The ideas of Melanie Klein and Object Relations Theory

Last week’s lecture was on the ideas of Melanie Klein and Object Relations Theory.

The ideas of Melanie Klein are not easy and it is difficult to get your  head around them. But her ideas provide useful material when seeing clients, especially  for experiential leaners.  But all accounts she was an unpleasant woman, if you believe what her daughter said about her. Apparently she would not even say hello to her clients as they entered her therapeutic room.  Klein is the mother of object relations theory.  She was a contemporary of Freud but was laughed out of the room at the time by Freudians. Whereas for Freudians it was all about sexual drives, for Klein it was all about the breast. Klein believed it was all about the breast and the relationship the baby had with its mother.  It was not about intrapsychic conflicts as Freud would argue but the relationships between young child and the objects in its environment.  Therefore, mother and father is an object as breast is an object.
Not libidinal drives, for Klein it was the drives of aggression.  Essential core human drives are aggressive and destructive in nature. Klein worked mainly with young children and with mothers and with young babies.  She took lots of meticulous notes.
She had a strong interest in the possible early causes of psychosis. For Klein the origins of early months in life was the priority, not like Freud who emphasised the first 7 years.

According to Klein there is no sense of self, no ego, as babies.  Many will argue with this. Others believe babies do have sense of self.  But for Klein the baby is utterly dependent on the primary carer for its sense of self. Psychologically, the mother is the baby’s ego.  Implication is that if you have a great mother then great, but you are doomed if you have had a bad mother.  The earlier the wounding the greater the damage and the greater psychosis and early trauma can be the roots of schizophrenia. ( bi polar depression could be seen as later stages of development).

With young children there is no rational mind.  Huge feelings, unmediated.  There is no language for these feelings. The work in therapy  is to identify what the feelings are about, what in your younger life is being triggered. Freud constancy principle, outcome of lots of conflict. For Klein it is not internal conflicts but the outcome of environmental factors.

Objects can be part objects, as full objects are too big for a young child.
Good and bad breasts,(mother could be out at shops but child just experiences the absence of mother),  light and dark, Internal experiences (hunger)

0-3 months paranoid schizoid position. Baby is not distinguishing between itself and other.  As we grow up, we get a sense of other.  Enormous swings in mood, if an adult was doing it you would think that’s weird. For a baby it is normal. It is only later that a self is formed.

Objects relations therapy will look at the relationships between all your objects. If you don’t resolve the early problems then they are carried forward. Who are you when you are out in the world, outer and inner relationships.

Child gets message that its not okay to be angry.

Idea of phantasy big part of objection relations theory (unconscious).  Unconscious going on all the time.  Instinctual drives going on before thought. Phantasies about hunger, hence the focus on breast.

Major themes of : Envy (someone else has what I want), greed (I want it
all), jealousy (its not fair, they have got what I want), destructiveness, gratitude,

Phantasies are very live, very immediate (but not in a conscious way) angry
biting the breast.  An attack, such a  strong feeling of frustration then the baby is seeking to destroy. Phantasy  could be fear and anxiety of showing anger and we worry about the consequences  so we then try to please and make it better.

In therapy: Parents, reality check to accept that things may not have  been perfect. If my parents are not okay then it is because I am not lovable.  Okay to be angry.


Two stages:

Paranoid schizoid (0-3 months) Child trying to make sense of the world.

Depressive (3-6 months)

For Klein we are shuttling between two positions. Bits that can’t be tolerated get split off.

1) Could be dissociated when drunk

2)  Or projected onto others

Schizoid manoeuvre to split off.

Paranoid bit is that it will come back and bite me. (Someone is doing
the anger for us, they will realise that and will get angry with us). Or
punishment for biting the breast.  Dared to be bad, disowning and fear of comeback

Depressive position gets arrived at, provided that the child adequately  deals with the paranoid schizoid position.  Good and bad object can be good and bad.  Object can be whole.  Struggle not  to be nice all the time.  Accept that this range of feelings can exist in whole object.

The work in therapy is to accept that parents tried their best, and  that has no reflection on me. Still a bit depressing, but better than blaming others (or parents) for our lot.

Co-dependent circles: rescuers all want to be rescued. Objects can be careers, food, alcohol, can be objects. Klein was not using nice language, but was describing something  real.  Pessimistic view: like Freud. Klein has had a great influence but her views were inherently pathological.  (no soul qualities). Focus  on dysfunction and psychiatry.

We can have reparative experiences as we get older. Getting to know the
parents of a friend who were good parents. (Winnicott and Bowlby develop this)

The real work in therapy is making conscious what is in the relationship, just beneath the surface,  being aware of transference and counter transference, just be aware of it,  regardless of how creative and clever we can be with techniques.

“…feelings of love and gratitude arise directly and
spontaneously in the baby in response to the love and care of his mother. The
power of love – which is the manifestation of the forces which tend to preserve
life – is there in the baby as well as the destructive impulses, and finds its
first fundamental expression in the baby’s attachment to his mother’s breast,
which develops into love for her as a person. My psycho-analytic work has
convinced me that when in the baby’s mind the conflicts between love and hate
arise, and the fears of losing the loved one become active, a very important
step is made in development. These feelings of guilt and distress now enter as a
new element into the emotion of love. They become an inherent part of love, and
influence it profoundly both in quality and quantity.” (from Love, Hate, and


More soon….

About Noel Bell

Psychotherapist in London. Check out my blog posts and more at
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