Internal Object

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Internal object refers to the mental representation that results from introjection, incorporation, or internalization of the relationship to an external object. This is reinforced by the self-representation of the representative agency engaged in that relationship, thus together giving rise to complex object relationships.

Although Freud himself never used the term "internal object," he provided a foundation, which was then elaborated upon by Sándor Ferenczi and Karl Abraham. It was Melanie Klein, however, who proposed the original theory of an internal world with introjected objects and the ego's ambivalent relations with them. In her theoretical model (Klein 1935, 1940), the young ego split in this way experiences the threat of annihilation both from internal persecution arising from its destructive instincts and, at the same time, from reprisals by its own internal objects under attack. Ronald Fairbairn (1963), Donald W. Winnicott (1954/1958), Wilfred Bion (1962), Thomas Ogden (1987), and others subsequently offered further theoretical clarifications.

The concept of (if not the term) internal object in Freud's work originates with his paper "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g). Freud suggested that during the normal mourning process, the ego introjects the loved object to maintain its close relationship with it before submitting to the reality principle and eventually acknowledging the loss. In melancholia, by contrast, investment in the loved object, which arose in the first place from a narcissistic object choice that was originally ambivalent, is withdrawn when the object is lost; but the libido, instead of being transferred to other objects, is reinvested in the ego and used to form an unconscious identification with the lost or abandoned object. Object loss becomes ego loss, and the divided ego thereafter maintains a tormented relationship with itself. Freud refers to a regression to infantile narcissism in which the subject relates to the object on an oral level; thus, identification is effected through cannibalistic incorporation accompanied by an instinctual and ambivalent struggle to detach from, or preserve, libidinal investment. Melancholia would be also associated with the superego, conceived by Freud as the internalization of parental demands upon the ego; the superego separates itself from the ego by splitting in the course of the repression that ensues in the wake of the oedipal conflict.

After 1934, and especially with her paper "Mourning and Its Relation to Manic States" (1940), Melanie Klein took up these ideas, and introduced the notion of an internal world of introjected and internalized objects, with which the ego maintains tumultuous relations of love and destructiveness. According to Klein, the splitting of the object and the introjection of the good object are defenses of the ego when threatened with the loss of the object. This process is characteristic of the "depressive position," during which the part-object comes to be seen by the infant as a whole object, thus susceptible to loss. In this internal world, the play of instincts will threaten the good object (the primary object, incorporated before being introjected) with destruction. But because the good object constitutes the primary core of the ego itself, the ego then fears that it will be annihilated as well. Following Freud's model of the "purified pleasure ego" (1915c), Klein sees projection as the internal (good) object's defense against what it experiences as bad objects, whether the feeling of unpleasure is due to frustration or resulting instinctual destructiveness.

Fairbairn's contribution (1963) took these theories into consideration. Like Klein, he conceived of the ego as present at birth and capable of complete object relations. In case of failure of the primary object relationship, the ego splits off aspects of the self that appear undesirable to the mother, in a fixation to an unsatisfactory aspect of the object; this relation as a whole is repressed with the dual aim of mastering emotions and of creating the desired change in the object. For Fairbairn, "dynamic ego-structures" possess a certain autonomy in relation to the personality (considered as unique), and the internal object, as representative of an external object, is considered a specific agency. Thus, according to Fairbairn, the concept of the undifferentiated id is replaced by the idea of unconscious ego-object structures.

In 1954, Donald Winnicott proposed the notion of the "false self" as a defense organization developed to counter the threat of annihilation. The "false self" is a form of self-care; it energetically manages life in order to shield itself from the experience of an intense pressure to develop according to the internal logic of a primary other.

Wilfred Bion (1962) brought into play the notion of the "container" to describe the process that goes from projective identification to reintrojection. He discusses the unconscious fantasy of projecting into another the undesirable or damaged parts of the self, which can be later reintrojected after modification by this "container." For Bion, projective identification implies a personality split and ejection of the split-off part as an internal object. The "bizarre" object is an internal object experienced by the schizophrenic patient as having a life of its own, in an ego split such that the patient at the same time recognizes the self as a thing enclosed in the object.

For Thomas Ogden, the internal object relationship necessarily implies interaction between two divisions of the personality, each an active agency (1987). He suggests conceiving of the internal object as an aspect of the split ego, projected into and identified with an object representation. As an active agency able to produce meaning, this suborganization identified with the object works as a self-representation, which corresponds to the representation of the object. The relation to the internalized object implies thenceforth a double cleavage of the ego, because another ego suborganization remains identified with the self and maintains the object relationship.

Maria Torok's contribution, "The Illness of Mourning and the Fantasy of the Exquisite Corpse" (1968/1994), also deserves mention here. For this author, what is introjected is not the object, but the ensemble of drives and their vicissitudes for which the object serves as occasion and mediator. Here the goal here is to subjectify, to introduce into the ego unconscious, anonymous, or repressed libido. Torok distinguishes the internal object from the imago; the former represents one pole for the process of introjection while the latter represents everything that the ego appropriated through fantasies of incorporation, bringing together everything that had resisted introjection. Such an imago of fixation develops from a failed introjective relationship with an external object, and acts to prohibit sexual desire. Beyond the object, desire is lost, buried in an "endocryptic" identification.

The nature of the internal object remains an open discussion. Melanie Klein's theoretical propositions lacked clarity, based as they are on attributing literal reality to unconscious phantasies and on postulating agencies that are capable of feeling, thinking, and perceiving. Fairbairn clarified this issue with his suggestion that the internal object must be considered a split-off part of the ego that remains in relation with an object that is (at least partially) a dynamic structure, but he did not explain the dynamism of this structure. Bion's notion of the "bizarre object" also brought a certain clarity to the discussion by assuming a process in which a suborganization of the ego, a consequence of a split, presents itself to itself as a "thing," and has a fantasy of being included in (part of) the object.

Marie EugÉnie Julian Muzzo Benavides

See also: Concept; Deprivation; Group analysis; Imago; Object; Projective identification.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1962). A theory of thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 4-5.

Fairbairn, W. Ronald D. (1963). Synopsis of an object-relations theory of the personality. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 44, 224-225.

Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

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Klein, Melanie. (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 16, 262-289.

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Ogden, Thomas H. (1987). The transitional oedipal relationship in female development. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 68, 485-498.

Torok, Maria. (1994). The illness of mourning and the fantasy of the exquisite corpse. In Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The shell and the kernel: renewals of psychoanalysis (Nicholas T. Rand, Ed. and Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1968)

Winnicott, Donald W. (1958). Metapsychological and clinical aspects of regression within the psycho-analytical set-up. In Collected papers: through paediatrics to psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock (Original work published 1954)

Further Reading

Hinshelwood, Robert D. (1997). The elusive concept of "internal objects"(1934-43). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 78, 877-898.

Isaacs, Susan. (1940). Temper tantrums in early childhood, and their relation to internal objects. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 21, 280-293.

Ogden, Thomas. (1983). The concept of internal object relations. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 64, 227-242.

Sandler, Joseph, and Sandler, Anne-Marie. (1998). Internal objects revisited. London: Karnac Books.

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Internal Object

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