This article is based on ‘Object Relations Theory’ (Fairbairn, 1952). which places crucial importance upon interpersonal relationships, most of all interfamilial relationships, especially between the mother and the child. The theory, in particular, concerns itself with how we develop. in our early lives, inner, mental images of ourselves and others and how these images affect our interpersonal relationships throughout later life. The theory also incorporates the idea that humans are primarily motivated by a powerful desire to form positive relationships with others (breaking away from Freud’s belief that humans are primarily motivated by the instinctual drives of sex and aggression).
Research suggests (e.g.Nigg et al., 1992) that those suffering from BPD are prone to develop ‘malevolent representations’ of others. This article summarizes why this might be in terms of psychoanalytic theory.
First, it is necessary to introduce two terms: ‘Object Cathexis’ and ‘Object Hunger.’
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, ‘object cathexis’ is a classical psychoanalytic term that refers to the process of the investment of libido or psychic energy in objects outside the self, such as a person, goal, idea, or activity.’
Object hunger, on the other hand, refers to an intense need of, and dependency upon, others (e.g. family, friends, intimate partners) or, especially in the case of BPD sufferers who experience profound feelings of emptiness, substitutes such as narcotics, tobacco, alcohol, promiscuous sex, overeating, overspending on material goods etc.
In simple terms, if we were brought up in early life by primary cares who made us feel safe and secure we are likely to have developed healthy object cathexis and a general trust in the world and others. However, if our primary carers failed to make us feel sufficiently safe and secure, we are much more likely to have developed a diametrically opposed general view (i.e. that the world and others are unsafe, threatening and not to be trusted). This, in turn, creates in us ‘object hunger.’
Introjection is a psychoanalytic term that means:
‘the unconscious incorporation of attitudes or ideas pf others into one’s personality’. [particularly in relation to the child and his/her parents/primary carers].
Loving and nurturing parents lead us to introject their positive attitudes about others, ourselves and the world in general whereas parents who are abusive or neglectful lead us to introject their negative attitudes about others, ourselves and the world in general which, in turn, creates a proneness in us to see ourselves as unlovable, the world as unsafe and threatening and others as essentially malevolent.
Furthermore, if we are unable to introject positive attitudes from our parents due to their abuse and/or neglect we will be unable to construct a positive, internal, mental representation of them to comfort us in times of stress when they are not physically present. And, because of this, we are likely to have an impaired ability to calm ourselves down and self-soothe when emotionally upset.
Our inability to effectively self-soothe, due to our failure (because of our parents’/primary carers’ abuse and/or neglect) to create for ourselves in early life a ‘soothing introject’ can mean that when feeling fearful and under threat we create instead in our minds a ‘malevolent other’ in order to help us to make sense of the situation and to rationalize it. For example, if a friend unconsciously triggers in us the feelings of rejection we felt in childhood we may demonize and devalue them because we are unable to draw on the emotional resources a ‘soothing introject’ would otherwise have provided. In this sense, the mental creation of the ‘malevolent other’ operates as a defence mechanism based upon the process of transference (‘transference refers to an individual’s displacement or projection of feelings originally directed at parents/primary carers in the individual’s childhood onto others.
Of course, if, due to our childhoods, we have developed this in-built tendency to view others as malevolent, we are likely to encounter serious problems in relation to our interpersonal relationships. To learn more about how these problems may arise, you may wish to take a look at my previously published article about how our adult relationships can be ruined by our childhood experiences.
Fairbairn, W.R.D. (1952). Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Nigg, Joel., (1992) Malevolent Object Representations in Borderline Personality Disorder and Major Depression. Journal of abnormal psychology.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).