In essence, the term 'internal object' means a mental and emotional image of an external object that has been taken inside the self. The character of the internal object is coloured by aspects of the self that have been projected into it. A complex interaction continues throughout life between the world of internalised figures and objects and in the real world (which are obviously also in the mind) via repeated cycles of projection and introjection. The most important internal objects are those derived from the parents, in particular from the mother or breast into which the infant projects its loving (life instinct) or hating (death instinct) aspects. These objects, when taken into the self, are thought to be experienced by the infant concretely as physically present within the body, causing pleasure (good internal part-object breast) or pain (bad internal part-object breast). The infant's view of the motivation of these objects is based partly on accurate perception by the infant of the external object and partly on the desires and feelings that the infant has projected into the external objects: a malevolent desire to cause pain in the bad object and a benevolent desire to give pleasure in the good object.
Internal objects are experienced as relating to each other within the self. They may be identified with and assimilated, they may be felt as separate from but at the same time as existing within the self. Within Kleinian theory the state of the internal object is considered to be of prime importance to the development and mental health of the individual. The introjection of and identification with a stable good object is crucial to the ego's capacity to cohere and integrate experience. Damaged or dead internal objects cause enormous anxiety and can lead to personality disintegration, whereas objects felt to be in a good state promote confidence and well-being.
Internal objects can exist on several levels. They can be more or less unconscious and more or less primitive. Infantile internal objects are experienced initially concretely within the body and mind and constitute a primitive level of the adult psyche, adding emotional influence and force to later perceptions, feelings and thoughts. Internal objects may be represented to the self in dreams, fantasies and in language.
Internal objects are conceptually confusing in that they are described both from metaphsychological and phenomenological perspectives. Metapsychologically, the first internal objects are in part a creation of the life and death instincts, can affect the structure of the ego and are the basis of the superego. Phenomenologically they are the content of phantasy but of phantasy that has real effects.
The conceptualisation of internal objects is inextricably linked to Klein's theory of the life and death instincts, her ideas about unconscious phantasy and her theories of the development from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position within which there is a move from part-object to whole-object functioning. This means that no single definition can capture this concept.
For full references for Melanie Klein's works visit the 'Melanie Klein's publications' section.
1910 Freud, S. 'Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood'. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 11. Hogarth Press (1958). Freud writes about Leonardo's identification with his mother.
1914 Freud, S. 'On narcissism: an introduction'. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14. Hogarth Press (1957). The self takes the ego as its love object.
1917 Freud, S. 'Mourning and melancholia'. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14. Hogarth Press (1957). Ego identified with reproached lost object.
1926 Klein, M. 'The psychological principles of early analsysis'. The introjected mother is distorted by the child's sadistic impulses.
1927 Klein, M. 'Symposium on child analysis'. 'Imago' differentiated from the original object.
1929 Klein, M. 'Personification in the play of children'. Psychosexual stage influences character of imago. Extreme characteristics of imagos described.
1932 Klein, M. The Psychoanalysis of Children. Life and death instincts influence the character of the introjected (part) object.
1935 Klein, M. 'A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states'. Move from part- to whole-object relating provokes fear of loss of good objects and concern for its preservation. Increasing understanding of the complexity of the relationship between the external and internal object.
1940 Klein, M. 'Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states'. Mobilisation of defences against the loss of the good object. Mourning involves loss of internal as well as internal object.
1942 Heimann, P. 'A contribution to the problem of sublimation and its relation to the process of internalization', International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 23: 8-17. A clear exposition of the concept with vivid clinical illustration. Process of assimilation discussed.
1946 Klein, M. 'Notes on some schizoid mechanisms'. Binary splitting of objects necessary for successful establishment of the good object and essential for healthy development. Binary splitting differentiated from fragmentation.
1949 Heinmann, P. 'Some notes on the psycho-analytic concept of introjected objects', British Journal of Medical Psychology, 1949, 22, 8-15. Good exposition of the concept; links to bodily sensation emphasised.
1957 Klein, M. 'Envy and gratitude'. Envy leads to the internalisation of a destructive internal object.
1958 Klein, M. 'On the development of mental functioning'. Restatement of theory with modification in which extreme primitive internal objects are located in 'deep unconscious' where they remain undisturbed.
1952 Rosenfeld, H. 'Notes on the psycho-analysis of the super-ego conflict of an acute schizophrenic patient', International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 33: 111-131. Dead or destroyed internal objects function as 'ego-splitting super-ego'.
1959 Bion, W. 'Attacks on linking', International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 40: 308-315; republished in Second Thoughts. Heinemann (1967); and in E. Spillius (ed.) Melanie Klein Today, Vol. 1. Routledge. (1988). Internal object as 'ego-destructive superego'.
1964 Rosenfeld, H. 'On the psychopathology of narcissism: A clinical approach', International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 45: 332-337. Exploration of omnipotent introjection and identification.
1971 Rosenfeld, H. 'A clinical approach to the psychoanalytic theory of life and death instincts: An investigation into the aggressive aspects of narcissism', International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 52: 169-178. Exploration of omnipotent introjection and identification.
2004 Sodré, I. 'Who's who? Notes on pathological identifications'. E. Hargreaves and A. Varchevker (eds.). In pursuit of Psychic Change. Routledge. Continues the theme of omnipotent introjection of object.