Blog, Politics, Psychology

Melanie Klein and Today’s Highly Fractured Politics

Originally published February 22, 2016 on the Huffington Post

If she were alive today, Melanie Klein, the highly influential child psychoanalyst, would have a field day analyzing the blithering pronouncements of the current crop of Republican and Democratic candidates for President. Klein’s ideas are indispensible in understanding the phenomenon known as Splitting. Splitting is important because it’s responsible for the basic division of the world into “good versus bad guys.” Needless to say, Splitting is a major component in the campaign statements of all the Republican candidates as well as Senator Sanders.

By means of play therapy, which she literally invented, Klein was able to get at the earliest, preverbal, unconscious fantasies of children during the first two to three years of their lives. In this regard, it is said that if Freud discovered the child in the adult, then Klein discovered the infant in the child. Klein thus pushed back even further our understanding of the roots of human behavior.

One of Klein’s earliest discoveries was that the fantasies of very young children revealed that there is an extremely powerful and destructive side to humans during the first years of their lives. The fantasies were basically due to the fact that very young children experienced extreme anger and frustration over the fact that they didn’t have complete control over the primary caretaker who was responsible for feeding them both physically and emotionally. When Klein wrote early in the 20th century, this was primarily the mother.

Klein established that under the age of three, children split the image of the mother into a “good mother” who cared and administered to the child’s every need exactly when the child wanted it and a ” bad mother” who had to discipline the child and couldn’t be there exactly on the child’s schedule. Because the child’s mind was not yet mature enough, it couldn’t comprehend that the “good” and the “bad mother” were one and the same. In other words, to the young child, there were two separate mothers.

This helps to explain why fairytales are so appealing to young children. The “good witch” and “bad witch” help young children cope psychologically with the issues they are struggling to comprehend. Namely, how can young children reconcile that the good and the bad mother are one and the same? Thus, fairytales allow children to “act out” safely the emotional conflicts they are experiencing. That’s why the “bad witch” is always killed–indeed, has to die–and the “good witch” eventually triumphs.

One of the critical functions of the parents is to provide a “healthy container” to help the young child literally “contain” the raging emotions that pulse through them uncontrollably. If the parents do not either over or under react to the child’s emotions, verbal outbursts, and fantasies, then the child eventually learns to contain his or her emotions and hence heal the split images between the “good” and the “bad” parents. The child eventually comes to accept emotionally that the “good” and the “bad” aspects of the parents are located in the same person. He or she also eventually comes to accept that there are good and bad sides to everyone, especially themselves. Nonetheless, even under the best of circumstances, Splitting lasts for a lifetime.

Klein termed the earliest stage of human development “the paranoid-schizoid position.” It was “paranoid” because the young child feared that the parent would either hurt or abandon him or her; “schizoid” because of the phenomenon of Splitting.

Most children naturally develop out of this earlier stage, but some form of Splitting stays with us our entire lives. Indeed, in times of extreme stress or threat, we shouldn’t be surprised at all to find people regressing or reverting back to the paranoid-schizoid position. Thus, I’m not surprised in the least that Splitting plays a major role in the campaigns of the Republican candidates, but especially that of Donald Trump with his constant denigration of blacks, Hispanics, women, Muslims, etc. But sadly, it also plays a major role in Senator Sanders’ campaign as well with his constant, unrelenting attacks on Wall Street, and his near inability to see anything positive in Capitalism.

In brief, both Trump and Sanders are playing handily to one of the primary fears associated with Splitting, i.e., the feeling that “they are out to get us.” This is not to say that there are not legitimate fears and things that deserve justifiable anger, but to deal with those that are legitimate, one first has to root out those that the product of irrational, unconscious fears.

Klein also identified a subsequent, follow-on stage of human development that she termed the “Depressive Position.” In this stage, the child finally accepts that the “bad” and the “good” mother are one and the same. At lest for the time being, the child moves beyond Splitting. Klein termed this stage “Depressive” because the child feels sad for his or her previous hostility towards its mother.

Above all, it’s important to understand that all of this takes place unconsciously. One certainly cannot explain this to the undeveloped minds of children. And, one cannot necessarily explain it as well to adults who are under the grips of Splitting. More than ever, we need friendly, nonthreatening adult figures who can provide desperately needed hope and reassurance that the world is not breaking asunder.


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