The place for Object Relations and the unfashionable, unmentionable and sometimes demonized Melanie Klein.

A paper given by Alison Ball at the May 2007 conference in Melbourne of the Australian Association of Somatic Psychotherapists.

•Doors into the Mansion
•The Challenge of Psychotherapy
•Leaping the Gap
•Useful Freud, Klein and Object Relational


In a therapy world where we are all subjects and as therapists our focus is rightfully on the relationship and the co-created space, the neglected area can become the individual’s own mind and the “house of their personhood”. Our gift as therapists is that this person, this mind, this brain is plastic and available to the new experience that is possible in the therapy relationship. Alison believes very strongly that the challenge comes when some of our clients give us the opportunity to do the real in-depth, gut- wrenching work they require of us. To do it we must have first done that work for ourselves. Then, in order to fathom the depths of the co-created space in the now and to bring about real change, we must inevitably rely on the relationship we build between us, to gradually form an almost microscopic understanding of how that mind, that brain, that person has been created throughout all the years before coming to therapy. Alison believes that some concepts of Freud, Klein and object relations in general are indispensable for exploring the house of the mind that is glimpsed through the keyholes in the many doors marked “organizing principles”.


When I was writing the abstract for this paper I wondered whether I was simply being extremely judgmental and critical about what, for some years, I have believed was a theoretical gap in self-psychology/ intersubjectivity. (My apologies to purists if, for the rest of this paper, I am, for convenience, somewhat inappropriately conflating self-psychology/ intersubjectivity). Later I will say more about the judgementalism but for now I’ll stay with my sense of the gap and the fact that some years ago, I found I was not alone with that sense. In “The Intersubjective Perspective” by Stolorow, Attwood and Brandschaft (!997) there are some comments by Sucharov. He said that, “the lack of a comprehensive theory of psychic structure is a “problematic area of self-psychology”. He said that there is no “comprehensive nosology”, ie.- no comprehensive systematic classification of “the invariant structures of experience”, that, he says, could “act as a guide to understanding more deeply the nature of the faulty structuralizations”(p.199). Sucharov even goes so far as to say he thinks there is an almost “phobic avoidance” of such work within self-psychology.

Now you all probably know that “invariant structures of experience” are in fact what are usually called in self-psychology, “organizing principles”. In my training we had never heard of “organizing principles” and while writing this paper I looked for a definition and found this in “Contexts of Being” by Attwood and Stolorow.(1992).They are: “.invariant principles that unconsciously organize the child’s subsequent experiences.” And they go on to say that: “ It is these unconscious ordering principles, crystallized within the matrix of the child-caregiver system, that form the essential building blocks of personality development.”(p.24) So for me, this idea of the gap and that definition together validated my initial thought of using the metaphor of the doors into a mansion to illustrate the contribution of Klein, Freud and the Object Relationists. Mind you I would be pleased to hear that in more recent papers the gap has been filled but I have personally not read anything that does it for me.

I am very aware that I am talking to a whole group of people steeped in self-psychology and intersubjectivity and I know that my abstract was provocative here in Melbourne. For instance, after it came out, one email contact asked if I think, “that Freudian theory, object relations theory and Kleinian theory can enable psychotherapeutic processes that no other theoretical system can enable” and they wondered why I thought that “concepts drawn from trauma theory, developmental relational theory, affect theory, evolutionary theory, Self Psychology and Intersubjectivity theory, and systems theory, do not enable an engagement with the mind that (my) other preferred theories seem to do”.

My short answer was, “Well yes!” Personally that is how it is for me. The richness and depth of thinking I find in Klein, Freud or object relations is what I turn to when I am in the deepest pits, or the most intense and gruelling times with some of my clients. Nothing else for me seems to reach to those depths of trying to help me get some understanding of what might be going on between me and the client or in the client’s own mind. The other point I made was to say that I was mystified why, when all these alternative theories were given value in psychotherapy, we would choose to exclude Klein, Freud and the object relationists from our armoury of tools. It seemed a strange idea to accept any theory except those from the father of psychoanalysis or his immediate successors.

I also made the further point that, this is one of the major reasons I love Allan Schore (1994) (2003). He is unsurpassed in bringing together and moving back and forth all the time between psychoanalysis, Freud, Klein, Winnicott, self-psychology, intersubjectivity, CBT and any other theory or field of endeavour that has the most salient offerings to further our knowledge. And, what the neuro-psychoanalysts and all those brain researches are telling us again and again is that many, though not all, of those so- called old fashioned concepts from Freud and Klein are being shown to be true or of enormous value. In a link with our next paper, Freud maintained regarding his Project for a Scientific Psychology that one day all his psychological theories would be found to have a biological basis. And neuro-psychoanalysis is doing just that.

Regretfully I am not Allan Schore but I hope in this paper that I can at least stir up some interest again in these concepts within our association. But I also want to make an important distinction. There were two parts of the question from my email correspondent above and I only answered one. I actually believe that psychotherapeutic processes are primarily enabled by the person of the psychotherapist, irrespective of the theory or the model of mind that the therapist believes in; and that good psychotherapists can be found in all orientations. In the practice of an experienced therapist who has done sufficient in depth work on themselves in their own therapy, the gap in theory may not matter but I am of the belief that for most of us, more knowledge is required of the intricate workings of the human psyche.

But, be very sure, that while I find the concepts of Freud, Klein and the Object Relationists invaluable, they primarily help ME in my own understanding. I would not necessarily use that understanding in the way Klein or the others would do (Young, 2000). I do not, for instance, believe that we should force our interpretations of unconscious processes down the throats of our clients. Rather, we can wonder with them about what a colleague once referred to as the missing or discordant notes we can hear or see in the music that is their psychotherapy process. In that way, together we can come to a greater understanding of those unconscious processes.

Doors into the Mansion

Now, back to “organizing principles”. As I have come to know this term I believe they are little different from the concept of “survival decisions” in the transactional analysis I learned many years ago and which I have always found and still find to be extremely useful. My understanding was that TA said “survival decisions” came out of the experience of children in their primary relationships and the “injunctions” given unconsciously by the parents which are them selves later modified by conscious “counterinjunctions”. Put together by the child under stress, TA said these resulted in the formation of so-called conscious and unconscious “scripts” for how to live life. I still hear in my clients’ stories the evidence of injunctions, counterinjunctions, survival decisions and scripts.

So it was a small step to think in terms of “organizing principles”. When I look at my own history, just like everyone else, I have dozens of “organizing principles”. And for me, all these organizing principles seem like the many doors into the inner reaches of my own mind and the minds of my clients. There can be back doors, side doors, doors that look like windows, doors to the basement and even secret doors. And I think each of my doors, each “organizing principle” has helped me survive emotionally and still to varying extents can influence my contribution to any interaction that I have with other people.

But I have had a problem with this concept of “organizing principles”? At times I find myself frustrated when it is used in a sort of throw away line about one self or a client: “Oh well I/ he/ she has this or that as an organizing principle”. As if somehow all now is explained and I feel as if I am supposed to immediately understand something- but I don’t. I am often left unsatisfied and feeling like some really critical facet of an individual person has just been minimized, made shallow and a whole complex set of experiences and behaviours have been diminished. I know it is a sort of shorthand but as a clinician a myriad questions come into my mind as to what lies behind this organizing principle. But at times like this, it seems to me that the door has been closed in my face.

With my clients however, sometimes I get a peep through the keyhole of one of these doors marked “organizing principle” and my curiosity is aroused. Through the keyholes of the doors I can see there are people in there, more doors to inside rooms and some of them are open. I can see there are lots of rooms, maybe an attic, a basement, bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, furniture everywhere, pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor, things all neat and tidy, sparkling clean or maybe a big mess with things all over the floor, stuffed on shelves, hidden under cushions or beds or strewn on tables for all to see. And so I see that these “organizing principles” are simply doors into a mansion or even doors within a mansion. Beyond the doors there is a veritable treasure house . the psychic structure of an individual person.. The house of their personhood.

The Challenge of Psychotherapy

This treasure house is what excites me as a psychotherapist. I look on the process of psychotherapy just as I think an explorer must feel about unknown country, new challenges, new mountains. With the majority of our clients we will not necessarily have to explore the inner reaches of their minds; right inside their house. After all it is their house and whether or not they open the doors to us is entirely up to them. Klein of course had no qualms about forcing herself right into the inner reaches of the minds of her clients and by doing so she and others saw remarkable changes in extremely disturbed, desperate people (Young 2000). However, I’d suggest that more clients walked out her door or those of her strict followers, never to come back, than ever stayed to get the goodies that may have been on offer could they have tolerated her house invasion. For us, in our time, we have come to understand that going into the inner reaches of the psychic structure too quickly can simply cause our clients to either cut and run or put up steel doors to keep us out for ever. And that is where, I think self-psychology and intersubjectivity have come in and shown their value and strength. Their whole stance is, I think, “gently does it”, and that is what most people need and is enough for most of them.

As opposed to the Kleinian approach which focuses very early on weaning; often before a strong bond is formed, self-psychology and intersubjectivity focus on bonding. As Grotstein (1999) says, bonding with the client is the strength of these approaches and bonding to some degree, is the first thing we must do; otherwise the client will leave. These approaches provide safety for both therapist and client and great tools for beginning therapists. They enable an excellent way of being as a therapist; how to sit with a client, how to listen to a client; how to help a client feel comfortable enough to stay; how to be supportive of a client’s process. With this attitude and this way of being, provided that the therapist is not too anxious and are able to be “present” themselves, there can be enough “holding” for the client so that the work can proceed.

With these approaches the therapist can be a playmate, a twin, a mirror and a validator of all those useful organizing principles. Such supportive therapeutic approaches help to build a stronger sense of self. For those whose house- their personhood- has been extremely damaged it will do what needs to be done; shore up the walls of their house and allow them to cope better with life, they will become better self-regulated and co-hered. Anything else may be far too dangerous. In the hands of a good therapist, of course, self-psychology and intersubjective techniques can do a lot more than this. They are brilliant.for keeping the therapist both honest and realistic as opposed to omnipotent and omniscient. Techniques such as the judicious use of some self-disclosure on the part of the therapist and best of all, the awareness of disjunctions and empathic failures and the necessity of interactive repair provide not only a more nurturing environment than the classical psychoanalytic approach but do, of themselves, foster growth and development. The repair mode after an empathic failure provides an important avenue for actual re-structuralization of the psyche of the client. So I think for the vast majority of our clients the non-intrusive, empathic techniques of self-psychology and intersubjectivity are enough and all most clients will ever need in order to make quite substantial changes.

Leaping the Gap

However, I do personally believe that, for some clients something additional is needed. What indicators there are for which clients need something more is an interesting discussion and the subject for another paper. However, we do not have to stop listening reflectively or lose our empathic stance but for some clients it will not be enough to stay outside the mansion and we have to invite an opening up of the doors and allow an exploration of the internal world of their mansion. For myself I think I am led there by the client when I find myself become fascinated with what exactly it is that makes this person tick? Why do they think like they do? How is it they have come to think this way? Why do they need to employ this organizing principle in this way at this time with this person in this interaction? Gradually, as we get to know each other I will be trying to understand what helps this person and what doesn’t; what makes for them feeling able to open up the doors to me, what closes them down; what lowers their anxiety level, what raises their anxiety? Sometimes they will let me in briefly then get scared and, put me outside again. But if I do begin to get a sense that this person is willing to consider letting me in, then that is when I begin to feel that our joint exploration might have a chance of bringing about real, substantial and lasting change.

Useful Freud, Klein and Object Relational Concepts.

And when I read Sucharov about the gap it struck me that self-psychology did not really have to do that work because it had already been done by Freud, Klein and the object relationists. Maybe we don’t like their language and work could certainly be done to put it in more relational terminology but if you want to truly understand the “faulty structuralizations” in the internal workings of the mind of your client then why would we not value the amazing insights into the human psyche that have already been given us and include them in our psychotherapeutic armoury? And it is my personal view that we are limited as real psychotherapists unless we can work with the clients who need us to be able to understand and to help them to understand, what is going on in the most primitive reaches of their internal worlds. So I want to go on now to some of the concepts that I think are crucial to this exploration. This will only be a taster as there are many and I will only touch on some of the most common. I will leave out the wealth of ideas from people such as Bion. whose most well known concept is perhaps “container and contained”.

I’ll begin with terms objects, object relations and internal or external objects. What on earth is meant by those terms? You may know but I particularly picked out these quotes from Hinshelwood’s Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (1991) just because some of them are very relevant for us who are somatic psychotherapists. Regarding what is meant by an object, Hinshelwood says definitions vary depending on whether you are a Classical Freudian, a Kleinian or say, a Fairbairnian with the drift being from “a person or some thing that is of interest for the satisfaction of a desire” ie an instinctual impulse to do with pleasure seeking (p.362) toward a view that said we as humans are object seeking rather than pleasure seeking. Another view suggested the differences could be “characterized by British psychoanalysts developing a theory which ‘concerns itself with the relation of the subject to his (own) object(s), not with the relationship between the subject and the object, which is an interpersonal relationship’.”(p.368).

Bringing in the body Hinshelwood (p.364) says: “In principle each instinct gives rise to an object specific for the bodily sensations characteristic of the drive: a mother who ‘causes’ hunger, a mother who ‘satisfies’ hunger, one who causes cold, one who warms, one who holds in a precarious way and one who holds firmly etc.” (Note good versus bad distinction) But a caution that notes: “These objects referred to as ‘mother’ are in no way to be confused with the actual mother as perceived by an outside observer, since the infant’s perceptions are so radically different and based on internal states of his body.”

Then explaining the difference between Internal and External Objects Hinshelwood says: “We can take, for example, the infant who is hungry. His bodily sensations given by his physiology are also experienced subjectively and psychologically. The discomfort is attributed to the motivation of a malevolent object actually located in his tummy that intends to cause the discomfort of hunger.. for the infant there is no such thing as an absence, but the presence of something causing the pain of frustration- hunger actually gnaws. .. In this example the object is attributed to the inside of the ego, in the tummy. It is referred to as an internal object.”(p.363) “.. Conversely, objects experienced through the skin are experienced as outside (external objects).” (p.365)

The next concept is the very obvious one- “the unconscious”; a notion that of course comes directly from Freud. But do we conduct therapy in a way that demonstrates that we actually do believe in the unconscious which is of course the most inaccessible parts of the inside of the mansion. I think the major teaching I do in supervision is to help newer therapists gradually to consider that in all that is spoken about or experienced in the therapy session, there may be consciously unrecognized references that can alert them to the nature of the transference or to what is really going on in the mind of the client. I think this is the most difficult area of the work for new therapists. The problem is I suppose, that the very nature of the unconscious is that it is unknown even to ourselves and like us, our clients are very fearful of what might become known if we probe further. We must understand as well, that it is also in the very nature of the unconscious that it knows only the NOW; only this moment- and that means that absolutely ANYTHING that is said or done has some implication for RIGHT NOW.

I know that this leads to one of the major criticisms of traditional psychoanalysis and its later permutations. That is, that it supposedly sets up the client as an object and the analyst or therapist as the all knowing oracle who will tell the client what his or her unconscious is saying. In this scenario the analyst supposedly knows the real meaning of the dream, the slip of the tongue, the reference in a story to some other person or situation or, in our body orientation, the meaning of a gesture, a facial expression or the painful knee or the slumped shoulders of the body. But our personal take on it does not have to be forced into the client; understanding meaning is a joint venture. Of course there is meaning in all of these things and the meaning may not be immediately apparent to us or to the client but what that meaning is can be explored with the client. In the course of us both thinking and musing about the meaning together, then, if we are alert and listening well, the meaning will in all likelihood emerge.

This matter of the unconscious ties in with the next major concept or concepts. I believe that the whole notion of transference and countertransference is sadly diminished in importance when we can only put it in terms of the “intersubjective”. I want to scream that of course we are talking about the intersubjective context but as therapists we must attune to the transference and continually listen into and attune to our own countertransference. Then we must learn how to USE that countertransference for the illumination of what is going on in the room with the client. Freud had a limited view of counter-transference as being to do with the analyst’s own unworked through hang-ups but this view was greatly expanded by Winnicott (1950) and Heimann (1949) in the 1950’s where they delineated differences between the sort of countertransferences Freud spoke of and feelings within the therapist that can be made use of for the benefit of the client. Countertransference thought of in this way is closely linked with Klein’s projective identification of which I will speak soon.

But first regarding transference we must understand that the unconscious of the client will inevitably lead them to repeat with us, aspects of the ways in which they relate to the world. Ways they may consciously think have no meaning other than the obvious. And it is only with our attunement to them and our willingness to help them think about what might be implied in something seemingly superficial that they will get the help from us that is needed. . I have difficulty just thinking of transferences as “idealizing”, “mirroring”, “twinship”or “merger”. These notions seem to me and it is my own personal view- to limit the possibilities of what might be going on behind the closed doors for this client. I think transferences are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional and they go beyond simplistic thinking. I prefer the way in which a Kleinian, Betty Joseph referred to “the total transference situation” (Joseph, 1985).

Just think of the many different ways you think or feel about your clients. The one you feel anxious about every time when they leave, the one you are relieved to see walk out the door, the one you feel relieved to see actually turn up for the session, the one you are left thinking about because yet again they have not paid you or got the money muddled up, the one for whom you forgot an appointment or double booked, the one for whom you make sure that you’ve done your hair, put on your make-up or a different shirt; the one with whom you are often silent, the one with whom you talk too much, feel frustrated with, bored with or the one you want to give more time to or want to take care of. All these differences have implications for the transference and countertransference and are not easily locked into a limited view of transference.

And this leads me to that most maligned but in my opinion a most crucial concept that stems from Melanie Klein. I am talking about projective identification. As I understand it this concept is maligned when it is taken to mean that Klein meant that “the client PUTS SOMETHING/ a feeling INTO the therapist which does not belong to the therapist. Now, I have always had difficulty with such a notion as well. But on my reading of Klein, I understand that she always assumed that this projecting parts of the self into another was always a “phantasy” only in the mind of the infant and perhaps in the “infant” part of the mind of adults.

In any event we do not have to accept it as literal in order to make use of the concept. Of course, as far as I am concerned any feeling that the therapist has, must belong to the therapist BUT so-called “projective identification” is the very basis of empathy. It is the infant’s only way of trying to communicate something to the mother and is what happens when a mother attunes to her baby in order to understand that communication. If the mother is attuned to her baby the cries will elicit in the mother any vestige of similar feeling that she has ever had in the past. The baby has not PUT his feeling INTO the mother but has evoked or called up feelings from deep within the mother of which she may not be conscious at all. She can use this feeling to give her a working hypothesis of what might be going on for the baby and through trial and error gradually be taught by the baby to respond to his needs.

It is similar for us as therapists. Though it is relevant within particular sessions and at other times, I really start thinking in terms of projective identification in times with clients say, when I cannot get them out of my mind during the week and this might go on for weeks at a time. It will usually be in the most intense stages of therapy when really deep issues are being worked through. I might begin to feel anxious about them and their survival; will they suicide; will they be able to hang in with this gruelling work; can they bear the absolutely unbearable feelings that have arisen; like their unfathomable aloneness and loneliness or perhaps their utterly overwhelming fury with me. I may be anxious about whether I can tolerate their barrage of verbal assault or worry that I will react inappropriately if I cannot do that or maybe I am constantly questioning myself and my work with them. At other times I may realize that I am unusually exhausted or find myself wanting to make contact with them between sessions. At these stages they are overwhelmed by their feelings and I am also somehow overloaded with feeling. This is projective identification. My client is endeavouring in the only way they can, to communicate to me something vitally important. I am meant to understand something and I will most likely feel like this until I can get it, digest it in my own mind and somehow convey to them that I have some understanding of their problem. It is crucial for them that I can leave myself open to this experience and not collapse or attack under the pressure of the experience. These are the times when supervision is essential because this is also when our own capacity to think is most compromised.

Then there are other useful concepts. When I was first a therapist I had barely read Freud at all. I was completely turned off because it seemed to me that all he was on about was sex and talk of children and sex within my family seemed totally ludricous to me. I could not understand the notion of the Oedipus Complex at all. Kill my mother and want to marry my father. How mad would I be? I was terrified of my father and glad when he died. Then one day Robyn Speyer said to me”. “But Alison, Oedipus is not just about sex, it is also about power”. Suddenly the world made sense and light was shed on my family’s dynamics. For all its faults though, the parental couple in my family was very clear. Although I had merged with my mother, in other ways there were extremely firm boundaries where we children did not transgress. We certainly never got into the marital bed.

Oedipus is about boundaries and it is about our movement from merged relationships to individuation and it is also about the succession of the generations. And for our clients’ sake we must understand the boundaries in their minds and their experience. Can we only work for a long, long time with bonding because that was problematic or do the issues around weaning, separation and individuation need our attention? Maybe we must attend to both at once. And understanding the concept of Oedipus can also help us with those clients who have little capacity to think (Caper, 1997). When we are merged there is no possibility of thinking. It is only as we learn to deal with weaning, separation and boundaries that there is the possibility of thinking. We can get it gradually at the breast as we come out of the bliss of the merged relationship, we can get it through weaning and we can get it re-inforced as little Oedipus reluctantly comes to terms with his loss of omnipotence when the boundaries are in their rightful place around the parental couple.

I want to go back to the Kleinian concept I mentioned at the start that I find is indispensable in my work. That is the movement from the position of the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. I know they are dreadful names, Kleinian jargon I suppose, but again I think it is critical that we do not throw out the baby just because we don’t like the colour of the bathwater. This notion is so helpful because it helps us make sense of all sorts of situations and ways of being. It can help make sense of George Bush, suicide bombers or that judgementalism I spoke of at the beginning. It can also help us make sense of those clients who live in fairy-land or those who are doing the bi-polar thing; those who idealize us when they come to therapy, those who fall madly in love with someone or something only later to condemn the loved person, idea or group to hell; the ones who only see the world in black and white terms, right or wrong with no grey in between- all or nothing terms.

This black and white; right/ wrong dichotomy is frequently applied to people, ideas, models of psychotherapy, to groups, our own capacities and talents, anything at all. When I hear this talk I have a pretty fair idea that this person is stuck at that paranoid-schizoid stage. And it alerts me to the fact that even if I am idealized at present, sooner or later, if we do the real work of therapy, there will come the day when I fall from grace. Then I may have to cope with anger about my shortcomings, fury that I am not all they hoped I could be for them and rage and hate that in some cases will be fuelled by stores of envy, greed or jealousy. At these times the client may be utterly ruthless in their feelings toward me and I will then only be able to rely on the solid relationship we have built during the earlier more benign stages of therapy.

At these times the work can be an ordeal for both of us but IF we can weather it together so that they can hang in and I have not collapsed totally, I begin to see signs of Klein’s depressive position developing in the client. I begin to hear that there are grey areas or I might hear some concern that they have hurt me or someone else. In earlier times when they were in the paranoid -schizoid position, any guilt for the way they treated me or others was usually only because they feared retaliation. Now there begins to be some real concern for me or for the other. I also begin to hear that they no longer live all the time in fantasy land, they begin to be able to face reality. even if they hate it. They realize that if I am not perfect maybe they do not have to be perfect either. We can both be ordinary but perhaps I can still be useful enough for them anyway and most critically, together we can create something new. Life for them is no longer filled with “either/or” choices. They can make legitimate distinctions between people, groups, models, ideas, behaviours etc, and make decisions about what they want to believe in for themselves but know that none of us own the whole truth. And now, maybe they can have BOTH/ AND something more- a new experience.

And, to end, I am hoping that you will take away from this paper something of this BOTH/AND something more. Just because we are immersed in one model of therapy, it does not mean we have to reject other ways of thinking. I am hoping that I have conveyed a little of my own excitement about the richness of these “old” concepts in such a way that you feel that they might add something to your work. I want you to be able to have both your model of therapy or your way of being as a therapist and additionally, some useful ideas or ways of thinking that might add to your work and, with a bit of luck you will feel inspired enough to pursue such knowledge as a way to further your learning.

Alison Ball. 2007


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