Psychoanalytic theories:

Furthermore, Freud argues that contrary to just grieving a loss, in melancholia, the ego refuses to accept the loss, becomes infuriated and regresses to a narcissistic-sadistic level with oral drives, where aggression plays a central role. Following an ego split, part of it regresses further. Here Freud suggests that the lost object becomes an ego loss, through the process of identification of part of the ego with the object. These formulations, according  to Freud explain the internal hostility that is expressed in depression: aggression can not be expressed against the lost object but ‘[w]e see in him

[the melancholic]

one part of the ego sets itself against the other, judges it critically, and as it were, takes it as its object’ (p. 248).

Internal hostility appears inevitable since ego identification with the loved and hated lost object takes place in depression. Freud writes about the ambivalence that seems central in depression and an underlying tendency towards narcissistic object choices. Such strong and opposing experiences, such as love and hate, appear to play a central role in depression. Searles (1956) sees vengefulness as an ego way to keep the lost object, as Becker elaborates: ‘to hate and to seek revenge is to create a continually present object’ (1985: 380).  If we take into account ego’s identification with what or whoever is lost, then hating oneself appears as way of being alive and staying in touch with self and the lost object. Paradoxically, it appears that wishes of avoiding loss, absence or nothingness would contribute to entrapment and disconnection from self and other, enhancing senses of loss and isolation. ‘[B]y taking flight into the ego love escapes extinction’ (Freud, p. 257), with a parallel and downward process of ego-extinction as the inevitable price of such desperate attempts.

From an intrapsychic viewpoint, Klein’s (1935) distinguished between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ depressive elements during one’s development. The infant’s ‘depressive position’ is an essential maturational process towards accepting inevitable separations from mother. This position is understood as a step forward from narcissistic depression in the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ with profound split senses of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and intense aggression and fears of either merging with or loosing one’s self from mother, or significant others in later life.

Freud highlights the melancholic’s pleasure in hurting oneself and other, in manipulating and being manipulated in light of sadomasochistic processes. Such intrapsychic attitudes can be seen as being reflected onto interpersonal relationships of a depressed individual via interpsychic processes: Transference and projective identification[1] being two relevant psychoanalytical formulations. Sadomasochistic elements seem also relevant with potentially polarised experiences within a melancholic’s personal and interpersonal realm; experiences of omnipotence and powerlessness, or tensions between ‘depression and grandiosity, as related forms of narcissistic disturbance’ (Miller, 1979).

Alice Miller (1987, 1996) saw the origins of depression and grandiosity in childhood. The ‘drama’ of the gifted – i.e. sensitive, alert – child consists of his recognition at a very early age of his parents’ needs and of his adaptation to these needs. In the process, he learns to repress rather than to acknowledge his own intense feelings because they are unacceptable to his parents. Although it will not always be possible to avoid such disturbing feelings (anger, resentment, fear, jealousy) in the future, they will split off, and the most vital part of the ‘true self’ will not be integrated into the personality. This leads to emotional insecurity and loss of self, which is revealed in depression or concealed behind the facade of grandiosity. Alice Miller (ibid) defines the ideal state of genuine vitality, of free access to the true self and to authentic individual feelings that have their roots in childhood, as ‘healthy narcissism’. Narcissistic disturbances, on the other hand, represent for her solitary confinement of the ‘true self’ within the prison of the ‘false self’. This is regarded By Miller less as an illness than as a personal tragedy (ibid).

Next blog: Interpersonal psychoanalytical theories


[1] ‘Projective identification’ was termed by Klein (1946) as the process of ‘projecting’ parts of oneself into another’s psychic processes with the unconscious intention of taking control over the other.