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Bacal, H.A. (1987). British Object-Relations Theorists and Self Psychology: Some Critical Reflections. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 68:81-98.

(1987). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 68:81-98

British Object-Relations Theorists and Self Psychology: Some Critical Reflections

Howard A. Bacal


This survey of six major British object-relations theorists examines the ways in which their ideas anticipated self psychology. The work of Ian Suttie is first considered as a relatively undiscovered but significant member of this group. The work of W. R. D. Fairbairn, Harry Guntrip, Michael Balint, and D. W. Winnicott demonstrates the introduction and development of many concepts which reflect essential theory in self psychology, none of which has been recognized by Kohut or his followers.

The British theorists, however, failed to systematize a psychology of the self in the way Kohut did, largely because they were unable to dissociate their theories from the prevailing moralistic view of narcissism. The psychological legitimacy of selfobject relations throughout life could not be placed at the centre of theory, since maturity required that 'narcissistic' object relations be relinquished. The difficulty which these theorists had in disengaging their concepts from instinct theory is regarded as a less important determinant preventing them from developing a comprehensive self psychology.

A review of Melanie Klein's work suggests interesting parallels with Kohut's work, but reveals essential incompatibilities in basic theoretical assumptions with regard to the nature of the relationship between the infant's self and its early environment.

Some ways in which the work of these object-relations theorists can enrich self-psychological theory and practice are suggested.

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