Depressive Position

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A developmental stage in the first year allows the infant to begin to integrate his objects, which become mixed and take on both good and bad aspects. Particularly when the objects that attract ambivalent emotions are internalized, it creates a deeply troubling internal world, dominated by various forms of guilt feelings, sadness and reparative attempts to deal with them. (Melanie Klein, 1935).

Melanie Klein derived her notion of internal objects from the work that Abraham and Freud had done on the internalization of objects through oral incorporation in melancholia (Freud, 1917 [1915], Abraham, 1924). Abraham described symptoms which vividly expressed the movement of "loved objects" into and out of the body.

Klein (1935, 1940) viewed aggression from the earliest stages as producing a particularly problematic internal object. Freud described the internalization of the loved one as a response to its loss, when there was a particular heightened degree of ambivalence towards that person. In other words when a loved object, towards whom a lot of aggression is felt, is then lost, a persisting depression rather than normal mourning occurs. Klein discovered that this process also occurred with an internal object that was damaged (by the aggression) or, indeed, a dead internal object. It is this internal sense of damage and death which is the core experience of clinical depression, and was Klein's addition to Freud and Abraham's work on depression.

However, the depressive position (in contrast to depression) is a normal enough process. In this case, aggression, while internalizing loved objects, leads to restorative efforts towards the object internally, or in a symbolized and sublimated (and externalized) form. In turn, fears about the state of the internal object are always aroused by the loss of, or harm to, loved external objects.

Because of the love for a damaged or dead internal object the experience is extremely painful, and this anxiety of the depressive position has an internal reference point, known as guilt. During development the harshness of guilt is at first very severe, and is felt to be the retaliation of the damaged object insidea phantasy that is in line with Freud's description of guilt arising from the superego. As a result the developing infant may have great difficulty in accepting these feelings, and therefore hesitates to enter the depressive position. Crucially, the infant is anxious that its own badness and aggression will overwhelm its capacity for love. In this sense it is an intensely "moral" position, and indeed presupposes the struggle between love and hate as an inherent morality.

Klein and her followers found themselves in possession of the difficult notion of "internal objects." This term refers to phantasies about the contents of the self, and especially the concrete contents of the body. This idea developed Abraham's work on introjection and projection of objects which he found were phantasies of incorporation or expulsion of physical objects from the body (food and excreta). In Klein's theory these objects are animate, and are motivated with good or bad intentions towards the ego, as if quite real homunculi were resident inside the person.

The developmental stepcrucially the recognition that the loved person is also hated and attacked (at least in phantasy)may be avoided for the time being by various specific defenses. Firstly, the infant may revert to more paranoid-schizoid statesthe paranoid defense. Then the confluence of love and hate are prevented by continued splitting of good from bad objects.

Manic defenses are characteristic in the depressive position. Then, the importance of the loved object (and therefore its condition) is denied. As a result no serious guilt or dependence on the object is felt if it has been rendered so unimportant.

Alternatively if, and when, the guilt can be tolerated the ego is driven to seek methods of reparation for the damage done in phantasy or reality. In this case the harshness of the guilt, and the superego-like quality of the internal object becomes softened, and elements of forgiveness can develop.

The coming together of good and bad objects, and of the impulses of love and hate, mark the onset of a new respect for the reality of external people. Crucially, absence can begin to be tolerated without it being marked by a "bad object." But the beginning of a transformation in many aspects of mental life and development are ushered in (Hinshelwood, 1994). No final solution to the depressive position problem is found, and the attempt to deal with aggression against objects that are also loved and depended upon is a slowly evolving thread all through life.

In many respects this developmental voyage based on object-relations supplants the progress through Freud's libidinal phases. The achievement of reality testing (secondary process) is a comparable moment in development to that of the depressive position. Guilt is conceptualized in a slightly different way by Freud, as deriving from the strict superego (the only internal object that Freud attends toFreud, 1923), and this contrasts with guilt from a damaged internal object in the theory of the depressive position.

For classical psychoanalysts, the notion of the depressive position and its place in the development of the infant, disregards the classical descriptions of the libidinal phases. In addition the early onsetin the first six months of lifeis argued to be improbably early, for such a sophisticated set of emotional reactions. The integration that Melanie Klein described is then attributed to an age of two or three years when the mature Oedipus complex arrives.

However, for many non-Kleinian analysts a developmental scheme based on object-relations is compatible and complementary to the libidinal phases.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Alpha function; Ambivalence; Anaclitic depression; Archaic; Depression; Emotion; Fragmentation; Imago; Infant development; Infantile psychosis; Learning from Experience ; Manic defenses; Melancholia; Neurosis; Oedipus complex, early; Paranoid position; Paranoid-schizoid position; Psychoanalytic Treatment of Children ; Reparation; Selected fact; Splitting of the object; Symbolic equation; Thought-thinking apparatus.


Heimann, P. (1942). Sublimation and its relation to processes of internalization. International Journal of Psycho Analysis, 23, 8-17.

Isaacs Susan. (1940). Temper tantrums in early childhood and their relation to internal objects. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 21, 280-293. Republished in S. Isaacs (1948), Childhood and after. London: Routledge.

Klein, Melanie (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. International Journal of PsychoAnalysis, 16, 145-174. Reprinted in The writings of Melanie Klein, vol. I. (1975). London: Hogarth, 262-289.

. (1940). Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 21, 125-153. Reprinted in The writings of Melanie Klein, vol.I. (1975). London: Hogarth, 344-369.