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The state of helplessness is linked to the infant's initial powerlessness in the face of its needs. This causes distress, as the protective shield is overwhelmed; only the intervention of another person can relieve this suffering.

The neurophysiological model of Sigmund Freud's "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]) posits the baby's original helplessness as the prototype of all traumatic situations. Helplessness and satisfaction structure the two modes of mental functioning. In the primary mode, the desired object and desired satisfaction are hallucinated immediately through recathexis of the memory traces left by the real experience. In the secondary mode, a lasting discharge forms the basis for the relationship to the real object, lost and rediscovered thanks to "indications of reality," and invested with the meaning "mutual understanding."

Helplessness and the theory of anxiety are closely linked. The helpless baby, powerless to fulfill its needs and without any adequate means of discharging internal excitation, experiences "automatic anxiety." Anticipation of helplessness triggers "signal anxiety," the ego's appeal to the ego (1926d [1925]).

In a state of helplessness owing to its prematurity, the preverbal human infant cries, experiences and recognizes its powerlessness, and urgently alerts the succoring object. The ability to apprehend its helplessness depends on the protective shield against stimuli, whose action is thus the basis of relationships, the precondition of effective communication.

For Melanie Klein (1952/1975), the distress associated with the death instinct, a source of tremendous persecution, precipitates projection. This is the foundation of what she calls the schizoid-paranoid position.

When a human being is reduced to a state of helplessness, subjected to a primal kind of passivity by the impositions of others, he or she may seek to regain mastery through repetition of the experience. For Kreisler et al. (1966), too much distress of this kind may cause psychosomatic disorders; for Tustin (1972), the result may be recourse to autistic defenses.

Anne Aubert-Godard

See also: Alpha function; Anxiety; Dependence; Illusion; Narcissitic injury; Prematurity; Transference depression; Thing, the; Trauma.


Freud, Sigmund. (1925). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 87-172.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.

Klein, Melanie. (1975). Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of infants. In The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 3, pp. 61-93). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1952)

Kreisler, Léon, Fain, Michel, and Soulé, Michel.Études sur la clinique psychosomatique du premier âge. Coliques, insomnie, mérycisme, anorexie, vomissements. Psychiatrie de l'enfant, IX (1), 89-222.

Tustin, Frances. (1972). Autism and childhood psychosis. London: Hogarth.