The Maturing Value System of Concern for the Other: The Depressive Position


Melanie Klein had a hard life in many ways. She lost a sister when she was four, her father when she was eighteen, and a brother shortly thereafter. Klein had a moderately troubled relationship with her mother. She had loved all of the family members who died. When she was in her fifties, she lost a son to a mountain climbing accident, and very likely struggled with a depression, and then wrote her two classic papers on mourning and manic depressive states.

I have the impression that it was her own self reflections regarding these losses and her reactions to them that led her to recognize how difficult it is for the human organism to tolerate loving feelings and the precarious uncertainty that the loved object will go on living. Thus the anxieties attendant to separation and loss, when added to the pains of envy, jealousy, and guilt, make it a real effort to develop and sustain a capacity for loving feelings.

So how do we ever develop a capacity for love in the first place? If we were to stay in the idealized states of mind that populate the paranoid-schizoid position, we could avoid guilt because we would not have to concern ourselves with the mistreatment of a bad object who deserves whatever misfortune we dish out. We could also have love for the ideal object as long as it meets our needs and avoids becoming a bad object. But it would be a world of self-interest and narcissism, and any love that was present would be of the infantile “commercial” type in which I do something for you and expect something of commensurate or greater value in return.

What Klein observed was that infants seemed to undergo a change in the middle of the first year of life. They began to demonstrate a capacity for concern about the welfare of the other and not just think about themselves. This evolutionary development in the life of an infant seems to go hand in hand with the infant’s blossoming recognition that the mother he loves, when the infant feels his needs are being met, is the same mother that he hates when he is frustrated, etc.

This leads to a realization that the hateful feelings that are meant to destroy or banish the frustrating, bad mother are actually simultaneously doing harm to the good mother that he loves. This causes fear of loss and guilt and mobilizes a desire to restore the loving relationship to the loved, good mother. Klein beautifully describes this type of situation in her 1929 paper “Infantile Anxiety-Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative Impulse,” which uses an operetta by Maurice Ravel to highlight these states of mind.

Key Points of the Infant’s New Value System:

1 – This new developmental orientation is ushered in as a result of neuroanatomical developmental capacities that are met simultaneously with a good enough environmental provision (using Donald Winnicott’s terminology). This is to say that its timing is linked to increasing cortical and especially frontal lobe capacity for pulling disparate experiences together in an increasingly complex and organized manner.

However, some infants never achieve this level of integration so neuroanatomical development by itself is not enough. Infants that have a more problematic environment that includes ongoing deprivation and/or trauma stay more in a paranoid-schizoid mode of functioning. To this mode, they add manic defenses that can be developed and used to cope with mental pain as a result of the developing brain capacities.

2 – Klein’s Depressive Position represents the most advanced and desirable attitudes about human relationships of which the human organism is capable. They, however, can be elaborated and refined with age and experience. Simply put, this means caring for others as well as oneself, and wishing to make amends when one has done harm to the other.

The real problem is that human life is complicated. Ongoing learning and neuroanatomical development doesn’t improve the child’s capacity for love. Instead, he improves his capacity to cope with the emotional pains that are attendant to love, most notable jealousy and guilt. Really, if one thinks about it, the increasing language skills, etc. improve one’s ability to lie and misrepresent to oneself what one feels or has done. As Wilfred Bion famously said, and I paraphrase, “Language is better suited to telling lies than uncovering the truth.”

3 – All human beings would be savages were it not for the depressive position. This is because the depressive position mobilizes the one emotion that stops mankind from being barbaric – GUILT! I have always subscribed to the humorous saying that “civilized man” is an oxymoron.

Unfortunately, as we will see when we talk about the manic defenses against depressive anxiety, man uses his prodigious brain power more for evasion of mental pain than for facing pain with a goal of dealing with it constructively. The fear of punishment with the rule of law and guilt are really the only two things that keep our infant selves from running amok.

As you can see, we cannot emphasize enough how important this step is in the infant’s development and how guilt – when not excessive and unbearable – is the most valuable motivation for constructive development because it is linked to love. I am always amazed when I hear someone say that guilt is a bad emotion – wrong! Irrational guilt, excessive guilt, misplaced guilt, etc. are all problematic, but guilt in itself is very desirable in that mobilizes a desire to take care of someone we have hurt.

4 – Making proper repair of someone we have injured requires three basic things:

1) Taking ownership and/or responsibility for having injured the party with our own behavior.

2) Acknowledging the full extent of the injury and its impact on the injured person.

3) Making one’s best effort to fully restore the injured party, if possible, to their pre-injury state.

5 – In Kleinian literature, one finds regular reference to “depressive anxieties.” This is fundamentally a reference to the depressive position and implies, in whatever context it is being brought up, that the person at that moment is concerned about the welfare of his good object and fears losing that object or doing harm to it. Depressive anxieties are in the realm of mental health, and their reference usually implies a concern about preserving one’s internal harmony and mental health.

These elements make for what Klein meant by “reparation.” It is the recognition of one’s love for the object that makes the desire for repair so powerful. It will be this love – and the guilt that it can mobilize – that will be assaulted by the ‘manic defenses’ against depressive concern and anxiety.

Disruption of Depressive Position Development:

There are several points to be made here.

1 – Excessive mental pain in infancy overloads the infant’s capacity to tolerate the pain and try to modify it. The infant is driven by this excess to evade the pain entirely, which undermines development as he compels an excessive use of omnipotent maneuvers for coping, usually in the form of denial and projection. By definition, these maneuvers are not compatible with the attitudes of the depressive position where one is taking full ownership of one’s mental pain.

2 – In theory, it is possible for development to fail to outgrow of the paranoid-schizoid position. This would imply that the infant’s mindset remains concrete, tends toward living in a black and white universe where shades of grey are not recognized, relies excessively on projective processes, etc. Clearly, this is the world of limited thinking that is so commonplace in prejudice and bigotry.

So while we can see elements of the paranoid-schizoid position, it is not really the same as the original, normal developmental situation. The foremost reason for the difference is the ensuing brain development that has occurred after the first few months of life. The infant is no longer as limited in his awareness of external reality. He does not have to simply face the pain of the damage or run away from it in a wholesale fashion.

The infant, with its increasing awareness of external reality, can now use a host of maneuvers and tricks to avoid the full experience of guilt – thus ushering in the universe of ‘manic defenses.’

3 – It is a useful assumption that regression back to the paranoid-schizoid position does not take place after the middle of the first year of life. It is really a progression away from the pains of the depressive position and on to the universe of manic defenses.

Bion is famous for his algebraic equation style of diagrams, one of the most familiar being a capital “PS” and capital “D” with arrows going in both directions between them. This is usually interpreted as representing a human personality going back and forth, in progression and regression, between the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.

It’s unclear if Bion literally meant for it to be taken that way or if he meant that humans go back and forth between facing reality with a caring attitude at times and running away from reality with omnipotent, magical maneuvers at others. In any case, I believe a more useful diagram would involve a capital “MD” and a capital “D” with arrows going in both directions. This more accurately reflects what happens moment to moment with humans in their daily lives.

In a moment when mental pain becomes greater than an individual can or will tolerate, defensive maneuvers step in to address the situation in an omnipotent, magical manner. In relation to the pain of guilt, these maneuvers are usually drawn from the arsenal of the classic ‘manic’ maneuvers.

As we will see later, these will include bogus repairs of the damaged object without taking proper emotional ownership of the damage done, so as to evade a full experience of guilt. Klein gave this the apt name “manic reparation.” These maneuvers include a classic group of attitudes toward the primary object that are aimed at avoiding the depressive concern for the welfare of the object and attendant “depressive anxieties.” This group of attitudes is summed up as the classic triad of manic defenses: “Contempt, control, and triumph.”

While I will not go into them in detail just yet, these defensive maneuvers all involve an alteration of one’s emotional and actual relationship to external reality and psychic reality in order to deny the emotions of the depressive position. We could give this a shorthand description by saying that “the manic defenses are aimed predominantly at the denial of psychic reality.” [Note: See Manic Defenses in a following section.]

Summary of the Depressive Position:

The emotional and neuroanatomical growth of the infant, as he moves into the middle of the first year of life, ushers in an extraordinarily important change in the infant. He progresses from a value system of “self-interest” to a value system that now also includes an equal measure of “concern for the other.” This is based on the infant’s love for his primary objects.

As he realizes that he has only one mother – not two separate ones (i.e. good and bad), and that the one he loves is also the one he hates and wishes ill toward when angry and frustrated, the infant then develops a new attitude. This is based on the painful, but healthy feeling of “guilt” for harming its loved object. This ushers in a new array of “depressive anxieties,” in addition to guilt, that revolve around the fear of losing the loved object. In combination they lead the infant to wish to repair the damage done and restore his object to its good, pre-damaged state. Klein gave this urge to repair the term “reparation.”

As the infant continues his development, he adds to his arsenal of maneuvers that defend against mental pain. These importantly include new defensive maneuvers against the particularly painful emotions of fear of loss of one’s loved object and of guilt, both of which have a central role in the depressive position. Klein gave this constellation of maneuvers the term “manic defenses.”

Manic defenses have as their hallmark the denial of psychic reality and include a triumvirate of maneuvers: “Contempt, control, and triumph.” Simultaneously, the manic defenses include a bogus version of reparation that evades guilt and is therefore called “manic reparation.”