Australasian Journal Of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022
Australasian Journal Of
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022

A Few Notes on the Construction of Psychic Reality & the Dynamics of the Transference1

Rose Rothfield2

Freud’s theory of the Oediupus Complex was one of the greatest advances in the understanding of human experience. This includes the most important aspect of experience: human relations. It is a theory about the nature of the relationship of the child with its parents, and the enormous and persistent impact it has on both his development and his relationships throughout life.

Object Relations Theory
Melanie Klein and some English psychoanalysts such as Fairbairn and Winnicott expanded the theory of Freud to include what is now known as the object relations theory. This extended theory attempts to explain, in a most illuminating way, the world of internal objects. This is about the mind as it is experienced subjectively: the subjective experience of harbouring internalised representations of external objects. While the theories of Freud were about parents in the outer world (the shared, public one) where relationships are experienced as inter-personal, the object relations theory describes an intra-psychic field of relationships which is personal, private and of course largely unconscious. This Inner World could be roughly compared with Plato’s allegory of the cave with its shadows on the walls reflecting outer reality that is never known directly but only filtered through the unreliable perceptual apparatus. However, the inner world is not merely a reflection, like shadows, but an actively constructed personal reality subject to much distortion and falsification. Events in the outer world cannot affect a person unless perceived and internalised (taken into the mind via the perceptual apparatus); the ultimate determinant of our experiences are the internal events. Inner and outer reality enrich and distort each other, being intimately interwoven throughout the subject’s waking life.

This paper is based on a talk given to the Sunshine Hospitals and Health Services Society on 21st June, 1983, and repeated by invitation of the Victorian Association of Psychotherapists on 12th September, 1983.

Dr. Rothfield is a member of the Victorian Association of Psychotherapists and a member of the British Psycho-Analytic Society.

Freud understood and wrote a great deal about internal objects without referring to them as such. His concepts of the super ego and ego ideal, for example, were often used by him to describe internal objects. He reified the concepts to avoid the problem of describing parts of the mind. Moreover, he detailed the relations between these notions as if they were human beings. A clear description of internal object relationships is to be found in his paper on Mourning and Melancholia (1917), where he examines the nature of identifications and their relation to object-choice.3

The Concept of Time
Following Freud’s theory of determinism, it has become generally accepted that past experience determines the personality structure (the patterns of behaviour, object relations, phantasy life such as self-image, and so on). Freud compared the work of the psychoanalyst with that of the archaeologist, using the “dig” as a model of the mind under analysis. He pointed out how one may make reconstructions about the past as does the archaeologist.

These contribute to the theory of development, but have no place in a therapeutic procedure. They do not even have the status of historical truth. They are no more than hypotheses about the past, constructs about it. Nor do they have anything to do with the interpretations made to the patient in the course of therapy. These are, as I shall argue, constructs about the internal world, and the unconscious meaning of the transference.

Psychoanalytical experience has not demonstrated that the past is relived nor has it revealed that infantile memories are “revived” from the buried past, as some people like to believe. (This may be the dynamics of some phenomena of hypnosis. Even that, however, is doubtful.) The internal world is a slowly evolving one that changes with time and new experiences and circumstances. With each wave of new experience, transformations occur in the self and in the internal objects.

Let us compare the nature of internal objects with that of an old manuscript that has undergone censorship, deletions, additions and distortions. In time, the exact nature of the original can only be surmised if the original is found. With mental experience, originals are not to be found. Yet it is still argued that the transference is a copy of the original. This is based on the assumption that repressed memories are an immutable replica of the past. Analysands have often been convinced that they have remembered something important and that this is a “return of the repressed’’. The memories described by Freud as screen memories are actually an eruption from the internal world like a dream during sleeping states. It refers to what is here and now. This is consistent with Freud’s description of the timelessness of the unconscious. There is no past or future, just a here and now.

“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused”. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.” (S.E., III, 322).

Screen memories are believed to be about the past because they have an infantile quality or are about the infant. Psychoanalysis makes it possible for the emergence of what is infantile in the present. All too frequently the patient wants to believe that it is relevant only to the past. This is a defence against acknowledging the infant or what is infantile in the present. A therapist is often all too happy to go along with this, defending himself against the negative transference. In this way, the past is used defensively by both parties.

Transference & the Infantile Part of the Personality
What is not confronted is the infantile part of the patient here and now relating to the therapist experienced as the parent. By locating the infant in the past and the parent in the past, therapist and petient can enjoy a mutual idealisation by means of the paranoid defence and nothing is learned about contemporary object relations.

Melanie Klein (Freud 1950, 1952) was the first psychoanalyst to apply the psychoanalytic method, as devised by Freud, to small children. This consists principally of analysing the transference. She introduced play material (a box of toys) as a supplement to verbal communication. Apart from this modification, her method of working was the same as with adults. Although many psychoanalysts, notably Anna Freud, worked with children at that time, they did not think that transference occurred in children, arguing that children were still emotionally involved with their parents (Freud’s Oedipus complex) and that transference was repetition of the past. This set of unverified assumptions had a blinding effect and prevented them from observing that in the child transference is manifest both loud and clear.

Melanie Klein’s observation brought into question a belief still prevalent – that the transference was repetition of the past, that its analysis lifts from repression old pathognomonic memories after they have been acted out in the transference. Klein’s capacity to observe clinical data without prejudice led to many observations and theoretical deductions which extend psychoanalytic theory. Her work clearly revealed that the Oedipus complex, played out in the consulting room with the therapist, is an externalisation of an internal scenario. In other words, it was she who described in all its diversity the internal world containing internalised objects. The latter becomes projected onto the therapist who thus becomes projectively identified with them. This is the dynamics of the transference. The child may, and indeed does, have an emotional involvement with his external parents simultaneously with the therapy. There is, therefore, a constan.t interplay between the internal and external parents and with the therapist. The function of the psychoanalyst is to make interpretations about the internal object relationships as projected and introjected in relation to himself.

Other conclusions drawn by Melanie Klein which developed our understanding of object relations were that

  1. The Oedipus complex has its roots in earliest infancy, as early as the first year of life.
  2. The early internal objects (called imagos by Freud) are first taken in, in a split form and exist in pairs of good and bad, indealised and persecutory, part and whole, etc., greatly complicating the inner world of objects.
  3. The therapist has a real relationship with the patient, is not just a mirror, nor one who holds up a mirror, but interacts with the patient and contributes something of his own, particularly his understanding. He also brings with him his commitment to the task and his receptiveness to communications and projections. (Gill; 1982)

Interpretative work is an activity necessary for the psychoanalytic process. The better understanding of the transference as a live, here and now experience in which for the infant-in-the-patient the psychoanalyst is the parent, leads to a greater respect for the transference and greater care not to trample over it. The importance of creating the setting within which, and out of which, the infantile parts of the personality may safely emerge is now self-evident. By the setting I mean primarily all that promotes, preserves and protects, the transference- countertransference relationship. This is one of the main functions of the psychoanalyst, an expression of his unwavering commitment to the psychoanalytic task. To do otherwise is a betrayal of trust and generally destructive to the analytic process.

The experience of the psychoanalyst within the therapeutic relationship is termed countertransference (Racker 1968) and this refers to his experience of, and contribution to, the relationship. Pressure placed upon him by· the patient to act out the countertransference is continually being made by projective processes. To understand and interpret this, but not act it out, is yet another function of the psychoanalyst. (Heimann 1950)

The Inner World
Internal objects are phantasies which develop from the perception and internalisation of experiences with external objects. Internal objects are built up little by little in the inner world until eventually a hard core of the object, i.e. Mother and Father (Freud’s imagos) is established.

Projective and introjective processes take place throughout the waking life as long as the function of perception is also operative. The self, often erroneously called the ego, develops from identifications with internalised objects. Some objects become identified with parts of the self, thereby contributing to its development. Because of multiple identifications, the self develops in parts which may or may not integrate, e.g. good and bad, idealised and denigrated, etc. These, together with the objects, make up the personality; something like a planetary system. This is the way psychic reality is constructed.

Just as people once thought that the earth was the centre of the universe and all planets revolved around it, so does the infant-self begin with the assumption that he is the centre of the world.

Only gradually does he learn that it is mother and not he who is at the centre of his world. He is in fact a very minor planet, totally dependent on mother. This is one of life’s great traumas but a lesson essential to be learnt. Without this lesson and self-evaluation, there would be no development of object-love which, to some extent, replaces self-love after the importance of the object is recognised. Object-love is the basis of object-relations of a more mature type, and comes with a greater awareness of external reality.

Melanie Klein described two positions with regard to object relations. In the more primitive, the self if concerned only for the self. The object is not known or allowed to be separate, is treated ruthlessly without regard, concern, or awareness that it has a life of its own (or if it has, it has no right to it). In other words, the object is there for the sole benefit of the self. With the realisation of the object’s separate existence comes, after much sense of loss and grievance, anxiety and envy, the realisation of the object’s value, its irreplaceability, and only then does concern for its safety and integrity develop. Then come attempts to spare it, protect it, and repair it. Inability to do these result in guilt and despair. Depression, the consequence of attacking the good (internal) object, leads to despair when reparation fails to take place. The earlier state of mind Melanie Klein called the paranoid/schizoid position and the more mature one, the depressive position. These positions fluctuate throughout life according to the stresses and strains placed upon the self. Very great losses and traumata can wipe out loving feelings and cause a shift from the depressive to the paranoid/schizoid position. Good experiences, such as loving, gratifying objects in the external world, both early and in later life foster moves towards the depressive position.

The balance of love and hate and the capacity to tolerate psychic pain determines largely the outcome, and much of this, Klein surmised, seems to be inborn.4 Defences against and anxieties inherent in these positions result in pathological states of mind such as paranoia, melancholia, mania, hysteria, obsessional neurosis, anxiety states, hypochondriasis, narcissistic disorders, etc. In so far as the inner world is distorted by misrepresentations, so the outer world becomes pari passu misconstrued and vice versa.

Guilt is an affect arising out of the willingness and ability to take responsibility for one’s own destructiveness (whether in phantasy involving internal objects, or in acting out involving external objects) and to suffer because of it. It is a component of the depressive position and mobilises love to make reparation (providing there is not too much hate). Unexpiated guilt can result in various symptoms which are all too well known; e.g. self-destructive behaviour or chronic depression.

By the process of splitting, parts of the objects and parts of the self are prone to be projected into external objects. Where the external object fits the part, the projective identification is obscured. Where the external object is not a suitable container for the projection, pathology becomes obvious.

What are the processes that bring about therapeutic changes in psychoanalysis? One could say that psychoanalysis is an emotional experience from which one learns. However, this learning is more than a cognitive process. It is more than an accumulation of knowledge. It is more than a re-evaluation of what is known, more than a new way of looking at old things.

Thinking Versus Acting Out
The key lies in the Transference-countertransference relationship, where not only is the transference interpreted by the psychoanalyst and communicated to the patient who then understands it too, but there also occurs over time and with repeated good experiences (i.e. of being understood) an internalisation of an understanding object into the inner world of the patient. By an understanding object, I mean a person who can receive, tolerate and contain the projection with its charge of anxiety and all its phantasy-content long enough to deal with it: i.e. to work upon it and to think about it. Creative thinking transforms what is projected into something comprehensible, and therefore more tolerable. What was hitherto an experience of something incomprehensible, indigestible, intolerable becomes, by the process of thinking, digestible and therefore tolerable.

Thinking takes place only in so far as there is little or no acting out; i.e. no evacuation of the projection. Conversely, acting out (evacuation) short-circuits thinking. Acting out rather than thinking occurs in the paranoid/schizoid position when there exists an inability to contain the painful experience. No capacity for containment suggests a lack of identification with a containing (thinking) object.

By “acting out” I mean the psychoanalytic definition of the term: i.e. discharge into action of unconscious phantasies and impulses for which there is no mental representation (and therefore they cannot become available for thinking.) They can therefore only be dealt with by discharge, i.e. acting out (Bion, 1962).

Throughout the pshychoanalysis, the patient endeavours to use the relationship with the therapist to obtain direct gratification of his desires and needs. The therapist is expected to meet and gratify all needs. The patient omnipotently endows him with the power and riches to do this. In the internal world of the patient the therapist is made into a god. The patient will do his best to thus exploit the relationship as he has done, and is doing, with all other relationships. This is done not only by conscious manipulations but mainly by the unconscious projection of parts of self and internal objects into the analyst with the purpose, among others, of manipulating him into some desired action. The psychoanalyst is projectively indentified in the patient’s mind with his projected objects. The psychoanalyst, via his sensitivity, introjectively identifies with these internal objects so that he may know about them, think about them, and communicate about them. Precisely because he knows about them he does not act them out.

Instead, the psychoanalyst offers the patient an entirely new and different response from what he is accustomed. This makes the relationship quite a unique one. The psychoanalyst gives to the patient an interpretation about what is going on between them. Having thought about it he interprets its meaning. He makes it meaningful in a way that the patient has never known before. It has been transformed into “food for thought”. Anxiety not formerly understood is now comprehended or on the way to being so. With understanding comes relief. The problem that can be thought about has some chance of being dealt with constructively, which usually fosters hope in the patient. One can say that the problem had been unconscious and therefore inaccessible, and one can put it another way: that it had been only manifest in acting-out and therefore unknowable.

It would seem that psychoanalysis endeavours to help the patient to develop the capacity to think about, rather than act-out, his impulses. This capacity follows from an identification of the self with a thinking (containing) object. Detailed theories about this process have been extended by W. Bion. Their study, although very difficult having regard to the complexity of the subject, are well worthy of the effort required.


1. This paper is based on a talk given to the Sunshine Hospitals and Health Services Society on 21st June, 1983, and repeated by invitation of the Victorian Association of Psychotherapists on 12th September, 1983.
2. Dr. Rothfield is a member of the Victorian Association of Psychotherapists and a member of the British Psycho-Analytic Society.
3. The term objects refers to that which is not the subject, and is not an altogether satisfactory term. The Other, as used by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, seems to be more appropriate. However, ‘object’ is here to stay and one must accommodate oneself to its use if one wishes to understand the text. The term ego is often used ambiguously to refer to the “self”, in spite of the fact that they are not identical. “Ego” is a hypothetical construct, being part of the mind, which is itself a construct. The “self” is rather a subjective perspective and more apt in relation to the inner world and to “objects”.


Bion, W.R. (1962) Learning from Experience, Heinemann. (1967) Second Thoughts, Heinemann.

Freud, S. (1899) “Screen Memories”, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, III, 299.

(1912) ‘The Dynamics of Transference’, S.E. XII, 97.

(1913) ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’, S.E., XII, 145.

(1917) ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, S.E., XIV, 237.

Gill, Merton M. (1982) Analysis of the Transference, vol. I & II, International Universities Press, New York (Psychological Issues No. 53 and 54).

Heinemann, P. (1950) “On Countertransference”, Int. J. Psycho-Anal, 31.

Klein, M. (1950) Contributions to Psychoanalysis 1921-1945, Hogarth Press, Int. Psychoanalytical Library. No. 34, London. (1952) Developments in Psychoanalysis, Int. Psychoanalytical Library, No. 43.

Racker, H. (1968) Transference and Countertransference, Hogarth Press, Int. Psychoanalytical Library, No. 73, London.

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