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The Paranoid-Schizoid Position


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > The Paranoid-Schizoid Position

Description | Discussion | See also



Anxiety is experienced by the early infant’s ego both through the internal, innate conflict between the opposing life and death drives (manifested as destructive envy) and by interactions in external reality.

A child seeks to retain good feelings and introjects good objects, whilst expelling bad objects and projecting bad feelings onto an external object. The expulsion is motivated by a paranoid fear of annihilation by the bad object.

Klein describes this as splitting, in the way that it seeks to prevent the bad object from contaminating the good object by separating them via the inside-outside barrier.

The schizoid response to the paranoia is then to excessively project or introject those parts, seeking to keep the good and bad controlled and separated. Aggression is common in splitting as fear of the bad object causes a destructive stance.

The child's ego does not yet have the ability to tolerate or integrate these two different aspects, and thus uses 'magical' omnipotent denial in order to remove the power and reality from the persecuting bad object.

This splitting, projection and introjection has a frighteningly disintegrative effect, pulling apart the fragile ego.

Projective identification is commonly used to separate bad objects whilst also keeping them close, which can lead to confused aggression.


Klein considers that anxiety occurs very early in an infant's life as the shock of external reality leads to pain and fears of annihilation. The initial paranoid schizoid position spans the first 3 to 4 months of life and subsequently can play a forceful role, to different degrees according to different circumstances, throughout a person's life.

As a part of the separation process, the good object may be idealized, making it more comforting and a contrasting polar opposite of the bad object.

This splitting can be seen in children's stories in the clear division and separation between good and bad.

Good and bad can each transform into the other, as also appears in stories where the good person gets corrupted and the bad person repents. This transformation often occurs as sudden conversion rather than a gradual slide. Extreme emotions can lead to flipping of mood, perhaps in the way of agony-ecstasy.

Klein described 'envy' as the hatred of an external object that led to aggression.

Manic-depressive states, for Klein, provide the same function as the Oedipal experience in the formation of the psyche.

The paranoid-schizoid position is often followed by the more mature depressive position.

Wilfred Bion described how the paranoid-schizoid position appears in adult group members when, faced by anxiety, they become a Basic Assumption Group.

See also

Klein, Good object bad object, Splitting, Sudden Conversion Syndrome

Klein, M. (1986). The Selected Melanie Klein, ed. J. Michell, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986, pp.176-200

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