On: Melanie Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position
In this essay, I describe one of the most significant concepts in post-Freudian psychoanalysis; Melanie Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position. Having described it , I attempt to give it context and to consider its strengths, and also what limitations it has. I conclude that it is one of the most important post-Freudian concepts, and has helped us understand ego formation. One might argue that we can thank Freud for the discovery of the ego, but we needed Klein to begin to understand its formation. Her work on both paranoid-schizoid position and depressive position are foundation stones for object relations theory, which has been widely adopted, so much so that the Freudian drive theory may be somewhat obscured these days, despite Klein’s own Freudian base and particular attention to the life and death drives. In attempting to describe what the paranoid-schizoid position is, I run into one of the more problematical issues which is that the position is defined by the defences it provokes in the infant. To describe it is to have to describe associated concepts, such as splitting and projection. I take the view that these are part of what needs to be described, even if we define them as independent of Klein’s position itself.
To describe the concept, it is important to appreciate that Klein believed that the neonate had what might be called ego material, but that its ego was unformed. It responds to its new experiences, particularly anxiety, and in so doing starts to develop its ego. To manage its experiences the infant employs defences such as splitting and projection, which I describe below. From its earliest months, the infant has a mix of anxieties, develops its defences, all of which inform its internal and external object relations. Klein believed that, linked to the life and death drive, that intense feelings of love and hatred are earliest manifestations of ego formation. Paranoid-schizoid is the first elemental configuration of psychic life. It is the exclusive feature of the first three or four months, until the ego has developed sufficiently to progress to the depressive position, but it remains with the individual throughout life. The splitting; the separation of good and bad, is the means of protecting the ego from the death instinct. It has also been described as the beginning of coherence.
The paranoid-schizoid position is the state of splitting the self (the ego separates the loving from the destructive) and the object, into good and bad. When the position is first adopted, by a young infant, there is no capacity to integrate the split object. The splitting defence is one of two major defences, the other being projection. Simplistically, the infant feels either good loving feelings or bad hateful feelings, and projects these into the primary caregiver, the Object. Anxiety comes to be felt as a fear of persecution. (This is the very first emergence of the super-ego). These two objects (sometimes referred to as the good and the bad breasts) are taken in, or introjected by the infant, forming split ego-object relationships in the infant psyche. Klein helps us understand that this is how the ego is formed and how it is organised (around phantasies). In establishing the paranoid-schizoid position, the infant is attempting to overcome the primary anxiety, that of annihilation, the product of the death drive. This is important because it emphasised the link between Freudian thinking and her original, yet derivative work. The expulsion of the impulse by projection creates the paranoid environment for the infant and hence the name of the position.
Splitting, then, is a consequence of projection and introjection but is also a defensive strategy in its own right. The early infant employs splitting to avoid the ego being overwhelmed by the destructive impulse of envy. Klein believed splitting was innate, and that it pre-dated repression, which requires a developed ego to remove anxiety-producing content from the conscious mind. Bad experiences are denied (omnipotence) and cast out, whereas good experiences are idealised as a protection against the persecuting breast. This is one of the great strengths of the paranoid-schizoid position — it gave analysts more understanding of how Freudian concepts required stages of ego development. Successfully negotiating the paranoid-schizoid position is when the infant comes to recognise the overwhelming strength of the good object compared with the bad object. The infant then can then form an understanding that its own libidinal impulses can master its destructive impulses. Integrating the persecutory and the ideal is now possible, because the fear of being overwhelmed by the bad object diminishes. The infant can move to, and adopt, the ‘depressive position’, (feelings of ambivalence towards the object and of reacting to loss and to guilt), something Klein identified, at least using the chronology of her published papers, before the paranoid-schizoid position.
Summarising my description, if the mother can tolerate the hatred of the infant, being cast as a Bad Object, without responding punitively, it allows the infant to moderate its destructive feelings, allowing the reciprocals of envy with gratitude, and hate with love. The infant comes to recognise these co-exist in itself and its object. Whilst this is carried forward into adult life the paranoid-schizoid position is, most significantly, a function of the first year of life, especially the first four months. Unlike the Freudian developmental stages which one progresses through, Klein saw even the earliest psychic structures as ‘positions’ and ones to which an individual returns multiple times. A return is usually a regressive response to environmental stresses. What happens when there is a healthy development and a progression to the depressive position? The infant has learned to tolerate guilt (for inflicting hatred on the same Object it realises it loves) and its loss of narcissistic omnipotence. The ego strengthens and the infant’s sense of self and independence evolve. However, unfortunately, the outcome can be one of unhealthy development, whereby good and bad objects fail to become integrated. In this case, splits widen, guilt becomes too great to bear, differences become concrete, and even an adult will return to the paranoid-schizoid position. Everything is then overwhelmingly good or bad, often with the delusional impressions of the psychotic.
Assessing strengths, one notes that Klein’s opinions were far from universal, although paranoid-schizoid as a foundation to Object Relations has made it an enduring legacy. One powerful, but perhaps unintended strength of Klein’s insight, was that she had been able to identify something that was a feature of the life of the infant individual, but has had applications for groups, for adults, and indeed for nation states. She did not claim these applications of her work, but a concept that allows us to appreciate the source of hatred, aggression, envy, and love, is right to have been applied at more macro levels. Indeed, Alford (1989) wrote a whole book on her work’s application to modern Critical Social Theory. I share the Segal (2006) view; she believed that the Cold War tensions of the US and the USSR reduced the whole world to a paranoid-schizoid position, with each empire threatening total annihilation and acting out schizoid mechanisms such as projection, fragmentation, dehumanisation and splitting. It is an important insight that one can identify the position of the collective psyche. Segal points out that Mutually Assured Destruction had the appropriate acronym, MAD. She explains the West’s need to find a new enemy in order to maintain the paranoia and avoid the shift to facing our depressive problems. This century’s ‘War on Terror’ has been the obvious successor. Klein’s view had been that the demonstration of psychic development was the management of anxiety; moving beyond the paranoid-schizoid.
That said, I remain convinced that the greatest strengths of the concept lie in the understanding of the individual and how ego formation is the function of the first significant dyadic relationship. It means her work is critical in the clinical environment; perhaps as significant as the Oedipal Complex. Providing understanding for ego formation and that maturation of an individual does not exclude returning to the earliest psychic structure, gave a platform for psychoanalysis to keep developing. Bion is one of many who took up her ideas. As explained by Britton and Steiner (1994) he showed the individual starts with a fragmentary state and with every emotional experience moves towards coherence. Comparing this with Klein reveals significant overlap; fragmentation and paranoid-schizoid, and coherence of the depressive position. In the analytic alliance, analyst and analysand have to address phases of disintegration with each new experience before achieving a state of integration. Bion developed Klein’s work for his theorising about linking and the differences between the psychotic and non-psychotic. His “Attacks on Linking” specifically works from a Kleinian foundation, up to an analysis of borderline psychosis. It seems that much of our understanding of the psyche, especially those damaged, is built upon Kleinian insights. The strength, as with Freud, is that the concept is an insight, and something malleable to work, for the enhancement of our understanding.
All great concepts have limitations. For Klein, one view is that in focusing on a relationship, an Object, she was working with the conscious mind only. In other words, her concept is not truly psychoanalytic. One can see some merits in this criticism, but I regard it as rather ‘un-Freudian’ in its pedantry. Freud showed a capacity for new thinking and for avoiding anything that was theoretically ‘boundaried’, and we know admired much of Klein’s contribution to a burgeoning field of study.It was importantto him that it was developed. Freud himself was keen for psychoanalysis to be a science and for himself to be regarded as a scientist. Although the work does not lend itself to controlled experiments,and to empirical evidence;by developing and refining theory one might argue that psychoanalysis gives a necessary nod to the scientific method. Klein’s work was in the vanguard of this development. Carstairs (1992) made clear the limitation of psychoanalytic interpretation when an infant cannot talk. As an infant has no language skills any psychoanalytic treatment of infancy is necessarily retrospective. Bick (1968) thought that one limitation was misunderstanding of the role of the skin relative to ego development. She theorised that the physical skin, containing the organs as well as any psychic self, came before feelings of love and hatred by providing a boundary, allowing the infant to conceive of internal and external spaces. It is then that “the stage is set for the operation of primal splitting and idealization of self and object as described by Melanie Klein.”
Lussier (1988) was more concerned that a focus on the Object undermined the primacy of drive theory, “there is no drive without object, and no object relationship except in the context of the drives.” He lines up Anna Freud, Diatkine and Winnicott as supporters for his views. In contrast, Glover, (1945) had made more constructive observations, but highlighted limitations in an essay on the “Klein System of Child Psychology”. He felt that her view that libidinal phases reduced early anxieties was unoriginal. He highlighted Freud, Jones and Abraham, amongst others, who had understood the ambivalence that is the heart of the transition to the depressive position. In common with Lussier, he seems to feel that Klein did little more than reinterpret and rebrand Freud, “according to her, impulses of hate bring about the oedipus situation, and stages in the development of the libido really represent positions won by the libido in its struggle with destructive impulses.” Perhaps the most important limitations come expressed by Klein’s own daughter, Melitta Schmideberg, who felt that the positions depended on assumptions about the predominance of aggressive impulses, projection and introjection and of the infant’s lack of reality awareness. None of these could be tested as appropriate hypotheses and Kleinian theory had insufficient regard for mechanisms like repression, sublimation, isolation, some of which might actually counteract projection and introjection. One might summarise the critical analyses as being “how can we know?” It seems that there is a case for saying that about all psychoanalytic theory.
I conclude this paper by asserting that the paranoid-schizoid position is one of the most significant concepts in the field of psychoanalysis. I have described it and how it evolves and believe that it is our best understanding of how and when the ego is formed. It builds on Freud, but gives a platform for derivative thinkers such as Bion. It is a focus for our understanding of the individual, but one of its many strengths is that it can be scaled up to enhance our understanding of adults compared with infants, of groups rather than individuals and indeed, of nation states. I explore some limitations, including how psychoanalytic it is, but think psychoanalytic thinking would be much the poorer, perhaps might not have continued a post-Freudian development, without the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions.
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