Internal objects

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 metapsychological 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.

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 internal objects