Introduction and Concepts
Donald W. Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, developed the concept of transitional objects, which are things used in early ego development that symbolize the relationship of the child with their parental figures and their functions. This object is used to help the child project and introject (I’ll define these soon) aspects and functions of the these figures through an external object that can be controlled and is therefore safe to act out anxieties on or with. The most immediately salient example of this kind of object is probably the classic blanket that becomes inseparable from the child and takes on the name and presence they give it. Winnicott unfortunately contributes to confusion over what the word “object” means in psychoanalytic discourse by here using it for an actual physical object that symbolizes a different psychodynamic object. A psychodynamic object can be thought of as a mental space within which representations of other people are held, and an introjection can be thought of as the filling in of this space of representation with characteristics of others. This is opposed to projection, which is attributing parts of the self or introjected objects to others. What I above referred to as a “parental figure” is psychodynamically a parental object. A transitional object, like the blanket, becomes used to create a symbolic space between internal and external reality wherein anxieties around relating to others can be acted out omnipotently and physically registered. This allows for a processing of desire frustration related to the parent figures and resulting anxieties over a lost feeling omnipotence that come about in that frustration. Over time the child internalizes the relationship they have to the transitional object and the realities of the external world become more accepted. This allows for a transition beyond this acting out of omnipotence via the external object. Through the reality testing this process involves, a more defined differentiation between inside and outside of the ego is generated and the transitional object loses its attraction.
This early style of relating to reality, involving processes of projection, introjection, and feelings of omnipotence, was thought by Melanie Klein to be a vital aspect of the paranoid-schizoid position. This position is essentially a constellation of psychological functioning that facilitates the incorporation, arrangement, and ejection of ego functions and psychodynamic objects (from here forward, when I use the term “object” it can be assumed that I’m speaking of psychodynamic objects). When the style of relating that the paranoid-schizoid position involves leads to conflicts with reality, the ego is consolidated through a depressive position, another constellation wherein people or their symbolic representations that support ego functioning are complicated, frustrated, or lost. Through the omnipotent style of relating being checked by reality, the external world is re-evaluated and a richer understanding is generated through reparative processes, both mental and physical, meant to create internal and external coherence. Marxists may be familiar with this kind of process in the application of materialist analysis, which is a system for reality testing, and self-critique, which creates a defined space for positively engaging depressive positions to result in more scientific and effective stances.
I’d like to use the term regressional object to signify something like a failed transitional object that doesn’t operate to open up mental space and/or sets conditions for avoiding confrontation with reality. Instead of the object functioning to allow a transition from earlier styles of functioning, it regresses the psyche to functioning more typical of a paranoid-schizoid position. There is a recursive process of projection and introjection that doesn’t open up space for thought and instead keeps people in a kind of solipsistic relating to reality.