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protean self
September 25, 2009 / May 8, 2011

My notion of a protean self is partly inspired by Robert J. Lifton, a highly-esteemed psychiatrist, who has extensively studied the lives of persons who have flourished after extreme trauma (e.g., Nazi death camp survivors), beyond their merely recovering or surviving. But his notion, explicated in The Protean Self: human resilience in an age of fragmentation, is also developed relative to lives of persons who have thrived in the wake of dramatic life changes (e.g., a life of multiple careers, not just multiple jobs). This is more important to me than the extreme cases of resilience (but the boundary condition is important). Lifton finds a growth-oriented and ever-changing sense of self that he believes originates in the 20th century, i.e., a prospect of self capability that evolves only in late modernity.

Lifton is not the first inquirer to find this. Psychoanalyst C. G. Jung and his heirs, mid-century, clarified a sense of high pluralization of self (or “plural psyche”) that can shape itself in the second half of creative lives (Jung had a formal sense of “the second half of life” oriented around a notion of high individuation and pluralization of self).

Also, it’s common in developmental psychology of adults to identify a “post-conventional” stage of cognition that can imply a sense of self that is kindred to Jung’s notion of plural psyche and Lifton’s sense of protean self. I’m not especially interested here in the universalism that’s associated with this (though I have been in years past: 1 and 2). But I find that quite commensurable with the sense of ethicality that complements the sense of protean self or protean psyche I’ll eventually present.

There’s much to say from psychological research for a sense of healthy self development that gains a protean, plural psyche—not just a thriving integration of personae, not just a thriving integration of roles; rather, a depth of personal identities, each a genuinely variable character—variously companionate, variously creative, variously professional—that are integrated in an especially fruitful way—self as way of cohering constructively through life time, exemplified (Lifton originally finds) by some especially-thriving lives.

next: how a protean self is not duplicitous