Can psychoanalysis explain why people can be so cruel? Klein and Mitchell

Can psychoanalysis explain why people can be so cruel?  Klein and Mitchell

This post a little different.  Not the experience and treatment of psychic trauma, but psychoanalytic accounts of why people seem so eager to hurt each other is its focus.  If most studies of psychic trauma are concerned with the experience of being traumatized, this account is about why people traumatize others.  Aimed at people with a little knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, its main point is available to anyone.  That’s why I post it here.  You can read my view on Mitchell’s contribution to trauma theory in another post on this blog.

When I look around the modern world, I see progress, such as the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994.  But for me, at least, it is the genocides that stand out: The Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Rwandan genocide, and the genocide in Darfur.  The list is incomplete, and not up to date, but the point is simple: people seem to be driven to hurt and kill each other.  Is there any hope that psychoanalysis could help us understand why people do such horrible things to each other?  (

Melanie Klein

The only psychoanalytic theory that might possibly make sense of all this is the psychoanalytic theory of Melanie Klein.  But here’s the problem: while Klein helps us understand the terrible things people do to each other, hers is not really a very good way to help people in psychological pain.  I would hate to be treated by a traditional Kleinian analyst, of whom few remain.  Nonetheless, traditional Kleinian theory makes the best sense of the larger world.  Do we need two theories, one to explain the world, another to help people who suffer psychic pain?  Maybe.

Traditional Kleinian theory says we are all born into the paranoid-schizoid position, in which we hate as well as love.  Hate is innate, and stems from need and fear.  In the paranoid/schizoid position our greatest fear is that our hate will spill over and harm those we love and need.  We protect against this by splitting, dividing the world into good and bad.

The paranoid-schizoid position sounds sicker than it is.  We all have this tendency to take our own anxiety and hate and project into others.  This is paranoia.  Then we divide the world into good and bad.  That’s schizoid, which refers to splitting.  All of us spend some part of our adult lives in the paranoid-schizoid position.   A position is not a stage of development; it is a way of being.

The depressive position

As we grow up we enter into the depressive position.  The term is a little misleading, for it is depressive in the sense that we come to realize how much hate and malevolence there is in the world, and in ourselves.  This realization is not always conscious or thought out.  It is most often something we intuit.

In the depressive position, the goal is to care for those we love, and make reparation for the harms we have done them, including in phantasy.  At first reparation is directed at those we love; the world is still split.  Gradually, many people are able to bring the good and the bad, the enemy and the ally, closer together.  Achieving the depressive position is hard work, for we must put good and bad together, recognizing the hate and aggression within ourselves as well as others.

Gradually, many people are able to see the world in more complex terms, in which good and bad are mixed together.  And many people are able to make reparation in this more complicated world, perhaps by giving to charity, perhaps just by loving their spouses, children, and neighbors without demonizing others.

Klein’s key idea is that we split the world into good and bad in order to protect the good from our own anger, and to give our hate a safe outlet.  Most dangerous are outsiders on the inside, for they confuse the splitting of good and bad.  Most genocide is aimed at outside insiders.

The terms good and bad refer to states of mind.  A “bad” person may be objectively good, posing no threat. Most genocide and other extreme nationalisms are aimed at the outsider on the inside.  In the United States, at least until recently, undocumented workers were called aliens, as though they were invaders from another planet.


What is hard work in individuals is almost impossible in groups.  When groups, including nations, are afraid and angry, they turn to the most paranoid-schizoid among them as leaders.  I don’t mean the craziest, although a student of Klein, W. R. Bion, has suggested that.  I mean those people who are most imaginative, articulate, and energetic in drawing a picture of how we are good, and could be better, if only this other group (undocumented immigrants, another tribe, another religion, another ethnic group) were not undermining our purity and integrity.


In his last book, Relationality, Stephen Mitchell brought together the most useful and progressive elements of current psychoanalytic theory.  If one wants to see psychoanalytic theory as a way of curing individual psychic pain, Mitchell’s is the best account.  And there is not much Klein there.

Klein starts out with the individual infant, torn between hate and love, rage at a mother who fails to meet his every need, and love of a mother who often does.  For the infant they are two different people (two different breasts as Klein puts it).

Mitchell starts out with the primal density of fusion, in which infant and mother are one.  If Klein is an individualist, Mitchell is a communist; we hold all things in common.  Unlike most developmental theorists, Mitchell’s does not see development as moving from unity to separation.  Development is not sequential.  Instead, feelings of unity stay with us all our lives.  To split ourselves off from them is to lose the meaning of life.  Mitchell’s account differs sharply from Margaret Mahler’s, for whom the developmental task is that of separation and individuation (

For Mitchell, everything is already inside in what he calls the primal density.  What has to be explained is how inside and outside get sorted out.  For Klein, on the other hand, life from its inception is about transactions across the boundary between inside and outside, between infant and mother.

While our awareness of separateness grows, it is never complete, and never should be complete.  We feel most alive when we draw on original feelings of wholeness and completeness while maintaining contact with the reality of separateness.  Not that Mitchell would put it this way; for him union is just another reality. Only when these realities are in contact do we live in an enchanted world, one meaningful enough to make life live.

Mitchell transforms the basic values guiding the analytic process, substituting meaning for rationality, imagination for objectivity, vitalization for control.  Therapy works by relinking the truth of separateness with the truth of unity, one as real as the other (p 25).

How does analysis cure?  The analyst holds and “metabolizes” unbearable experience, so that it can be reintrojected in more bearable form.  In other words, the analyst demonstrates that he can tolerate the patient’s unbearable feelings by reinterpreting them in ways that can be tolerated.  This is the way I would want to be analyzed.  Some neo-Kleinians, such as Spillius (1988), would follow a similar line of thinking, but I like Mitchell better.

For Mitchell, we do not need to introject (internalize), because it’s all there from the beginning.  To pose the question, “what is the motive for the first internalization?” assumes that there is a fundamental distinction between inside and outside in the first place.  There’s not (pp. 109-110).

We begin, says Mitchell, in a state of dedifferentiation, in which the outside is already inside.  It does not need to be introjected, internalized, whatever.  In the same way, the inside is already outside.  We do not need projection.  What we do is move between states of differentiation and dedifferentiation.  A good life requires the ability to live with both at once.


The idea of a period of dedifferentiation, experienced by the infant as a form of merger and unity with mother is attractive.  It expresses a belief that the essential state of human existence is one of intimate relatedness, even sameness.  As much as I want to believe in a state of original merger or primal unity for what it says about the world, I believe it is Klein’s “individualism” that best explains the larger world we live in.  It is this individualistic assumption, identified by Hobbes in Leviathan (1651), his fictional account of the state of nature, that best makes sense of the horrible things people do to each other, and the often horrible world we live in.

Klein, it has been said, is a theorist of original sin.  She sees even the infant as filled with rage and hate as well as love, and the desire to make reparation.  The ability to love and the desire for reparation leaves us with hope for the future, but it is a hope tempered by the knowledge that hatred and cruelty will remain, for they are built-in to each of us.


* Mitchell presents this part of his account as a summary of the work of Hans Loewald.         


C. Fred Alford, Melanie Klein and Critical Social Theory. Yale University Press, 1989.

W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups.  Basic Books, 1959.

Melanie Klein and Joan Riviere, Love, Hate and Reparation.  W. W. Norton, 1964.

Stephen Mitchell, Relationality.  Psychology Press, 2000.

Elizabeth Spillius, Melanie Klein Today: Developments in Theory and Practice, 2 vols.  Routledge, 1988.


Comments (13)

  1. Nobody's Fool

    Psychoanalysis is wrought with oversimplified, reductionistic explanations of all human behaviors.


      I read all the comments on my blog, and I’ll leave this here as a reminder of how the very idea of psychoanalysis makes some people so angry. CFA

      • Some psychoanalytic schools are overly-reductionist, in my opinion. Betty Joseph, for example.

        • Yes, Gary, some psychoanalytic schools are overly reductive, some more reductive than others. But you know I think every psychoanalytic school is overly reductive in the sense that the complex reality of any human being can’t be captured by any theory or school.

          I’m fond of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott, but I do not believe either or both captures the full richness of human experience, including psychic pain. More or less reductive is how I would put it. Fred

  2. secrettotrauma

    Klein was ahead of her time. and judging her this harshly by you or others means we have not reach the knowledge this woman was trying to convey. However, I will also say judging her is like judging the first doctor who performed a heart surgery. I am very sure in our today’s standard, he would be considered a dangerous man.

    My point is this:

    Klein is being tarnished IMHO, not because she said babies can be nasty little things but also because that may imply some babies can be angelic and can be traumatized by the hand – the parent they were dealt with.

    So we do not want to believe babies have power over their survival because we are still one stop above babies are born blank state or if we are a bit more polite we may say, genetics trump over nurture.

    I am educated, employed, happily married and want to become a therapist if this qualifies me for anything. I am also abused child of 18 brutally by my mother. I posted on this site before probably while going through serious nervous breakdown, losing self cohesion, and having psychosis all brought by being in therapy in my middle age. Was not Freud who said – do not bother self analysis in middle age? maybe he had a point.

    Well after leading a long life without therapy, I went there and guess what. This happened.

    Transference that say, the therapist takes the place of the parent is for healthy groups not for people like me.
    In my transference, I ended up a place of void where I did not exist cause I dissociated at very early age so my transference was what is considered negative.

    I became or acted out like my mother. The therapist became a piece of furniture to me which of course he resisted and tried to interject into my therapy trying so hard to become a representation of my parent – esp my father since he was a male – it is a real joke what goes in therapy.


    I transferred back or regressed more like it and was acting like what happened to me. It felt I was channeling what my eyes recorded without language. they called this acting out in therapy. Cause no language or real memory or myself as a child was involved.

    It was identification with my mother, channeled through what my eyes as a baby recorded, and language used by me as of today = the definition of insanity.

    I dissociated so early (a baby’s only tool for survival when all fails and death is not an option).

    I was in a state of complete disintegration. I had no self. So powerless I completely left my body in order to survive and latched on to my mother’s personality but because my body did not die, it carried the tainted soul.

    If I was treated by Kleinian, I would think, I would be believed to be a feisty little baby who did not want to give up.

    I survived a sexual assault of being circumcised and a lot of other things that happened while I was fully awake…I left the body.

    Now, one may wonder what is my point.
    My point is this a baby can be cruel and bite and shut her mouth and play dead all just like an animal would before language. When language comes, we forgot all that and use our mouth and thinking.

    finally my therapist left me alone and when I finished exploring my issues and came up for fresh breath. I explained. Traumatic child does not go back to transference where everything is neatly set as the client is a child and the therapist is the father/mother or other authority figures.

    Not at all.

    The therapist can take the form of the dissociated child and most therapist will resist this representation cause who wants to lose power. And yet they will blame on the client for resisting.

    it is like OK therapist why don you become me in my transference? NOPE. I want to be your father, the father figure and no wonder therapy takes so long.

    I could write more but I may lose even the most keen listener in my free streaming here.

    my point Klien was onto something and we will know sooner or later we are born with everything but we just activate as we go along. both evil and angel like.


      Often I delete very personal comments (even when anonymous), but you weave together your experience with Klein in a compelling way. Best wishes. CFA

  3. Secrettotrauma2

    Hi Mr. Calford.
    I apprecaite you decided to keep my post even though it is sort of personal. On more academic approach, I would alert your readers to read Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual
    Book by Louise Kaplan. this book describes what is the ultimate process for a healthy baby is and it is very hard not to notice that Klein was probably talking about when every step that Kaplan writes goes wrong, the baby is not just a mindless machine but has strategy and reactions that we are not fully aware of yet.

    Kaplan is poetic and very creative writer and by reading this, I personally recognized that I did not have that baby experience but every step on the way was intruded upon and my boundaries were broken but yet here I am fully functional and a good standing member of the society. So what gives?

    Thank you for posting a very complicated issues in relation to trauma.

  4. John B.

    It has been said that we live in a posttraumatic society (ISTSS Annual Meeting 2012). Both Klein and Mitchell have cognizable ideas for this disease and for the cure that can be applied both to the individual and to the social environment. As evidenced by these theorists, psychoanalytic theory is anything but oversimplified and reductionist! For anyone interested, there is an amazing book written by Elizabeth Danto (Hunter College) titled “Freud’s Free Clinics” which describes how the original mission of Freud and his adherents was to heal the individual and society through psychoanalysis. Sadly during the rise of nazism, these free and progressive clinics in Germany were confiscated by Goring and became places of pseudo-science, and propaganda meant to destroy and not create or repair. Finally, I agree with SecretToTrauma that Melanie Klein was and remains ahead of her time in explaining severe trauma (e.g. child sexual trauma or combat trauma). What you described SecretToTrauma in your post sounds like what Klein described as pathological organisations: dissociation, disintegration, etc. If you are interested, the Melanie Klein Trust out of the UK has a concise explanation of pathological organisations. Sometimes better understanding ourselves and how we remain stuck in patterns can best occur by learning from someone we trust like Melanie Klein and recognizing that we came to these patterns honestly, honorably and through no fault of our own.


      I knew nothing about Freud’s free clinics, etc. I’ll have to read more. And as an A. K Rice consultant (Tavistock in the USA) I know something about pathological organizations, and wish to know more. Thanks. Fred

  5. You have explained it all very clearly well,Fred.It;s interesting Klein helps us understand but that approach might not be best in therapy.Even knowing a bit about it is helpful

  6. I am ecstatic with the quality of the texts

  7. Franke Wilmer

    “When groups, including nations, are afraid and angry, they turn to the most paranoid-schizoid among them as leaders.”

    I would make a distinction between anger and fear, although related. I think fear is central to making patriarchal ideology “work” and anger feels justified as a way of externalizing fear. So anger and fear don’t lead us to turn to the most paranoid-schizoid leaders, paranoid schizoid leaders deliberately mobilize fear and then give permission to the fearful to expel it as anger. I think patriarchal ideology (an ideology that normalizes domination, control over others, and inequality) is the Oz behind the curtain pulling the strings to make fear appear normal, inevitable, and inescapable.

    What is extraordinary is how some people subjected to such attempts at psychic manipulation, resist. And some of them are just as or more traumatized than those who respond as paranoid schizoid leaders intend them to, with anger and ultimately, some kind of violence, whether verbal or physical or both. That’s why I went to study peace activists in Israel and Palestine.

    • My view is similar, Franke. There is a large pool of fear out there waiting to be exploited. Paranoid-schizoid leaders identify this inchoate fear, giving it an object and direction, often outsiders who have slithered their way inside, to put it in paranoid/schizoid terms. Which comes first. Following Klein, I’d say fear, but fear and defense (often anger) are really twins. Fred

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