The Psychology of Mediation: Issues of Self and Identity and the IDR Cycle

33 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2008 Last revised: 22 Feb 2017

Elizabeth Bader

Bader Conflict Resolution Services, San Francisco


Issues of self-identity and self-esteem play an important role in mediation. They may be described in different ways. Sometimes people speak of a party's need to save face, or of a person's ego clouding their thinking, or, in psychoanalytic terms, of narcissistic issues, (a term which no longer necessarily connotes pathology). However they are described, they are part and parcel of the fabric of mediation. Put simply, most people take the conflict personally and the outcome of the mediation as a reflection of who they are.

This article discusses these issues by drawing on modern psychoanalytic theory. The dynamics in mediation are reviewed in light of the work of Margaret Mahler, the 'self' psychologists, attachment research and intersubjective psychoanalysis. Cognitive and social science research, neuroscience, and views of self and identity in certain spiritual traditions are also reviewed.

As psychoanalytic developmental research shows, much of the hostility and sense of insult one encounters in mediation is a normal defensive reaction to feelings of vulnerability. Paradoxically, some who are most challenged will present as though they were least troubled, manifesting arrogance instead of vulnerability. The concept of psychological power imbalance is introduced. This occurs when people with different types of ego structure negotiate together. Special problems relating to narcissistic defenses and narcissistic personality structures are also discussed.

It is posited that the process of mediation often follows a certain pattern due to the role that issues of self and identity play in mediation. The author has denominated this the "IDR Cycle." At the outset, parties experience a type of narcissistic inflation as they plan to enter the mediation. As the mediation continues, and contact with the other parties and the mediator intensifies, there is inevitably a kind of deflation. Finally, the party learns to hold the varying views of the situation in mind, and to weigh choices. This is a kind of wisdom akin to what Margaret Mahler called 'object constancy,' or what Peter Fonagy and colleagues refer to as 'reflective functioning.' At last, hopefully, there is a resolution.

In some cases, the process involves a renegotiation of identity. Faced with the painful, practical dilemma inherent in the conflict, the parties begin to realize their situation is exacerbated by the linkage in their minds between the outcome of the mediation and their identities. Under the pressure of the conflict, and hopefully with appropriate assistance from the mediator, they finally manage to cut the link between the two. The release that follows allows for clearer thinking and reflective functioning. This psychological, spiritual and practical achievement heralds the possibility of resolution.

The importance of the mediator's respect or deep recognition of the parties is also emphasized. Respect has the advantage of validating the party as a human being while simultaneously addressing the psychological issue inevitably being stimulated by the mediation - the validity, stability and value of the party's sense of identity. Deep recognition is seen as contrasting with and complementing 'mindfulness' practice and with recognition as discussed in other spiritual traditions and by intersubjective theorists.

Mediation practice is also discussed at length in this article. In particular, the importance of the mediator's skill in dealing with her own narcissistic issues is emphasized.

Keywords: mediation, negotiation, identity, narcissism, psychology, respect, spirituality, psychoanalysis, neuroscience, self-esteem

Suggested Citation

Bader, Elizabeth, The Psychology of Mediation: Issues of Self and Identity and the IDR Cycle. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2009-2010. Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth E. Bader (Contact Author)

Bader Conflict Resolution Services, San Francisco ( email )

580 California Street
Suite 1200
San Francisco, CA 94104
United States
(415) 391-7272 (Phone)


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