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May 25, 1994

The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation

Author Affiliations

University of Illinois School of Medicine at Chicago

JAMA. 1994;271(20):1623. doi:10.1001/jama.1994.03510440085041

Robert Jay Lifton has devoted a lifetime to research and clinical work with individuals subjected to evolving historical trends, disasters, and sustained conditions of control and terror.

Partly as an outcome of his research and partly as a result of his own experiences, Dr Lifton gradually came to an understanding of "proteanism," a conceptualization of the self in the modern world. He defines it, saying, "Without quite realizing it we have been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time. This mode of being differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment. I have named it the 'protean self' after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms."

He maintains that the older and more familiar version of personal identity, characterized by "stability and sameness," was appropriate to an environment rooted in tradition and

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