind, by taking our sins onto himself, he was then glorified, showing us that the way to glory passes first through service, losses, and changes, both small and great. We can have a joyful and, yet, sometimes painful present existence with a glorious future. Christ challenges us to let go of who we think we are, in order to learn who he is, and what and who we can become. This is identity divesting, letting go of little to receive much. What we receive far exceeds that which is given up. Yet, there is struggle, as the client aptly put it: “Everybody struggleswho you are or who you want to be. I struggled with who I wanted to be. When I was seeking the Lord in my life, I didn’t have an identity problem. But I can be a very selfish person, lazy, bad thoughts, vengefulthat’s who I’m often up against. It’s a struggle. I want to be one way, and end up being another way. It’s a challenge. It all comes back to identity and purpose, that which holds everything together. Spiritually speaking, something to aspire toGod, in this case. He makes things make sense, and brings everything together.”

By receiving the Bread of life, “we become one with Jesus and expand our definitions” 30 of who we are. “To meet Christ … is to be pried away from our canned identities” 31 and learn who we are as sons and daughters of our gracious God. We can identify with the living and giving Son of God who gave himself, who became human, so that we might become divine. We identify with him and receive him, reflecting Jesus, and his nurturing presence, to a hurting, spiritually hungry world.

There was no unbelieving heart in Jesus, and no impure filter through which a distorted image of God would have to pass, so he could fully identify with the Father. Our hearts, however, are slow to believe or understand. Our filters of emotions, perceptions, experiences, memories, significant early relationships, and personal history can limit or distort our understanding of who God is, and how we can identify with him. Yet, in faith, can we not aspire to “a name (even) better than sons and daughters, an everlasting name…” (Is 56:5)?  Jesus himself said, “…he called them gods to whom the word of God came…” (Jn 10:34-35), referring to Ps 82:6: “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”  Jesus tells us that we have a remarkable and, basically, incomprehensible destiny, based on our unique identities as sons and daughters of God himself. Such identity begins to be understood by us when we seek Jesus in the word of God, and the life of grace within, a life that is engendered and sustained by participation in the Bread of life.

Kenosis

In the Son’s kenosis (Greek for “emptying”), is our theosis (Greek for “deification”).  As participants in the divine life of God, human beings are encouraged to remain open to changing and growing throughout earthly life. Life here is an opportunity, an investment in eternity. It is also a challenge to engage in kenosis, “an act of self-emptying love,” 32 in order to serve and receive fuller life from him, as Christ emptied himself when he, God, became man. His state was divine; he was, and is, Lord, through whom the universe and everything in it was created (Heb 1:2, 10). Yet, he emptied himself of omnipotence in order to become like us, identifying with us, divinity taking on humanity so that humanity could take on divinity.

The human ego, however, is resistant to change, and truly fearful of loss, divesting, emptying, or dying. The fearful ego is encouraged by God, and his word, to recognize that man’s ancient enemies, death and Satan, have been conquered by Christ, who gives humankind a free share in the victory: “He shared equally in (human nature) so that by his death he could take away all the power of the devil, who had power over death, and set free all those who have been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.” (Heb 2:14-16)  He says truly, “I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev 1:18)  Why would we fear?  And since “we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:5)

Conclusion

Conceptualizing the ego, the “I” in the question “Who am I?” leads to the concept of identity, the whole of the question. The identity question is best stated this way: Who am I in Christ?, that is, who are we in him who sustains us in existence and, if we will enter into the process, gradually transforms our nature to appropriate and, thus, resemble his nature.

We begin our earthly existence by internalizing object-images of significant others, and identifying with human beings. We can continue to grow and identify with mature, loving human persons in our lives. More importantly, we can progress to identify with the divine Being, Christ Jesus, our ultimate role model.

By identifying with, and partaking of, the Bread of life, Christ becomes part of us, dwelling deep within the human heart; the deeper mystery is that we become increasingly a part of him, increasingly divinized, subsuming his nature. Fully understanding what it means to be human requires knowledge of who we are becoming, and knowledge of the God after whom we are to pattern ourselves. What kind of being does our destiny entail?  What is that existence which is so difficult to comprehend or even imagine?  It is a challenge to allow ourselves to be formed and re-formed, to be formed and, yet, not cling to, a current level of formation, being made, more and more, into “sons and daughters” (2 Cor 6:18) of the Most High God with a powerful nature like his.  That is our identity and destiny.

  1. Sigmund Freud,  An Outline of Psychoanalysis. (New York:  WW Morton Co., Inc., 1938), 2.
  2. Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert & Timothy D. Wilson,  “The End of History Illusion.”  Science, Vol. 339, No. 6115, (Jan. 2013), 96.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Otto F. Kernberg, Object Relations Theory and Clinical Psychoanalysis. (Northvale, NJ:  Jason Aronson, Inc., 1984), 29.
  7. Ibid, 57.
  8. Ibid, 58.
  9. Ibid, 56.
  10. Anthony J. Paone, S. J., My Daily Life. (Brooklyn, NY:  Confraternity of the Precious Blood, 1970), 159.
  11. Otto F. Kernberg, “Early Ego Integration and Object Relations.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 193; 1972; 236.
  12. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id. (New York:  W W Morton Co., Inc., 1923), 35.
  13. Sigmund Freud, The Problem of Anxiety. (New York:  W W Norton Co., Inc., 1936), 25, 26.
  14. Freud, The Ego and the Id, 7.
  15. Paone, My Daily Life, 178.
  16. Otto F. Kernberg, “Early Ego Integration,” 233.
  17. Otto F. Kernberg,  Object Relations Theory and Clinical Psychoanalysis.  (Northvale, NJ:  Jason Aronson, Inc., 1984), 33.
  18. Kernberg,  Object Relations Theory,  33-34.
  19. Kernberg, Object Relations Theory,  32, 76.
  20. Scripture references are from the Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 2006) unless otherwise indicated (JBJerusalem Bible).  With each Scripture verse selection, the author has chosen the wording which best fits within the context of this paper.
  21. Sigmund Freud,  The Problem of Anxiety. (New York:  W.W. Norton Co., 1936), 80.
  22. John P. Keenan, “A Mahayana Theology of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” Buddhist-Christian Studies, No. 24 (2004), 95.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, 571.
  25. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, 570.
  26. Keenan, “A Mahayana Theology,” 94.
  27. Keenan, “A Mahayana Theology,” 95.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Keenan, “A Mahayana Theology,” 95.
  30. Keenan, “A Mahayana Theology,” 97.
  31. Keenan, “A Mahayana Theology,” 98.
  32.  Deborah Wallace Ruddy, “The Humble God: Healer, Mediator and Sacrifice,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Volume 7, Number 3, Summer 2004, 99. “Kenosis” is from the Greek, kenoo, to empty.
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avatar About Patrick F. Cioni

Patrick F. Cioni is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor in private practice located in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His work includes individual, marital, and family counseling. His previous publications have focused on forgiveness in the treatment of difficult emotions, including chronic anger. The author wishes to thank Dr. John J. and Helene O'Malley, Lisa Fromert, an anonymous client, and the Jesuits at the University of Scranton. The author can be reached at: pfcioni@verizon.net.

Comments

  1. avatar Dino says:

    I have never read an article so articulate, not just on our identity but on the process, struggle and continued growth of discovering our identity in Christ. I’ll probably have to reread this a couple times. Thank you

    • avatar Patrick Cioni says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Dino. I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts upon subsequent reading if you wish. Pat Cioni

  2. avatar Christopher Knuffke says:

    As per your “husband” example at the beginning of your article, I think it would be good to “connect the dots” between identity in Christ with vocatio (calling to holiness in general, and to the states of life) and missio ( witness to Christ in general and committment to specific tasks). See St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici; also Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life (Ignatius Press).

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