Chapter One Object Relations Theories and Self Psychology

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St. Claire, M. (1996). Object Relations and Self Psychology: An Introduction (2nd Edition). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Chapter One
Object Relations Theories and Self Psychology

This first chapter provides a "map" of the journey ahead; it points out the essential features of the landscape and highlights special and noteworthy features that the reader will encounter throughout the book. This chapter introduces the following topics: object relations and the psychology of the self, terms and concepts used in discussing object relations and self psychology, core issues and significant differences in the major theories; and case vignettes illustrating some of these issues.

Object Relations and the Psychology of the Self

Object relations mean interpersonal relations. The term object, a technical word originally coined by Freud, refers simply to that which will satisfy a need. More broadly, object refers to the significant person or thing that is the object or target of another's feelings or drives. Freud first used object in discussions of instinctual drives and in a context of early mother-child relations. In combination with relations, object refers to interpersonal relations and suggests the inner residues of past relationships that shape an individual's current interactions with people.

Psychoanalysis has always investigated the ways an individual's past colors present behavior and relationships. For example, psycho- analysis seeks to investigate the transference that occurs in therapy-, that is, how the client transfers aspects of his or her past relationships to the present relationship with a therapist. Psychoanalysis has also traditionally studied relational issues, such as the child's relationships with parents during the oedipal period.

Some scholars within psychoanalytical theory, however, have at- tended in a special way to relationships and how past relationships structure and shape personalities. These writers approach relationships and the structure and development of the personality in a way that differs from the classic Freudian model of personality. Roughly speaking, those who have departed from the classic Freudian model-I am not speaking here about those who split from Freud while he was still alive, such as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, and others-can be classified as object relations theorists and self psychology theorists. Both object relations and self psychology theorists consider themselves within the psychoanalytic mainstream, but they alter that mainstream in significant ways.

Melanie Klein was born in Vienna but moved to London. During the 1930s and 1940s, she and W. R. D. Fairbairn of Edinburgh, Scotland, influenced each other's ideas and published work that began the diver- gent streams of object relations theories. D. W. Winnicott, a London pediatrician who did psychiatric work with children, produced works that are singular, original, and not well related to other psychoanalytic writing. Margaret Mahler, born in Hungary and trained in Vienna, immigrated to New York City, where her work with children resulted in influential articles and books from the 1950s through the 1970s. Also working and writing in New York City during this period was Edith Jacobson, who came from Germany. Otto Kernberg, another Viennese, took medical and psychiatric training in Chile and continued further psychiatric work at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas. His books and articles, which built on the ideas of those already mentioned, began to appear in the 1970s. Heinz Kohut, born in Vienna and possessing impeccable psychoanalytic credentials, spent most of his professional career in Chicago. At the peak of his career during the 1970s, he published books on the psychology of the self that ruffled the feathers of the psychoanalytic community and altered the flow of psychoanalytic thinking.

Object relations theorists investigate the early formation and differentiation of psychological structures (inner images of the self and the other, or object) and how these inner structures are manifested in inter- personal situations. These theorists focus on the relationships of early life that leave a lasting impression; that is, a residue or remnant within the psyche of the individual. These residues of past relationships, these inner object relations, shape perceptions of individuals and relationships with other individuals. Individuals interact not only with an actual other but also with an internal other, a psychic representation that might be a distorted version of some actual person.

Self psychologists, primarily Heinz Kohut and his followers, approach the self and its structures in a different way than do object relations theorists or those using the traditional Freudian model. Self psychologists explore how early relationships form the self and the structures of the self; they give more emphasis to the self than they give to the ego or self representations or instincts.

A well-known story can serve as a "case study" to illustrate the different approaches each of these three theoretical models might take to the same patient. (In actuality, therapists tend to work in similar ways, while conceptual models have greater differences.) Let us suppose that Cinderella comes to a therapist because she has problems in her marriage to the Prince. A traditional Freudian might investigate Cinderella's repression of her sexual instincts and unresolved oedipal feelings she had for her parents. This therapist or analyst would analyze Cinderella's problems in terms of defenses and conflicts between the structures of the ego and the id.

A therapist working with an object relations perspective would note that Cinderella suffered early psychological deprivation from the loss of her mother. Possibly this loss caused Cinderella to make use of the psychological defense mechanism of splitting, by which she idealized some women (such as her fairy godmother) and saw other women as "all bad" (her stepsisters and stepmother). She idealized the Prince, despite knowing him for only a short time. A marriage based on such distorted inner images of herself and others is bound to run into problems as she sooner or later must deal with the Prince as a real person with human flaws. In object relations theory, the issue would center on the discrepancy between Cinderella's inner world and the persons and situations of the actual world.

A therapist or analyst working within the framework of self psychology would attend to the experience that Cinderella had of herself in therapy as this experience is manifested in the transference to the therapist. Analysis of her transference might reveal an impoverished self that needed a powerful and idealized object. Cinderella's search for such an object reflects her lack of self-esteem and her need to be affirmed by such an idealized object, whether in the form of the fairy godmother, the Prince, or the therapist. She needed to fuse with the idealized Prince out of hope for a feeling of well-being. Out of touch with her own inner emptiness and angry feelings, Cinderella could either idealize her therapist or view the therapist the way she viewed her stepmother.

The three different models approach similar questions from differing perspectives. Freud's model of the personality investigates the structure of the personality, how it is put together. The "parts" or components of the personality-the id, ego, and superego-are conceptualizations that exist only in writings about the personality and are distant from people's experience of themselves. Freud views development in terms of instincts, with the most significant developmental challenge being the oedipal crisis. Disturbance or psychological illness largely lies in conflicts between the different parts or structures of the personality, such as between sexual instincts and the demands of the ego.

Theories of object relations and self psychology, in contrast to Freud, focus on earlier, preoedipal development. These theories see mental illness or pathology generally in terms of developmental arrest rather than structural conflicts. Developmental arrests result in unfinished and unintegrated structures of the personality. In short, there is basic damage to object relationships of the person or to the structures of the self. These changes in perspective produce a different theoretical emphasis and a different use of terms as theory is applied to the understanding and explanation of troubled persons.

All psychoanalytic theories are concerned with explaining how the past influences the present and how the inner world of the patient distorts and influences the external experience. But the different focus and emphasis of various psychoanalytic schools of theory produce different approaches to psychotherapy.

Take, for example, the case of a famous and sophisticated actor who marries and divorces many beautiful women. The classic Freudian model might approach this client in terms of an unresolved oedipal conflict, or a conflict between sexual instincts and the ego and superego.

Object relations theorists might see this actor's inner world filled with distorted, idealized representations of nurturing women, creating a fantasy world that disturbs his relationships with actual women. Having distorted representations of himself and women, he may feel very needy and yearn to be cared for by these temporarily idealized women. He projects his phantasies* that each woman is the one to fulfill his unmet needs, but the painful discrepancy between his inner world and his actual wives results in disappointment, numerous divorces, and new relationships.

Proponents of self psychology might speak of the client's exhibitionism and grandiosity, that he seeks an omnipotent object who, on an unconscious level, will provide him with the self-esteem he lacks. Both the object relations theory and self psychology theory emphasize early relationships with inner objects (or selfobjects**).

All psychoanalytic theorists and therapists are interested in the person's inner world; however, they may explain that inner world differently, emphasizing different aspects because of their theoretical orientation. Let us look at one more illustration of different ways of understanding an individual's inner world. The story of Little Red Riding Hood presents Red Riding Hood's inner experience of her grandmother. While an observer might understand the grandmother's annoyance for some reason, perhaps because the girl came late, Red Riding Hood experiences an unexplainable transformation of the grandmother into a threatening animal, the wolf. In the adult world of reality, such transformations are impossible, but in a child's inner world of experience, such distortions are very likely in the face of strong emotions.

Different psychoanalytic models might try to explain the child's behavior from slightly different perspectives. The classical Freudian model would stress the presence of early, primitive passions. The object relations models might discuss Red Riding Hood's self representation and object representations. Self psychology would approach her in yet a different way, emphasizing the self and possibly narcissistic rage. All these models are called psychoanalytic, but the focus of object relations models and models of the self can vary. In general, these models or theories explore the world of relationships, both past and present, and how the early and past relationships influence present psychic and social functioning. These psychoanalytic theories give clinical insight into how a person's inner world can cause difficulties in living in the actual world of people and relationships.

Terms and Concepts

Theoretical discussions of object relations and self psychology use a specific language, or set of terminologies, that help provide the structure for investigation and application of psychoanalytic theories. The following section discusses and defines some of the key terms.


The object in object relations is a technical word in psycho- analytic writing and refers not so much to some inhuman thing but more usually to someone toward whom desire or action is directed. An object is that with which a subject relates. Feelings and affects have objects; for example, I love my children, I fear snakes, I am angry with my neighbor.

Human drives have objects. The object of the hunger drive is food, while the object of the sex drive is a sexually attractive person. In a context of instinctual drives, Freud speaks of the infant's objects as being first the breast of the mother, then the mother herself, and finally other persons and things that gratify the infant.


The term representation refers to how the person has or possesses an object; that is, how the person psychically represents an object.

Those who write about object relations generally distinguish between two worlds or frames of reference: the external world of observable objects and an internal psychic world where there are mental representations of objects. The external world refers to the realm of observable objects that exist in a social environment, the world of every day. The internal world refers to the subject's mental images and representations of that external world; that is, how the subject experiences and represents that external world (Boesky, 1983; Sandler & Rosenblatt, 1962).

An observer could describe a mother caring for a child, and the external object in this case refers to the "real" person, the mother. The term object relatedness refers to the involvement with this observable person (Meissner, 1980). The internal object refers to the child's mental image or representation of the mother. This inner experience and representation is not available to an observer and may not be an accurate reflection of the actual situation, but it does represent the child's (or subject's) experience of relating with the mother and expresses the child's internal psychic world.

When scholars use the term object, they need to distinguish care- fully whether they are referring to the external person who is observable or the inner object, which is the mental representation of the actual observable person. Of course, they do not always exercise this care, and confusion results when some writers, such as Melanie Klein, use the term object without specifying whether it refers to an actual person or an inner representation of a person.

It is the inner world of mental representations that occupies the interest of psychoanalysis, for it is how a subject represents and under- stands the world and his or her relationships that enables a therapist to understand that subject's behavior and motivation. A therapist can only gain information about the internal object relations of a particular individual if that individual can reflect on and talk about his or her feelings and relationships.

Figure 1.1 attempts pictorially to present the inner world of a person, such as the famous and sophisticated actor mentioned previously. The diagram shows the actor, with inner representations of himself and of others-the women in his life and his parents. These representations from the past serve as emotional filters, coloring and shaping current perceptions and relationships with people.

Figure 1.1 The inner and external worlds of objects. Object relations refers to the internal world where there are representations of the self in relation to representations of the object. These inner images may or may not accurately express objects as they actually exist in the "real" world. This illustration shows in a schematized way the inner and outer world of a person in relation to relationship, perhaps the actor mentioned on page 4. Person A, the actor, deals with person B in terms of his inner world, which is shaped and even distorted by his previous dealings with parents C and D. A has not only internalized his parents' interactions, expecting that this will be replicated in his own intimate relationships, but he has also identified with one of his parents and may project an idealized image onto B, thus relating with B in terms of the projected, idealized image.

Self Representation

In addition to the images or representations of objects, another aspect of an infant's inner mental world includes the representations of its own developing self. Self representation is the mental expression of the self as it is experienced in relationship with the objects or significant persons in the child's environment.

The infant is initially unable to distinguish objects from the self; objects seem to be parts or aspects of the self. Thus, infants are unable to differentiate their mothers' breasts from their own thumbs, which they accidentally find with their mouths and suck. Gradually, the infant begins to differentiate the object from the self, the nonself from the self, and the object representation from the self representation.

Mental representations of objects and of the self usually have emotional energy attached to them. This emotional energy or affective charge is, in the beginning of the child's development, a sensation of pleasure or unpleasure. What causes unpleasurable feelings in the infant is taken in and internalized as an inner bad object. That is, its mental immaturity only allows the infant to experience the world in subjective terms of "good for me" or "painful for me: 'The child cannot yet discern that the inner bad object is someone in the external world who frustrates or frightens the child.

If the child feels pleasurable feelings, then the child is "good" because of the gratifying object and because the child's needs are met. If the child has unpleasant feelings (caused by the frustrating or "bad" object), then the child, in his or her self representation, is "bad:' and the child's needs are probably unmet.

A self representation shapes how a person relates to others and the world. For example, a man may begin his career in poverty and gain riches, but his self-image may not change, so he may continue to dress shabbily because he still views himself as someone who needs to scrimp and save and not "waste" money on clothes for himself. An objective observer notes that the man has the wealth, but the observer can only guess at the inner images of the self that determine how he spends his money.

Some object relations theorists stress how the self representation is often linked with other mental processes, such as projection and different forms of identification and internalization. This might involve, for example, mentally projecting a person's own feelings onto others and then behaving toward others on the basis of this inner distorted perception. For instance, a mentally disturbed murderer, shooting at the police closing in on him, shouted, "Kill me, kill me, you know I'm guilty!" His own sense of guilt was projected onto the police, and he wanted them to punish him for his crime. A different person might not have externalized his or her own aggressive feelings in such a way and might even have directed aggression against himself by intense guilt or by physical violence against himself in the form of suicide.

Part Objects and Whole Objects

The images and representations of the mental world are not always of whole objects, but there can be representations of part objects; that is, of a part of a person, such as a foot or penis or breast, or even part of the subject's own body as an object, such as a thumb on which the infant is sucking (Arlow, 1980, p. 113).

The term part object more usually refers to a representation of an object in terms of whether it is subjectively experienced as good or bad, pleasurable or nonpleasurable for the subject. To experience an object in terms of whether the object gratifies or frustrates is to have only a partial perspective of the object, a perspective that suggests an either/or quality. To view the object in terms of its capacity to both gratify and frustrate is to see the object as a whole object.

Generally, the earliest representations of infants are of partial objects. The infant, because of perceptual and emotional immaturity, is capable of only limited perception and can perceive only one characteristic of the real object at a time, such as the satisfaction that the nurturing breast brings or the frustration that the absent breast brings. Satisfying is "good" and frustrating is "bad." The infant at this early stage is unable to hold two ideas or notions simultaneously, such as that its mother is both "good" and "bad." Gradually, with growth and development, the infant develops the capacity to see its mother as a whole object that both satisfies and frustrates.


When a child visibly struggles to get control over intense feel- ings and puts into words why he or she is crying, an observer sees the work of several psychological functions that are ascribed to the "ego." Usually the concepts of ego, id, and superego, as well as various psychological processes and ways of relating, are considered structures. Structures refer to psychological processes and functions that are organized and stable; they are concepts, not things. An observer only knows about possible structures if they are manifested in behavior or in inner experience.

How structures come to be built up within the personality is explained differently by each theorist. Some theorists emphasize the role of repressing instincts and feelings. Other theorists emphasize processes of internalization by which a function that was performed by a parent, for instance, is taken in and established within a child so the child now performs the function for him or herself.


Self occupies a different level of conceptualization than does the term ego. An observer cannot see the ego directly, since it is an abstract concept that exists only in psychology books. But ego is conceptualized as an organizer of psychic functions and can be observed in the manifestation of such functions as thinking, judging, integrating, and the like. Self is used in several senses-most broadly, as the whole subject in contrast to the surrounding world of objects. The self is our basic experience of the person that we are. The self can be understood as the broader organization that includes all the psychic agencies, including the ego, in a superordinate integration.

Some ego psychologists would see object relations as one of the critical functions carried on by the superordinate organization of the self, so that object relations belong not to one mental agency (the ego) but rather to all of them together. An object relationship takes place between the self and its objects, rather than between the id and objects or between the ego and objects (Meissner, 1980, p. 241).

We can represent our self to our self, even though it is the ego that carries out the internal function of self representation. The self, then, can be the self representation of an individual. This self representation is similar to the object representation and is at a different abstract level from the self as person and locus of experience.


Splitting is one of several psychic mechanisms to which both object relations theory and self psychology call attention. This mechanism includes both normal developmental processes and defensive processes. infants make use of splitting to help order chaotic early life experiences. After the serenity of the womb, the infant experiences life as a buzzing, chaotic discontinuity, and splitting is related to processes that allow the infant to let in as much of the environment as he or she can manage, without the whole undigestible experience. Thus, early splitting refers to the maturational inability to synthesize incompatible experiences into a whole.

For example, the infant has strong contradictory feelings (such as love or hate, pleasure or frustration) but can only keep one of these feelings or thoughts in its immature awareness at a time. The result is a representation of a part object, which is an object with only one particular quality, such as "frustrating"; the seemingly contradictory quality of "pleasure giving" is excluded from the infant's awareness. Only with growing maturity will the infant be able to integrate simultaneously into one stable image the seemingly opposite aspects of the same object or experience, such as the frustrating aspects of the pleasure-giving mother. To maintain this fragile personality structure, the infant uses splitting to keep apart the conflicting feelings that the good and bad aspects of the mother arouse internally within the infant.

Object Relations Theorists

A number of psychoanalytic writers may be loosely grouped together under the title of object relations theorists. They use many of the concepts and terms of the psychoanalytic tradition but give particular emphasis to the study of object relations. As object relations theorists, they may differ among themselves, but all share a common concern about the primacy of relationships over innate instinctual drives. That is, they tend to give a greater weight to the influence of environment in shaping personality than do Freud and the other, more traditional psychoanalytic scholars.

At the center of the object relations theorists' disagreement with Freud is the relative weight given to innate biological factors in shaping the personality as opposed to the influence of relationships. This shift from Freud's early notions of object and the instinctual aspects of early relationships means that object relations theorists focus on preoedipal development as explained in terms of self representation and object representation. Thus, in their study of the development and shaping of personality, the object relations theorists will generally give emphasis to environmental influences rather than innate influences. The less emphasis a theorist ascribes to innate biological factors, the more weight will be given to how an individual develops a self through relationships within a family and how this self in turn relates in a characteristic way toward others. Object relations theorists generally study disorders in relationships and have contributed significant insights to the study of borderline and schizoid personalities.

Object relations theorists such as Melanie Klein, W R. D. Fairbairn, Edith Jacobson, D. W Winnicott, Margaret Mahler, and Otto Kern- berg will be reviewed in later chapters. These theorists stand out because their original and influential ideas greatly help therapists understand people and relationships.

Self Psychology

The psychology of the self refers to the work of Heinz Kohut and his followers. Kohut brings changes to notions of object relations and the concepts of Freud. Because of his work with narcissistic personality disorders, Kohut gives a different emphasis to certain aspects of object relations that he sees in terms of narcissism. He alters the classical notion of narcissism, which, in Freud's view, is a stage through which the normal person passes, to a concept that narcissism has its own separate development and its own form of pathology requiring special treatment.

A critical issue for self psychology involves the nature and kind of emotional investment in the self. Kohut speaks of narcissistic investment, and Freud of libidinal investment. Freud implied that narcissistic people-people who "loved" themselves in an unhealthy way because of the investment of libido in themselves-could not form relationships with others and hence could not be treated in therapy because they were unable to establish a relationship with a therapist. Kohut understands narcissism differently and believes that narcissistic persons can have relationships or object relations, but they are narcissistic object relations. This means that the person deals with objects as if the object were part of the self or that the object performs a crucial function for the self. This kind of distorted relationship requires a treatment different from that used with neurotics.

"Case" Study

A brief reference to Cinderella again might illuminate some of the concepts of inner representations and structures, and fragmentation and splitting. Cinderella, perhaps, views her stepmother as demanding and unpleasant, a bad woman with whom she feels cautious, sullen, and depressed. On the other hand, she views her fairy godmother as wonder- ful and all-giving and who makes Cinderella feel exuberant and powerful. With the Prince, Cinderella feels girlish and tender and has a great craving to be with him. With just a bit of imaginative exaggeration, it is possible to notice how Cinderella behaves and feels differently with people as if she had very different subselves within herself competing with each other in an unintegrated way. Those who deal with her may find her emotional shifts bewildering. She also may feel herself to be fragmented and a different person in different circumstances.

Her self representation provides a way of feeling and thinking about herself, partly conscious and partly unconscious. The self representation is closely linked with an object representation, so in the relation with her disliked stepmother Cinderella feels badly about herself. In relation to someone who is a good object, like the fairy godmother, Cinderella feels good. Cinderella's tendency to experience her self and others in sharp extremes of good and bad is called splitting. Splitting, a childhood defense that can continue into adulthood, suggests a trauma during childhood that could have disorganized inner structures. The traumatic loss of Cinderella's natural mother could indeed have caused enough disorganization and lack of integration within Cinderella so that she does experience rapid mood swings and intense feelings. Her feelings and ways of relating, like different ego states or subselves, would be experienced as unexplained mood shifts and a sense of fragmentation or coming apart. Integration, in contrast, would imply a coherence of the different subselves into a unified personality that responds to different situations with consistency.

The core issues of psychoanalytical theory heighten many of the important similarities and differences of the various conceptual models. Each model would approach a client such as Cinderella-as well as her husband, the Prince-in a different way and with a different focus.

Core Issues

Good theory is consistent, and as one part of a theory is altered, a ripple effect is created throughout the theory. This occurs in psychoanalytic theory as theorists of object relations and the self wrestle with a variety of issues in contrast to the classic Freudian model. As these theorists shift the emphasis from Freud's instinctual drive model to models that give greater emphasis to interpersonal relationships and the self, they address certain issues with a different emphasis. Four of the crucial issues we will examine are: (1) the nature of objects and the shift from Freud's emphasis on instinctual drives, (2) the nature and formation of psychic structure, (3) the developmental stages viewed in terms of relationships with objects, and (4) the different views of conflict and the con- sequences for therapy.

The Nature of Objects and the Shift from Instincts

An essential cornerstone of Freud's theory of the personality is the concept of instinctual drives as the basic human motivation. The theme of drives-how they are transformed and blocked-permeates Freud's writings. Instincts are innate, and the earliest intra-psychic state of a child is the state of primary narcissism, where the ego is the object of libidinal instinct and there are no external objects in which the child invests psychic energy. Hence, in Freud's theory, there is no preordained tie to people. The drives precede the object and even "create" the object by the experience of satisfaction and frustration, and the drives basically determine the quality of relationships. Freud sees the object as satisfying the impulse. Only later in his writings does Freud wrestle with how to position in his theory an individual's relations with the external world. Essentially, then, in the Freudian drive model, the object is the creation of drives, and object relations are a function of drive (cf. Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983, pp. 42-44).

Object relations theorists talk about objects in a variety of ways, but in general, they deviate from Freud's discussion of object exclusively in terms of instinctual drives. Melanie Klein (1975a, 1975b) is the first to revise Freud's model by giving greater weight to the interpersonal environment as a determining influence on the developing personality. She retains a considerable role for the instinctual drives by viewing trans- actions between the infant and its objects almost exclusively in terms of drives as transformed by or represented by phantasy (Gedo, 1979, p. 362). Klein's influence prompted Fairbairn (194311954) to radically revise the Freudian tradition by staking out a "pure" object relations position. Fairbairn's theory proposes that the main drive that a person has is a drive for a relationship, not the satisfaction of biological instinct. Thus, he views personality and its motivation in terms of interpersonal transactions rather than biological instincts.

The shift in object relations theory from biological drives as motivation to striving for interpersonal relationships has an important consequence. Object relations theorists assign the functions of the id to the ego; that is, they attribute libidinal energy to the ego.

Fairbairn radically departs from Freud's model of libidinal energy by conceptually doing away with the id and developing the concept of a unitary ego with its own energy. Changing the nature of psychic energy leads Fairbairn to significant changes. Thus, he does not distinguish between structure and psychic energy. The ego in his model seeks relations with objects rather than just trying to control an unruly id. According to Fairbairn, if the child's relationship with the parents is good, the child's ego is whole. Conversely, if the relationship is bad, the child's ego establishes compensating internal objects. This basically means structure and energy are located within the ego.

Other object relations theorists, such as Edith Jacobson (1964) and Otto Kernberg (1976), attempt to develop models that integrate object relations without sacrificing instinctual drives in explaining development and motivation. Their integrative attempts usually involve changing the meaning of terms and utilizing such concepts as object representation.

Heinz Kohut (1971, 1977) puts the Freudian investment of objects with libidinal drives to one side. Kohut's focus is not on object relation- ships between two separate and distinct persons. Kohut develops the concept of narcissistic investment in objects. Narcissistic investment sees objects in terms of their relation to the self; that is, objects experienced as part of the self or performing functions for the self that the self is not yet able to do. in his later writings, Kohut makes instinctual drives secondary and focuses on the self and its very early relations with a selfobject; that is, an object perceived as omnipotent and carrying out crucial self-esteem functions for the self.

The Nature and Formation of Psychic Structure

Structure, a concept used metaphorically and perhaps inexactly, describes the psychological organization and the constituent parts of the person. Freud described these aspects of the personality as the id, the ego, and the superego.

An observer cannot see the inner organization of the personality directly, since it is a hypothetical construct, but a stable patterning and consistency of behavior in the person can be seen. The classic psycho- analytic drive model considers how the repression of drives plays a central role in the emergence of the ego from the id. For Freud, the ego continues to be dependent on the id for energy.

Object relations theorists generally challenge the traditional Freudian understanding of structure. They look to the influence of external objects (the parents and other significant people in the child's world) to build internal psychic organization. The organization and building up of the personality results from internalization, a mental process by which an individual transforms regulatory interactions and characteristics of his or her, environment into inner regulations and characteristics (Schafer, 1968, p. 9). Object relations theorists give greater emphasis to internalization that deals with relationships than to repression that deals with drives (cf. Klein, 1983; Sternbach, 1983).

Structural formation involves a process by which an aspect of the child's external world has been abandoned as an external object and taken into the ego by a process of identification, thus becoming a part of the child's internal world. This new internal agency carries on the same basic functions that had previously been carried on by the people or abandoned objects in the external world (Ogden, 1983, p. 228). Such an agency in traditional Freudian terms would be the superego, as it judges and threatens the ego like the parents whose place it has taken. Fairbairn, however, makes the same agency part of the ego and labels it the internal saboteur or antilibidinal ego.

Otto Kernberg, in contrast to Fairbairn, seeks an integration of object relations and the Freudian structural model. His compromise sees units of object relations as the essential building blocks of the ego as a psychic structure. These units of object relations, which organize the ego out of chaos, are images of the self in reaction to an object, with each image having a specific feeling tone.

Taking an object into the ego implies establishing an agency within the psyche; that is, an aspect of personality carries on functions internally that were previously performed by external objects. The traditional psychoanalytic model explains the formation of the superego in this way, while object relations theorists use this as a way to explain the formation of the ego. They understand structure formation as a process of internalizing a relationship with an object. This, for example, is the basis for Kernberg's concept of units of object relations and for Fairbairn's joining of parts of the ego to objects.

Kohut's structural concerns are for the formation of a cohesive self. This is built up by what he calls transmuting internalizations, a process by which the self gradually withdraws narcissistic investment from objects that performed functions for the self and which the self is now able to perform. These psychic functions of the self include reality- testing, regulating self-esteem, and the like-all of which earlier writers had assigned to the ego.

Developmental Stages in Terms of Relationships with Objects

Freud's developmental model centers on the progressive appearance of instinctual energy in bodily zones, such as that which takes place during the oral, anal, and genital stages. For him, the oedipal stage, occurring roughly from the third to the fifth year, is a period of innovation as the child turns from a two-person relationship (mother and child) to a three-person relationship. For Freud, understanding the oedipal crisis is of central importance in understanding object relations (libidinal investment of objects) and neurotic patterns.

Object relations theories are essentially developmental theories that examine developmental processes and relationships prior to the oedipal period. Fairbairn, Mahler, Klein, and Kohut all set develop- mental crises earlier and in different terms than does Freud. They see the crucial developmental issue as being the child's move from a state of fusion and dependence on the mother to a state of increased in- dependence and increased differentiation (cf. Eagle, 1984, p. 185). The child fills its self-esteem "tank" during this early period of fusion and symbiosis. Disruptions during this period cause the child to feel depleted and empty.

Object relations theory links the emergence of the self with the increasing maturity of relationships with objects. Looking at the rela- tionships and processes of the child with the mother, object relations theories discuss the timing when psychic structures are formed, the ego, in particular, and the quality of the relationships that the psychic structures have with objects.

The self is capable of a different quality of relationship at specific stages of development. This means that the self, originally fused and undifferentiated from the mother object, becomes more independent as it differentiates and experiences itself separate from the mother. Using an empirical model of observation, Mahler (1968) describes the child moving from symbiosis to separation and individuation. In contrast to Mahler, Kohut uses the data of adults in therapy to trace the early reliance of the self on selfobjects. Kohut describes the development of a cohesive self and possible developmental arrests of the self.

Kemberg describes these same differentiating processes by refer- ring to a fusion of self representation with an object representation and the gradual establishment of a clearly differentiated self representation.

During the early preoedipal and oedipal years, a child's object relations do not seem to be between the id and objects or between the ego and objects but rather between the self (or its mental representation) and objects (or their mental representation within the self). Different theorists argue for different explanations-and raise difficult questions. For example, if perceptual functions, even inner perceptions about the self, are ascribed to the ego, how can there be object representations before the emergence of the ego? Is there some primitive ego that always coexists with the id? Does the ego emerge earlier than previously thought, earlier than Freud suggested?

Melanie Klein affirms that the ego is present from birth, and she assigns many organizing processes, even oedipal issues, to the period immediately after birth. Her two developmental "positions" take place during the first year. Fairbairn resolves the question of the development of the ego by looking at the increasing maturity of the ego's relation- ship to objects.

"Conflict" and Its Consequences for Therapy

Object relations and self psychology theorists view disturbance differently from the classical Freudian model, and with significant con- sequences for therapy.

The traditional Freudian model understands psychological disturbance as conflict between instinctual demands and the demands of reality, and conflict among the id, the ego, and the superego. The un- resolved conflicts of childhood, especially unfinished oedipal conflicts, can continue unconsciously and emerge during adulthood. As the ego defensively responds to threatening thoughts and libidinal feelings, a neurotic compromise is reached that manifests itself in neurotic symptoms. The Freudian analyst will attempt to uncover the conflicts and seek the unconscious causes of the neurotic symptoms.

In contrast, object relations theorists and self psychologists define conflict and disturbance differently, and they locate pathology differently within the psyche. Psychological disturbance involves damage to the self and the structures of the psyche. Early developmental deficits hinder building a cohesive self and prevent the integration of psychic structures. These preoedipal developmental deficits can result in narcissistic and borderline personalities, which are more serious disturbances than the classical neurosis. For Fairbairn, conflict resides within the ego rather than being between the ego and other psychic structures. Thus, Fairbairn speaks of split-off aspects of the ego (bad objects) at war with other parts of the ego.

Another area of controversy between object relations theorists and Freud concerns the role of aggression. Object relations theorists and self psychologists regard aggression not so much as an instinct but as a response or reaction to a pathological situation. Early developmental deficits and early frustrations in relationships produce aggression. Kohut sees narcissistic rage as a response of the archaic self to not getting what it needs. Kernberg also points to early aggression as -a response to relational frustrations, and this reactive aggression prevents the integration of object relations units. He uses a feeding metaphor to describe how a child normally "metabolizes" or psychologically digests and integrates early relational units of feelings and images. Frustration in the mother- child relationship keeps the child from integrating these psychological building blocks, and so these units (of self images and object images) remain "undigested." As undigested aspects of the childish self, they can return as primitive feeling states and unintegrated emotion. The border- line personality has intense childish feeling states that cause an adult to react as an emotional infant.

While Freud focused on repression and the neurotic personality, object relations theorists and self psychologists tend to focus on problems in the structure of personality that manifest themselves in serious difficulties in relationships. Kohut describes narcissistic personality disorders where there are deficits in the structure of the self. The narcissistic personality's disturbed relationships reflect the unfinished, archaic self seeking fulfillment of infantile needs. While the narcissistic personality tends to have a cohesive but archaic self, the borderline personality, as described by Kernberg, is characterized by a fragmented Self, where the use of psychological splitting manifests itself in contradictory feeling states. Later chapters further compare and contrast these two disorders, which object relations theory and self psychology have illuminated.

Psychoanalysis has always emphasized the role of relationships in therapy in the form of transferences. Because object relations and self theories emphasize the role of relationships in causing pathology, they emphasize relationships in therapy as part of the diagnostic process and as part of the healing process. As structural deficiencies result from early deficits in the mother-child relationship, so therapeutic re- structuring will occur if the therapist (or analyst) can provide the kind of relationship that the patient needs for integrating the different split- off aspects of the personality. The therapist will work on the here-and- now relationship with the patient to make inner changes that heal the then-and-there deficits in the patient's personality.

Therapy, in particular psychoanalytically oriented therapy, pro- vides the opportunity for a patient to confront his or her primitive feelings with a more mature ego, an ego "borrowed" from the therapist. It is as if the unmanageable feelings from childhood can finally be mastered by the patient's adult self. The patient can experience chaotic, split-off aspects of the self and contradictory feelings in the presence of the therapist, who fosters in the patient a sense of being able to man- age these feelings in a way not possible when the patient was a child.

Case Illustration

In the following "case study," we can compare and contrast how the three theoretical models-Freudian, object relations, and self psychology-might approach a client.

The client is a pious painter named Christoph, who was troubled with a variety of compulsive and hysterical symptoms. Nine years before the onset of the symptoms, in a state of depression about his life and work, he made a pact with the Devil to surrender himself after nine years, which was now ending. The pact had not demanded wine, women, and song, as might be expected but rather that the Devil serve as a substitute for the painter's dead father. With the period of the pact coming to an end, Christoph prays for a miracle, hoping that God will save him and make the Devil free him from the pact.

Freud (192311981) would examine this "case" as a neurosis on which psychoanalysis can shed light. Freud would speculate as to the psychological mechanisms and the instinctual impulses at the base of the disturbance. Freud might believe that Christoph was very depressed at the death of his father and that this depression inhibited his work, stirring up fears and anxiety. The fears and anxiety drove him to make the pact in which he demands that the Devil act as a substitute for the father he had loved. The pact is a neurotic fantasy suggesting the painter's ambivalent feelings toward his father. The painter's longing for his father is in neurotic conflict with unresolved and unacceptable fears as well as defiance of the father. By means of the psychological mechanism of projection, Christoph substitutes God as the longed-for father, and his hostile attitude toward his father comes to expression in the figure of the Devil. The symbol of the Devil troubles Christoph because it represents instinctual feelings that are bad, unacceptable, and re- pressed. The Devil is so terrifying because the unconscious feelings that are projected into the external world are unacceptable and terrifying. In therapy, Freud would attempt to uncover the unconscious conflict that likely comes from the unfinished issues of the oedipal period of development. By gaining insight into his conflict, Christoph might be freed from his neurotic symptoms.

Fairbairn (1943/1954, pp. 70-74), an object relations theorist, has an alternative way of understanding Christoph. He views the painter not according to Freudian impulses but more explicitly in terms of object relations. The neurotic illness of the painter is viewed as an example of possession by the bad object and the terror of the return of repressed feelings. Christoph does not seek pleasure or the gratification of impulses but rather a father, a good object.

Fairbairn believes that children develop mechanisms to deal with difficulties from frustrations or bad relationships. The child defensively internalizes what is bad or frustrating in his or her environment. A child would rather become bad than have bad objects in the environment, and so the child becomes "bad" by defensively taking on the badness that appears to reside in the objects. The child seeks to make the objects in his or her environment good, purging them of their badness, by taking them on and making them part of his or her own psychological structure. The price of outer security is having troubling bad objects within; in other words, the world is good but now the child is "bad." Once the bad object is within the child, he or she has to further defend against the internalized bad object by repressing any awareness of the object or feelings about it. In religious terms, this might be expressed as, "It is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil" (Fairbairn, 1943/1954, p. 66). The sinner may be bad, but there is security in a world ruled by a good object. In a world ruled by bad objects, there is neither security nor hope (Fairbairn, 1943/1954, p. 67).

This, in Fairbairn's opinion, is Christoph's situation. Even if Christoph's father had been a bad object during the boy's childhood, his bad qualities were balanced by redeeming features that the son was able to perceive and relate to. But when the father died, the bad features re- turned to awareness (return of the repressed), and the son was at the mercy of this internalized bad object. In other words, Christoph was terribly alone and had to have someone, even this bad object, so he would not be objectless and deserted. So he embraces the bad object that simultaneously causes him to feel aggressive toward the father and bad about himself. Guilt over these aggressive feelings probably causes the depression.

Fairbairn, then, sees the pact as a neurotic attempt to hold onto the bad object. The Devil is associated with the deceased father and the bad feelings; the good object and the good feelings are associated with God. Therapy is like a "miraculous cure" in that it releases from the unconscious a bondage to the internalized bad object, which in Christoph's case was both indispensable and intolerable. Fairbairn does not see Christoph in terms of ego and impulse but in terms of his relationships and what those relationships do to his internal world. Dealing with the good object (God) enabled Christoph to regain his good feelings about himself and cast out the bad object.

Kohut would look for the narcissistic elements in this case and would attend to the kind of transference relationship Christoph established with the therapist. The death of the father undid the painter's narcissistic balance, and the pact would be expressive of the grandiosity of the archaic, unmirrored self that seeks to complete what was never finished in childhood. Christoph is desperately seeking an idealized object that will confirm his impoverished self. His attempt to control reality by the magical pact masks his inner emptiness and lack of self-esteem. A powerful, omnipotent object would confirm his very existence and make him feel alive.

Confusion and Controversy

By now the reader may be getting a hint that the study of object relations and the self is not a neat or orderly realm. In fact, the theories and concepts of object relations and the self do not form a unified, discrete, or universally accepted body of truths but are a collection of suppositions and concepts based on clinical experience and observation. Psychoanalytic theory has historically progressed by a lively process of refining and clarifying early fertile concepts and their implications without necessarily abandoning any of them. This is especially true of the psychoanalytic study of object relations and the self. Many theorists and clinicians have contributed to the body of knowledge, and the result is multiple perceptions, overlapping frames of reference, disagreements over terminology, and a lack of orderly schema that all can agree upon. Especially confusing is the use of the same vocabulary by theorists who ascribe very different meanings to the terms because of their differing orientations.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of theoretical consensus, the concepts of object relations theorists and self psychology are valuable. They have added insight into borderline and narcissistic disorders and have aided in the task of diagnosis and formulating therapy strategies. In addition, theorists of object relations and the self have turned attention to early childhood development and the significance of very early inter- actions.

The following chapters in this book focus on the principal theorists of object relations and the self. The discussion is limited to the key elements of how each theorist uses terms and understands development and psychological disturbance. Each chapter provides a case example of how the particular theorist either did approach or would be likely to approach a client.

*The spelling of phantasy is used throughout this book to refer to mental im- ages that represent instincts and objects. This more technical use differs from whimsical and fanciful fantasies.

**Kohut originally used a hyphen in the term seli-object, but in his later writings (and those of his associates) the nonhyphenated selfobject became the conventional usage.

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