Paranoid-schizoid position

The term ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ refers to a constellation of anxieties, defences and internal and external object relations that Klein considers to be characteristic of the earliest months of an infant’s life and to continue to a greater or lesser extent into childhood and adulthood. Contemporary understanding is that paranoid-schizoid mental states play an important part throughout life. The chief characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position is the splitting of both self and object into good and bad, with at first little or no integration between them.

Klein has the view that infants suffer a great deal of anxiety and that this is caused by the death instinct within, by the trauma experienced at birth and by experiences of hunger and frustration. She assumes the very young infant to have a rudimentary although unintegrated ego, that attempts to deal with experiences, particularly anxiety, by using phantasies of splitting, projection and introjection.

The infant splits both his ego and his object and projects out separately his loving and hating feelings (life and death instincts) into separate parts of the mother (or breast), with the result that the maternal object is divided into a ‘bad’ breast (mother that is felt to be frustrating, persecutory and is hated) and a ‘good’ breast (mother that is loved and felt to be loving and gratifying). Both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ objects are then introjected and a cycle of re-projection and re-introjection ensues. Omnipotence and idealisation are important aspects of this activity; bad experiences are omnipotently denied whenever possible and good experiences are idealised and exaggerated as a protection against the fear of the persecuting breast.

This ‘binary splitting’ is essential for healthy development as it enables the infant to take in and hold on to sufficient good experience to provide a central core around which to begin to integrate the contrasting aspects of the self. The establishment of a good internal object is thought by Klein to be a prerequisite for the later working through of the ‘depressive position‘.

A different kind of splitting, ‘fragmentation’, in which the object and/or the self are split into many and smaller pieces is also a feature of the paranoid-schizoid position. Persistent or enduring use of fragmentation and dispersal of the self weakens the fragile unintegrated ego and causes severe disturbance.

Klein considers that both constitutional and environmental factors affect the course of the paranoid-schizoid position. The central constitutional factor is the balance of life and death instincts in the infant. The central environmental factor is the mothering that the infant receives. If development proceeds normally, extreme paranoid anxieties and schizoid defences are largely given up during the early infantile paranoid-schizoid position and during the working through of the depressive position.

Klein holds that schizoid ways of relating are never given up completely and her writing gives the impression that the positions can be conceptualised as transient states of mind. The paranoid-schizoid position can be thought of as the phase of development preceding the depressive position as a defence against it and also as a regression from it.

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 paranoid-schizoid position