Object Relations and Self Psychology, An Introduction, by M. St.Clair (Book Cover).[This review is follows from prior notes.]

St.Clair, Michael (1996). Object Relations and Self-Psychology: An Introduction, Second Edition. Belmont, California: Brooks/Cole. pp226.


This book provides a basic overview, including case study examples, of the evolution and key approaches to Object Relations Theory (sometimes otherwise referred to as Ego or Self Psychology). This history of theory is regarded as principally established in areas of both theory and practice. Contemporary strains are sometimes referred to as Transitional or Inter-relational Psychoanalysis, and Inter-subjective Psychology.

While building upon and re-examining Sigmund Freud’s theories surrounding the preconscious / conscious / unconscious mind, later analysts explored alternatives to the “Id”, “Ego”, and “SuperEgo” model their predecessor proposed. In time borrowing also from Jung’s conception of the ‘Self’ in relation to individuation. In particular, this author reviews the work and theories of W.R.D. Fairbairn, Melanie Klein, D. W. Winnicott, Edith Jacobson, Margaret S. Mahler, Otto Kernberg, and Heinz Kohut.

As there are many important differences in emphasis of explanation among the theorists surveyed in this book, I will attempt only to describe the general result of their contributions. The common basis of Object Relations Theory surrounds observation that human relations influence the development of a Self (or an egoistic identity). The function of which is deeply implicated in a maturation process that takes place from infancy onward. This more holistic formation of Freud’s Ego benefits from dynamic capacity for further growth that depends upon a gradual differentiating of one’s own emotional, intellectual, physiological experiences.

“With the care that it receives from its mother each infant is able to have a personal existence, and so begins to build up what might be called a continuity of being. On the basis of this continuity of being the inherited potential gradually develops into an individual infant. If maternal care is not ‘good enough’ then the infant does not really come into existence, since there is no continuity of being; instead the personality becomes built on the basis of reactions to environmental impingement.” D.W. Winnicott, from “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” 1960.


Object Relations Theory asserted that the management of physiological needs include and impact cognitive development starting at birth, and that relational experiences (with people and environments) contribute to, enable, or can inhibit psychological development. For example, to hold an infant in a comforting manner is to evoke sensations of safety, which then also provides psychological security. Practitioners working with children observed dysfunctions in the development of a ‘sense of self’, and unstable attachments, lending to a Self-object identity that also had relevance to cases of adult neurosis, depression, aggression, and paranoia.

These practitioners point to a process of mirroring and mimicry as a principal factor in early childhood development. Whereas mimicry describes solely imitative processes, mirroring is believed to generate sensual ‘imprints’ (physical, emotive, and psychic memories). As a primary development of cognition, infants are thought to internalize their experience of the external world in association with their own physiological states.

The memory retention of associated sensations are referred to as representational ‘objects’. For example: External tactical and auditory experiences, the character of another person’s emotional energy, as well as the infant’s own emotional states and physical sensations are attached to – or comprise – a mental object. The usual, exemplifying, proposition is that the mother figure is imprinted within the infant’s mind. The mother is not understood as a distinct person, but exists as an internalized self-reference, which preserves the familiarity of their relationship experiences.

Melanie Klein’s famous analogy of ‘the Good and Bad breast’ demonstrates infantile objectification; which I will put my own words to here. Breast-feeding infants sometimes have more difficulties feeding with one breast and thus a preference for the other. Klein observed this frustration, and an escalation to rage when infants could not locate the more amenable breast. These behaviours indicated infants had memory of and intention to locate the good breast. If this experience was a repetitive one the infant would refuse to receive the bad breast, immediately locating and latching onto the other breast, presumably avoiding sensations of hunger, anger, fear, etc. The mother did not appear otherwise associated to this bad breast experience but, instead, remained associated to experience of the good breast. It was thought, therefore, that memory of the good breast object (containing sensations of satiation and security) is immediately aroused in place of the foreboding bad breast.

Object Relations Theory proposes the negative object is cast off in favour of the positive object as an adaptive act of coping with adversity. With maturation, the same child will be able to conceive of and resolve contradictions (for eg: the mother will provide even if the breast cannot) without sense of a threatening crisis. Notably, prolonged or pervasive crisis experiences are also seen to disrupt or impede development of empathy.

This analogy relates to a process some analysts refer to as ‘splitting’. Noting that some patients ‘block-out’ events which arouse overwhelming feeling, or memories that they expect will be unbearable to revisit. Likewise, some patients dissociate from their own decisions or behaviours, and are unwilling to resolve contradictions in their presentation of an event narrative. While these cast-off thoughts and experiences are not consciously acknowledged, they remain influential. It is noted in one case study, for example, that abused family members described distinct temperaments and personas that the abusive individual could neither validate nor account for.

A capacity for projecting internal objects out into the world is also noted. Patients diagnosed with a personality disorder provide for more extreme examples of projective splitting and a reduced empathetic capacity. In many of these cases the patients presume to have an omnipotent insight on and influence over other people’s perceptions, feelings, intentions and motivations, etc. They are unaware of representing another person in association with their own memories, wishes, fears, fantasies, etc. For example, a patient will idealize the personality of another individual so as to reflect upon themselves in a desired way. On the other hand, degenerated traits will be attributed those whom in some way contradict their preferential concept of Self. The compulsion to protect and affirm this Self-object is all consuming, arousing anxiety and paranoia, thus perpetuating the casting-off of distress. Their behaviour toward others accords with these representational objects, and the projection of unstable self-references, from one splitting of contradictions to the next. These cases are set apart from that of transient neurosis and depressive states, and suggest an entrenched infantile (or exceptional degree of) narcissism.

The infantile merging of self/other (through mimicry and mirroring object representation) is attributed to the function of narcissism, as a necessary instigator in childhood development. A gradual, cognitive, individualizing process is then also considered necessary for psychological development. This process affirms recognition of sensual boundaries and actualization of oneself as a separate entity which, in time, cultivates a stabilizing Self-representation that accords with independent experience. Neglect, trauma, or the stifling of maturation are believed to arrest attributes of this development. Crisis experiences will accompany circumstances that do not fulfill suspended or mal-adapted needs. For example: A school-aged child whom intentionally soils their undergarments, with expectation they will be tended to the way an infant would be, then erupts into rage when instead treated in an age appropriate manner. Or, in the case of adults, the expectation of unconditional praise, affection, or adulation then results in hostility toward others and/or themselves.

Heinz Kohut suggests that the psychological pathology of all mental health conditions relate to the function and mechanisms of narcissism in some way. This, to me, represents a sensible and roundly applicable meeting place for a trans-disciplinary investigation among theorists interested in mental phenomenon. As for myself, I question the extent to which the mental structure is attributed with emotional states and sensory qualities. If inter-dependent physiology and affect initiate cognitive development, for example, then treatment of this coupling as a central or emphasized focus of study might present new insight. Particularly in light of concerns around discrepancies in the categorization of mental health conditions.

The concept of the Self and the relevance of identity formation do continue to evolve through discourse within several academic disciplines, but Self Psychology has long since been adopted or adapted into a broad variety of therapies. As more theorists and practitioners have turned to relational models of inquiry, the question of whether psychology is a science or an art has resurfaced. By and large, these arguments hinge on perceptions surrounding the immaterial ambiguities of inter-subjective experience.


8 thoughts on “Biblio : Object Relations and Self Psychology

  1. I again on the way out – so quick – I am familiar with Steiner only in association with Nietzche (whom I will also be revisiting) and Brentano (whom launched my awareness of Psych and Philosophy as cohorts). I will look him up, though, upon his own merits. Seeing as you’ve cited the relevance – merci!

      • Dig when that happens :)

        Am reading more ’bout yer man and have recalled a book I did not finish, but started last winter, tracing a history of new religions. Oh yeah, thinks I, he’s in that book too. Much influential, and quite a busy man! Where he steps into my particular intrigues is in the realm of phenomenology. But he leaves off with it too early, me thinks, to meet with my topics. Anyway; I shall keep dig’n ’round in case there are junctures he may apply. Thanks again – very much appreciated!

        • The issue with Steiner is that the public libraries are not filled with his work, you can find books that reference him but not his volumes. I know I can find his books, but I tend to take what falls in my lap, if it requires too much effort I collapse, and feel it takes away from what’s at hand, makes me think I would love to have people working to attain what i need, so that I can sequester myself up in the high castle of my most grandiose thoughts and compose. But the taste I have gained from him is monumental, plus we have went the Montessori route, but if i could change it and if Waldorf schools were more available i would have switched because i like that they teach through story telling.
          Give me something to edit, some nugget from your gold mine, let me tear into it, see what will come from the exchange.

          • Certainly – and no engagement leaves us untouched – but I already know we concur on this. I’m aboard!

            I meander to and fro both the worn and less-trodden paths. Never could adjust to straight lines. So there comes morsels, then tid-bits, with the (for some or others) less digestible stuff between. Lest you’ve ever a specific inkling (do ask for it if compelled), I’ll perceive it wide open for you borrow, edit, chew-up, re-present, challenge, etc. as it comes.

            Forewarning though; it’s a winding stream that but trickles at the peaks of this or that geography. And then mud-slides or time for play… It’s not that I prefer speaking tongues, honest. Just me multi-tasking. Building up and horizontally at the same time. Do pick up, cohabitate, or sit-out whichever speaks to you along the way? I won’t take it badly in any case and will ‘hear it’ no matter, too.

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