Two Identity Formation. Subjectivity Within the Shadow of Darkness

The following sections explore the ways in which early relationships teach us to monitor and regulate our own internal states. Through modeling by primary objects, we internalize means of relating to ourselves as our own object, and this affects the capacity for emotion regulation, self-esteem, agency in relationships, and the ways in which we go about attempting to get our needs met. Complications arise when we can no longer locate a sense of self, or when the internal world becomes dissonant with whom we think we are. This can lead to a sense of alienation within one’s own skin, and the implications for this within the context of depressive states are explored.


Primary object relations do not just teach us how to relate to others; they also mold the way in which we internally relate to ourselves. Bollas (1987) describes the inferred “you” of all self-directed thought as evidence of the relationship of the self with itself as an object. For example, when a woman who is depressed thinks to herself, “don’t get into that situation,” “remember what happened in childhood,” or “make sure to thank them afterwards so as to avoid seeming ungrateful,” the “you” of her inner dialogue is implied. Other times, it is more explicit. For example, a depressed person might avoid social situations because of the anxiety she feels. Her thoughts would likely consist of warnings to herself, as if the narrator of her mind were the Other and she were addressing herself as an object. She might say to herself, “You may not be able to handle it,” “You’ll probably embarrass yourself,” or “You’ve always been a loser . . . no one likes you anyway.” In such moments, these individuals are speaking to themselves in thought as they would to their internalized objects or to another person, and as these objects would speak to them. As Bollas notes,

The intrasubjective relation to the self as an object is not just a cognitive division enabling us to widen the parameters of thought and action, nor is it simply an intrapsychic objectification of the play of instincts, desires, reproaches, inhibitions, and meditative activities. It is a complex object relation and we can analyse how a person holds and relates to himself as his own internal and external object. (1987, p. 42)

Psychoanalytic thought suggests that this way of relating to the self is rooted in infancy and shaped throughout childhood. The superego is comprised of the voices of our early parental figures and all significant relationships ever since. These are then incorporated into our sense of self. The way we relate to ourselves thus reflects the ways we have been related to by primary objects in the past, and this also shapes the ways we expect interpersonal relationships to be. A person who has internalized a harsh schema for object relating is therefore likely to be overly critical in his self-directed statements. This is evident in the self-denigration and self-criticisms that abound in subjective accounts of depression. Therefore, in at least some cases, the beginnings of subjective darkness or the groundwork that made the individual vulnerable to it may have been set in place in childhood.

The significance of this parent-child relationship does not end in the way we speak to ourselves in thought. That is merely one aspect of what Bollas describes as a means of self-management in which we identify with those who were tasked with caring for us initially through a means of selfobjectification; as we were once our parents’ object, we have learned to become our own object and to care for and manage that self-object in styles that are reminiscent of our parents by adapting their attitudes and relational styles to ourselves.

People bear memories of being the mother’s and father’s object in ego structure, and in the course of a person’s object relations he re-presents various positions in the historical theatre of infant-child self. One idiom of representation is the person’s relation to the self as an object, an object relation where the individual may objectify, imagine, analyse, and manage the self through identification with primary others who have been involved in that very task. (Bollas, 1987, p. 41)

As we grow up, gain more independence, and lose the benefit of direct parental care, we internalize the ways that our parents helped us to manage our desires, needs, and frustrations so that we can manage them within ourselves. Thus our own self-as-object relations come to represent the way we parent ourselves; we are our own object and subject, and the dialogue that ensues between the two is often a complicated, conflictual interaction vacillating between the pendulum of desires and reproaches and their accompanying counterparts. Thus, when faced with the deflated dialogue of subjective darkness, it is important to ask, as Bollas (1987) suggests, “how each person relates to himself as an object within intrasubjective space. Who is speaking? What part of the self is speaking and what part of the self is being addressed? What is the nature of this object relation?” (p. 44). Often we may find that the one who speaks is the deflated subject voicing his unmet desires to an object that is withholding, harsh, or entirely absent. At other times, it may be that the person treats himself as an object that is not good enough—like a hypercritical parent—and will, therefore, never be able to consider himself successful against a backdrop of impossible demands.

The self-object relationship does not end within the confines of internal thought. It extends to real relationships over the course of a lifetime:

The way people interact reveals implied or tacit assumptions about their relation

to the self as object. Each person forms his own ‘culture’ through the selection of friends, partners and colleagues. The totality of this object-relational field constitutes a type of holding environment and reveals important assumptions about the person’s relation to the self as an object at the more existential level of self management. (Bollas, 1987, pp. 48-49)

Thus, an individual’s social network is a direct reflection of the ways that she relates to herself. If a person who is depressed treats herself as a neglected object or an object unworthy of love and affection, this is likely to be reflected in a complete lack of close relationships, as often happens when a person becomes isolative or withdrawn. It might also be manifested by a group of “friends” who are unreliable, who do not understand the individual, or who are actually downright mean or punitive in their interactions, thereby leaving the person’s needs unmet. Another possibility is someone who does have a close network of friends and family but at times feels alienated and removed from the intimacy of this group, or even withdraws from it when faced with emotional distress.

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