Dialogues from the Italian Psychoanalytic Journal - Archive

Comments by Michael Parsons


Giovanni Foresti tells us that ‘the word “identity” is not part of the vocabulary of psychoanalysis’. This was certainly true until the 1950s, when Erik Erikson introduced the concept. He wrote several papers on it, beginning with ‘The problem of ego-identity’ (Erikson, 1956). These were revised and collected in his book Identity: Youth and Crisis (Erikson, 1968). Prior to Erikson’s original paper, the analytic literature — at least in English — contained hardly any references to the topic of identity; in subsequent years there was a huge increase (Parsons, 2014: 223). Identity established itself as a topic of psychoanalytic interest, as indeed this issue of the Rivista di Psicoanalisi illustrates. However, there was also ambivalence about its role as a psychoanalytic concept. A paper by Helmut Thomä (1983) exemplifies the resistance which it encountered. The papers of Giovanni Foresti, Lucio Russo and Andrea Marzi all consider, in their different ways, what role, if any, the concept of ‘psychoanalytic identity’ — or ‘the identity of the analyst’ — has to play in psychoanalytic thinking.


After stating that identity is not part of the analytic vocabulary, Foresti says it has been imported from other disciplines, like sociology, anthropology and philosophy, and that psychoanalysts use it ‘without great conviction’. Of our three authors, Foresti seems the closest in his scepticism to Thomä’s view. Thomä’s chief concern was that focusing on the individual analyst’s subjective sense of identity would distract from the perception of psychoanalysis as an objectively based system of knowledge underpinning a specifically defined clinical technique. This is related to the idea of analysis as consisting of a set of ‘competences’. Foresti cites the End of Training Evaluation Project of the European Psychoanalytic Federation, in support of this. This view implies that, if an analyst’s identity is not sufficiently developed, the remedy is more theoretical knowledge, and more practice in integrating that with the patient’s associations. Foresti’s emphasis is on those aspects of an analyst’s identity that can be objectively described and validated. These might be called the external aspects of an analyst’s identity. These extend, as Foresti also indicates, to include such social and professional factors as membership of a community of psychoanalytic colleagues. It is in keeping with Foresti’s general stance that he believes psychoanalytic pluralism, as recognised by Wallerstein, for example, may be ‘lethally divisive’.


At the same time, Foresti notes that ‘psychoanalytic identity is substantially a paradox’, and that we have to accept that ‘the happy ending of an integrating synthesis’ may not be available.


The paradoxical quality of psychoanalytic identity is particularly emphasised by both Russo and Marzi. They both highlight the distinction between an analyst’s individual analytic identity, in the sense of his or her own particular qualities that every analyst is bound to bring to their work, and psychoanalytic identity as a general concept, in the sense of the common factors, for all analysts across the board, that characterise what it means to be a psychoanalyst. Russo, in particular, emphasises that an analyst’s analytic identity is bound to feel unstable, because it has to be continually rediscovered. He refers to ‘the illusion that the psychoanalyst is always a psychoanalyst’. There is a subtle distinction to be held onto here. It is not an illusion; the psychoanalyst does remain a psychoanalyst. Being one, however, entails a perpetual vulnerability to disillusion and a sense of failure. As Russo puts it, one’s identity as an analyst is ‘a discontinuous and incomplete experience’ that is ‘always in a state of formation’. This is why the sense of being an analyst is always having to be rediscovered. No wonder that, as Russo reminds us, Freud called it an impossible profession.


Especially threatening to an analyst’s sense of stable identity are those patients who provoke in the analyst extremely disturbing states of mind outside the normal register. In order not to resist this, the analyst has to be open to a kind of ‘madness’ in himself. Alongside Russo’s references to de m’Uzan’s and Fédida’s descriptions of such cases, I also thought of the Botellas’ (2005) work on formal regression and psychic ‘figurability’. When Russo concludes that an analytic identity must inevitably be accompanied by disturbing feelings of the ‘familiarly strange’, we are clearly in the realm of the unheimlich. I think the stress on the rational, objectively definable elements of psychoanalytic identity, that is exemplified by Thomä, Foresti, and the End of Training Evaluation Project, stems from a wish to escape from its necessarily ‘uncanny’ aspects that Russo underlines.


In a different way, for Marzi also an essential feature of analytic identity is the analyst’s willingness to explore unknown — and often disconcerting — new territory. Marzi emphasises that psychoanalysis exists always in relation to its cultural context. Around its fundamental core principles, the cultural environment is changeable. Marzi, like Russo, is careful to distinguish between, on the one hand, personality characteristics that make individual analysts the kind of analyst they are; and, on the other, those defining aspects of analytic identity that characterise an analyst as being a psychoanalyst. Marzi’s central point is that, because the cultural context of psychoanalysis is always in flux, what it means to be an analyst is something that is perpetually evolving and can never be finally defined. Marzi, like Russo and (to some extent) Foresti, sees analysts as burdened with an identity that is necessarily unstable.


Marzi offers a list of qualities that are, one might say, necessary but not sufficient to form an analytic identity. Analysts need to have a curiosity about psychic reality, an introspective capacity, an ability to think creatively in the face of frustration, while remaining patient and not grasping prematurely for understanding.  What binds these personality characteristics into a specifically psychoanalytic identity? Marzi cites Kernberg’s reference to ‘an inner faith in the possibility of using introspection as a tool for comprehension and change’, and Wille’s statement that ‘the nucleus of analytic identity resides in the psychic representation of psychoanalysis itself in the analyst’s internal world’. This ‘internal psychoanalytic object’ is constituted by faith both in the theory of unconscious communication, and in the analytic setting as a vehicle for psychic transformation.


For Marzi, therefore, the roots of psychoanalytic identity are in the analyst’s internal, subjective experience. One way that the surrounding culture is changing, he believes, is towards an external rather than an internal perspective, with a corresponding demand for apparently objective measures and criteria. This produces a ‘confrontation’ between the internal view of analytic identity he has elaborated, and the desire — that may be seen in Foresti’s paper, for example — to define and validate it in terms of ‘competences’. Marzi cautions against a swing in the latter direction, which he thinks would undermine a true perception of what analytic identity means.


The cultural change that Marzi is most interested in is the impact on the analytic situation of digital technology. If it changes our idea of what it means to be the subject of our internal worlds, that might imply a shift in the idea of what it means to be a psychoanalyst. Sometimes, it does not seem to make as much difference as Marzi suggests. In his clinical illustration, he says that, whereas most reported cases describe projection of psychic elements, his patient showed the opposite movement, with the return from cyberspace of objects that had been evacuated into it. In fact, though, this seems a familiar enough trajectory. Psychic elements that a patient finds unbearable are evacuated by projection, until the analytic work helps the patient find a different way of managing them, at which point they can be reinternalized. More interesting is Marzi’s question about the relation between virtual space and dream space. He views cyberspace as a special kind of psychic space which allows for the sharing of experience. It is thus a constant source of new inner experiences, making it the space where a new kind of dreaming can occur.


This leads Marzi on to the specific shared experience of analysis conducted through digital technology: a topical issue at a time when more and more analysis and training is being done remotely, using Skype and other such vehicles. This is a different matter from allusions to digital technology appearing in an ordinary session. Those may make challenging demands on analysts to become familiar with new frames of reference in their patients’ lives. Remote analysis, however, challenges the identity of analysts by raising questions about what it is that they are actually doing. Marzi believes that this mode of working is generally speaking adequate, and allows an analytic relationship comparable to the conventional one, provided certain requirements are respected. These include ‘no over-dramatising and plenty of good sense’. But over-dramatising and the disappearance of ‘good sense’ may be exactly what an analysis needs to address! If they have to be ruled out in advance, the analytic framework has shrunk beyond recognition. Marzi has several good points to make about remote analysis, but the essential text on this subject is Gillian Isaacs Russell’s (2015) book Screen Relations, which discusses in detail the impact on psychoanalysis of this new technology, with a thorough, research-based analysis of its advantages and drawbacks.


These three papers, taken together, bring valuably into focus important issues around the question of psychoanalytic identity, and readers will undoubtedly find themselves challenged to carry their own thinking forward.





BOTELLA, C. & S. (2005). The Work of Psychic Figurability. London: Brunner-Routledge.


ERIKSON, E. (1956). The problem of ego identity. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 4: 56-121.


ERIKSON, E. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. London: Faber & Faber.


PARSONS, M. (2014). Living Psychoanalysis: From Theory to Experience. London: Routledge.


RUSSELL, G. I. (2015). Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Karnac.


THOMÄ, H. (1983). Conceptual dimensions of the psychoanalyst’s identity, in Joseph, E. and Widlöcher, D. (eds.) The Identity of the Psychoanalyst, New York: International Universities Press, 1983: 93-134.



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