Narrative identity construction in times of career change: Taking note of unconscious desires

Patrizia Hoyer*, Chris Steyaert

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Working at the intersection of narrative and psychoanalytic theory, we present in this article an affective conceptualization of identity dynamics during times of career change, incorporating the notion of unconscious desires. We propose that frictions in career change narratives, such as the paradoxical co-existence of coherence and ambiguity, allude to unconscious subtexts that can become ‘readable’ in the narrative when applying a psychoanalytic framework. We point to the analysis of 30 life story interviews with former management consultants who report upon a past and/or anticipated career change for illustration. By linking three empirically derived narrative strategies for combining coherence and ambiguity (ignoring the change, admitting the ambiguity and depicting a wishful future) with three conceptually informed psychoanalytic ego-defenses (denial, rationalization and sublimation), we provide an analytic framework that helps to explain why workers in transition may try to preserve both coherence and ambiguity when constructing a sense of self through narrative. The analysis of unconscious subtexts reveals that, in times of career change, people’s identity constructions are driven by conflicting unconscious desires for self-continuity on one hand and openness on the other.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1837-1863
Number of pages27
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • ambiguity
  • coherence
  • ego-defenses
  • identity construction
  • narrative strategy
  • narrative theory
  • psychoanalytic theory
  • unconscious desires


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