Identification and Internalization

Identification and internalization are terms that come primarily from psychoanalytic and object relations theory. However, concepts that share very similar meanings can be found in other schools of thought, a fact that underscores the importance of identification and internalization and their central role in therapeutic relationship development and treatment outcome. For example, behaviorists emphasize the importance of modeling in behavior therapy (Bandura, 1969; Raue, Goldfried, & Barkham, 1997). According to social learning theory, we adopt many specific behavior patterns because we've watched others perform such behavior previously (i.e., we have seen the behavior modeled). Furthermore, as D. Myers (1989) states, "We more often imitate those we respect and admire, those we perceive as similar to ourselves, and those we perceive as successful" (p. 251). Obviously, parents are important models to children, but interviewers and psychotherapists may also teach clients new behavior patterns through explicit, as well as subtle, modeling procedures.

Psychoanalytic and object relations theorists use the concepts of identification and internalization to describe what learning theorists consider modeling (G. Adler, 1996; Eagle, 1984; J. Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983). Specifically, individuals identify with others whom they love, respect, or view as similar. Through this identification process, individuals come to incorporate or internalize unique and specific ways in which that loved or respected person thinks, acts, and feels. In a sense, identification and internal-ization result in the formation of identity; we become like those we have been near but also like those whom we love, respect, or view as similar to ourselves.

Identification is enhanced when clients feel understood by their interviewer or therapist at points where their values run deepest or their distress is most poignant. If identification is achieved, superficial dissimilarities do not detract from the therapy relationship. In other words, empathy enhances identification and reduces the importance of surface differences. Clients can say internally, "I can identify with this person. Even though we are different in some ways, she understands where I'm coming from." More importantly, clients can also think, "Because she understands and has heard the worst of my fears, and she still is hopeful, maybe she can help me resolve my problems." If differences between you and a given client are large and central, identification may be difficult or impossible.

For instance, one client wanted to work on deeply troubling issues she had because she had chosen not to marry, which is unacceptable in her family. She carefully selected a middle-aged female therapist, thinking she would find the basic understanding that she needed to work on her feelings. Unfortunately, after a very few sessions, the therapist interpreted the woman's no-marriage decision as adolescent rebellion. There were some basic differences between the therapist's worldview and the client's, which made rapport, empathy, and eventual identification very unlikely.

Identification is the precursor to internalization. Object relations theorists hypothesize that as we develop, we internalize components of various caretakers and others in

- Individual and Cultural Highlight 5.1 -

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  • bernd
    Why is identification and internalization compared with modeling in behavioral therapy?
    8 years ago

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