How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The Depressive Position
The initial depressive position
The initial depressive position is a significant step in integrative development which occurs when the infant discovers that the hated bad breast and the loved good breast are one and the same. The mother begins to be recognized as a whole object who can be good and bad, rather than two part-objects, one good and one bad. Love and hate, along with external reality and internal phantasy, can now also begin to co-exist.
As ambivalence is accepted, the mother can be seen as fallible and capable of both good and bad. The infant begins to acknowledge its own helplessness, dependency and jealousy towards the mother. It consequently becomes anxious that the aggressive impulses might have hurt or even destroyed the mother, who they now recognize as needed and loved. This results in ‘depressive anxiety’ replacing destructive urges with guilt.
The general depressive position
In the more general depressive position, projective identification is used to empathize with others, moving parts of the self into the other person in order to understand them.
To some extent, this is facilitated when the other person is receptive to this act. The experience that the projecting person through their identification is related to the actions and reactions of the other person.
When the thoughts and feelings are taken back inside the projecting person from the other person, they may be better able to handle them as they also bring back something of the other person and the way they appeared to cope. It can also be comforting just to know that another person has experienced a troublesome part of the self.
The depressive position is thus a gentler and more cooperative counterpoint to the paranoid-schizoid position and acts to heal its wounds.
Klein describes the depressive position begins after the paranoid-schizoid position (initially first 3-4 months), at about 3 to 4 months, and may continue to play a forceful role, depending on circumstances, throughout life. The person may oscillate between these two manic-depressive states.
Bion (1959) described projective identification as a way of communicating that seeks an experience of being 'contained'. In his theory of containment, this is expressed as a linkage between the container (the other person) and the contained (the thought or feeling). This includes parent-child and analyst-patient containment.
Klein, M. (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. The Selected Melanie Klein, 116-145. Macmillan, Inc., New York, New York.
Bion, W. R. (1959). Attacks on linking, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.40