Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, towards the end of her life, wrote a very significant paper “On Loneliness.” Sullivan understood loneliness and anxiety to be two of the most painful emotions experienced. Winnicott made a distinction between the capacity to be alone (in the presence of the available but non-impinging mother) and loneliness. From a psychobiological perspective (e.g., see the work of Myron Hofer from Columbia University), loneliness seems to overlap with states of painful separation in which one’s biological systems are dysregulated. It is not widely known that Melanie Klein wrote on this subject also late in her life. Her last paper, “On the sense of loneliness,” which was published posthumously was written in 1963 and is contained in volume III of her collected papers, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works: 1946-1963 published by Karnac Books and the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London. I am quoting a passage from this paper:
“The schizophrenic [person] feels that he is hopelessly in bits and that he will never be in possession of his self. The very fact that he is so fragmented results in his being unable to internalize his primal object (the mother) sufficiently as a good object and therefore in his lacking the foundation of stability; he cannot rely on an external and internal good object, nor can he rely on his own self. This factor is bound up with loneliness, for it increases the feeling of the schizophrenic [person] that he is left alone, as it were, with his misery. The sense of being surrounded by a hostile world, which is characteristic of the paranoid aspect of schizophrenic illness, not only increases all his anxieties but vitally influences his feelings of loneliness” (pp.303-304).
For Klein, it is in the internalization of a good object that loneliness is abated and is the foundation of integration. Good relations makes the lessening of omnipotence more bearable. A harsh superego, built up both by introjection of actual relations with caregivers and split-off parts of the ego imbued with projected affects, creates more feelings of loneliness. The harsher the superego, the greater will be loneliness, since its severe demands increase both depressive and persecutory anxieties.
According to Meira Likierman (2001- Melanie Klein: Her Work in Context published by Continuum), in Klein’s last paper on loneliness, she returns to a “more compassionate, poignant appraisal of the human psyche” (p.192). Klein evokes an inner state of fundamental human weakness in the face of turbulent drives and object-related conflicts, which she traces to the realities of life and death that necessarily loom over each person’s struggle for survival. Loneliness is an inevitable state in a mind which is shaped by relationships from birth. Likierman (2001), in commenting on Klein’s paper “On the sense of loneliness,” suggests:
“In this last paper, life is seen as a quest to allay loneliness, and much of what motivates us is regarded as our yearning to have a sense of being mentally accompanied on our life’s journey. We long to develop a mind that is understood and recognized, both by others and by ourselves” (p.192).
Klein believed that the earliest ego was initially lacking cohesion and was beset with splitting processes-the latter also serving adaptive purposes. This situation alternates with a drive towards integration, and this is essential for the secure introjection of the good object into the psyche, thus forming the core of the developing ego. Klein is speaking about a crucial psychical contact with the early, first good object-a close contact between the unconscious of the mother and child. This contact is the foundation of the feeling of being understood and is essentially linked with pre-verbal states. The loss of this pre-verbal sense of being understood is a source of loneliness. Psychoanalysts place great emphasis on understanding one’s patient and the relationship between the therapeutic partners. Post-Kleinian psychoanalysts emphasize the importance, particularly to the more disturbed patient, of being understood. A deep feeling of being understood (which comes from emotional closeness-mutual identificatory processes) can then lead to the capacity and willingness to understand oneself and others (take the position of the other--otherwise putting oneself in the shoes of the other could feel like loss of self, colonization,, subjugation, etc.).
At every stage of development, the child and adult is vulnerable to the experience of loneliness. In the paranoid-schizoid position, paranoid insecurity is a source of loneliness. The child feels alone in a hostile or potentially hostile and unforgiving world of others. Besides feeling that others do not really understand, the individual is plagued with a sense that there are aspects of oneself which elude understanding and accessibility, which also is a source of loneliness. In the depressive position, the individual’s ambivalence and grief may leave her or him feeling isolated and threatened by the degree of one’s own hatred. Therefore, the individual may feel unworthy of love and understanding, and feel threatened by the good object’s abandonment and absence. Likierman (2001) notes: “ The individual feels unworthy and deserted by a good object which keeps eluding his secure grasp, externally through absences, and internally through aggressive destructions” (p.193).
Klein believed that the process of integration, e.g., the capacity to cohere threatening aspects of self and other within one’s own sense of self, is very painful. She thought that the individual with schizophrenia feels hopelessly in bits and alone with her or his misery. Klein cautioned therapists not to underrate the suffering of the person with schizophrenia. She believed that the individual’s loneliness is exacerbated by a harsh super-ego which strongly represses destructive feelings and impulses. Klein felt that parents could mitigate a child’s anxieties by accepting her or his destructive feelings and showing that they can protect themselves against the latter. A harsh super-ego is unforgiving of destructive feelings. This situation is conducive to further splitting as a way of controlling anxiety, and therefore interferes with integration. The capacity to introject a good enough object lessens splitting tendencies, mitigates aggressive impulses, and ameliorates the harshness of the super-ego, thereby creating greater tolerance of one’s ambivalence. This, in turn, facilitates the capacity to feel closeness and understanding, all of which lessens painful feelings of loneliness.
In her last paper, Klein hardly refers to envy, and when she does, only in the context of adversity. She thought that the best insurance against envy is the strong ego’s greater capacity for enjoyment. Herbert Rosenfeld believed that greater self-acceptance, and acceptance by others, protects against painful states of envy. In her last work, Klein depicts the individual as lonely from infancy onwards, struggling to integrate oneself and to retain one’s internal good object. The adaptive function of loneliness is that it motivates us to seek out others, to maintain good enough object relationships. In a sense, Klein’s theoretical edifice of object relations concludes with a statement on the human need for others. The human being struggles in a lifetime conflict between love and destructiveness and hate which is rooted in our being social organisms. Likierman (2001) points out that others are never as fully available to us as we would like them to be, nor are we as available to them as we would like to believe. Destructive feelings are initiated when we are disappointed in our need for others. Bion remarked that the absent object becomes a persecutory one. A long-term patient of mine, feels that the indifference of others, for example, if he is not noticed and greeted by strangers on the street, is a hostile and destructive act, experienced by him in various delusional ways, e.g., his head being ripped off his shoulders, his body being raped, etc. Weekends and separations are experienced by him as lacerations of his mental and physical self, for in his concrete manner of experiencing reality, the physical and mental are totally isomorphic. Parenthetically, in a letter I received from Hanna Segal many years ago, she pointed out that she felt her greatest contribution to psychoanalysis was her concept of the symbolic equation, i.e., that symbol and symbolized are conflated and made equivalent, e.g., an unkind and harsh word is experienced as a literal bullet wound or a wounding by a knife, a literal stabbing.
Kleinian psychoanalytic technique is often portrayed as a form of ‘wild analysis,’ the kind in which the analysand’s destructive trends are foremost in the analyst’s mind, i.e., emphasizing the patient’s envy and destructiveness. Rosenfeld, Riviere, Spillius and other Kleinian analysts understood this to be a step backwards from Klein herself. Some analysts’ attempts to maintain a rigorous neutrality and focus on the patient’s destructiveness, clouded the importance of achieving a rigorous understanding of the actual patient. Klein herself, aware of the savage destructiveness of persons towards other persons (one only needs to read the daily newspaper to see this), nevertheless, understood the person to be in a never ending conflict between death and life instincts. She made no pronouncements about whether persons were at core, essentially loving or destructive
(parenthetically, the current Dalai Lama in his discussions with western scientists, made a good case for the essentially loving nature of human beings--Harold Searles in his classic paper on the patient as therapist conjectured a similar conclusion), only that we are in a life-long battle between the forces of compassion and destructiveness and hostile indifference.
Brian Koehler PhD
New York University
80 East 11th Street #339
New York NY 10003