Depressive position

‘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.

Reproduced from The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought by Bott Spillius, E., Milton, J., Garvey, P., Couve, C. and Steiner, D. (Routledge, 2011)

See a list of key papers on the depressive position