Introducing Melanie Klein

When I first started studying “the greats” of therapy I was saddened but not surprised to find that it was dominated by men. Not to denigrate the contribution of Freud, Jung, Bowlby and many more, however I wanted to find women who had also contributed. Therefore when I came across Melanie Klein I approached her work wanting to like it. It was perhaps a relief to find that I did, and found her theories personally useful.

Those dealing with trauma in childhood may find the Kleinian approach particularly useful. Along with Freud and almost all other theorists who proposed models of human development she imagined a nuclear family of Mother, Father and child/children. Her model is less fixed on prescribing ages when people should be attaining certain “goals” than many however, and is instead a series of positions which we encounter and rencounter throughout life, and especially at times of crisis.

Klein proposed that we all start as pure ego, and in the first three months of life develop the Paranoid Schizoid position. The chief characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position is the splitting of both self and object (in this case the mother) into good and bad, with at first little or no integration between them.

Klein has the view that infants suffer a great deal of anxiety and that this is caused by the death instinct within, by the trauma experienced at birth and by experiences of hunger and frustration. She assumes the very young infant to have a rudimentary although unintegrated ego that attempts to deal with experiences, particularly anxiety, by using phantasies of splitting, projection and introjection. Splitting is perhaps the idea what is most resonant to those who have suffered childhood trauma. Dividing the other in two, one part wholly good, the other wholly bad.This can be a vital survival mechanism for a child, especially if they have to reconcile love for an abuser and hate for the abuse. However we can all probably remember times we have returned to that childlike frame of mind when we see another as either saint or sinner, instead of the complexities that make up adult relationships.

The paranoid schizoid position is natural, and returned to throughout life when we idealise, or see situations as wholly bad or wholly good. It could be said to be an immature outlook, one that catastrophizes and does not see other individuals as whole objects but only in how they relate to ourselves.

She then believed the Depressive position develops. The depressive position is the realisation we are dependent, that others are separate from us, that we are not omnipotent. We are more able to cope with disappointment (the failure of the breast to appear instantly) as we understand the good breast continues to exist out with our own self.

Guilt, at hating the mother when she did not instantly appear, envy, especially of the Father in his close and exclusive relationship with the mother, compassion and concern for the welfare of others, all appear during this time.

If the realisations of the depressive position are too  much (existential angst) we may return to the more certain but phantasy based paranoid schizoid position, and this happens throughout life.

Growing up  is thus closely linked to loss and mourning. Recognition of the other as separate from oneself encompasses the other’s relationships; thus awareness of the Oedipal situation inevitably accompanies the depressive position. Emerging depressive anxiety and pain are countered by manic and obsessional defences, and by retreat to the splitting and paranoia of the paranoid-schizoid position. Defences may be transient or become rigidly established, which prevents the depressive position from being faced and worked through. How we learn to deal with the reality of loss, and how our parents teach us it is ok to express these emotions, are lessons which can take a long time to unlearn.

This model is less reliant on achievements as defined by a white, western view of the world than some others and may be especially useful in helping those clients who are splitting of parts of themselves, or others into unrealistically good, or bad. It is a defense mechanism that is not based on any cultural assumptions. However the depressive position is in many ways linked to Existentialism and the belief we are alone in the world. This can be a belief that some do not share, or find too frightening to usefully accept.

It is important to remember that whilst these models can be useful tools they never replace seeing each individual as unique and more than something to fit into a preset model. To keep with the goals of being client centered and intersectional the models must never be prescriptive and their limitations remembered at all times. It is also important to remember that any model of human development will reflect the concerns and prejudices of the person who devised it. Having said all this in reading those who have gone before we can all find truths which speak to us, and in Melanie Klein I found ideas which were true for me.





2 thoughts on “Introducing Melanie Klein

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.