Paranoid-Schizoid Position

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In the paranoid-schizoid position, first described by Melanie Klein in 1946, the earliest experiences of the infant are split between wholly good experiences with "good" objects and wholly bad experiences with "bad" objects. The ego protects itself from the bad ones by a mechanism that splits the ego itself.

Freud, at the end of his life, was interested in the splitting of the ego (Freud, 1940e [1938]). He had come, as it were, full circle from his earliest interest in dissociation in hysteria, via the manic-depressive psychosis, back to fragmenting processes that resemble schizophrenia. This was addressed too by Ronald Fairbairn (1941).

Working with severely disturbed patients, Klein identified the disintegrating forces within the early ego, and its struggle to develop a consistency within itself. This early dynamic of falling into pieces and pulling itself together again represented, for Klein, the conflict between the life and death instincts. So, the key anxiety-situation of this position is the fear of being destroyed from within. Klein and her followers (Rosenfeld, Herbert, 1950; Segal, Hanna, 1952) described this as the core anxiety of the schizophrenic, that which the schizophrenic feels to be overwhelming, that from which the schizophrenic is unable to recover. In contrast, the normal infant survives without the belief that it has been irretrievably fragmented. Usually the infant has various resources with which to keep this anxiety sufficiently mastered. In the first place the infant uses a number of primitive defense mechanismssplitting, projection, introjection, identification, denial (annihilation), and idealization.

Central and above all is splitting. Already fearing itself under attack from within, the ego re-orders its senses of self and object. It reconstructs its reality into a coherent picture of good elements and bad ones, which are split apart. These collections of fragments can then be processed by the other primitive mechanisms. In particular, as Freud described, the bad parts of the self and the object are expelled and believed to be a property of the external world, leaving the ego to contain only the good elements.

These fantasies and mechanisms constitute narcissism from a Kleinian point of view, and involve projective identification and splitting as fundamental mechanisms of defense.

This set of fantasies is based upon the view that the infant, from the beginning, has a sense of the boundary between its internal world (self) and the external world.Contrary to Freud's view, the death instinct is clinically visible in these states. The disintegration of the ego (under pressure to split off parts of itself) poses for the infant a struggle to master these disintegrating forces within. It may do so by directing the attacks of the death instinct toward the goal of forming coherent splits in the ego.

The death instinct, at first directed internally against the self, can, due to the projective processes, be partly redirected outwards against the now "bad" external objects. But in the process, the death instinct is also split, and the self-directed attacks are then seen as coming from outside, from the attacked object. This leads to illusions of a very persecutory nature. Such a projection of the self-attack into an external object creates an attacking external object. If introjected again that external object takes on the eventual form of a persecuting internal object, resembling a harsh superego.

Aother capacity the infant has for combating the anxiety of fragmenting is its internalization of a good object. If the external object has some consistency in the external world, then when introjected it can form the basis from which an internal consistency can grow. This is Klein's view of the origins of a coherent and relatively consistent sense of self. The achievement of a stable good internal object is the beginning of the depressive position, and represents a developmental move from the paranoid-schizoid to depressive position.

On the other hand, the failure adequately to develop this secure internal object gives a prolonged deficit in the development of the depressive position. This may later take the form of schizophrenia (Rosenfeld, 1965); or lead to a borderline state in which the anxiety situations of both positions are effectively avoided through a retreat into a pathological organization out of touch with any emotional life (Steiner, Riccardo, 1993). Some infants seem particularly prone to fail in introjecting a good external object and thus establishing a secure internal one. This may be due to various factors: a projection of the death instinct into the objects, good and bad, in the external world; or an intense envy of external good objects; or the actual absence of a consistent enough external good object; or indeed to a combination of all three.

The intricacy of the fantasy activity involved in these primitive processes is regarded by some as improbable. It is also questioned whether fantasy activity alone can be formative of the mind and of character. This position implies, to many analysts, that Klein viewed development advancing on the basis of internal states only and solipsistically remote from the external world.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Alpha function; Archaic; Archaic mother; Defense mechanisms; Depressive position; Eroticism, anal; Fragmentation, feelings of, (anxiety); Helplessness; Infant observation; Infantile psychosis; Learning from Experience ; Oedipus complex, early; Paranoid position; Projective identification; Selected fact; Symbolic equation.


Fairbairn, W. Ronald D. (1941). A revised psychopathology of the psychoses and psychoneuroses. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 22, 250-279.

. (1940e [1938]). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. SE, 23: 271-278.

Klein, Melanie. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 27, 99-110.

. (1955). The psycho-analytic play technique: its history and significance. In Klein, Heimann and Money-Kyrle (Eds.), New directions in psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications.

Rosenfeld, Herbert. (1950). Note on the psychopathology of confusional states in chronic schizophrenia. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 31, 132-137.

. (1985). Psychotic states: a psychoanalytic approach. London: Hogarth; repr. London: Karnac Books. (Original work published 1965)

Segal, Hanna. (1952). A psycho-analytic contribution to aesthetics. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 33, 196-207; Klein, Heimann and Money-Kyrle (Eds.). (1955). New directions in psycho-analysis. London : Tavistock Publications, p. 384-407.

Steiner, Riccardo. (1993). Introduction. (p. 21-49). In R.A. Paskauskas (Ed.), The xomplete correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.