precocious ego development


from the book Psychotherapy of the Quiet Borderline by Vance R. Sherwood and Charles P. Cohen, Ph.D.’s:

what is precocious ego development

“… these children received considerable praise for the appearance of self-sufficiency. It was important to them not to draw criticism from their parents, and in fact the absence of criticism was probably more important to them than the praise they received. They tended to be the proverbial perfect children who behaved with a maturity that was far beyond their years. Needless to say, such maturity that was largely make-believe. Lacking in experience, wisdom, and adequate parental models, they presented themselves as if they were competent when they were not.

The negative psychological consequences of such an adaptation are very high. The child does not make an emotional investment in the caretakers (that is, the object is not cathected). Rather, the child focuses on molding his or her behavior to fit in with the family and on creating the appearance of acceptable functioning. This limited form of identification makes internalization highly problematic, not only because of the emotional distance from caretakers but, more importantly because the relationship with caretakers tends to be forced in nature. Thus, the process of internalization does not progress beyond the early stage of imitation. The child feels accepted and reassured of having a place in the family only when playing a precociously mature role. To ensure a position in the family, the child orients to the external world, gradually tuning out any personal wishes or feelings. In effect, the relationship with caretakers remains external and takes on a staged quality. As the process evolves, the sense of personal authenticity slowly diminishes; feelings and relationships are perceived in terms of what is appropriate rather than what is genuine.

Initially, the child may sense the inauthenticity of the roles he or she plays in the family. There is no confidence that any praise or love expressed by caretakers reflects an emotional connection. Confidence in relationships and a sense of personal authenticity cannot develop unless the child has had the experience of being oppositional from time to time and also of having spontaneously expressed negative feelings and having caretakers see these attitudes as legitimate. Children moving toward precocious ego development are not generally found in homes where this happens. Indeed, the display of spontaneous affect in any form is not likely to be an ongoing part of family functioning.”

phenomenon: no one to blame

“It is not simple to account for this type of development. It is certainly not enough to say vaguely that the parents were unempathic or emotionally unreliable. We have already implied that we think the parents of as-if patients may often have been unempathic and unreliable, and this may be a good place to acknowledge that much more needs to be said. Our impression is that a combination of factors – some from the parents and some from the child – produces this type of pathology. The parents of some of our patients are so obviously disturbed that it is no wonder their children suffer some sort of serious pathology; however, our impression is that sometimes there is simply not a good match between the parents’ and the child’s temperaments. One might go so far as to say that these individuals just were not lucky, that with a different child the same parents might well have had a very different outcome. The question then arises: What are the key parent-child factors that lead to precocious ego development?”

innate qualities

“We believe that children who resort to premature self-sufficiency tend to possess a native intelligence that allows for development of good verbal skills. They are also likely to grow up in homes that help them elaborate these skills – it is hard to imagine an illiterate, culturally impoverished family’s producing an as-if individual, for instance. Further, we believe that these children possess what we might term a quiet temperament, a temperament that allows the child to scan and be alert for cues on how to fit into the family or match up with the expectations of caretakers. Finally, we believe that these children may have had a heightened sensitivity to abandonment or to being cut off from others. Due to this latter trait, they may have been more likely to experience caretakers as unreliable than other children who were not especially  sensitive on this score. These various factors altogether led the child to experience his or her parents as emotionally unreliable and contributed in turn to the solution of precocious ego development.

As children, then, quiet borderline individuals avoided the child’s usual dependency on adults. Instead of looking to their parents for caretaking, they looked for ways to create narcissistic gratifications for the adults in their lives. They developed a keen sensitivity to how they would have to behave in order for their parents to feel pleased with the job they (the parents) had done. They then tried to match up with those behaviors and roles that would narcissistically satisfy the parents. In effect, they aroused and engaged the adult’s preferred fantasy of the child. As noted, we believe that the parents we are discussing here were often narcissistically self-absorbed, depressed and preoccupied, or otherwise emotionally unreliable; in these cases the parents’ preferred image of the child was of someone who needed nothing from them. The parents could feel relieved at the child’s self-sufficiency, proud to have reared such a capable little man or woman, or even pleased to have someone who could take care of them (the parents).”

development of object constancy

“For a time, the child’s inner life is external, on the mother’s face and in her voice and movements. The child organizes experience in here by first seeing it out there, on the mother’s face (Sherwood 1989). Indeed, affect and inner life do not exist as a constant or given. They are possibilities that unfold only when interactions give them reality.”

 identity diffusion

“One of the intriguing issues in identity diffusion is the individual’s experience of time. … In a thought-provoking paper, Nayman (1991) relates the as-if individual’s identity diffusion to a disturbed time sense. Nayman describes as-if patients as feeling trapped in an inner void, reaching outside themselves to identify with other groups or persons in hopes of finding a sense of self. Thus, ‘time becomes swallowed into an eternal future, a future that is hopeful because it always promises new objects of identification’ (p. 495). As long as the future is effectively cut off from what comes before, a stable sense of personal continuity will be hard to attain.

The personality is built around primitive types of identification, including imitation, which lends some appearance of normalcy but also prevents a sense of continuity with self across time. Disturbances in sexuality, vocational choice, capacity for interpersonal commitment, and time sense have all been defined as elements of the as-if individual’s derailed identity.”


Author: innerlight

A capricorn horse. Creative dreamer, over thinker. bpd, insecure attachment and any other labels for deep and chronic wounds and other gifts of brilliance that propel intense and eclectic lives and make for good art. We are high needs and high return, all the way, all the way. Surrender, integration, repair, rebuild, connect, create, evolve. Deeply.

8 thoughts on “precocious ego development

  1. ahaaa… what a great article, underground. A little like reading my bio, but without the empathetic parents. Thank you for the view. My view is a bit de-railed, of course, but it’s great information!


  2. wow, I really needed to read that again this morning. this one really peels like an onion for me.

  3. Pingback: identity confusion / unstable sense of self « underground

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