Melanie Klein and the Paranoid Schizoid Position

Michael Eigen organizes our understanding of paranoid schizoid positions by attending to “sensitivity.”  Sensitivity is important to life, to relationships. Sensitivity nurtures us. It gives color, dimension, and depth to life. Sensitivity is the basis for terror. Without it, we cannot respond to the life of person before us. Sensitivity and feeling and thinking all feed each other. More sensitivity means more feeling. More sensitivity means more thinking. More feeling and thinking may mean more sensitivity.

Freud wrote of chaotic sensory fields that stream through the body, sensory fields involving the inside and outside of skin, mucus membranes, glands, aliveness of tissues. One can be sensitive to the raw life of sensations, skin itching, dry eyes, feet tingling. But there are more dimensions of sensitivity than just the raw life of sensations. We can develop emotional sensitivity, perceptual sensitivity, reflective sensitivity, interpersonal sensitivity, and sensitivity to these different dimensions enlivens our experience, our awareness, our attunement. Michael Eigen (2004) reminds that thought and feeling dry up when we don’t attend to the endless sea of sensations that pulse through us always and already.

Experience is a matrix. We have the unique capacity to focus on different dimensions of the matrix of our experience. We can take one particular dimension of our experience, and zoom in on it. We can hold it up, turn it around, consider it, and then again differently. We have the capacity to select the dimension of emotional experience, or the dimension of reflective experience, where thoughts and fantasies hold sway, or the dimension of raw bodily sensations, or the dimension of interpersonal experience. We can take one of these, detach it from the other aspects that compose the matrix of experience, and consider it, study its qualities, learn from it, be expanded by it, changed by it.

And we can think, taste, see, sense, relate to, and feel the differences in quality among these different dimensions. For example, we can select the emotional dimension of experience and distinguish different kinds of emotional experience. And we might find one particular emotion, such as anger, or sadness, and break it down into even finer elements. We might consider anger’s primary qualities, it’s size, shape, or weight. And we might consider anger’s secondary qualities, it’s color, sound, odor, taste. Entering more fully into more dimensions of experience results in experiencing more fully all the dimensions of life.

Sensitivity allows us to take the whole world of experience, and break it down into bits. We can then focus the various bits of life- textures, hues, fragments. And we can do the opposite as well: sensitivity allows us to move from the bits of experience to the whole of experience. We can move from the whole to the part, and from the part to the whole. The lines blur and the perceptual flow splashes through us when we’re in the relaxed focus of a meditative state. The different dimensions of experience are all flowing and streaming, teaming and intertwining in endless combinations and relationships. Our capacity for sensitivity allows us to shift our attentional focus from a whole object to the particular dimensions or components that make up that object. And sensitivity also allows us to go in the other direction as well: we can shift from the particular dimensions or component parts to the object as a whole.

Melanie Klein thought a lot about sensitivity, and in particular the capacity to shift between part and whole. After years of working with infants and children, Klein began hypothesizing that long before the infant ever experiences the mother as a whole human being, as a separate and whole individual with a life of her own, the infant first experiences only a part of the mother. In the first moments of life outside the womb, the infant only experiences a part of the mother: the mother’s breast. The mother is not experienced as a whole mother, as a whole self, but rather as a nipple. The nipple meets the infant’s mouth and the infant sucks, feeding. If the feed is good, if the object is feltas good, good feelings result. At the same time, the experience of good feelings produces the sense of a good object. If the feed does not go well, if the breast and nipple are felt as bad, then negative feelings result, and the breast and nipple are perceived and experienced as bad and malevolent object.

As I understand her, Klein thinks that due to the infant’s capacity for sensitivity, the infant is simply unable to sustain the onslaught of raw experience. The sensations of raw experience are too much for the infant, and so somehow the infant begins dividing good sensations from bad. The infant takes a more or less nebulous, chaotic, streaming sensory field and splits it, separating what feels good from what feels bad. It divides pleasurable experience from unpleasurable experience, splitting them off from each other. But what to do with the bad experience, the experience of bad feelings, bad sensations? Klein says in order to protect the good experience, the infant tries to get rid of the bad experience either by projecting the bad experience outside himself, hallucinating it out there, or by denying it. This basic attempt to preserve the good affect nucleus at the heart of psychic experience takes place by idealizing the good experience on the one hand, and either projecting or denying the bad experience on the other. Rather than experiencing the whole of what is taking place – which includes both good and bad – the child splits off and either projects or denies the bad feelings, the bad experience.

When this operation of splitting and consequent projection and denial becomes pervasive, the result is a person who is chronically manic, vigilently maintaining rigid boundaries between good and bad, defensively protecting against any bad feelings. The bad feelings have to be split off and swept elsewhere. They are either swept off into into other parts of the self that are put away, and vigilently denied from conscious awareness, or they are projected out onto the world and others. Klein calls this position where the person relies on splitting the good from the bad, and then idealizing the good parts, but denying and projecting the bad parts, the paranoid schizoid position.

Klein observes that as infants and children develop and mature, they begin to bring the split off bad affects and experiences together with the good affects that have been idealized. They begin to integrate both experiences, the good and the bad. The child begins to see that the hated witch mother (bad affect experience) is also the loved, divine mother (good affect experience), and that both are the same mother only in different moods. The child begins to realize that the mother is capable of hurt and hate, and also love and solace. The child learns that mother is both. The child’s growth and maturity is marked by the realization that good and bad experiences are what happen between all people, that love and hatred are part of the necessary brew, and that life with another always involves both injury and repair, bad and good. The pain one receives and inflicts, and also the pleasure, are what whole people do together.

Klein notes that in realizing that injury and disappointment are part of intersubjectivity, part of all close relationships, the child takes on a depressive tone. That is, when the child realizes that splitting as an attempt to escape the pain of human being-ness actually creates the need for caring and reparation, a depressive tone results. Klein calls this growth in making room for the opposite affects of good and bad, and an acceptance of the differing experiences of pleasure and pain, the depressive position. A certain mouring results as one comes to face the fact that injury and disturbance are inevitable in human relationships, and that faith in a good core must undergo much development in order to meet the challenges of life, both within and without.

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