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.

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