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Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Defence: the reconstruction of the inner world

Eleanore Armstrong-Perlman

Not to be quoted without author's permission.

In the last chapter I outlined Fairbairn's view of the developmental process. The emergent self, sensual, sentient and reality oriented moves from primary identification to mature dependence. This journey, if successfully completed will achieve separation and individuation, the becoming of a mature self. But this process can be blocked, distorted and stunted. Then pathology develops. It is at the earliest stages of the developmental process that we must seek the roots of pathology. Moreover, according to Fairbairn it is at these early stages that the psychic structures, that play such a crucial role in his theories develop, or possibly more appropriately are constructed.

In this chapter I will elaborate Fairbairn's account of how the primacy of the need to maintain a satisfactory relationship with the mother combined with the need to sepa­rate from the mother affects the development of psychic structures, how these structures are constructed, the purpose they serve and their effects on later development.

1 The need to relate and separate.

Like Freud, Fairbairn traces back "all (the) preconditions for loving" to infancy. The earliest contact with the mother is sensual, an erotic embodied relationship. This sensual conjunction of two bodies can alternate between passionate excitement, raging frustration, withdrawal from intrusion, taking for granted and the beatitude of the con­tented sleepy suckling. Being held by her can assuage distress. She is the primary object of comfort and solace. But as important she is the primary object of his love. She is the gateway through which the infant enters the world.

The role of this early physical responsiveness at the earliest stages is emphasised by


"The most basic physical language of love is both performed and learned by the fourth and fifth month of life."( ref?).

This love is not simply beatific and tranquil. Passion, in the sense of excitement is also

there. Contours are being established. Stern writes of the excitation envelopes that will

one day be filled with sensual (sexual) content.

There are two requirements for a successful transition from the state of primary identification, a state of a merged self-other, to mature dependence, a state of a separate self-other. The first, is the possibility to slowly explore the world that lies outside the initial primary other to whom one has been attached: The second is the slow acquisition of confidence in one's ability to be effective in one's encounters.

Fairbairn assumes that there is an innate developmental tendency, part of our

biological inheritance, to be able to tolerate increasing separation without undue anxiety

if the infant's needs for closeness with the body of the mother are met.

"In a state of nature it would be rare for the infant to be deprived of the shelter of his mother's arms and of ready access to her breast until, in the ordinary course of development, he himself became increasingly disposed to dispense with them".(Fairbairn p.110.1944.)

Satisfaction of this primary need for embodied contact enables increasingly confi­dent exploration of the external world. Security provides the basis for toleration of actual physical separation. But this security needs to be grounded on the well-founded expecta­tion of the continuous acceptant responsiveness of the mother or her substitute when called upon. Such attuned responsiveness to the needs of the infant is the necessary matrix for the emergence of a confident, spontaneous, vigorous embodied self.

For the infant to confidently explore the frightening maze which is the world out there, the mother, like Ariadne must provide the appropriate thread. Loose enough to give scope for exploration, strong enough to be secure that one can return to safety.

Such a potential haven provides the basis of hope. The world is not an alien place, nor is he alienated from the world. In states of tension the infant can conjure up the image of the responsive mother. He has someone to turn to. This expectation preserves hope. The other, though not there is available, though not yet. Absence is not equivalent to the loss of the mother's love. He is not abandoned. Waiting is finite. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Continuous breaches of the primary need for the responsive acceptance of the mother can stifle the infant's ability to explore, to wander and thus begin the necessary process of separation. Continuous breaches if too traumatic can stunt the emergent self.

If the mother is not there for the infant, he is deserted. But as she initially con­stitutes the infant's world, he is in a desert without sight or hope for an oasis. This con­stitutes the conditions of trauma. The cohesion and even the very existence of the self is jeopardised by cumulative trauma, an experience that by definition cannot be assimilated.

The controlled feeding regime, lauded by Truby King (?) is anathema to the Fairbairnian infant. Being reality adapted, if the timing schedules are strictly applied, the infant will comply. The screaming is pointless. The cry becomes stifled by exhaustion. This can lead to a loss of an expectation of the responsive mother. The light at the end of the tunnel is lost. Waiting may then constitute a black hole of despair and desolation with no hope of a responsive other to relieve the intolerable tension. The infant loses the image of a loving mother that can be conjured up, or hallucinated to relieve the distress caused by severe frustration and the resulting fear of the out-there.

If the infant has experienced multiple separations or excessive frustration, his tolerance of separation is merely controlled and inhibited rather than slowly modified. The current of fraught unmet infantile dependence continues to persist, a persistent sub­strata that has the capacity to undermine later development. However far they move in the journey of self-discovery they are still clinging and afraid of separation.

To Bowlby the physical absence of the mother means the loss of the love of the mother. This is equivalent to the loss of the mother which constitutes psychic annihilation. This can be experienced as death of the other. But this contact can also be broken for the infant who feels unheld. The present mother is absent. She is not available to the child. For the child she has died.

2 Separation anxiety in case work.

Separation anxiety can reappear in therapy particularly when a strong transference has been established. The therapist acquires the image of the mother who was not there, who did not provide the safe base for a confident exploration of the world into which one must enter.

A patient's mother had stopped a Truby King regime when the patient was three months old. She had not enjoyed breast feeding. The patient's chronic afternoon crying stopped. She was told that her grandmother who had come to visit had remarked that she had seen little of the infant. She remembered that when she was about three she had been running to greet her mother after a holiday with the grandmother. Instead of being greeted with a smile or a loving embrace, she had experienced her mother's response as cross and non responsive. She resolved never to express her love again.

This patient experienced my weekend breaks as agony, she thought of an image in a war film when a body lying on the ground was turned over; his guts were spilling out but it was not a death but a divorce. She was tormented by fantasies of me lyrically gazing into the eyes of my putative son. She had phoned in a state of need. My husband had answered the phone that week end but the line had gone dead. It was hopeless and she had not phoned back. I had said she could ring me as she was very afraid of losing the connection. Earlier she had left a distressed message on my ‘ansaphone’. I had left a response on her ‘ansaphone’ just saying I was making connection and she could ring me back. She had stopped crying with her actual mother who had stopped loving her and had loved the preferred, idealised sister. She had cut off from her mother but she had gone on to love a female school teacher. Losing and finding and re-losing me in the trans­ference was too painful.

To this patient, the loss of connection with me was akin to a death blow. The sig­nificance of other people in her life had dwindled, emotional reality was in the therapy. Only the "mother" could provide the secure base. Separation meant the death of the mother and with it all hope for a secure base. I interpreted that at the present regressed phase, friends were temporarily as significant as faces seen from the confines of the pram. I was the rejective mother who did not want her. There was a wish to kill me so that the continuous agony of finding only to lose again could end. Separation was a severing, a non comprehensible divorce. She was picked up only to be put down. This was before a vacation.

3 The developing self: giving and accepting.

Though many psychoanalytic theories stress the importance of the mother's response to the infant's needs and wants, for Fairbairn this represents only one aspect of the intricate relationship between mother and infant. The infant is not just a greedy taker, a receiver of comfort. Just as important the developing infant is also a giver and one of the important needs is to have the giving recognised and accepted. Fairbairn emphasises the destructive effects of the failed response to the child's early attempts at giving.

"It also becomes a dangerous procedure for the child to express his libidinal need, i.e. his nascent love, of his mother in face of rejection at her hands: for it is equi­valent to discharging his love into an emotional vacuum. Such a discharge is accompanied by an affective experience which is singularly devastating. In the older child this experience is one of intense humiliation over the depreciation of his love, which seems to be involved. At a somewhat deeper level (or at an earlier stage) the experience is one of shame over the display of needs that are disregarded or belittled. In virtue of these experiences of humiliation and shame he feels reduced to a state of worthlessness, destitution or beggardom. His sense of his own value is threatened; and he feels bad in the sense of "inferior'. The intensity of these experiences is, of course, proportionate to the intensity of his need; and intensity of need itself increases his sense of badness by contributing to it the qual­ity of "demanding too much'. At the same time his sense of badness is further complicated by the sense of utter impotence which he also experiences. At a still deeper level (or at a still earlier stage) the child's experience is one of, so to speak, exploding ineffectively and being completely emptied of libido. It is thus an expe­rience of disintegration and of imminent psychical death, "(p. 113.1944).

The child's expression of his emotional needs is affected by the maladaptive

response. If the response is too severely out of tune with the infant, embodied,

spontaneous expression is fraught with hazard. The emergence of impotence and shame

at the conscious level are given significance as later factors that compromise and inhibit

spontaneous expression. By controlling the embodied expression of his emotional and

physical needs, the infant limits the risk of further exposure to the futility of his efforts.

Dawning futility and hopelessness can render him desperate and despairing.

Experience during this crucial period affects the capacity to love. To love is to give. One is only secure in attempting to give if one has experience of the gift being accepted.

Given the absolute dependence on the mother for the satisfaction of emotional need, the infant is exposed to impotent helplessness. But there is no one else to turn to. So the infant does not desist but keeps trying to engage the mother, but if she fails to respond too often, the infant has also failed. He has become impotent. The love of the other has failed to nourish and reaffirm the potency of the nascent self. His sense of his own value is diminished rather than enriched. This can lead to a sense of worthlessness and inferiority. If repeated too often, the rejective response can engender futility, and the annihilation of the expressive self.

Also by controlling the embodied expression of his emotional and physical needs, the infant limits the risk of further experience of disappointment and rejection.

The afore-mentioned female patient entered therapy feeling body dead. Later she said she felt I could cope with her despair and her rage but could I cope with the intensity of her love. She wanted to lie naked with me, skin to skin or to get back inside me. She spontaneously realised that she was wanting to be enveloped by me. There was another fantasy of wearing a dildo but that was experienced as aggressive. She was afraid I would dismiss her love as idealisation. This would be equivalent to the chorus of three hundred singers in Mozart's requiem standing up to sing but I would walk out of the room. I would not be able to tolerate her symphony only her tremolo. I said how my silence was like exploding into a void. The session moved to her experience of herself as disgusting. This was associated with mess and disgusting body fluids. She wondered if this was related to her problems with orgasm, orgasm was an explosion into nothingness. She needed to look at me, to continuously check whether I was embarrassed or disgusted.

To summarise: For Fairbairn frustration of the infant's desire

"to be loved as a person and to have his love accepted is the greatest trauma that a child can experience, "(p.39.1941).

Being subject to such trauma is intolerable. Moreover, any expression by the infant of the unmet need heralds the danger of the repetition of trauma, but the trauma has already happened. The trauma is a situation of primitive agony that we can perhaps only access by metaphor with the adult patient. Some patients produce images of intolerable howling in the desert, or of volcanoes of feeling sweeping away everything in its path; but then the predicament is that of an adult, capable of symbolic representation.

How is the infant to cope with the danger? His mother is his lifeline. Given his unconditional need he cannot reject her, yet she seems to be rejecting him. How is the infant to cope with the threat of being subjected to such potential trauma? Flight from the mother in external reality is impossible, so the flight is internal; a flight from a holistic integrated impression of the mother and a holistic integrated experience of the self. Fair­bairn concentrates on the techniques utilised by the infant to render the intolerable tolerable. His thesis is that the roots of all later psychopathology are to be found in the strategies adopted to render an intolerable situation tolerable.

4 Defensive techniques and the creation of psychic structures.

Fairbairn considers three stages in the process of building a defensive structure to protect the infant from the intolerable threat of trauma: internalisation, splitting and repression. Before considering these in detail it is necessary to have a good grasp of the concept of an internal object derived from a process of internalisation.

An internal object is a representation of an outside object, or some aspect of the

outside object. However, unlike the kind of representation involved in a thought, a

memory, or an image the representation produced by the process of internalisation is

much more substantial and significant. The internal object is a structure

"with which the ego ... has a relationship comparable to a relationship with a per­son in external life." (1994, p. 112)

Moreover, this relationship can and, often to succeed, must be able to overwhelm the rela­tionship in external life. As we shall see it is a substitute created by the psyche exactly for this purpose. I now turn to the development of the defensive structures.

a) Internalisation

The first step taken to avoid the intolerable situation of being confronted by the ambivalent (unsatisfying)response (or the lack of an appropriate response from the mother) is inter­nalisation.

"With a view to controlling the unsatisfying object, he employs the defensive process of internalisation to remove it from outer reality, where it eludes his con­trol, to the sphere of inner reality, where it offers prospects of being more amenable to control in the role of internal object, "(p. 172.1951).

The child internalises the pre-ambivalent object which is in some measure both satisfying and unsatisfying, (p. 178.) It is clear from Fairbairn that what is internalised at this stage is the relationship with the whole object, in this case the mother with all her con­tradictory and confusing features.

Fairbairn stresses the defensive use of internalisation. A defence always has a pro­tective function. The protective function of internalisation in this case is to preserve the external image of his mother as a safe person that the infant can safely turn to in external

reality. The relationship with this internal object constitutes a separate constellation in the mind. But the inter

nalised mother is still desired and still frustrates. She tantalises and is thus exciting but in as much as she frustrates she is rejecting. If the mother is too frustrating, given his absolute need of her, she becomes infinitely desirable but at the same time she is infinitely frustrating. This gives rise to rejective anger. Not only is his desire exacerbated but so is the rage and hatred. But as the mother constitutes the conditions of hope, an acceptable representation of an accepting mother is essential for the maintenance of the

self. So this first method of protection does not solve the problem, , because the main

body of the object is internalised, and

"both the over-exciting and the over-frustrating elements in the internal (ambivalent) object are unacceptable to the original ego."(p. 135.1944).

The ego is confronted with the internalised ambivalent object, still the alluring all bounti­ful source of goodness and the depriving punitive with-holder. This duality of aspects

"constitutes as great a difficulty in the inner world as that formerly constituted by the ambivalence of objects in the outer world".(p. ).

The danger of loss has merely been transferred to an internal theatre.

[maybe the previous section might be clearer on unsatisfying pre-ambivalent object internalised preparatory to object becoming ambivalent (second oral phase approx) and thus splitting into over exciting over rejecting and acceptable objects]

2 Splitting.

The next step in the process of developing a defensive structure is to cope with the internalised object. This is done by the process of splitting.

The internalised whole object is split into a good [difference between good acceptable and good external and still available?] and a bad object and the latter is split into the two parts which when combined produce the condition for trauma, the exciting and rejective aspects. The over-exciting and over frustrating elements of the internal object are split off, leaving the nucleus of the original object shorn of its “bad' features as a desexualised, idealised object with which the ego may be able to cope more easily as a substitute for the external object.

But this poses yet another problem. For Fairbairn as for Freud the ego is the mediator between the inner psychic world and the world of outer reality. The whole pur- pose of the defensive structure now being constructed by the infant is to cope with an outside world that has become intolerable. If the ego became attached to all the internal objects constructed by the process of splitting it would still be confronted by all the dilemmas and frustrations encountered when confronting the whole unsplit inter- nalised object. The inner world would still just mior the outer and could not affect the relationships there. ,

To resolve this problem Fairbairn argues that as well as the splitting of the inter­nalised object there is also a splitting of the ego into three parts, corresponding to the three aspects of the split object. He calls these the central ego, the libidinal ego and the anti-libidinal ego. Each of these becomes libidinally attached to one of the internal objects. The central ego, which is also that aspect of the ego which mediates between the inner and outer world, becomes libidinally attached to the idealised object which has been shorn of all its bad elements. The libidinal ego becomes attached to the exciting object and the antilibidinal ego to the rejective object. These sub-selves with their respec­tive objects then constitute separate dynamic structures of volition. They are constella­tions characterised by differing affects. They are dynamic structures of a self that has split in relation to the splitting of the internalised object.

Now that the central ego is attached to the idealised object it can externalise this idealised object onto the original object in outer reality converting it also into a good object. If this process could be maintained the defensive structure would be complete and successful. The infant's relationship with the outside object could also be maintained as good via the mediation of the central ego's attachment to the internal good object. But this structure is constantly under threat. For it to function successfully the central ego must be protected from being polluted and inundated by those elements that have been split off.

📷 For Fairbairn repression is the mechanism used by the central ego to maintain its

libidinal attachment to the ideal object and thus maintain the external object as good. To

avoid the remerging of the split off objects with the good object, the central ego

represses the split parts of itself, the libidinal and antilibidinal egos, which are attached to

the exciting and rejecting objects.

"Repression is primarily exercised, not against impulses which have come to appear painful or "bad'(as in Freud's final view) or even against painful memories (as in Freud's earlier view), but against internalised objects which have come to be treated as bad. — but also as against parts of the "ego' which seek relation­ships with these internal objects, "(p.89).

By repressing those parts of the ego that have been split off and have become attached to

the split off bad objects, the central ego is repressing the objects themselves. Repression

is a defence against relationships with bad object. This is necessary because only by this

means can the central ego maintain its link between the internal good object, created by

splitting, and the external object, and thus facilitate an acceptable, or at least survivable

relationship with the external object.

5 A diagrammatic representation.

[Diagram needs to be revisited.] Some readers might find a diagrammatic representation of the processes involved helpful. This is done in figure 1. The steps (a)-(e) show the process from primary identi­fication to the creation of the repressed endopsychic structure.

Step (a) represents a non-differentiated state of self-other. The self experience is as yet permeated and suffused by the other. In step (b) the self and the other separate. The ego emerges and a relationship with the other is not only possible but, given the state of the infant's helplessness, necessary and vital for survival. It is at this stage that the rela­tionship with the other can become traumatic. If this threatens, the defence structures begin to develop. In step (c) internalisation occurs. The external object is internalised and an internal object is created. But a libidinal attachment with this internal object does not resolve the problem. The internal object is just a representation of the external object with all its frustrating and exciting features. The next step (d) is to split the internal object into a good object and a bad object. In step (e) the splitting process is completed. The bad object, split off from the good object is in turn split into its exciting element (EO) and its rejecting element (RO). At the same time the ego is also split into three parts; the central ego (CE), the libidinal ego (LE) and the antilibidinal ego (ALE). Each of these becomes libidinally attached to one of the internal objects. The central ego attaches to the good or idealised object. It is through this attachment that the central ego can relate to the external object and maintain it as acceptable by externalising its attach­ment to the internal good object.

The arrows in step (e) show the necessary process of repression to maintain the defensive structure. The central ego represses the two split off elements of the ego and in this way represses the relationships with the bad objects.1 This ensures that only the rela­tionship with the good object is externalised onto the external object.

1 Fairbairn also argues that the antilibidinal ego also represses the libidinal ego, that is why there is a "repression" arrow here. This is not however crucial for the analysis.

One final point must be stressed. The process of internalisation, splitting and repression is continuous. These processes may serve as a defensive structure for the infant but they do not change the reality of the continuing relationship with the prob­lematic external other. As new potentially traumatic interactions occur the process of internalisation, splitting and repression must be and is repeated to maintain the libidinal attachment of the central ego to the continuously created idealised object. This permits the central ego to maintain the outside other as good in spite of the actual interaction.

If the repression is successful the interaction can be maintained in a dynamic equi­librium. But this is a fragile situation. The dynamic equilibrium can be easily disturbed either by a failure of repression or by an increase in the traumatic input that must be repressed.

[Thus his characterisation of his approach as a psychology of dynamic structures]

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