Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Otto Kernberg on Ego Psychology and Object Relations Theory

"Because the term object relations theory has been used by different authors in varying contexts and within a wide spectrum of approaches to psychoanalytic theory and technique, I think it may be helpful to start out with my own brief definition.

As I have stated elsewhere (1976a), I conceive of psychoanalytic object relations theory as a special approach or focus within psychoanalysis that examines metapsychological and clinical issues in terms of the vicissitudes of internalized object relations. Object relations theory considers the psychic apparatus as originating in the earliest stage of a process of internalization of object relations. This process covers, roughly speaking, the first three years of life — and results in the formation of substructures of the psychic apparatus that will gradually differentiate. The stages of development of internalized object relations — that is, the stages of infantile autism, symbiosis, separation-individuation, and of object constancy — reflect the vicissitudes of these earliest substructures of the psychic apparatus. Discrete units of self-representation, object representation, and an affect disposition linking them are the basic oject-relations-derived substructures that gradually evolve into more complex substructures (such as real-self and ideal-self, and real-object and ideal-object representations). Eventually, they will become integrated as intrapsychic structures in the ego, superego, and id.

Underlying this conception is an assumption common to Jacobson (1964), (1971); Mahler (Mahler and Furer, 1968); (Mahler et al., 1975); and myself, namely, that the earliest internalization processes have dyadic features, that is, a self-object polarity — even when self- and object representations are not yet differentiated; by the same token, all subsequent developmental steps also imply the presence of dyadic internalizations, that is, internalization of an object not only as object representation but as an interaction of the self with the object, so that units of self- and object representations (and the affect dispositions — the clinical manifestations of a drive derivative — linking them) are the basic building blocks for later internalized object and self-representations and, still later on, of the overall tripartite structure (ego, superego, and id).

Object relations theory, as defined, based upon Jacobson's, Mahler's, and my own work, is in contrast to the British school of psychoanalysis in that it integrates contemporary ego-psychological approaches with structural development, avoids telescoping intrapsychic development into the first year of life, assumes a more complex and gradual development of both ego and superego than the British school, and considers the relationships between early development, intrapsychic genetics, and structure formation as complex, indirect, and not immediately available in the early stages of psychoanalytic exploration. Hence, the object relations approach I have outlined is closer to Fairbairn (1952), (1963), Balint (1965), (1968), and Winnicott (1958), (1965), than to Melanie Klein (1940), (1945), (1946), (1957) and Bion (1967). However, the neglect of instinctual development in Fairbairn is sharply contrary to my approach.

In contrast to what might be considered an object-relations approach of Sullivan (1953) and his followers, object relations theory as outlined here has to do not only with interpersonal object relations, but is predominantly a metapsychological approach — an attempt to account for normal and pathological development in terms of the structures comprising the psychic apparatus. Finally, my definition is compatible with the developmental thinking of Erikson (1956), (1959), (1963), although not with his emphasis on adolescence as opposed to earlier stages of identity formation. It is also related to Lichtenstein's (1977) and Loewald's (1978) recent formulations.

Psychoanalytic object relations theory as defined is an integral part of contemporary ego psychology. It is not an additional metapsychological viewpoint nor does it conflict with the structural, developmental-genetic, dynamic, economic, and adaptive viewpoints; rather, it represents a refinement of the structural viewpoint that links structure more closely with developmental, genetic, and dynamic aspects of mental functioning; further, it occupies an intermediary realm between psychoanalytic metapsychology, on the one hand, and direct clinical formulations in the psychoanalytic situation, on the other."
(pp. 207-209)

Otto Kernberg (1979). Some Implications Of Object Relations Theory For Psychoanalytic Technique. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 27S, pp. 207-239

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