"Mother_and_Child" (1950), artist unknown.[This is an excerpt from a 2008 essay review of the book: “Object Relations and Self-Psychology: An Introduction” by Michael St.Clair. It has been edited for this post.]


Though many of the analysts noted in St. Clair’s book coined their own vocabulary to distinguish Object Relations from both Freudian and Jungian schools, others adhered to Sigmund Freud’s terminology while redefining the meaning and/or context. The fundamental differences between the older and these new schools of thought lay in perceptions surrounding developmental processes and how ‘the mind’ is constructed. Where Freud referred to ‘drives’ or instinctual forces that maintain the structure of our minds, Object Relations and Self-Psychology refer to a mental methodology that relies upon early life human interactions to form the very premise of ‘the Self’. Here, the Self is most often viewed in the same manner Freud has traditionally described the Ego. However, the ego is viewed more as a reflexive conscious capacity, the development of which starts at birth. Freud did not view the Ego as being completely developed until a much later phase of childhood.

Freud described the Ego, the Id, and the SuperEgo as composing the psychological structure of the mind. He viewed the Id as having a libidinal and death-seeking compulsion, the SuperEgo was seen as a Good (pleasure-seeking) counter-sense or drive, and as having a potentially transcendent ego function. Some of the analysts in St. Clair’s book describe the Id and SuperEgo as merely the result of imprints relegated to the unconscious and conscious Ego respectively. Freud described neurosis as the result of an imbalance between these forces, due to a refusal to process painful or taboo memories and thoughts, which are then repressed.

None of Freud’s patients were children and the majority of his studies focused upon grown women, whereas the latter analysts studied the developmental needs of infants and children and equated these needs to inter-relational dynamics, regardless of gender. Though Jung described a fissure between the masculine and feminine attributes of oneself, the exclusive focus upon mother and child relations has only recently been challenged.

Freud referred to an infant’s libidinal desire for the mother (Oedipal Complex), whereas these analysts refer to the infant’s base physical needs and the experiential context. While studying infantile responses in correlation to having those varied needs met, or instead enduring the neglect of various needs, research findings fit well with the impulses and sensations reported by neurotic patients.

Object Relations theorists maintain that infants intuitively mirror the ‘mother-object’ or ‘mother-replacement-object’. They memorize visual expressions, energetic responses, auditory influxes, and attach emotional meaning to these precognitive memories. In theory, the development of the Self (or ego) relies also upon the character of our relationship experiences in childhood. Though this is in general accordance with Freud’s theory as it pertains both to shame and to trauma, it is significantly divergent in context. Instead of a need for maintenance (release and counter-transform or transcend) of primordial drives these analysts proposed that the basic needs of the infant, and the relational manner in which those needs are met, shape the mind.

Object Relations relates well to Jungian theory, but also discards many of the contextual interpretations inherent to his work. Carl Jung parted with his mentor due to their divergent perspectives on the un (or sub) conscious mind. This difference centred upon religious grounds but relates therein to Jung’s theory surrounding archetypes, which he attributed to a common human unconscious. Jung saw the unconscious not as a storage unit of libidinal forces and nightmares but as a complexly layered whole-unto-itself, that struggles merely to be recognized as such. Object Relations theorists concur on this last point.

Jung did not subscribe to the degree to which Freud attributed sexual impulses and desires to the dynamic and development of the mind. This too would meet approval with many contemporary psychologists. Jung studied representation of foreign faiths, myths, and rituals noting a number of common themes among a diversity of cultures. To Jung, this reflected a process by which meaningful symbolism and allegory inhabited the unconscious mind, and manifested consciously upon an individual basis. While the significance of personal narratives is well accepted in theory and practice, the relationship to a ‘collective unconsciousness’ is a more divisive and less roundly accepted proposal.

In my view, Jung’s suggestion of an inherited universality is, to some degree, well-explained by the analysis provided in St. Clair’s book. To venture to describe the premise upon which ‘the mind’ operates is an attempt to describe a universal quality and attribute of the human condition. If childhood developments are premised upon mirroring, mimicking, and basic need fulfillment it would lend to common, while also culturally-appropriate, symbolic manifestations.

For example, throughout human history infants were birthed by a female and nurtured by the breast, which easily enough explains among the most common of archetypes – The Mother. (It should by now be clear that this representational concept has been deeply significant in the sciences of psychology, and often to the exclusion of acknowledging a father figure, other family members or mentors.) The demeanour or expectations of The Mother would remain both culturally and individually variant, both cultivated and sustained, through interpersonal relations.

Like Jung, Self Psychologists reference the symbolism in a patient’s dialectic narrative to understand their relationships, their own self-perception, distressing associations, as well as the emphasis of familial cultural influence. These practitioners inter-relate observations to a theory of child development that promotes a process of integrated maturation, whereas Jung’s aims were to harmonize the Animus – Anima – Shadow aspects of oneself.

Object Relations Theory parallels Jung’s conception of the Self archetype without association to a collective unconscious. His archetype proposal is not hinged upon the latter (or vice versa), but described a complex containing or inter-relating self-references. Primarily, archetypes were his means of explaining the individuation process as a universally applicable experiential phenomenon. This integrating and differentiating process, itself, and it’s universal relevance has resonated far beyond the fields of psychology.

Interestingly, and much more recently, theorists in evolutionary psychology have shared in Jung’s speculation on the possible relevance of a broadly construed epigenetic influence. The latter has since captured popular imagination in a manner that echoes Jung’s own metaphysical inferences.

3 thoughts on “Transit to Object Relations Theory

  1. Pingback: Biblio : Object Relations and Self Psychology | scrapaduq

  2. Pingback: The History and Basic Principles of Archetypal Psychology | WIRED COSMOS

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