⌬ Lecture №13 | Object Relations: Fairbairn [OPTIONAL!]

Social | Psychoanalytic | Work

Jan 5 2022 • 40 mins

Fairbairn is one of the more difficult-to-understand thinkers we will be tackling in this class. His work is not easy to read, and I'd even say it is impossible to read if you don't already have a good grasp of Freudian concepts. This is because (I think) so much of what Fairbairn is doing is trying to show what he thinks Freud got wrong.

As I prepared for this it became apparent to me that I could talk for several weeks about Fairbairn, but I don't have weeks, so I'm going to do my best to distill Fairbairn's robust thinking into something that might be useful to you.

Freud v. Fairbairn

Both Freud and Fairbairn believe the fundamental source of human motivation originates in the unconscious. However, there are two main areas where Fairbairn's ideas are based on Freud's ideas and radically different from Freud's.

  1. Libido (investments of love) – Fairbairn sees it as relationship-seeking rather than drive satisfying.
  2. The Ego (structure) – Fairbairn sees it as a structure that forms...

Review: Freud's structural model

Freud saw the structure of the human mind divided up in the following way.

  • The id (Fairbairn says this does not exist)
  • The ego
  • The super ego

Fairbairn's structural model

In my opinion, your text does not do a great job explaining this, so here is my attempt to share with you how I understand Fairbairn's structural stuff.

For Fairbairn our ego is who and what we are, and how healthy or unhealthy our ego (who and what we are) ends up being is totally contingent on relationships with other people.

  1. Central ego (identity) –  This is more like Kohut's "self," the who and what we are in the world we share with other people.
  2. Then there is the unconscious part, which has two sub-parts. These are "split off from" which is the term Fairbarin uses instead of repressed. I don't really understand why...
  3. Libidinal ego (or internal cheerleader) – An internalized phantasy of a nice, caring, responsive, respectful, naturing, parent... which effectively convinces the person that they can safely try things, and even if they don't work out things won't be a disaster.
  4. Anti-libidinal ego (or internal saboteur) – An internalized phantasy abusive parental sort of thing. The internalized critic, which is constantly telling someone they messed up, they are going to be rejected, or hurt, or some other bad thing.

It seems to me, in Fairbairn's model either the libidinal or anti-libidinal ego is dominant. The dominant structure is determined by the sort of relational experiences a person has as an infant, child, and adolescent. Generally speaking...

  • If the person has more good than bad the libidinal ego will be more dominant. The person will have higher levels of self-esteem, more confidence, all that good stuff.
  • If the person has had more bad than good the anti-libidinal ego will be more dominant, and the person will be more defensive, emotionally unstable, and all that bad stuff.

Hopefully, this makes that a little more clear to you because I need to move on to the next topic where Fairbairn was different than Freud.

Review: Drives & Satisfactions | Instincts & Pleasure

Freud saw things this way:

  • Instincts are tied to pleasure, we do what our instincts do, and we feel good. This helps keep a body alive. Human beings and animals have instincts in common.
  • However, people, unlike animals, are not satisfied with pleasure alone. Human beings have a drive, a force that compels them to get something that they don't need but enjoy. Persuing our drives brings satisfaction.

Fairbairn on libido as relationship-seeking

One of Fairbairn’s major theoretical developments [that differed from Freud] was his delineation of a psychological model of the mind, departing from Freud’s biological theory, in which the central assumption was that the libido is fundamentally pleasure-seeking. Fairbairn asserted instead that what is primary in us all is our search for relationships, and that this is more urgent than the desire to gratify [drives or] instincts. [...]  the driving force in the human psyche is not in fact the pleasure principle, but a fundamental need to relate to and connect with other objects, i.e. other people. (Source)

In effect, Fairbairn is saying people need relationships. The sorts of relationships we need change over time, but we always need relationships with other people to help us live good lives. A life without relationships would be horrible.

Fairbairn saw that people always try to connect with other people and form meaningful relationships with family members, mentors, friends, romantic partners, etc.

  • When this works, people tend to be good at regulating their emotions and have less difficulty with life overall.
  • However, when it does not work, people have a very hard time

Additionally, Fairbairn noticed a sort of person he called schizoid.

  • These were people who had lived through the tragedy of trying to connect to others.
  • This involved investing libido (love) into the relationship.
  • When the relationship does not work out, that investment is gone.
  • Schizoid people then develop a rich internal (i.e., fantasy) life and invest their libido into that. This is because the idea of investing in relationships and having them not work out again is too much for the schizoid person to bear.

Schizoid Personalities & Splitting

1940 saw the completion of Fairbairn’s first paper on this subject, ‘Schizoid Factors in the Personality’, and was the beginning of an immensely innovative and creative period. It was this paper – in which Fairbairn coined the term ‘schizoid’ – that would later inspire Klein to alter her ‘paranoid position’ to ‘paranoid-schizoid position’, and that would similarly have a considerable impact on Donald Winnicott’s thinking about schizoid states. This paper also marked the beginning of Fairbairn’s pioneering thinking about borderline states, and their origins in the ‘splitting’ process, a defence against the pain of being rejected by insufficiently attentive parents. [In the paper, Fairbairn] described the child splitting off the emotionally responsive side of his or her parents from the unresponsive side, thereby creating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects, and often also splitting the ego into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, a process often leading to borderline states. (Source)

This has implications for working with individuals who have what we nowadays call "borderline tendencies" (i.e., PBD). Fairbarin noticed that these individuals had been hurt by relational failures (e.g., abuse, neglect).

  • They have a powerful desire to be in relationships. This desire tends to have the idealize people at first.
  • However, like all people, they brought the damage from prior relationships into their current relationships.
  • When an idealized person fails to live up to the ideal, the person with borderline tendencies sees this as a threat, as "This person is about to hurt me!" so they get incredibly defensive.
  • This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy—the desire not to get hurt results in relationship failure and more hurt.

One thing I want to make clear is that we can't understand what Fairbairn says about schizoid and borderline individuals without understanding something about trauma.

Trauma

Trauma's role in personality development, splitting, & the formation of the unconscious

Fairbairn suggests that everyone endures traumas, some people experience more intense and longer duration traumas than others, but everyone experiences traumatic experiences during their life.

This leads to an important question: What is trauma?

Of course, there are many ways to define trauma. Still, for the sake of this lecture, I'm going to say that trauma is an experience that can't be integrated into a coherent, understandable narrative that we use to orient ourselves. Traumas are the things we can't "make sense" of. We try to make sense of them, but we can't. Sometimes our attempts to make sense of trauma lead us to re-enact the trauma.

Thus the human psyche acquires structure from the split-off traumas that, if they were understood by the child, would destroy his needed dependency relationship with his parent. Thus they must be  dissociated and remain unavailable to the individual's conscious central ego. In Fairbairn's model the unconscious is not a biological inheritance of humankind,  but rather a conglomeration of memories of parental failures and interpersonal traumas that become internal structures- the building blocks of the human unconscious (see his 1943 paper).

And this brings us back to where we started!

People with truam have more dominant anti-libidinal ego structures, and people with less trauma (and more pleasant experiences in relationships) have a more dominant libidinal ego.

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