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Object Relations Theories: Klein and Winnicot.

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Published: 11th Feb 2020

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A Critical Evaluation of the Object Relations Theories of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott.

Klein describes conflicting forces within the psyche, detailing how they interact with equally conflicting external forces, producing a mental structure understood in terms of relationships. The central elements of her theory are the “death instinct” and the “paranoid skitzoid position”, in which part objects are created by splitting. Along with the “depressive position” which arises upon the child realising those part objects are actually whole objects, (Frosh, 1987).

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In the depressive position guilt makes its appearance, as the child's realizes that the object of its envious attacks is also the object that it loves (Segal 1992). Along with guilt the child feels gratitude towards the mother and thus the desire for reparation arises. It is this conflict between love and hate, torn by conflicting desires for the caring preservation of others against the malicious destruction of others that Klein saw as being central to the human experience (Greenberg, 1983).

I am speaking of an innate conflict between love and hate, I am implying that the capacity both for love and destructive impulses is, to some extent, constitutional, although varying individually in strength and interacting from the beginning with external conditions.

(Klein, 1957, p180(Frosh, 1987))

Winnicott did not produce a coherent theoretical structure he did evolve ideas which have stood the test of time (Gomez, 1988). His idea's being centred around dependence conflicting with the stages of “absolute, relative and toward” independence (Jacobs, 1995). With children beginning life in “absolute dependence”, and the mother in a state of “primary maternal pre-occupation” (Winnicott, 1965) by helping to contain the child's primitive agonies (Jacobs, 1995)providing a ‘holding enviroment' for the infants sense of ‘omnipotent phantasy'(Stevens, 1996).

Potential Space

Transitional Objects

This provides a sense of trust and goodness in the world leading to the “capacity to be alone” and “play”. (Stevens, 1996). Within the realms of “potential space”, facilitated by “transitional objects” Winnicott proposed mismanagement of impingements encourages development of a false self covering and distorting the child's true self (Jacobs, 1995).



Klein considered the death instinct is the central source of disturbances in a child's experiences (Frosh, 1987) Klein argued that early channelling of the death instinct must take place for the infant to survive (Greenberg, 1983), proposing that even in good nurturing environment children still experience fears and anxieties creating aggressive and destructive emotions (Frosh, 1987). Winnicott doubted Klein's retention of Freud's death instincts (Winnicott, 1965), considering the concepts to be superfluous rather than wrong (Gomez, 1988). And Kernberg (1969) proposed the death instinct could be dropped without damaging her other presentations due to the “total lack of clinical evidence” supporting an innate death instinct (Segal, 1992).


Klein thought the death instinct taint's children's phantasy's (Frosh, 1987), with sensations being interpritated as unconscious phantasy's based on innate knowledge and experience (Hinshelwood, 1991). Unconscious phantasy differs from Fantasy, being a vaguer, primitive composition of images and sensations at a pre-linguistic stage, taking place on an unconscious level (Hough, p88).

Klein proposed children view the external world through phantasies, not perceiving things as they are (Segal, 1992), and observed children's lives to be dominated by unconscious and sometimes conscious phantasies about parental sexuality (Segal, 1981).

Unconscious phantasies underlie every mental process and accompany all mental activity. They are mental representations of those somatic events in the body which comprise the instincts, and are physical sensations interoperated as relationships with objects that cause those sensations.

A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (Hinshelwood, 1991)

Guntrip (1971) accused Klein of depicting the objects of human passion as phantasmagoric, without real connection to other people, counterclaiming this argument is Klein's frequently mentioning the importance of real others (Greenberg, 1983).

SPLITTING 84 words

When fantasies and perceptions are kept apart infants split both the object and themselves (Segal, 1992), this splitting is a defence manoeuvre arising from projective and introjective defence mechanisms (Frosh, 1987). Seeking to disown and distance either projection created anxiety inducing objects or hostile elements the mind often resorts to this disasociative psychic process (Likerman, p88). Klein viewed the mind as inherently split, unlike others who propose the minds initial unity which becomes divided by experiences (Frosh, 1987), extreme splitting can become a threat at times due to it's terrifyingly persecuting nature (Segal, 1992).


Splitting creates part objects which are considered to be modes of relating rather than the building blocks of phantasy. (Gomez, 1988). Klein considered the original part object to be the mothers breast (Hinshelwood, 1991)

It may seem curious that the tiny child's interest should be limited to a part of a person rather than the whole, but one must bear in mind first of all that the child has an extremely underdeveloped capacity for perception, physical and mental, and then..... the child is only concerned with his immediate gratifications. (Klein 1936, p290)

(Hinshelwood, 1991)

Needing to make sense of the chaos of the world a child makes the division between good and bad, with both categories kept far apart as Klein belived that it was more important to achive some order than to assimilate an accurate interpretation of reality (Gomez, 1988). Astor (1989) challenged this based on observations, claiming the breast is initially whole, later becoming part of the whole body before becoming a combined object (Jacobs, 1995).


Klein proposed the paranoid skitzoid position as the first organization of experience in everyone's early years, being maintained episodically throughout life. She considered a clear distinction between bad and good objects important, being maintained with the both extremes polarized in emotional tone and conceptual organization (Black, p91-3).

As regards splitting of the object, we have to remember that in states of gratification love feelings turn towards the gratifying breast, while in states of frustration hatred and persecutory anxiety attach themselves to the frustrating breast. This twofold relation, implying a division between love and hatred in relation to the object, can only be maintained by splitting the breast into its good and bad aspects.

With the splitting of the object, idealization is bound up, for the good aspects of the breast are exaggerated as a safeguard against the fear of the persecuting breast.

Paranoia is the persecutory fear of invasive external melevolance, and skitzoid refers to the splitting of good and bad. It is considered a position being a fundamental way of formulating experience, enabling individuals to relate to others from the different perspectives of oneself, rather than being a passing phase (Black, p91-3).


Projective identifcation describes extensions of splitting in which parts of the ego are separated from the self and projected into objects (Greenberg, 1983). By putting bad qualities into another, the other is considered to possess the bad qualities which they cannot stand in themselves.

A “phantasy remote from consciousness” that entails a belief in certain aspects of the self being located elsewhere.

A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (Hinshelwood, 1991)

Being a very deep split creates amplified perceptions of people and emotions as they cannot be regulated by their opposites. (Segal, 1992). Ogden (1979) proposed projective identification to be a threefold process, firstly ridding oneself of internally attacking objects, then projecting fantasy into recipient through interactions with the recipient finally experiencing themselves as they are pictured in the projection (Fineill, 1985).


Klein derived containment from projective identification, where one person in a sense contains part of another, when a child splits off their fears and contains them in an object. Klein proposed that if these split fears are allowed to repose in the mother for long enough then they can be modified and safely reintrojected, considering this the beginning of mental stability (Hinshelwood, 1991).


When ‘good' and ‘bad' part objects are realized as individual objects they are considered whole objects. As whole objects are realized the child begins to understand that others have mixed feelings and emotions, and also begins to perceive that others can suffer, resulting in the child no longer defining others by its own needs and feelings (Hinshelwood, 1991).

Appreciating the mother as an individual and seeing her as an whole object, the mother becomes no longer simply a vechle for drive gratification, but instead an “other” with whom the child is able to maintain a personal relationships (Greenberg, 1983).


Envy is a two person emotion, experienced upon realizing the inability of being as good as the good object. This hatred directed towards good objects, and the child's desire to destroy the source of goodness due to “envy” of its independence (Greenberg, 1983), This phantasised destruction of the good object terrifies the child because it destroys the possibility of hope (Greenberg, 1983). Being projective, by trying to put badness in to the good object to destroy it (Frosh, p125).

It is a destructive attack on the source of life, on the good object, not on the bad object, and it is to be distinguished from ambivalence and from frustration. It is held to be innate in origin as part of the instinctual endowment, and requires the mechanism of splitting as an initial defence operating at the outset.

A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (Hinshelwood, 1991)

Winnicott, Bowlby and Fairburn took issue with Klein's perception of children possessing innate feelings of aggression towards the mother (Segal, 1992), considering envy a product of tantalizing mothering (Adams, 1988)


The depressive position is considered a way of dealing with anxiety arising from the death instinct (Segal, 1992), being a combination of phantasies and attitudes begining around three months. This involves intergrating experiences rather than splitting them (Segal, p38), where loving and hateful relations are unified in whole objects (Greenberg, 1983) and the child gives up its omnipotent world perspective (Hinshelwood, 1991).

Depressive anxiety is based on the fate of others both internally and externally. Not only being the child's reaction against its own destructiveness, but a genuine expression of love and regret, developing into gratitude for the mothers goodness. Alternitivly Racker claims that both depressive and paranoid skitzoid anxieties are due to children's intense desire for their mothers love (Greenberg, 1983) and Winnicott preferred the term “concern” considering the infants protective feelings toward their mothers (Jacobs, 1995).


Klein considered that love and gratitude are innate, with gratifying objects enhancing gratitude and love and frustrating objects provoking paranoia and hate (Hinshelwood, 1991)


Reperation is considered the strongest element of the creative and constructive urges (Hinshelwood, 1991)

It is in the depressive position when Klein proposes that guilt makes its appearance. Klein considered that a child's aggression gave rise to anxiety as it conflicts with the powerful loving impulses, these loving impulses proposed by Klein are often overlooked by those wishing to criticize Klein (Segal, 1992)


Absolute Dependence 110

Winnicott said:-

There is no such thing as a baby... If you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship” (Winnicott, 1947) (Stevens, 1996)

During the stage of absolute dependence Winnicott considered the mothers state to be “Primary Maternal Pre-ocupatoin” a very early sage of emotional development where she feels the baby is a part of herself, leaving the baby with no means of awareness of material provisions (Winnicott, 1965).

Thus not differentiating between itself and its environment (Gomez, 1988), the child can only profit or suffer from disturbance being unable to gain control over how things are done. But dispite the infants physical dependence, psychologically it is paradoxically dependant and independent (Winnicott, 1965). Winicott considerd the development of a strong ego to be dependant on the mothers ability to meet the early absolute dependence of the infant (Jacobs, 1995)

Primitive agonies

Winnicotts primitive agonies are a description of the child's fear of going to pieces and eternally falling, having no relation to the body with no orientation in the world while in complete isolation with no means of communication. These may surface in later life as psychotic or borderline-state anxieties (Gomez, p88-89). He claimed the good enough mother creates a holding enviroment capable of containing these unthinkable anxietys enabling stable ego development (Jacobs, 1995).

Holding Impingment

Winnicotts reference to holding is both physical holding and the childs enviroment (Winnicott, 1965). Where the mothers creates the space and ability to facilitate the child's creative and imaginative self, while the child forms the object relations that it needs. This is dependant in part on the satisfaction that the mother is able derive from relating to and facilitating her child's internal struggling. (Newman, p789) reducing impingements to a minimum, with favourable conditions the infant is able to establish continuity in its existance

The enviroment does not make the child. At best it enables the child to realize potential. (Winnicott, 1965)

Impingment's break the continuity of the infants existence, and constant impingments disrupt the childs ability to intergrate, encouraging future mental problems (Winnicott, 1965), Impingement anxiety is a product of environmental failure (newman, p790)

Winnicott considered Klein's envious baby to be the product of a failed holding enviroment (Adams, 1988). Condidering the child as more benign, victimized product of its enviroment (Greenberg, 1983). In contrast Winnicott, Klein considered the child's internal environment to predominate the child's interactions with the world.

False Self

In unreceptive enviroments Winnicott argued that children cannot maintain genuine needs and wishes, because the caretakers agenda must be dealt with by the child. Thus the child shapes themselves according to the cartakers vision, compliently creating a false self (Michell, p105), a conscious, compliant version of the self, which under certain conditions hides and protects the ‘true self' in the unconscious (Stevens, p312). This is due to the dual malignant introjection firstly of the faulty caretaker who is either too narcacistic or too controlling and secondly the caretakers incapacity to manage the child's resultant reactions to their shortfalls leading to the child's internalization of both the disappointing parent and the parents inability to deal with the dissapointment, this impingment leads to the development of a 'false self' to deal with the anxiety created by this situation (newman, p791)

True Self

Winnicott considered the separated “Me” or “I am” from others is the true self (Jacobs, 1995). If there is sufficient attunement between the child and the mother then the infants ‘true self' emerges from activity's in the ‘transitional space' (Stevens, 1996). But if a child's bodily functions are managed impersonally or if it is left alone physically or mentally then it may attempt to identify more with the mind than the body, leaving the child perceiving its ‘true self' as an ethereal intangible quality. (Gomez, 1988)

Potential Space

In order to give a place for playing Winnicott proposed a paradoxical dynamic dialectic position known as potential space between the baby and mother. (ogden, 1979) being a hypothetical area which exists (and cannot exist) between mother and child, this potential space varies a great deal according to each child's life experience in relation to their mother figure (Winnicott, 1971)

Early life experiences determine each individual's use of this space, where each individual has their most intense experiences. Each infant has favourable or unfavourable experience within this space where dependence is maximal, thus potential space is only in relation to a feeling of confidence relative to the environmental factors, this confidence is evidence of the dependability that has being introjected by the individual. (Winnicott, 1971).

Ogden (1979) proposed the each pole of the dialectic relationship within potential space creates, informs and negates the other as the child moves from absolute to relative dependence.

Transitional Objects and Phenomina

Transitional objects are concerned with the first possession and its relation to the intermediate area between subjective and objective perception of the child (Winnicott, 1971). It is not the object that is transitional, but rather that object is the first manifestation of the infants altering perspective of the world, shifting from a internal psychic reality to the external world. (Cooper, 1989) Unlike the mother the transitional object is neither under internal control, nor is it outside external control (Winnicott, 1971) being the first not me.

It stands for the breast and is a symbolic part object (Winnicott, 1951, p231 233)

The child cannot live without it. It mustn't be washed or altered, even if it becomes threadbare. The child must be allowed to abandon it in its own time and its own way. It is not mourned; it is left behind, ‘relegated to the limbo of half-forgotten things at the limbo of half forgotten things at the bottom of a chest of drawers, or at the back of a the toy cupboard'. (Winnicott, 1971)

Brody (1980) claimed transitional objects more comforting substitue's for insufficient mothering than a universal phenomenon, citing reduced occurrence in rural area's (Jacobs, 1995). Play 88

Winnicott's concern with play arose from his interest in a child's experience of the ‘transitional object'. (Cooper, 1989)

Winnicott said “Play is immensely exciting because of the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects” (Cooper, 1989)

Playing is the interplay between inter personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects, the precarious nature of playing is due to its existence on the theoretical line between the subjective world and the perceived one (Winnicott, 1971)

Winnicott agreed with Klein proposing that certain aspects of children's play are external projections of their internal experiences with toys becoming subjective objects (Winnicott, 1965) and considered play to be a universal and healthy behaviour (Winnicott, 1971)

The Capacity to be Alone 124

Although the infant is alone, the carer is still present in the general environment due to the presence of familiar objects (Winnicott, 1971)

The basis of the capacity to be alone is a paradox, it is the experience of being alone while someone else is present. (Cooper, 1989)

Winnicott proposed that it is dependent on the presence of a good internal object, for this presence enables a feeling of confidence in the present and future. Considering the capacity to be alone closely related to emotional maturity, it's basis is the experience of being alone while in the presence of another, and is a highly sophisticated phenomenon with many contributing factors. (Winnicott, p 1971)

Hämäläinen (1999), proposed that everyone lives in the solitude of subjectivity, considering the capacity to be alone a capacity to tolerate the absence and lack of aloneness along with yearning for closeness, while simaltaniously enjoying the unity and connection of social life.


The lack of critisism for Winnicotts work may be due to the fact that dispite his prolific writing he did not compose a comprihesive theory. (Jacobs, 1995)

Klein's perspective is intrapsychic (one person) where as Winnicott is interpersonal (two-person) (Stevens, 305) (RELATES TO INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL) MASCULINE FEMININE.

The premise's of Klein's theory's are subjective rather than objective and philosophical rather than scientific (Gomez, p33),

Winnicott's writing style is considered to be impressionistic than anylitical and although (Gomez, p86-8).

A positive aspect of Klein's theory is achievement of gratitude and love with social relations can be achieved in the face of negative aspects such as envy and greed (Frosh, p127)

Some consider Klein's approach to be to deterministic, proposing that she considers that events that happen in later life have a negligible effect on the psychic makeup developed in the child's formative period (Segal, p91).

Kleins perspective that it is not only external influences that lead to childhood can be considered a important counterweight to the argument that it is purely the fault of parents when children suffer problems mentally (Segal, p88).

Those who are followers of Winnicott consider a child to be a far more benign and victimised creature than Kleinian followers, in Winnicotts book “The Child the Family and the Outside World” Winnicott expresses strong disagreement with Klein's proposal of a child projecting personal hated and “bad” aspects onto or into objects,

Critics of Klein consider her work to be tangential to Fruedian thinking in a highly speculative and fantastic manor noting that the forceful and certain manor of writing leads to hyperbole and overgeneralization (Greenberg, p120)

In defence of Klein it can be argued that those who critize her work do so as they fail to take a close and balanced approach to her work and thus focus exclusively upon aggression with out considering the balancing factors of other motives (Greenberg, p120)

It is claimed that the contribution of problematic features of the child's environment such as family and living conditions are not taken into account for their establishment of original bad objects in the psychopathology in individuals and it is claimed that Fairburn and Winnicot were able to explore possibilities of external factors due to their not being encoumbered by attachement to Freud's drive model of the human psyche (Greenberg, p147)


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To Mrs. Klein, aggression inevitably distorts the child's picture of the world, making him feel attacked with hatred whenever he is at all thwarted or deprived. Early environment may do much to increase, or lessen, this sense of persecution; but a 'bad' home does not create it, nor does a good one prevent it from appearing. Balint, M


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