Besides elaborating for us the concept of projective identification (see post of May 16, 2011) Klein proposed two positions—not stages (she saw stages as linearly placed, kept in the past once this phase was traversed and returned to via regression). Positions, on the other hand, are interminably available, and can move into background or foreground throughout the lifespan. The positions are the Paranoid-Schizoid Position and the Depressive Position. When one operates in the paranoid-schizoid position, the defense of splitting predominates. In the depressive position, integration— the capacity to see differing aspects simultaneously—operates.
Developmentally, before a child has integrated that one person can have good and bad aspects, the child’s perceptions are split: There is a good mommy who gratifies and soothes and a bad mommy who frustrates and frightens. This compartmentalization is a function of immature cognitive development but psychologically serves to ‘protect’ the good object from feelings felt toward the bad object. An unfortunate carry over in adults is when we judge a part of a person (a misstep, a behavior, an attitude), mistaking it for the entirety of a person’s character, as if it is the whole person. (‘You pissed me off or disagree with me so you are scum or stupid, even evil.’) Racism, sectarian violence, misogyny work this way, evacuating and disavowing from ourselves any unacceptable trait or thought that we must disown.
Once a child recognizes that the mother contains multiple, even contradictory, aspects in one whole, both good and bad, two important things happen: the good aspect of the object is seen as capable of injury such that remorse, guilt and reparation may ensue; and the object is no longer seen as under the omnipotent control of the infant. Both guilt and loss of omnipotence can be ‘depressing’ to the infant.
Intersubjective theory advocates for striving to balance between both positions, including experiencing ourselves as both subjects and objects. In treatment, we alternate between seeing ourselves and our patients as subjects and objects. The less rigidly one holds to either position the more self-reflective one can be, and the more empathy one can develop.