All or nothing?

All or nothing. Hero to zero. With me or against me.

How often do we hear these types of phrases? Especially in the media or with perhaps people we are getting to know or know well, even partners. What is your reaction to such phrases? They seem to say no need for endless thought and consideration, just make your mind up and all will be fine.

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein put forward some classic personality theory in studying child development via analysis; rather confusingly she referred to an ongoing “position” where our personalities tend to dwell before subtly shifting. These positions are the paranoid/schizoid position and the depressive position. In very simple terms the paranoid schizoid fears destruction to the self, whilst the depressive fears destruction of the other - usually a loved one, but not always. And this destruction is through ourselves, so we fear destroying the other. Or the other may destroy us.

The position oscillates all through our relationships during our lives. Most of us can readily think of these positions with families, parents, loved ones, children.

There may be other ways of seeing these positions. In order to protect ourselves from what Klein thought was psychic pain; we try to resolve these positions in our mind. One way may be to see everything as good or bad, so when someone acts in a way which does not seem congruent with our outlook we denounce and reject them. They are wrong and I am right. This comforts in the short term - we don’t have to hold a more nuanced position.

The depressive position can be developed in thinking that there are many shades of grey in people and relationships - rarely are complex behaviours right or wrong. Politics for example may benefit from more in between thinking rather than confrontational right and wrong positions.

So perhaps the most important application of Klein’s work is in our relating. If we see others in right or wrong positions we will find the world a difficult place to inhabit. If we can allow ourselves and others more “slack” it is likely to be more manageable. This may be challenging to adopt. Think back to your own upbringing - was the black or white thinking principle applied at home or was family culture more accepting of “in betweenness”.

Also it’s worth trying to catch yourself - positions can change - if we are anxious and stressed might we adopt more of a paranoid/schizoid position?

The reality is that we all spend our lives working on these shifting patterns. Psychotherapy can certainly help and most would agree adopts a more depressive position.

Fifty shades of grey? Well actually, maybe, yes.

Further Reading: 1946 Klein, M. 'Notes on some schizoid mechanisms'. Introduction of the paranoid-schizoid position, with clearer delineation of the two positions.

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Written by Graham Allen Bsc (Hons) Psychology, Dip Psych, PGCE, Reg MBACP (Accred)

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Written by Graham Allen Bsc (Hons) Psychology, Dip Psych, PGCE, Reg MBACP (Accred)

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