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The Concept of Anxiety within an Object Relations Perspective

The Letter, Issue 6, Spring 1996, Pages 24 - 31


Helen Sheehan

In a paper submitted to the British Journal of Medical Psychology in 1943, Ronald Fairbairn, the Edinburgh based psychoanalyst wrote

Freud's libidio theory has remained relatively unquestioned. This is a situation which I have come to regard as most regrettable ... In my opinion it is high time that psychopathological inquiry which in the past has been successively focused first upon impulse and later upon the ego should now be focused upon the object toward which impulse is directed. To put the matter more accurately if less pointedly the time is now ripe for a psychology of object relations.[1]

By this seemingly innocuous statement Fairbairn set in motion a word which became act and which has had very important consequences for psychoanalysis. One is here reminded of old King Lear's demand for a public display of affection, 'Tell me my daughters which of you shall we say doth love us most?'[2], which in itself is harmless enough but we are reminded of the dire furies it unleashed.

In fact Lear provides a perfect backdrop from which to study the history of the psychoanalytic movement itself - the moments of barrenness, of storms, both part of the natural world and of the psychical- of alienation - of excommunication - of mindless suffering - even The Thing itself appears in the shape of the beggar.

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