IPA Inter-Regional Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

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However, although Mahler herself later relinquished the Autistic Phase and modified her findings about the Symbiotic phase, many European analysts maintain her initial depiction of both phases, as archaic precursors (‘prehistory’) of the emergence of the Self, elements of which are potentially manifestly present in variously conceptualized serious pathologies of the Self in children and adults. In Mahler’s original depiction, in the normal Autistic phase, there is a relative absence of investment of external stimuli and the physiological rather than psychological processes prevail. In this state of absolute primary narcissism, the goal is to achieve a homeostatic balance of the organism in the new external environment. The autistic state is a state of undifferentiation or fusion with the mother in which the ego is not yet differentiated from the non-ego and the inner and the outer reality begin only gradually to be perceived as different. From the second month – the Symbiotic Phase – the infant was supposedly only dimly aware of objects and is in a state of “delusional-somato-psychic” fusion (Mahler et al, 1975, p.45), a positive state of relatedness, which occurred in an intrapsychic context with an absence of boundaries between self and other (Fonagy, 2001). During this phase, the attuned mother establishes and maintains an appropriate affectomotor dialogue with the infant through eye- contact, facial expression, touch, holding, etc., contributing to the infant’s integration of affect modulation and regulation (Blum, 2004). In the original depiction, the Symbiotic phase begins at the moment in which the stimulus barrier or the autistic shell that keeps external stimuli away starts to be broken. The infant begins to have a vague awareness of the object that satisfies its needs, which however encompasses a dual unity, in which the Self still has no clear boundaries. Gradually the child starts to show a new attitude of tenacity and intentionality, which indicates that the child is "emerging", and at about 4-6 months the attempt to experiment separation-individuation, structuring the internalized representations of the Self, distinct from the internal representations of objects, begins. The Separation-Individuation Phase, 4-6 months to 36 months, consists of several subphases: The first is ‘ Differentiation/Hatching ’, 4-6 to 9 months, when the child begins to differentiate the representation of the self from the mother/other (Mahler et al., 1975) by moving from the tendency to mold herself to her mother’s body to a preference for more active, self-determined exploration. During the second ‘ Practicing ’ subphase, from 10 to 15-16 months, the child practices locomotion to increase physical separation from the mother and to continue the differentiation process. This is the period during which Mahler situates the actual “psychological birth” of the child. With upright locomotion, the child’s horizons expand and the child becomes excited as the “world becomes his oyster”. In Greenacre’s (1957) phrase, it is the height of his ‘love affair with the world’. It is, as Mahler conceptualizes it, the height of both (secondary) narcissism and object love (Mahler et al., 1975). At this time, as well, the child reaches “the peak of his ‘magical omnipotence’ derived from his sense of sharing his mother’s magical powers”

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