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Precursors To Differentiation, The First Subphase: Differentiation, The Second Subphase: Practicing, Phase Three: Rapprochement

Margaret Mahler (1897–1986) represents a group of ego psychologists whose interest focuses on the development of psychic structures, as outlined in Sigmund Freud's ([1923] 1990) structural theory, the id, ego, and superego. Mahler's interest in the developing ego centered on its development within the context of object relationships. Object relations refers to how experience with another comes to be represented in the mind. Mahler shifted the focus away from the Freudian emphasis on the gratification of instincts or biological needs as the basis for mental life, to an emphasis on how interpersonal relationships become internalized within the ego or self.

As a former pediatrician and child analyst, Mahler sought, through the study of normal development, to understand how inner representations of the self and other develop within the context of interpersonal interactions between the caregiver and child, resulting in an integrated sense of self. Separation-individuation is the name she gave to the process by which internal maps of the self and of others are formed. These experiential maps, or internal representations, are built up through interactions with caregivers during the period spanning birth to three years of age, and consist of both positive and negative aspects of experience within the relationship. According to Mahler, it is the ability to integrate frustrating and pleasurable aspects of experience with another person that leads to a stable sense of self that can tolerate fluctuating emotional states within the self and with others. The inability to integrate these aspects of experience can lead to psychopathology (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975).

Mahler and her research team studied caregivers and their children, in a naturalistic setting, from birth through three years of age and noted age-specific, regularly occurring behaviors that marked changes in the child's behavior in relationship to the caregiver and to the outside world. Mahler divides the early forerunners of the separation-individuation process into two phases, the autistic state and the symbiotic state. The separation-individuation process proper is broken down into four sub-phases: differentiation, practicing, rapprochement, and on the road to object constancy. Separation refers to the child's emergence from a symbiotic state with the caregiver, while individuation consists of individual achievements and characteristics that define identity.

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