'Depressive position' is a mental constellation defined by Klein as central to the child's development, normally first experienced towards the middle of the first year of life. It is repeatedly revisited and refined throughout early childhood, and intermittently throughout life. Central is the realisation of hateful feelings and phantasies about the loved object, prototypically the mother. Earlier there were felt to be two separate part-objects: ideal and loved; persecuting and hated. In this earlier period the main anxiety concerned survival of the self. In the depressive position, anxiety is also felt on behalf of the object.
If the confluence of loved and hated figures can be borne, anxiety begins to centre on the welfare and survival of the other as a whole object, eventually giving rise to remorseful guilt and poignant sadness, linked to the deepening of love. With pining for what has been lost or damaged by hate comes an urge to repair. Ego capacities enlarge and the world is more richly and realistically perceived. Omnipotent control over the object, now felt as more real and separate, diminishes. Maturation is thus closely linked to loss and mourning. Recognition of the other as separate from oneself encompasses the other's relationships; thus awareness of the oedipal situation inevitably accompanies the depressive position. Emerging depressive anxiety and pain are countered by manic and obsessional defences, and by retreat to the splitting and paranoia of the paranoid-schizoid position. Defences may be transient or become rigidly established, which prevents the depressive position from being faced and worked through.
The term 'depressive position' is used in different but related ways. It can refer to the infantile experience of this developmental integration. More generally it refers to the experience, at any stage of life, of guilt and grief over hateful attacks and over the damaged state of external and internal objects, varying in level of felt catastrophe on a scale from normal mourning for loss to severe depression. The term is also loosely used to refer to 'depressive position functioning', meaning that the individual can take personal responsibility and perceive him- or herself and the other as separate.
For full references for Melanie Klein's works visit the 'Melanie Klein's publications' section.
1927 Klein, M. 'Criminal tendencies in normal children'. First observations of guilt in children after aggressive attacks.
1929 Klein, M. 'Infantile anxiety-situations reflected in a work of art and in the creative impulse'. Shift observed from dread of attack to fear of the loved object. First mention of reparation.
1932 Klein, M. The Psychoanalysis of Children. Splitting in order to protect the good object; the importance of 'restitution' in sublimation.
1933 Klein, M. 'The early development of conscience in the child'. Change in nature of superego from vengeful to concerned with guilt and moral sense.
1935 Klein, M. 'A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states'. First explicit exposition of the depressive position.
1940 Klein, M. 'Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states'. Clearer and more developed exposition.
1945 Klein, M. 'The Oedipus complex in the light of early anxieties'. Important link made between depressive position and Oedipus complex.
1946 Klein, M. 'Notes on some schizoid mechanisms'. Introduction of the paranoid-schizoid position, with clearer delineation of the two positions.