Giampiero Arciero

In: Freeman A, Mahoney MJ, Devito P, (Eds). Cognition and psychotherapy. 2nd ed. New York: Springer; 2004. pp. 7–18.

Vittorio Guidano’s theory of Personal Meaning Organization (PMO) has firmly established itself as a hermeneutic instrument within constructivist psychotherapeutic approaches, as well as a general theory of personality. Recent innovations address this theory’s potential risk of losing sight of subjects’ personal uniqueness because it asserts well-defined categories of personal style. One such innovation is the concept of a Narrative Identity that mediates between the continuous aspects of identity and the variable, unique nature of individual experience. Two modalities of constructing narrative identity, based on particular ways of developing and regulating emotions, have been specified: Inward and Outward. Similar to the four PMO categories, these two modalities appear to be determined by the attachment style developed by the child’s relationship with the primary caregiver, and from an early life stage determine one’s mode of emotional regulation. The theory of Narrative Identity adds new insights into the construction of personality, identity, and emotional regulation, building on Guidan’s pioneering work.

The most widely accepted personality theories focus on the necessity of integrating biological determinants with psychological and environmental ones. According to Allport’s definition, personality is a “dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his or her unique adjustment to the environment” (Allport 1937). Despite such statements, accepted theories of personality offer an essentially structural perspective. In fact, personality is widely considered the result of interaction between a biologically determined temperament (or “emotional core”), and character (acquired as the consequence of interchanges with the environment). In this view, temperament involves procedural memory, pre-semantic knowledge, and affective valence, while character corresponds to the processes of symbolization and abstraction based on conceptual learning (propositional knowledge). Essentially, temperament represents individual biases that govern the acquisition of emotion-based, automatic behavior traits and habits, which remain relatively stable throughout one’s life span (Cloninger et al., 1993). Some theorists disagree about the persistence of such habits, maintaining that situations are the ultimate determining factors of behavior (this is known as the “situationists” versus “personologists” debate).

A model that takes into account both dynamic and processing aspects of personality is Vittorio Guidano’s systems- and process-oriented approach, called Post-Rationalist, developed from within the cognitive school of thought (Guidano 1991). This model, initially conceived with Giovanni Liotti (Guidano & Liotti, 1983), is firmly rooted in theories and disciplines largely accepted across a wide range of scientific fields. Evolutionary epistemology, complexity and self-organizing systems theories, cognitive psychology, and emotional and cognitive development theories from within the constructivist perspective offer support for the Post-Rationalist model (Mahoney 1991,1995; Neimeyer & Mahoney 1995).

One of the most important cornerstones on which this model is developed is attachment theory (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby 1969, 1973, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1988; Bretherton 1991). Guidano, recognizing the value of the attachment relationship, developed the concept of Personal Meaning Organization (PMO) to describe the gradual construction of a coherent sense of self through interaction with others. The PMO model pays specific attention to recurrent categories of organization which give meaning to the experience of living.

Guidano described four categories of personal meaning organization, initially based on observation of relationships between cognitive styles and attachment patterns in psychopathological conditions. This is why the terms “Eating Disorder Organization (ED)”, “Obsessive Organization”, “Phobic Organization”, and “Depressive Organization” were originally used (Guidano 1987, 1995a). The direct links to specific psychopathological conditions were subsequently removed from the model. Instead, it became focused exclusively on the ways in which an individual on one hand discriminates and gives meaning to immediate experience, and on the other hand re-orders and integrates past and present experiences into a sense of continuity. This dichotomous dynamic can develop in various ways, defining phenomenological patterns ranging from normalcy to neurosis and psychosis. The model considers individual ways of thinking, performing, and feeling as expressions of an internal coherence that organizes the self. This coherence reflects the way in which personal identity maintains stability in relation to the continuous happenings of the outside world. Hence, this conceptualization is aligned more closely with the field of personality theory than with studies of psychopathology. The earlier model was developed around the categories ED, Obsessive, Phobic, and Depressive[1]. It is not a coincidence that, in the latest evolution of the model, the term “Personality Style” replaces “Personal Meaning Organization” (Arciero 2002).

Due to its general characteristics and its relation to the various fields of psychopathology, the concept of Personal Meaning Organization has become extremely valuable in the comprehension of human experience as well as in clinical activity. It is supported by the results of a recent empirical study utilizing a self-evaluation questionnaire. The questionnaire items were elaborated through theoretical descriptions of the four organizations, referring to the general ways of feeling, performing, and thinking that characterizes them. (Picardi & Mannino, 2000, Picardi et al., in press).

Guidano’s model lends a clear understanding of how different domains of experience are interlinked and how, beginning with the primary attachment relationship (subsequently modulated by meaningful relationships developed over on’’s life span), it is possible to construct a steady and permanent sense of self that progressively organizes experiential data and directs individual choices. Such a concept of self partly coincides with Erikson’s notion of Psychosocial Identity. Thus, it is referred to as the “sense of self-sameness and continuity in time” and “embeddedness in the environment” (Erikson 1959, 1968). These terms emphasize the importance of embodied being and the function of reflective consciousness. It is important to note that the concept of Personal Meaning Organization, while allowing an understanding of personality based on categories, inevitably neglects the uniqueness of the subject. Also, while the four organizations recognize the polarity of identity that remains steady over time (sameness), the PMO model can lose sight of the basic changeability (ipseity) that ultimately makes our lives unique.

Self-Identity and The Emotional Domain 

How does one reconcile the necessary dimension of permanence and continuity with the inevitable changeability of life that gives us choices and makes us “players in the game”? The relationship between these polarities is mediated by narrative explanation, which interprets events by constructing a meaningful story from them. The connection of events in a plot corresponds to the organization of the meaning of those events into a life story, which in turn takes place within the overall unity of one’s life. Based on Ricoeur’s ideas (Ricoeur 1983, 1992), we define Narrative Identity as the composition and re-composition of a plot (emplotment) through which a sense of personal continuity (sameness) is integrated with the variability and discontinuity of experience (ipseity). This process is able to generate, in concert with the dynamic configuration of the life-story, a continuously composed (and re-composed) sense of self. Therefore, incidental events may represent discrepancies within the story, contradicting expectations created by previous experiences and resulting in fractures in one’s sense of personal continuity. At the other end of the spectrum, discrepancies can be negotiated, or integrated, into the meaning of the plot, allowing the story to progress and the identity to maintain stability. In this way, the individual is the author of his or her own story. In Ricoeur’s words, “the story manufactures the individual’s identity, which can be called his narrative identity, creating the identity of the known story” (Ricoeur 1991, p 436).

We see therefore that Narrative Identity is a process that dynamically unifies, by means of a plot, the recurrent aspects of self with the situational self (Bruner 1990, Bruner & Kalmar 1998). In the narrative process, continuity is maintained as unpredictable and discrepant events are simultaneously integrated, allowing the story to progress. Narrative Identity creates a consistent dialectic between the factors that allow an individual to identify and re-identify himself as the same person over time (sameness) and the variability, instability, and discontinuity of his experience of living (ipseity). The dialectic between sameness and ipseity influences the structuring of the emotional domain: sameness in the reconfiguration of recurrent emotional traits, ipseity in moments of unpredictable emotional arousal. The consideration of such a dialectic, and the regulation of emotions it necessitates (in order to allow the articulation of a coherent narration), leads us to distinguish two basic modalities of identity construction: the “Inward” and “Outward” modes (Guidano 1999; Arciero & Mazzola 2000; Arciero 2002). These modes generally relate to the organization of aspects of the self linked to continuity (Inward) or to variability (Outward).

The fundamental variable that appears to direct the construction and development of personal identity is the predictability, from the child’s viewpoint, of parental response to requests for proximity. In this initial relationship, reciprocity built on predictability allows the child to make a defined, marked, and early differentiation of his or her inner world. In fact, emotional flow is more clearly differentiated when the parent responds clearly and with a limited variability of response to the child’s requests for proximity, regardless of the quality of the emotional exchange (Guidano 1999; Arciero & Mazzola 2000; Arciero 2002). In this case, the child does not feel the need to continuously check the parent’s emotional attitude in order to discriminate between rejection and acceptance. From the first year of age, he or she can develop a sound ability to differentiate internal emotional flow. Therefore, the child begins to focalize primary emotions starting with visceral activation, and personal identity is polarized into internal stability (Inward). The Inward polarity, which is associated with Phobic and Depressive prone personality styles, allows a clear demarcation of one’s own experience from the experiences of others. Consequently, visceral emotions become important constituents of the Inward’s identity.

On the other hand, reciprocity built on inconsistency, ambiguity, or extreme variability in parental response will make it more difficult for the child to discriminate between emotional states, leading to a less defined demarcation of his or her inner world. The child is compelled to continuously focus his or her attention onto the caregiver, seeking “news” of the possibility for acceptance from one moment to the next. Being constantly centered on the external world constructs a limited ability to discriminate among internal emotional states. This also induces the development of a barely differentiated emotional arousal from the basic emotions, which progressively promotes “cognitive” and “self-conscious” emotions (typical of Obsessive and Eating Disorder prone personality styles). Therefore, an undifferentiated arousal prevails, which can only be interpreted with the aid of specific circumstances and external context. The external world, seen as intersubjective and as a system of collectively shared rules, acquires ontological value for the individual. He or she will build inner stability by continuously referring to the outside world, attempting to synchronize his or her own feelings with it.

This style of emotioning, which is associated with the Outward polarity, appears to agree in general with some classic formulations in theories of emotions. According to these formulations, a generic sense of arousal becomes a true emotion through subjective evaluation (Schachter & Singer 1962, Mandler 1984, Ortony & Turner 1990). Inward identities, on the other hand, appear to be more in line with the “theory of discrete emotions” (Tomkins 1962, Izard 1977, Plutchik 1980, Lewis & Michalson 1983, Ekman 1992, Izard & Ackerman 2000). According to this theory, a specific arousal must be present with characteristic valence and tonality, linked to universally present stimuli.
These two modalities of identity construction shape the emotional domain in different ways. Identities associated with the Inward polarity develop a more profound centrality of basic emotions inscribed in the life texture, while identities associated with the Outward polarity are affected by a variable lack of differentiation of emotional states.

Self Identity and Emotional Regulation

It is clear that the Inward and Outward modes imply different types of access and different potentials for regulating the emotional sphere. According to Michael Lewis (1993), it is important to specify three distinctive forms of emotional domain to clearly comprehend the different dynamics of regulation:

1) Emotional states refer to recurring somatic and/or neuro-physiological configurations, and may appear without being fully consciously perceived. There are two different ideas concerning such emotional states, both recognized by the scientific community (but yet to be specified without contention). First, there is the “specific theory”, which postulates that there is a full correlation between an emotion and its matching internal physiological state. Therefore, some basic emotions are universally differentiated and biologically rooted (Eckmann 1992; Izard 1977, 1992; Tomkins 1962). These specific emotions (basic emotions), according to the theory outlined in this paper, are particularly delineated in Inward-polarized identities. The second theory postulates non-specific emotional arousal, to which a precise tone (i.e. anger, sadness, fear) is attributed cognitively. From our theoretical viewpoint, this happens when the variability of the parental response inhibits the discrimination of internal states (Outward-polarized identities). In this case, the specificity of an emotion can be constructed only through cognitive and appraisal mediation (Schachter & Singer 1962, Mandler 1984).

2) Emotional experiences result from the interpretation of an event or emotional state. In this form of emotional domain, there is again a clear differentiation between Inward and Outward directed identities. The Inward’s emotional experiences are a result of focusing on internal states, based on different grades of consciousness and articulation. Even in the presence of an emotional state, an emotional experience cannot take form without focalization. Due to the undifferentiated nature of emotional flow in the Outward identity, it is not necessary for emotional experience to correspond with an internal state: an emotional experience can emerge in the absence of autonomic activation. In short, emotional experience depends upon cognition.

3) Emotional expressions refer to facial, postural, vocal and motor changes. These cannot be specifically related to the two modalities.

From these dynamics, it is possible to distinguish two aspects of emotional regulation (Thompson 1995): One concerns characteristics of arousal (emotional intensity, persistence, modulation, onset and rise time, range and variability of and recovery from responses), the other concerning characteristics of appraisal (evaluation of quality, value and salience of stimulus in relation to self and one’s own objectives). The prevalence of one over the other depends on which polarity an individual’s sense of stability is centered around. Individuals with Inward orientation tend to be set on arousal. In fact, their sense of personal stability is focused on recurrent aspects of identity (basic emotions) that are not modifiable. Therefore, in order to maintain continuity of self, it is important for these individuals to keep the intensity of internal activation within a manageable range. Individuals with Outward orientation tend instead to be set on appraisal. Because their sense of personal stability is anchored in an external, referential context, the regulation of emotional states depends upon the individual’s modification and interpretation of current situations.

It becomes clear that the regulation of any emotion, if it is experienced as a visceral emotion, is different from the regulation of the same emotion when it is, instead, “mentally perceived”. In the first instance, emotional activation is amplified (variably depending on the intensity of the visceral emotion) by affects, memories, thoughts, and images semantically linked to the triggering event (semantic priming; Kitayama & Howard 1994). On one hand, this limits the range of aspects compatible with the occurring situation. On the other, it facilitates the conscious articulation of emotional experience, allowing a reduction in intensity (feeling articulation).

In the case of “mentally perceived” emotions, one’s emotional state is affected by determinations or interpretative codes of a cognitive nature, so the “creation” and management of these emotions derives from the intellectual sphere (conceptual priming). Therefore, regulation can occur by changing interpretative parameters, allowing a qualitative modification of the emotional experience, as well as a more accurate conceptual articulation (Arciero, 2002).

Such a differentiation carries great importance for the comprehension and praxis of therapeutic processes. Indeed, it is difficult to ignore the emerging concept that different ways of constructing identities coincide with different dysfunctions and, therefore, different treatments. While it is crucial to treatment that the uniqueness of each individual be respectfully and carefully addressed, the rigorous methodological exploration that transforms psychotherapy into a scientific adventure continues to deepen our understanding of, and extend our reach into, the complexity of human experience.


[1] For further explication on the four Personality Styles, see Guidano 1987, 1991, 1995a, 1995b; Arciero & Guidano, 2000; Arciero 2002.
However, to aid understanding of the topic discussed in this paper, we offer a brief explanation of each Personality Style:

The Eating Disorder Organization identifies individuals who develop a vague and undefined sense of self, and who tend to select internal states and opinions based on an external point of reference. On this basis it is possible to identify (idiosyncratically for each individual) a strong attention to expectations perceived in others, a need for consent and approval, a sensitivity to judgment and vulnerability to criticism, a fear of exposure to unpredictable judgments, an aspiration to perfection in performance, and a latent sense of inadequacy. This type is thus characterized by the tendency to maintain an acceptable and distinct sense of self through a disposition that oscillates between compliance and opposition. Likewise, emotional states oscillate between a sense of emptiness/annulment and shame (often enacted as a perception of intrusiveness by others).

The Obsessive Organization is characterized by a dichotomous sense of self, triggered by emotional arousal perceived as ambiguous or inconsistent with the individual’s system of rules of reference. In this type, recognition of internal states is limited, and sense of self is based primarily upon conscious control of behavior and thinking (both of which are expected to match abstract principles). These individuals tend to show a great trust in logic and rationality, to reach for certainties (and if these are threatened, employ strategies based on systematic doubt), and present themes of responsibility, anticipatory control, equity, order, certainty, duty, and coherence.

The Phobic Organization identifies a vulnerable sense of self that interprets emotional states as impediments to action. The need to control one’s own sense of weakness is typical, as is the tendency to perceive affective bonds as both indispensable sources of protection and as constrictive ties. Themes of freedom, invincibility, and facing challenges of perceived danger are commonly entangled with those of health, friendship, affective stability, etc.

The Depressive Organization highlights the link between a sense of personal ineptitude on the affective level and a constant experience of solitude within one’s primary attachment. This relationship is expressed in various forms, characterized by the common tendency to perceive a continuous and latent sense of loss in life events. A compulsive self-sufficiency is also characteristic of this type, as these individuals try to maintain personal balance while denying the importance of the support of others. A well-defined sense of self prevails, along with the perception of a limited level of belonging to the human community, and a difficulty being acknowledged and understood by others.