The Theory of Object Relations

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OTTO KERNBERG
THE THEORY OF OBJECT RELATIONS

Kernberg generally defines object relations theory as the psychoanalytic study of intrapersonal relations and how intrapsychic structures grow from internalized past relationships with others. Broadly, object relations theory could refer to a general theory of the structures of the mind influenced by interpersonal experiences. More narrowly, object relations theory is a more circumspect approach within psychoanalysis, stressing the construction of structures from internal objects – that is, self-representations linked with object-representations.

I. STRUCTURE:

Object
An Object is a mental image of a person, a mental image colored with feelings. Kernberg’s work examines the formation of structures within the intrapsychic world of the individual. Objects may be both real or things in one's inner world (one's internalized image of himself/others). Internalizing object relations has three parts: an image of the object in the environment, an image of the self in interaction with the object, and a feeling that colors the object-image and the self-image under the influence of whatever drive present at the time of interaction, ordinarily frustration or pleasure. An attempt to synthesize Drive Theory from Object Relations was made by Kernberg. By these units, he mixes the drive model and the object relations model by having the self- representation and the object- representation build up under the influence of libidinal and aggressive drives or aspects of drives that filter into experience. Kernberg says that Freud “clearly differentiated drives from instincts”, drive being psychological motivators of behavior and instincts being biological behavior patterns activated by the environment. Kernberg did not merely say that the units of object relations serve as building blocks of psychic structures. He makes up the claim that they also build up the drives. “Good” and “Bad” mean pleasurable or unpleasurable as well as some level of libidinal or aggressive drives. Good affective experiences serve as the basis for libidinal drives, and bad affective experiences serve as the basis for aggressive drives. In other words, the object-directed feelings of love and hate precede and build up the drives.

Splitting
It is an activity which the ego sees differences within the self and within objects or between the self and its objects. A defensive measure, splitting involves an unconscious phantasy by which the ego splits off unwanted aspects of the self or splits threatening objects into more manageable aspects. Kernberg uses the concept of splitting to help understand the formation of distinctions between good and bad self-representations and object-representations in early development. He understands splitting as a characteristic mechanism in borderline personalities. Good experiences produce islands of good feelings that link up and become organized in increasingly complex ways so that they help form the structures called ego and superego. Bad experiences, on the other hand, continue to produce frustrated feelings. Defenses of splitting keep the bad feeling apart from each other so anxiety cannot contaminate all the parts of the mind of the child.

II. PROCESS:

The process of internalization (or taking in relationships from the environment) has three levels: introjection, identification, and ego identity.

Introjection
Introjection is the earliest stage of the process that builds the personality and its structures of ego, id, and superego. In the earliest introjected units, the self-representation and object-representation are not yet differentiated from each other. These units of self- and object-representation gradually become differentiated and crystallized into clear componenets. Splitting helps in the process of differentiation. The feelings, or affect disposition, are important. If the child has a pleasant oral experience of sucking, such as occurs in a loving...
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