From drive theory to object relations

Psychoanalysis started its life as a drive theory. By what means, Freud asked, did the instinctual life of the infant become tamed in the process of development so that the end result was the civilized man and woman of adult society? To this he had two sets of answers. The first, roughly, was repression and sublimation. In the Oedipal situation the child experiences sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent. These feelings arouse anxiety ('castration anxiety'), and so are repressed, or diverted into harmless exploratory and creative sublimatory activities. If, however, the process of repression is excessive the consequence in adult life is emotional inhibition. When repression is insufficient, anxiety-based or psychosomatic disorders result, or, ultimately, psychosis. A second answer, coming later, and forged in the face of the horrors of the First World War, was to suggest that 'civilization' was only skin deep. Here Freud invoked the death instinct and regression. Eros, the love instinct, is balanced by thanatos, the death instinct. Humans can all too easily regress to a state in which the death instinct is unleashed, producing, at an individual level the self-defeatingness and perversity of personality disorder, and at a group level social disruption and war.

As Freud's thought evolved, so a new paradigm began to emerge. Drive theory had little to say about relationships: other people appear merely as satisfiers or thwarters of an individual's instinctual needs. Freud began to ask how children as they developed, and later adults, reconciled their own wishes and desires—their drives or instincts—with those of their caregivers and peers. Struggling with this problem, while remaining within the confines of drive theory, he now differentiated between self-love, or narcissism, and other, or 'anaclitic', love, directed outwards. In this model, the individual gradually emerges from egg-like self-absorption and healthy narcissism into the world of relationships.

A further push towards a more relational theory came from Abraham, later to become Melanie Klein's analyst, who noticed the parallels between the phenomena of grief and depression. The intense psychic pain and disruption associated with a loss suggested a much more intimate connection between relationships and the architecture of the psyche than drive theory would allow. 'The unconscious' is not so much a repository of drives and desires, but an inner world populated by significant others or 'objects'. The self is forged out of these 'objects' with whom the individual has or has had important relationships: 'the shadow of the object falls on the ego'.(1) A further theoretical move arose from considering the origins of conscience and ideals. It is a matter of observation that much of development depends on processes of imitation and identification. The developing child internalizes, or in psychoanalytic terms 'introjects', his or her parent's values and standards. How, and where in the psyche, does this process take place? In Freud's 'tripartite model', the 'superego', alongside the ego and the id, is the focus for these internalized parental values and aspirations. The inner world now contained not just 'objects', but value-based relations between them: prohibitions, encouragements, injunctions, and gratifications. Much of post-Freudian theory consists of attempts to develop and elaborate these ideas.

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Getting to Know Anxiety

Getting to Know Anxiety

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