It might seem unusual to hear someone waxing lyrical about object relations! But I find them fascinating, and after twenty years of exploring with them with the Diamond Approach, they just get more and more so.
A human being is a world within a world. At any rate that is how we experience things. It is how our soul seems structured to experience reality. It is the way that our brain renders reality for us to experience. We are continually plugged into what is going on “in here” and what is going on “out there,” and sensing the relationship between them.
This dyadic structure is the basis for what psychologists call an object relation. The conventional description of an object relation has three elements: a sense of self (the “in here” bit), a sense of the other (the “out there” part) and a feeling or relationship that links them such as love, desire, frustration, anger or support. The critical point to note is that both the sense of the self and the sense of the other are pre-existing in your own psyche. They are like internal templates through which you experience things.
Object relations are ubiquitous in life. They appear whenever there is a “you” and a “something” in relationship. You and your friend whom you appreciate. You and your boss who’s being critical. You and the bad traffic. You and your goal you care about. You and the problem you’re trying to solve.
Various schools of psychology have recognised different kinds of object relations. The so-called British school entered around the work of Fairbairn and others describes three broad categories of object. The central object relation is comprised of a good self, and a good other, in a positive relationship. You might experience this as your internal sense of you and your partner getting on just fine and feeling good together. The frustrating libidinal object relation is comprised of a wanting or desirous self, an unfulfilling other, and a feeling of frustration. This might show up as you and the goal get so close to but just can’t seem to land. It eludes you and leaves you frustrated. The rejecting object relation is characterised by a rejected self, a rejecting other and, unsurprisingly the general affect of rejection and hatred. This might appear when you think about walking into a room and feel, “These people really don’t like me,” which is curious because you have no idea who is in the room, but you already have a preconception, an internal template…
Kernberg and Kohut unpacked a different set of object relations which they called self-object relations and which centre around identity. Transactional analysis has its own brand of object relations in the parent-child dyad, or the adult-adult dyad. Gestalt therapy has interesting variations that include the figure and the ground. Common to all of them is the broad sense of a dyadic experience of reality involving a self of some sort, and an other of some sort.
The Diamond Approach makes particular use of object relations theory in the practice of inquiry. Inquiry in the Diamond Approach is the direct exploration of the immediacy of your experience. This immediacy includes the thoughts and ideas, emotional feelings and reactions and bodily sensations that are present in any given moment either on their own or in relation to a particular circumstance or circumstances of your life. In addition to these conventional elements of experience, inquiry includes the more subtle sensations of experience that we call the “felt sense.”
The inquiry is an exploration, and whatever you first encounter of your experience is just a beginning. By staying in touch with the experience in friendly open and curious way, the experience begins to reveal more information in a meaningful way. You might start off aware that you’re thinking about someone in a particular way, and as you stay with that and wonder what you are thinking and how come you are thinking that, you might begin to notice that there are feelings involved, which underlie the thoughts. As you get in touch with the feelings and understand the connection between the thoughts and the feelings, in time you might begin to get in touch with deeper impressions of similar experiences from the past. The immediate inner-outer structure of the current experience turns out to be connected in your psyche with earlier more formative structures of a similar nature. So the exploration is a bit like letting an old school photograph on photographic paper develop – little by little you connect with and feel and see and sense more. One way that it is different from a photograph is that it is not a static process. The very process of exploring and uncovering impacts and changes you, and leads to an unfolding and transformation of your experience in a meaningful way as you understand more fully what is true.
Perhaps the most misunderstood thing to appreciate about inquiry in the Diamond Approach is that it is a very literal exploration of the immediacy of experience. In other words it is not about coming up with theories or clever ideas. It is about staying directly in touch with your immediate experience in an inquiring manner, and seeing what is revealed and understood as you do. The inquiry in that sense is purely descriptive and exploratory of what you tangibly experience.
This applies to object relations as to anything else. Object relations are so useful in the Diamond Approach for the simple reason that they describe what we actually find in so many moments of experience. When you explore what you are experiencing, at some point it becomes apparent that there is, perhaps implicitly at first, a sense of self and a sense of some kind of “other” present in the experience.
An example of this is someone who is an angry person, who experiences themselves as generally annoyed. She is most focussed on or aware of the feeling. When she stays with and explores this annoyance, at some point she might recognise a previously unconscious dialogue going on in her head, a stream of constant criticism. So it turns out that there is an experiential “other” in her experience talking to her, a critical voice continually harping on at her and making her feel ratty. As she stays with this, at some point she might notice that it is a familiar kind of voice, reminiscent of one of her parents. And as she explores how this affects her and explores more her sense of herself, she may notice a sense of a criticised and beleaguered self, inside of which is a sense of being a little kid at the mercy of the parents in some way. So then the whole historic object relation becomes apparent: the “self” feels like a little kid being harshly treated by the “other” – a critical parent. It is implicit in the experience from the beginning since it is what is flavouring her whole experience, but unconsciously so. Gradually it comes to light with inquiry, not as a theoretical construct, not as an “interpretation” or “mentalisation,” or as speculation that “maybe you’re irritated with your mother’s criticism,” but as a very immediate and direct experience.
At the risk of labouring the point, both sides of the object relation emerge in a palpable way in your own experience. So the use of objects relation theory is not based on ideology or on the fact that it is theoretically pleasing. We use these concepts because they so precisely describe what actually emerges.
Object relations are the psychological fabric of all ego experience. But they are so much more. As we explore them with presence and curiosity, they begin to open up and transform. Each psychological object relation with its historical elements becomes a doorway into a particular functioning of our psyche. It is the doorway to particular qualities of our deeper essence, our inner true nature. Far from being a problem, the object relation turns out to be just the first step in a process of development and maturation. Bringing our psychological object relations to light and seeing how they function in our lives can be very challenging at times, because they tend to involve strong feelings. But they are a key that unlocks the inner universe in a way that nothing else can. We can have all sorts of spiritual experiences, or experiences of our depth and of the wonders of reality, but until we work through the object relations, these experiences will remain fleeting. Diving into and exploring the object relations allows our inner truth to become integrated more and more into every moment and situation of life.