Object Relations Therapy: An Outline and Guide

We will look at all the bits of glass (elements of a developing psyche), but when put into the end of the tube, they mix together, swirl and create world of patterns, colors, and shapes that we have never seen before. Here we will look at each pile of colored glass….Theory binds our confusion, it gives us words, it tells us where to look, it contains us. It focuses our lenses so that we can see what we might otherwise miss.

Object Relations

  1. Named formally by Ronald Fairbairn in honor Freud’s drive theory – A drive has its source (physiological), its aim (satisfaction: the discharge of expression of nervous system excitation) , and its object (the eminently changeable entity toward which the drive was directed). Could be food, sex, a particular human, or a whole range of things. Object relations focuses on the third aspect, suggests that the human “object” is our most primary and compelling object.

  2. Our predispositions and patterns in relationships are based on 3 things:

    a. Who we think the other to be – We have certain filters through which we see others. These may be that others are a source of safety, reliability, trustworthiness, capacity to understand and accept us, what they require of us, ect.

    b. Who we think ourselves to be– worthwhile, not worthwhile, deserving respect or mistreatment, or disappointment. More could be embattled, wise, alone, gentle, care- taking, thoughtful, depressed, awkward, admired, anxious, ect. ) We have a certain set of characteristics that define the range of who we experiences ourselves to be.

    c. The interface between the two: Our preferred ways of being perceived and treated – or what we seem to require of and pull for in the mix of interpersonal (between people) and intrapersonal (within us) terrains.

         i. We all have a certain way we like to be seen and connected to that makes us feel comfortable. We have a certain feel that we unconsciously try to achieve. We also operate so as to be perceived and treated in ways that are familiar to us (our “spin” in relationships).

         ii. “Its like we master a set of dance steps along the way. We try these out with different people, some cant dance with us, some know the backwards steps, these are the people we feel we have “know all our lives….We tend to feel most comfortable when we are getting, relationally, what we have accustomed ourselves to and practiced along the way, because for better or worse we know exactly how our part of the dance goes.” We want to be encountered in familiar ways over and over again.

    1. iii. “We are profoundly wedded to and soothed by the power of the familiar”
    3. 3. Therefore, the focus of Object Relations Therapy (ORT) is to explain how we acquire this set of relational perspectives and preferences.

Internal versus External Objects

  1. External objects – the real parents, caregivers, and others in the family environment who related to us as we grew up.

  2. Internal objects – Our early conceptions of these external objects. We build a set of images or constructs within us that represent various aspects of how we internalized these external people (e.g. mom who rocked us when upset, the one who did our hair, the one who broke up sibling fights, the one who would cry when she was overwhelmed). We install a vast array of these images within ourselves as little people – in essence, fractioned pieces of our parents and significant caregivers, as we experienced them back then. Once installed, they remain a permanent part of our psyche and influence the way we think, feel, and behave within ourselves all the way through our adult years (e.g. the mommy inside, the daddy inside). In times of distress, you may notice, that you call on (not usually consciously) an internal object mom who used to calm us down and take care of us. If we make a mistake, we might feel the disapprobation of our (internal object) parent from within ourselves (could be neglect towards self if we had a neglectful parent or violence/anger if that was the case).

  3. The stage is set for our sense of ourselves and our emotional world from these early important relationships.

  4. A few more important things about these “Internal Objects”:

    a. We store both sides of the early interpersonal/emotional interactions with our caregivers inside us: The childs side AND the parents side. We internalize (1) what it felt like to be on the receiving end of our parent (soothed, contained, frightened) (2) the interpersonal strategies we launched in order to manage our parent, if that was necessary (calming, supportive, mature, invisible) AND what it felt like to be our parent in these moments (out of control, violent, depressed, anxious, ect.) . Yes. We internalize both sides of the emotional interaction in a way that we don’t do as adults. They become apart of who we are, how to think, how we feel, and how we function.

    b. We internalize our parents characteristics in this way, and then sometimes (inscrutably to us) enact them. Such identifications preserve peoples psychic linkages to their original parental objects. We master not only our own role in childhood scenes, but the other persons role as well.

    c. Our internal objects can also influence our treatment of others in our lives. Why? We learn different as developing children than we do as adults. As little people, we absorb experience rather than studying it. Think about it, during our second eighteen months when we are acquiring language, we don’t study language in order to learn it; we absorb it.

Origins of Self and Other

  1. Our “spins” and filters are acquired very early in the process of human development.

  2. We are received into an interpersonal environment that pre-exists us (familial, cultural, ect.) and from birth we begin to construct an interpersonal model which includes a picture of how the other (“the object”) behaves towards and apprehends us, and a picture of the self (our self) in that relationship. And remember – This interpersonal world is forced to meet our unique inborn biological characteristics (our activity level, temperament, appearance, and our talents and abilities from the get-go).

    a. We, as infants, put together a picture of ourselves through what we experience in our mother treatment of us: how she looks and beholds us. Through how we are viewed, handled, and responded to by our primary caregivers.

    b. “The precursor of the mirror is the mothers face” …Ordinarily, what the baby sees in the exchange of gazes with the mother is himself or herself…the mother is looking at the baby and what she looks like [from the baby’s point of view] is related to what she sees there.” –Winnicott

i. Imagine- born to crack addicted mom: enormous pain and withdrawal from the moment of birth, being 100% dependent but not able to be consistently attended to even for our basic needs, and imagine absorbing all and being without any language to think your way around these moments. Then add, the progressive psychological disappointment of trying to form an attachment bond (which we are hard wired to do) with someone who is not able to be there on the receiving end of our efforts. All the while the right side of our brain is developing an innate map of our interpersonal and emotional worlds, and actively wiring up our ways to handle that world (at the time, we do not have the tools of logic or perspective at our disposal). Result – we would be likely to form some un- worded but strong hypothesis about the safety of human beings in general and about our own merits, in terms of meeting someone’s attuned attention. This forms a certain kind of “Insecure” attachment style is likely to form (avoidant, ambivalent, disorganized – depending on the elements of nature and nurture).

c. Research support:

      1. Brain imaging and recent advances in neuroscience show that a great deal of inter and intra –personal action is going on quietly in the brains of infants during the first eighteen months of life, before language can be used to narrate it to themselves or to us (Shore, 2012).

      2. 80% chance that your attachment style at 5 years old will be the same at 25, 35, and throughout your adulthood (waters, et al. 2000).

      3. The brain physically changes as a result of attachment style (Schore, 2009). Children typically dissociate in grossly negligent environments and continue to do so throughout the lifespan, can be seen in certain (now strengthened) neurological pathways.

       4. We also see changes in the orbitofrontal mediating centers of self and other in these children- permanent alterations in the part of our brain whose job it is to make proper integrative sense out of our intra and inter-personal worlds. These changes can be seen within the first 18 months of life (Gerhardt 2004; Schore, 2009; Siegel, 2012).

        5.What’s the take home? The foundational tracks- the things we come to know in our bones about the self and other- are laid down early in our experience, and are much more difficult to re-wire that they would be to wire correctly in the first place.

Practice Makes Perfect
  1. So why do we do this? Why are we influenced so heavily early in life? Are there any advantages?

    a. We don’t have to re-invent the intra-personal and inter-personal wheel (our sense of self and other) over and over again. We can with some efficiency, predict and prepare for what is coming in subsequent human interactions. We don’t have to suffer surprise and disappointment if we already know what the world is like.

    b. Added point: The things we learn really early, we learn really well, and they are much less subject to revision or modification than the things we learn later on. A possible disadvantage if childhood relationships were not optimal.

  2. We get interpersonally smart over time – in terms of handling our particular childhood environment.

      a. We develop the emotional tools to handle the particular people we happen to land with as our caretakers, and whatever else is in the family configuration. Kind of like developing the muscles for a particular sport, we become stronger and more sophisticated at it.
      b. We learn the optimum strategy for managing that environment, given our natural endowments (our inborn temperament, responsiveness to the environment, ect.)

       c. Example

           i. Family setup – dad is an alcoholic; mom is unable to set effective limits with

    him. If dad is dangerous when he drinks, a developing child’s task might be to learn how to maneuver when dad is over his limit- whatever is available to that child – could be reading the signs of it early, being compliant, becoming invisible, taking care of their siblings, whatever works and is possible. The child also has to learn how to manage mom, let’s say, if she is fragile and inept when dad is drunk and dangerous – how to calm her fears, make her feel safe, take care of her in the aftermath, again, whatever is possible. Additionally, the child has his or her own feelings (maybe terrified) covered over by being the “strong one”, and often times feeling as though they somehow (magically) caused it all.

           ii. When that child grows up, he or she has a PhD in managing drinking-dangerous dad and fragile-inept mom. He or she will now (unconsciously) look for situations that allow him or her to exercise their hard-won knowledge and skills. They will scan the environment for the familiar- and when they find it- they will know exactly how to handle it. We will do this in various areas in our lives. Sometimes the application of these hard-won skills are redemptive, sometimes it is tragic.

3) Possible Object Relations outcome of the above scenario:

    a.  We might absorb mom’s fragility and ineptitude when dad is dangerous, but we also absorb her gentleness, her strength, her self- doubt, and her sense of deprivation as well. We might absorb dads dangerousness in drunken moments, his obsessiveness, imperiousness, his sense of humor, and his judgmental nature as well. At the same time we might also be taking in parts of older brother, or grandmother, or nanny. Remember, we don’t discriminate; we absorb and take in it all, our experience and theirs.

     b.  Also, anytime a child has to spend time and energy managing emotional adversity in his family of origin, there is something that child is NOT doing. They are not investing that emotional energy in the normal, essential tasks of being a child. Something is sacrificed. In adapting, they lose some capacity for self- knowledge, self-discovery, spontaneity, and alas authenticity. Some parts of who that child was meant to develop into and BE get sacrificed in the bargain. This damage is invisible, but familiar to therapists who get to watch these capacities emerge in the course of treatment.

So how do we protect ourselves? Defenses

  1. Beginning in the first months of life and throughout adulthood, we find ways to keep continuity and safety around our sense of ourselves. We are helplessly dependent and need to survive physically and emotionally, as well as experience a continuous sense of self (“I” or “me”) over time.

  2.  Anxieties are the experience – or anticipation of the experience- of pain, disconnection, overstimulation, under-stimulation, abuse, separation from the caregiver, ect. Defenses are our front and read guard against experiencing these anxieties.

    a. Defenses function unconsciously often and perform their safety patrols on a constant basis. They mobilize and take up arms when anxieties alert them that something potentially damaging to the self is happening. We learn what will feelings will be met, allowed, attended to, or reflected to us in our homes. We also learn what emotions our parents can bare and what makes them overwhelmed, nervous, angry, or just somehow absent.

    b. One of our main pre-loaded defenses is something called “dissociation” – moving beyond all tolerable limits, the infant has the capacity to disengage from the external worlds stimuli and retreat to an internal world (numbing, avoidance, lack of reaction, sometimes an inner fantasy world). In biological terms, this is the same process process that allows an oppossum to “play dead” or a mammal to retreat from the overwhelming situations to heal wounds and full depleted resources. These are our initial defenses against what may feel like to us like threats to our survival and continuity of a sense of self. However, as a response to misattunement in infants and developing children they can employ this defense, to is devastating…and what we know is that “states become traits” meaning, repeated effects of such early relational traumas become part of the structure of the forming personality (Perry et. al. 1995).

  1. Typically, from the outside, when we encounter another’s defense as an adult, we don’t have access to the underlying psychic pain/anxiety that the defense has been tasked with managing, minimizing, or staying completely away from. From the outside (and often from the inside) defenses look unnecessary – even gratuitous- if we don’t understand why they are there. They have a feel; they affect us as audience. They can be as annoying as narcissism or as frustrating as black and white thinking (called “splitting” in psychoanalytic terms)They can feel impenetrable, as when someone bores themselves and us with endlessly verbal minutia. They can even feel seductively playful, like the use of humor to stay away from the thoughts and feelings it may be meant to cover for. Others may be hypervigilance or paranoia, projection or projective identification, turning against the self, mania, and many, many more (see the post on Defense Mechanisms)

  2. These are our “war hero’s” as children, they kept us alive. They had profoundly legitimate places in our lives as children, and looked out for us as young people in our families of origin. The thing is, we don’t un-adapt as adults. We don’t shed these defenses. They can later be retired, honored, respected in repeated practice within the context and safety of a sound therapeutic relationship.

  3.  Defenses are organized on a continuum from primitive (e.g. dissociation and splitting) to second order or more evolved defenses like the use of humor or intellectualization. More primitive defenses are associated with more severe character pathology, as is the case of Borderline Personality Disorder. This often times means that trauma occurred at a very early age, requiring them to rely on more primitive ways of staying safe, like splitting (organizing their world into “safe/not safe” and later “good/bad”- in the absence of an ability to shade gray). Again, what was once a “state” becomes an adult “trait” On a slightly less insidious level, they keep up from the vulnerabilities required to connect to important people in our lives as adults.

Example: A child who was neglected or rejected feels they NEED to be self-sufficient. What anxiety might this keep him/her from feeling their own dependency? Possibly, the soul-ripping disappointment of chronic neglect as a young person, or chronic mis-attunement from a parent who was unable to experience him/her as an individual of her own, worth getting to know.

6) Defenses protect these deep anxieties. “We can wrap ourselves in words, substances, rituals, routine, in exercise, in rhythmic movements, even in our own body fat, and in doing so are attempting to gather ourselves psychologically in one place, to form and experience a safe and continuous version of ourselves. ” More on this in detail in a previous post called “Psychological Defense Mechanisms” 

Outline by the book Essential Psychodynamic Therapy: An Acquired Art by Teri Quatman

Object Relations Therapy is integrated into all of our work here at Keil Psych Group and is a cornerstone of psychological and relational healing. We want to help you understand the colors at the end of your kaleidoscope and heal from the current burdens of an unprocessed past. If you find this interesting, reach out to us via website and we can explore how this therapy can be uniquely helpful to you. 

Dr. Mitch Keil
Dr. Mitch Keil

Dr. Mitch Keil is a licensed clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, CA. His specialities in treatment cover a wide range of difficulties including depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, and grief/loss for teens, young adults, and adults. As a part of his dedication to the field, Dr. Keil receives regular supervision, support, continuing education, and training for his private practice. He is a lifelong learner and practitioner who is passionate about mental health, philosophy, and psychology.

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