FREUD'S CONCEPTS OF IDEALIZATION

Vann Spruiell



(1997)...... It has been well over twenty years since I wrote this paper. Originally, I thought the only valid reasons to read Freud's metapsychology (sympathetically) were historical ones--(good enough reasons, but "hardly scientific" in nature). Nevertheless, I was enormously impressed with Freud's intellectual daring, with the amazing way he thought, drawing upon differing levels of abstraction, on different levels of thought itself, drawing upon primary process, drawing upon logic -- to assemble such wonderful stories. The reason that that they were wonderful stories was their "fit" with each other, their "fit" with what can learned from analysands, together from relative freedom from the worries of the traditional scientists in search of certainties (or at least the very best certainties they believed were available). What has made the difference for me during those years has been learning more about the history of science, and understanding more about those ideas that cannot be addressed scientifically. I have been able to "loosen" my idealizations of what I used to think was "science," in favor of a more rational assessment of what its strengths and limitations in actuality are. I also becane aware of complexity theory and its companion, symmetry -- and came to appreciate the approximations of truths and analogies to truths carried by enduring myths across cultures. I used to dismiss them as "nothing but" mysticism.

The paper was once part of what was to be a book -- a book I deliberately, and I now believe wisely, did not try to finish. Other papers that were to be part of it are included in this collection: Thinking Blind, Three Strands of Narcissism,Narcissistic Transformations of Adolescence, The Transition of the Body Image, and Alterations of the Ego-Ideal in Girls in Mid-adolescence.


THE WORD IDEALIZATION appears often in the psychoanalytic literature. One usually knows what a given author intends in terms of everyday or surface meanings. But there is no consensus regarding the psychological meanings ascribed to the word.1 To idealize is to exalt, to think of oneself or others as conforming to ultimate standards of perfection. The word has another, less frequently used meaning: the initial construction of inner standards of perfection, personal ideals (Funk and Wagnall's, 1965). Dictionary definitions are useful and sometimes invaluable in clarifying everyday discourse. But a general term must also acquire specific psychological meanings if it is to be of any use in psychoanalytic theory; a term is not a concept.

Freud loved words as means, not ends. As for "idealization," he used the word often, in many papers, in both nontechnical and technical senses. Specific references will be found below, but I want to summarize the variety of ways Freud conceived of idealization as a psychological act. For more than exegetic purposes, a study of his statements about idealization seems in order because they are often judged to be disorganized. Yet, with close examination, it is possible to see that Freud placed these new conceptions in three differing but compatible and integrated contexts. One was in terms of a theory of drives; the other was in terms of a theory of object relations. And clearly, as he developed his conceptions, they were accompanied by a theory of epigenetic development.

Freud never concentrated on idealization as a subject. Instead, he took it up in passing as part of his concern with larger matters. But there were times when he examined the meaning of ideals and idealization in more or less detail, always in terms of his more general ideas about narcissism, together with his deepening insights with patients.

In this paper I attempt to integrate Freud's explicit statements and, in addition, take up certain meanings of idealization that are implicit in his development of the concepts of narcissism, internalization and structure building. This can be done by examining several dimensions of his concept of narcissism: his thoughts about love—thoughts leading to the metamorphosis from topographical to structural theory—the postulation of the ego ideal, regulators of self-regard, alterations of omnipotence, ambivalence, and the ego.

Love and the Metamorphosis of the Structural Theory

In his "Three Essays" (1905, p. 200), Freud remarked that in latency part of the sexual drive continues unrepressed, its aim "mitigated. " It becomes "what may be described as the 'affectionate current' of sexual life." But nevertheless, behind this are "concealed the old sexual longings of the infantile component instincts which have now become unserviceable." Later (1915a), he used the term more familiar to us, aim inhibition, to describe the alteration of the force of drives that makes it possible to achieve affectionate, tender, and friendly relationships. It is important to note that he always insisted on the underlying sexual nature of such impulses and such relationships.

Freud continued to refer to the problem of how, during adolescence, the tender and sexual currents come to be combined in the form of healthy adult love—or, failing combination, how specific pathology results (1910a, 1912, 1914a, 1914b, 1922, 1932). In "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love" (1912), he expressed the opinion, "There are only a very few educated people in whom the currents of affection and sensuality have been properly fused" (p. 185). At that time, in keeping with the dualism of libido and self-preservative instincts, he considered affection to be a product of both libido that had been diverted from its sexual aim and the product of self-preservative instincts. And in the same paper, after commenting on the underlying libidinal nature of parental affection for children (". . . the child is an erotic plaything"), he went on to remark about the "normal overvaluation of the sexual object on the part of a man" (p. 181). But women, said Freud, usually do not indulge in this kind of overestimation; neither do they seem to have an equivalent need to debase the objects of their lust.

At this time Freud seemed to be equating the overvaluation of the love object with the aim-inhibited, "tender" impulses—but this was before he had worked out his theory of narcissism. As we shall see, he later clearly distinguished the overvaluations—termed idealizations—from both aim inhibition and the sublimation of instinctual drives.

"On Narcissism" (1914a) represented an opening of a psychoanalytic revolution that would eventually result in the structural theory. In this paper he developed his notions concerning the transformation of narcissistic libido into object libido. From 1910 (1910b), when he first explicitly identified the ego instincts with the self-preservative instincts, until 1922, when the ego instincts came to be identified with libido and the death instinct was introduced, the dual-drive system consisted of libido on one side and the ego instincts (consisting of both self-preservative drives and the agency of repression) on the other. The essence of conflict, in drive terms, was between these two.

But in place of conflict, there could be fusions. Thus, libido, at first diffusely distributed, later could become "attached" to the ego instincts; for example, the erotic needs for the breast could become attached to the hungry needs for the breast. As objects become distinguished as entities independent of the ego (self), libido could be extended from the ego to these objects—thereby becoming object libido, distinguishable from ego (narcissistic) libido. Or, like the pseudopods of an ameba, (1914a, p. 75), the libido could be withdrawn from the objects, becoming again narcissistic in nature.

In this daring venture into a speculative theory that eventually could explain much more about human beings than the earlier theories alone, one would have thought that the entire amount of libido invested in the object would become, in the process, transformed into object libido. But Freud did not believe this was exactly the case, as we shall see later. Freud thought that some narcissistic libido might also "overflow" onto the object, retaining its qualitatively narcissistic character as, indeed, even as he thought object libido to some extent did. This 1914 theoretical ambiguity—some would say, vagueness—continues to show itself more than 60 years later.2

As part of this drive theory, and in an integrated way, Freud was simultaneously developing an object relations theory. After objects could be distinguished, it became possible for the child to choose from among them those to be invested with love. Two sorts of choice were possible. In one, the anaclitic, objects were chosen after the earliest model of the mother (who fed) or the father (who protected). In the other, the narcissistic form of choice, objects were chosen on the basis of the self, or some past aspect of the self, or some wished-for, missing part of the self.

Thus, there were two kinds of libido and two ways of choosing objects. It is important to note that these separate, postulated, dualities, one having to do with the theory of drives, the other having to do with object relations, were not exactly congruent. Anaclitic choice did not imply that only object libido was invested in the object, nor is it clear that Freud meant, in the case of narcissistic choice, only narcissistic libido was involved. For that matter, it has already been mentioned that there was a certain vagueness about the extent and the conditions in which narcissistic libido "became" object libido once the "pseudopods" reached out. But inasmuch as both sorts of object choice made uses of libido ultimately derived from primary narcissism, the implication was that the anaclitic choice implied a greater "renunciation" of the original narcissism.

In any case, the origin of libido in primary narcissism tended to manifest itself in the phenomenon of overvaluation. Here, for the first time, Freud used "idealization" and "overvaluation" as synonyms. Somewhat confusingly, he remarked that idealization—in this instance, he used the term "marked sexual overvaluation"—of the object existed only in the case of anaclitic choice (1914a, p. 88). Why should Freud say that idealization—certainly a narcissistic function—be characteristic of anaclitic choice and not narcissistic choice? He could as easily have said (although he did not, in 1914) that narcissistic choice implied idealization of the ego (self) as contrasted to the object. The answer is that Freud at that time was thinking in terms of object relations, not drives—and it must be reiterated that the two sorts of choice and the two sorts of libido were not exactly congruent. Furthermore, Freud was thinking of something specific about object relations; he was thinking in terms of his own preconceptions about the ways men and women differ in the ways they love other persons.

Men tended to utilize the anaclitic choice, Freud thought, and women tend toward the narcissistic. Men were inclined to love narcissistic women as they loved a part of their own "renounced" narcissism (in much the same way, Freud said, perhaps mischievously, as large beasts of prey, cats, great criminals, and humorists are found to be appealing). And narcissistic women—whose primary aim is to be loved—find themselves gratified in such relationships. In this way, Freud attempted to explain his belief that men tended to idealize their love objects; the implication was that women tended to idealize only themselves.

But, Freud admitted, there remains the observable fact that, in terms of their children, not only (presumably anaclitic-choosing) fathers but also (presumably non-anaclitic choosing) mothers make use of idealizations. How could this be? Freud thought he had the answer: The majority of women who relate narcissistically might still be able to achieve anaclitic relationships by way of their own children—children who had once been part of themselves but who come to be recognized as also different from themselves. In addition, there are women who love anaclitically as a result of development along masculine lines. After maturity they "retain the capacity for longing for a masculine ideal—an ideal which is in fact a survival of the boyish nature that they themselves once possessed" (1914a, p. 90).4

At this point we should pause and place "On Narcissism" in its historical context; else Freud's ideas about idealization will seem incomprehendible. We can see, in retrospect, the paper approached "narcissism" from different points of view: in terms of clinical observations, as a phase of development; in terms of clinical theory, as part of an emerging, more complex theory of object relations, which paralleled a similarly emerging theory of the vicissitudes of instinctual drives; more abstractly, as a sort of "organizer" for the beginnings of what would become a literal metamorphosis of the older topographical structural theory.

In 1914, autoerotism existed in a phase before the appearance within the individual of either the ego (seen more as "self" than system) or the appearance of narcissism. And even after narcissism appeared, there was a vastly different sense of the timing of the phases leading to object love: Freud did not feel that the course from primary narcissism through homosexual object choice to mature heterosexual love was achieved until adolescence.

To summarize, in the sense of psychic structure, "On Narcissism" was written before the structural theory -- id-ego-superego -- was adumbrated; while there were the systems Ucs. and Pcs-Cs., the ego and the ego ideal/conscience existed only as the Anlagen of the structural system to come—and the id, later introduced to replace the system Ucs. (Arrow and Brenner, 1964), had not been invented. The ego in 1914 was really a nonspecific word for the "self" rather than being clearly thought of as a system. It had no "place" in the topographical system; the self-preservative instincts served as its basis, although libido could become attached to them. Thus, egoistic interests were not included in his concept of narcissism (until later, in 1920). Egoism was contrasted with narcissism in 1914 (and this distinction reappeared even after 1920, e.g., in the 1931 paper, "Libidinal Types"). Narcissism had no "place" in the topographical systemic theory either. After the ego (self) was distinguished from its objects, the ego served as a "reservoir of libido" in putting out its pseudopods investing objects—in this respect seeming to be more a system than a representation. (Later, Freud vacillated in his ideas about such a "reservoir" when he not only distinguished ego and object but, "inwardly" ego from id [Bing et al., 1959].) Theories of internalization processes necessary for such concepts of structure building had not been worked out.

Finally, on another level, a generation of psychoanalysts of both sexes had not arisen to dispute Freud's notions about women. "On Narcissism" really was "An Introduction. " And the concepts of narcissism have never been adequately reworked in terms of the very theoretical systems they inspired. This accounts in part for the fragmentation of the concept of one of its functions, idealization.

The Ego Ideal

Turning from considerations of love, another major contribution in "On Narcissism" was the introduction of a conception of the ego ideal. As a result of the blows to narcissism by reality, a more or less normal person (whether he represents the majority of men or not), 

". . . has set up an ideal in himself by which he measures his actual ego.... For the ego the formation of an ideal would be the conditioning factor of repression.

"This ideal ego is now the target of the self-love which was enjoyed in childhood by the actual ego. The subject's narcissism makes its appearance displaced on to this new ideal ego, which, like the infantile ego, finds itself possessed of every perfection that is of value.... What he projects before him as his ideal is the substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood when he was his own ideal" [1914a, pp. 93-94]. 

Freud identified the "conscience" as the psychical agency with the "task of seeing that narcissistic satisfaction from the ego ideal is ensured," This conscience "constantly watches the actual ego and measures it by that ideal" (p. 95).

"For what prompted the subject to form an ego ideal, on whose behalf his conscience acts as a watchman, arose from the critical influence of his parents (conveyed to him by the medium of the voice), to whom were added . . . those who trained and taught him and the innumerable and indefinable host of all the other people in his environment—his fellow men—and public opinion.

"In this way large amounts of libido of an essentially homosexual kind are drawn into the formation of the narcissistic ego ideal and find outlet and satisfaction in maintaining it. The institution of conscience was at bottom an embodiment, first of parental criticism, and subsequently of that of society. . ." [1914a, p. 96]. 

The term homosexual libido obviously referred to narcissistic libido invested in objects; the recaptured libido resulted in secondary narcissism.

Freud in 1914 thus laid the groundwork for what in 1923 became the superego as a system or structure uniting conscience and ego ideal. In the process, the concept of the ego-ideal aspect of this structure changed. At first the terms were synonymous, but by 1932 the superego was the "vehicle of the ego-ideal" (pp. 64-65). For our present purposes, however, it is enough to note that for Freud, ideals were important regulatory standards or goals of the superego, and in this sense they were different from mere ego goals or standards, as they were also different from morals.

Just as Freud distinguished between (narcissistic) idealizing overvaluations and aim-inhibited (object-libidinal) tenderness, so he examined the relation between idealization (which was also equated with the forming of ideals) and sublimation. Sublimation at that time was thought to be a process concerning the alteration of object libido in which the aim of the drive did not merely become inhibited but became something other than sexual satisfaction, whereas idealization consisted of an alteration of the object in which the object was aggrandized and exalted. As we have seen, the ego (self), at least by implication, could also be idealized. A confusing sentence follows, again a result of Freud's lack of a clear distinction between his drive theory and his object relations theory: "Idealization is possible in the sphere of the ego-libido [narcissistic libido] as well as in that of object-libido" (1914a, p. 94). In spite of this seeming ascription of idealization to object libido in addition to narcissistic libido, comparable to his previous ascription of idealization to anaclitic choice, only a few pages later he resolved some of the confusion, saying of anaclitic ways of loving, "Being in love consists in a flowing-over of ego libido [narcissistic libido] onto the object. It has the power to remove repressions and re-instate perversions. It exalts the sexual object into a sexual ideal. Since, with the object type (or attachment type), being in love occurs in virtue of the fulfillment of infantile conditions for loving, we may say that whatever fulfills that condition is idealized" (1914a, pp. 100-101; my italics).

Later still, in regard to narcissistic object choice, he said, ". . . what possesses the excellence which the ego lacks for making it an ideal, is loved . . . by choosing a sexual ideal after the narcissistic type which possesses excellences to which he cannot attain. This is the cure by love. . ." (p. 101). The conclusion is inescapable that Freud approached idealization from two quite compatible points of view: From the viewpoint of libidinal drives, idealization was clearly a narcissistic phenomenon, in which there was a "flowing-over" of narcissistic libido onto the object; from the viewpoint of self-object relations, the self- or object representations either remained or became aggrandized.

In one way or another Freud repeated these propositions in later papers. Particularly in 1922 he spelled them out clearly. Although again stressing the combination of aim-inhibited "tender" and openly lustful "sensual" trends in adolescence, he said: 

"In connection with this question of being in love we have always been struck by the phenomenon of sexual overvaluation—the fact that the loved object enjoys a certain amount of freedom from criticism, and that all its characteristics are valued more highly than those of people who are not loved, or than its own were at a time when it itself was not loved. If the sensual impulsions are more or less effectively repressed or set aside, the illusion is produced that the object has come to be sensually loved on account of its spiritual merits, whereas on the contrary these merits may really only have been lent to it by its sensual charm.

"The tendency which falsifies judgement in this respect is that of idealization. But now it is easier for us to find our bearings. We see that the object is being treated
in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissistic libido overflows on to the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love-choice, that the object serves as a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own. We love it on account of the perfections which we have striven to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like to procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfaction of our narcissism [pp. 112-113]." 

From this quotation alone it might be possible to mistakenly identify the "tender" currents with the idealizations, although I don't believe that was Freud's intention.

Regulation of Self-Esteem 

Inasmuch as the regulation of self-esteem has been considered by some authors to be equated with narcissism, it is necessary to return to Freud (1914a) to consider briefly his own views. Freud said there (pp. 96-97) that self-regard has to do with how "big" the ego is—regardless of how it got that way. In this he was referring to the fact that self-regard proceeds not only from relationships of ego to ego ideal, but has also to do with remnants of primary narcissism, with ego achievements, and with loving responses from objects. While the investment of object libido itself, Freud believed, reduced the level of self-esteem, being loved restored it. Repressions tended to reduce self-esteem directly and as a result of interferences with external love relationships. It was implied, though not clearly stated, that simple withdrawal of cathexes from objects (without internalization processes being involved) and the conversion of these cathexes into narcissistic libido could only pathologically raise self-esteem; thus, "in paraphrenics self-regard is increased" (1914a, p. 98).

Freud stated that self-regard proceeded from three sources: one part is primary, the residue of infantile narcissism; another arises out of the omnipotence which is corroborated by experience; still another proceeds from the satisfaction of object libido.

Idealization in Structure Building

In a number of places Freud referred to idealization in a way we would now connect with the building up of psychic structure (especially 1914a, 1914b, 1923a, 1927, 1932). Freud (1914a) indicated that the child normally idealizes his parents as well as himself—and that the increasing appreciation of reality alters these idealizations. This process was beautifully illustrated in nontechnical terms in the little paper, "Reflections on Schoolboy Psychology" (1914b), which examined the relationships with schoolmasters—in part idealized relationships, even if Freud did not use the term—which repeat the earlier relationships with the father. The loss of these idealizations under the impact of reality and as a result of inner motivations was poignantly described (as it was to be again, years later, in "A View From the Acropolis" [1936]). Freud expanded his considerations of the role of identifications with the parents—identifications with both their idealized and their object-libidinal aspects—occurring in response to frustrations. These papers allowed a better understanding of the setting up of psychic structures, in particular the ego deal-superego system.

Idealization and Ambivalence 

The final aspect of Freud's consideration of idealization to be added has to do with the understanding of ambivalence and the "darker" side of the origins of the superego. Thus, in "Repression" (1915b):

"we can understand how it is that the objects to which men give most preference, their ideals, proceed from the same perceptions and experiences as the objects which they most abhor and that they were originally only distinguished from one another through slight modifications. Indeed, as we found in tracing the origin of the fetish, it is possible for the original instinctual representative to be split in two, one part undergoing repression, while the remainder, precisely on account of this intimate connection, undergoes idealization" (p. 150).

Here and later (1923b, pp. 85-87; 1927, p. 24; 1932, pp. 99-133), Freud referred to an aspect of idealization associated with ambivalent or preambivalent object relations. By implication the other side of the coin is denigration. Among present-day psychoanalysts, the Kleinians in particular base their concept of idealization almost entirely on this understanding, an understanding that deals with quite primitive levels of development.

A Summary of Freud's Explicit and Implicit Views 

(1 ) Idealization could be understood from the side of the drives as a narcissistic phenomenon, whether of an altered, "normal" sort or a pathological sort.

(2) Idealization could be understood in terms of object relations as an alteration of the ego or object which amounts to some form of aggrandization of either. This process could be normal or pathological.

(3) Idealization was described primarily as an adolescent phenomenon, although clearly Freud recognized that the younger child might:

a) idealize one aspect of an ambivalent duality,
b) idealize his parents,
c) idealize himself,
d) be idealized by his parents.

(4) By implication, the negative aspects of ambivalence would involve the negative of idealization, denigration.

(5) The development of concepts of internalization allowed an understanding of the role of idealized relationships in the setting up of the superego.

(6) Ideals represented the goals and standards of the superego and were to be distinguished from goals and standards of the ego.

(7) The regulation of self-esteem was considered to be a broader matter than only self-love or ego-ego ideal relations.

(8) Ideals were partially created internally, partially acquired by way of the internalization of parental ideals.

(9) The concepts of idealization range from the primitive to the mature, from processes of defense to processes of building.

While most authors have followed Freud in describing idealization as a function of narcissism, each has tended to adopt one or another of Freud's usages and neglect the rest. Not much has been added. No doubt this has been, in part, a result of the varied and confusing (and often pejorative) meanings ascribed to narcissism itself, a consequence of the development of modern metapsychology after 1914, along with present-day controversies about its fundamental aspects. But even in terms of clinical theory alone, idealization has a variety of meanings which need to be specified if misunderstandings are to be avoided. 

Summary

Freud used the term idealization in reference to a variety of concepts. Subsequent authors, not always specifying their meanings, have tended to apply the term to only one or only some of these concepts. This paper surveys Freud's explicit and implicit references to idealization in the context of compatible and integrated psychoanalytic theories of drives and of object relations.  

ENDNOTES

1. Unfortunately, the Index of the Standard Edition (Richards, 1974, p. 301 ) lists only two references (1914a and 1922).

2. Kohut (1971), for example, not only retained the notion of enduring qualities of the libido. He underlined: "Narcissism . . . is defined not by the target of the instinctual investment (id., whether it is the subject himself or other people) but by the nature or quality of the instinctual charge" (p. 26).

3. Or so some critics think. Of course there are valid things to criticize in any creative work, especially Freud's. But it is important to be able to see his world, including the world of science -- at least among most scientists -- during the early part of this century. (1997)...If he had followed the canons of Mill, much less Descartes and Bacon, he couldn't have contributed anything. Neither could Darwin. And some concepts, for example, "narcissism," had very different meanings to Freud and Lou Andreas-Salome than they have for us. Frau Lou believed that her narcissism made her superior to mere men -- and Freud didn't seem to worry about his own narcissism. (This is not to argue that the development of narcissism as a living term was useful -- some outstanding analysts, e.g., Bertram Lewin, had serious doubts about it.)

4. Freud's ideas about women revealed the prejudices among men of his time. But nobody could read about him and believe that he was contemptuous of women. (1997). For a very fine discussion of Freud's growing insights into himself, and thus increased wisdom about women, see a recent paper by Orgel (1997).

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