The Psychoanalytic Object
Distinct from the “object” in Western philosophy or Buddhism, the internal object of psychoanalysis is a cognitive representation of the relationship between self and other: memories, feelings, and fantasies stored in the mind as composite representations of experiences with significant others. According to psychoanalytic object relations theory, these cognitive representations are captured in the psyche as schemas—embodied patterns of memory. Schemas are acquired through learning, i.e. internalized in the psyche as mental structures. Personality thereafter bears their imprint.
Object relations theory is a fundamental structural hypothesis in psychoanalysis. It is a way of understanding the organization of relational experience in body/ mind/brain. To reiterate its basic premise, memories of relationships become incorporated in the structure of the mind as internal objects. This process can be conveyed in architectural metaphor:
- • The mind is constructed.
- • Internal objects are an important set of building blocks in its construction.
- • Internal objects are connected together into an organizational/relational matrix, a blueprint that gives shape to experience as it unfolds from moment to moment.
Hopefully it has been made sufficiently clear in the foregoing that mental “structures” are themselves concepts. Any implied reification of them is entirely unintended.
Adding to the theoretical complexity, we can also think of the psyche—either in toto or in part—as an internal object in its own right. The basic idea here is that the mind can and does relate to itself (or aspects of itself) in a manner analogous to the way it relates to others. In other words, subjective experience has an intrinsically relational, self-other dimension; our relationship to our own minds mirrors both how others have related to us and how we have related to them. To give some commonplace examples, we may dislike or even disavow some aspect of ourselves that reminds us of a parent or sibling. Or, enacting familiar ways of being treated by others, we may be impatient with ourselves, punish ourselves, etc. We may also speak of our reactions to things we have said, done, or thought as if they were perpetrated by another, e.g. “I was disappointed in myself.” Psyche takes on characteristics of an Other.
Just as all relationships are complex and multidimensional, so too is the mind’s relationship to itself. We may relate to the mind as a whole (generally considered to be “my mind” or “myself”) or we may relate to particular aspects of mind.5 Moreover, the quality of relatedness varies. For example, most commonly one feels a sense of agency, an experience of being the doer. At other times, however, one may feel acted upon by a mental state. For instance, someone may feel desperate for sleep but find their mind stuck in a series of thoughts that do not permit relaxation and sleep to occur; insomnia may even take on a persecutory quality.
With deep mindful awareness, the relationship to mind may sometimes take on a new quality: objects of mind may be experienced as simply happening, arising without a sense of agency (or with a sense of non-agency: “thoughts without a thinker” (Epstein, 1995)). In this regard, the mind seems to have a mind of its own. (This is one possible experience in the “transcendent subjective position” discussed in Chapter 8.)
To summarize and restate the basic idea in the language of psychoanalysis, the mind itself has the aspect of a complex internal object (Levin, 2010).6 A dynamic dance occurs between different parts of ourselves, just as occurs in interpersonal relationships. We may project onto the mind as an internal object(s) and develop transferences toward these internal objects in much the same way as we enact our internal world in relationship to other people.7 This mental architecture of internal objects governs the design and organization of the mind’s relationship to itself.