Expanding the Concept of Internal Object Relations: An Introduction to the Concept of Experiential Horizons

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Expanding the Concept of Internal Object Relations:

An Introduction to the Concept of Experiential Horizons

 Alberto Varona, Psy. D.

Abstract

The concept of horizons introduced in this paper is intended as an expansion to the concepts of internal objects and internal object relations as clarified by Thomas Ogden (1983). The concept of horizons acknowledges the direct relationship between the representational aspect of the mind and the world it responds to thereby reducing some of the difficulties of a world-mind dualism.  Basing the representational aspect of the mind in direct relationship to the world also explains why internal objects relations –which are simplified embellishments of horizons– are dynamic and lively.  The complex and creative syntheses of the two poles of horizons, the historic and the emergent, offer greater dimension to the theory of internal object relations.  This theoretical expansion can be clinically useful as it reminds clinicians of the complexity of human experiencing and helps avoid the reductive interventions that sometimes create misunderstanding in psychotherapy.

Main Text

Michael walks into the consultation room.  He looks very sad; his eyes are downcast and red.  He slowly walks to his usual seat and he begins to sob, his face held in his hands.  After several moments he wipes away his tears, looks up and says, “I had a very difficult meeting with my father.  As you know I haven’t seen him for some time.  Anyway, we met up at a local bar and when we finally talked he was very horrible to me.  He made me feel horribly.  After all this time not seeing me, he still could not show me more kindness.”  After a moment the therapist asks Michael, “Can you tell me more about what it was like?”

Michael looks confused and says, “It was just hard.  There was so much going on at that moment.  It is hard to articulate it.  I wish I had a way to capture that moment so I can share it with you. All I can say is that it felt so sad and more, much more.”  The therapist wants to attempt to capture the experience in words and responds, “It must be painful to finally see your father, after so much time anticipating it, and find that the experience showed him to be unchanged, so much like the father you remember.”   Michael considers this for a moment and looks up teary eyed and says, “Yeah.  I guess that is right.  I guess that is true.”  The therapist sees a great loss reflected in Michael’s eyes. His eyes communicate an acknowledgment that there was so much more to be communicated but that it was not possible to do.  Neither of them can capture that moment.  That moment was so much broader, more complex than normal speech can capture, and the experience is elusive.  Both the therapist and Michael feel a deep sadness about it.  But neither of them understands exactly what was left unsaid.

The concepts of internal objects and their relations have proven useful as a means of exploring the inner landscape of human experience.  These concepts acknowledge that there is an aspect of lived experience that is reflected internally and that it is often the most immanent aspect of experience for a person.  Although the concepts of internal objects and their relations have been useful in articulating human experience in its complexity, they are also inherently restrictive.  Other, less simplified, aspects of experience should be acknowledged in order to further advance our clinical theories and practice. These other aspects of experience are important in understanding human experience, both internal and external, as the source of what is considered dynamic about the world of internal objects.

The most fundamental experiences individuals have are both elusive and difficult to articulate, just as Michael struggles to understand and explain his experience with his father.  In psychoanalysis, we must recognize these fundamental experiences, termed horizons. They are the basis for thought and language and serve as a link between the lived world and the internal world of representation. Recognizing horizons will give a fuller understanding of the human experience.

THE CONCEPT OF INTERNAL OBJECTS AND THEIR RELATIONS

Thomas Ogden’s (1983, p. 227) definition of internal objects and their relations is a useful reference point from which to begin an exploration of these concepts:

Internal objects can be thought of as dynamically unconscious suborganizations of the ego capable of generating meaning and experience, i.e. capable of thought, feeling and perception. These suborganizations stand in unconscious relationships to one another and include (1) self-suborganizations of ego, i.e. aspects of the ego in which the person more fully experiences his ideas and feelings as his own, and (2) object suborganizations of ego through which meanings are generated in a mode based upon identification of an aspect of the ego with an object. This identification with the ego is so thorough that one’s original sense of self is almost entirely lost. (italics mine)

Ogden arrives at this definition after careful consideration of the conceptual variations of the term internal objects as fantasies (Melanie Klein), thoughts (Klein as articulated by Susan Isaacs and Hanna Segal), dynamic representational structures (Ronald Fairbairn) and mental representations with capacity for linkage (Donald Winnicott).  He says that there are self-suborganizations and object-suborganizations to internal objects. He also creatively uses Winnicott, Grottstein and especially Wilfred Bion to explain how internal objects – as internal object relations between suborganizations of the ego – are capable of generating meaning and experience.  Bion’s concept of projective identification – particularly Bion’s  ‘construction of bizarre objects’ theory (1957)- is used to explain how aspects of the dynamic ego can become identified with the internal object suborganizations. According to Ogden, aspects of the dynamic ego, i.e. taste, sight and thought, become identified with these internal object suborganizations causing these suborganizations to function with some relative and lively independence in generating meaning and experience.

Ogden is correct in his identifying the self and object aspects of internal objects. He is also correct in identifying the need to explain how internal object relations become dynamic substructures that themselves generate meaning and experience. The concept of internal objects and their relations alone cannot account for the dynamism of people’s internal experience.  But to Ogden and many other psychoanalytic investigators, the immanent fact that internal object relations are “capable of thought, feeling and perception” is not sufficiently explained by the emotion or action-based links that are supposed to exist between internal objects – object relations. Two thoughts or two representations linked together or associated with each other do not generate the dynamic and autonomous capacity for thought, feeling or perception.  These dynamic qualities are associated with living organisms and their active functions, not with the mental copies that constitute internal objects. However, if we ascribe these dynamic mental functions to mental content itself, as Ogden suggests, another great problem emerges.  Does our mind contain smaller beings that are somewhat alive and that wreak havoc on us?  This can lead to demonological explanations of the mind and a separate mental world of entities in need of a psychoanalytic census.

Ogden’s work contributed greatly by clarifying a set of concepts that had been ambiguous in the psychoanalytic community. By giving his definition he was able to offer the community a more coherent definition to use in exploring the complexity of the inner human landscape. However, there are two significant problems with his definition and analysis. His definition, while identifying aspects of internal life in need of articulation (the self and object suborganizations of the ego), becomes a limitation upon that articulation.  His theory misses the immanent fact that the internal world is not comprised of simplified selves and objects and their relationships to each other. Such a simplification can be very restrictive. Also, his analysis makes an unnecessary jump by linking mental function (e.g. thought, feeling, and perception) to mental content (self and object suborganizations) in order to explain the dynamism of internal object relations. Although internal object relations comprise suborganizations of the ego, their dynamism may be accounted for with fewer hypothetical steps. The mind is not a closed system, experience itself is continuously impacting it.  The intersection of new experience and older experiences, encoded as they are in the memory, alone could account for the dynamism and autonomous nature often ascribed to internal object relations.

ANOTHER ASPECT OF MENTAL CONTENT

The concept of internal object relations misses a more substantive aspect of mental life that is encoded in the memory as experiential, responsive and historical.  The word experiential is useful because it places this theoretical expansion of mental content on the sure ground of a living world and the context (Stolorow, 2011) of human living.  The mind is not closed off from the world and anything that it contains within it must have some direct relationship with the world itself.  Mental content comes from the world and it will always interact with that same world.  The word responsive is particularly important. It establishes that mental content not only comes from the world but also is a response to the world rather than a copy of that world.  When an ‘object’ is identified in one’s memory, e.g. the face and voice of the father, it is easy to miss the fact that these are not mental copies of the father.  They are rather mental representations of experiences with the father.  In other words, the face and voice of the father that one can conjure up in the mind are responses, what it was like to see and hear him from one’s vantage point.  The visual and auditory memories are the subjective experiences one had when encountering the father. Finally, this leads to the use of the word historical. This word is used as a reminder that anything that exists in mental content is based in experiences and responses that have already passed.  Any mental content well encoded in the memory is inherently historical.  This is important because this historical pole is one aspect of mental life is always being conjured up by new lived experiences.  When one meets with their father they certainly have a new experience but that same new experience is likely to invoke historical experiences which are themselves comprised of responses.

THE CONCEPT OF HORIZONS

These encoded responses to the world are broad, multi-sensory, somatic, emotional and cognitive. They are broad in the sense that so many aspects of our experience, whether central or peripheral to that experience, are also encoded in the memory. They include experiences that are responses to sights, sounds, tastes and tactile sensations. They include responses of the body such as stomach movements, muscular tenseness, increased heart rate and energy shifts. Some of these somatic responses are identified as constituting emotions such as sadness, anxiety, fear and excitement.  When identifying somatic responses as emotions there is also a cognitive experience associated with these responses. The thought, “I am so sad” or “I am so excited” may constitute an aspect of the broad responsive experience.  Beyond the simple identification of emotions there are also values placed on those states such as, “I hate feeling this way” or “I feel great being excited”. This is also an aspect of the cognitive experience.

For clarity these broad, multi-sensory, somatic, emotional and cognitive experiences will be referred to as horizons. Horizons are constituted of responses and the world to which one responds. The word horizon captures the breadth of experience in a matter that is theoretically useful.  The word captures the entire broad field of experiencing; not just discreet subjects and objects.  It also suggests that not all possible experiences of the world are included, just a broad yet limited range.  A horizon is a significant portion of the world but not the entire world. The word horizon is inherently perspectival (Orange, 1992) in that it acknowledges a broad range of experience unique to each experiencer. When encoded in the memory, responsive experience of the world is encoded as a horizon.  When responsive experience of the world emerges from memory it emerges as a horizon. If responsive experience of the world emerges from memory as discreet subjects and objects it does so always within the backdrop of a horizon.  The face and voice of the father that one can conjure in the mind never emerges from memory in a vacuum.  As it came to the memory from the broad and responsive experience of the world so it emerges with that in the background.  It is inherently dynamic as it is backed by the dynamism of responsive lived experience.

It is important to underscore that horizons are responsive, characterized by an interface between the world and the person.  This means that this aspect of the representational mind is made up of responses to the world.  It is not fundamentally constituted of copies of the world or its objects but rather of what it is like to be interfacing with it.  This distinguishes horizons from internal objects not just in the quantity of what they describe but in the quality of what they describe. Remembered aspects of horizons are always about something, the experience of the lived-world is always a necessary counterpart to the remembrance.  Both poles of horizons, the lived-world experience and the responsive memory to the lived-world experience, are essential.   There is no meaning to one without the other.

THE TWO POLES OF HORIZON

The horizon is made up of two poles of experience: the historic horizon and the emergent horizon.  The historic horizon is the aspect of experience that has already passed and is related to memory. It is the remembered, responsive and broad content of experience. It spans from life in utero to just milliseconds prior to having new experience. The emergent horizon is the experience that is occurring now and is a concept based in the real world. As emergent experience, it is always grasping for or moving toward the next moment, it is always progressive. It is considered the other pole of horizons because it constitutes the causal side of what the historic horizon is a response to. As such, the historic horizon is not a static thing. It makes continuous contact with the emergent horizons and they coalesce to form the unity with which we tend to experience ourselves in the world. A horizon is the creative syntheses of the historic and emergent poles of lived experience that constitute our lived being in a world.

COALSCENCE AND THE EXPERIENCE OF UNIQUENESS

Alfred Whitehead’s (1929) concepts of concrescence and actual entities articulate aspects of human experiencing that are crucial. For Whitehead an actual entity is comprised of “drops of experience, complex and interdependent” (28) that result from a coming together of history and experience (concrescence), generating a creative unity of experience.  The unique entity that results from this concrescence of history and experience is not enduring as its movement through time and continuous experience is a never-ending process.  This process is a process of becoming; the actual entity an elusive being that is an amazing intersection between the past and the future.

This process philosophy is very illuminating for psychology.  It serves as a reminder that the intersection between what is remembered and what is emerging, the entity or person that is generated from the sophisticated coalescence between these two poles of experience, the historic and the emergent, is always unique and greater than the parts of which they are comprised.  People themselves are the broad, multi-sensory, somatic, emotional and cognitive experiences.  They are the horizons, the unique coalescence of two poles of experience. The historic pole of experience is the basis for what they deem stable and enduring.  The emergent pole of experience is the basis for what they deem indefinite and the basis of all possibility.  The coalescence of both poles of experience is dynamic and ensures that experience of the world is never passive.

INTERNAL OBJECTS AS SIMPLIFICATIONS

The mental content is not – at its most elemental level – constructed of subject-verb-object propositions or subject-affect-object experience.  Mental content is always comprised of horizons. Internal objects and internal object relations are important yet simplified versions of what is given to experience in horizons.  They are constituted of simplifications, verbal and sometimes visual propositions, layered upon the horizons from which they are drawn.

Horizons, as coalescence, are the substance of human experience, animating and elaborating it.  However, when self-reflection and speech are necessitated, the horizons undergo the process of simplification.  It is simplified content that we often hear about in both theory and common speech. Simplification is necessary because it makes horizons available to propositional thought and propositional speech. The simplifying of horizons results in the simplified content of internal objects and internal object relations.

Looking again at the case of Michael, horizons help us recognize both the complexities and nuances of his experience that are not captured through the simplified language of internal objects and their relations:

Michael finds himself in a warm room that feels very unpleasant on his skin.  It makes his skin too moist and itchy. He chose this place to meet his father after several years of not speaking. It is also extremely loud and he can feel his eardrums pulsing.  On the periphery of his vision there are many people moving about at a very fast pace, faster than he himself would normally move and it makes him a bit uneasy.  His heart begins to race and he believes himself to be anxious. Also, his stomach feels restless and uneasy as if anticipating something potentially frightening. However, he also believes this stomach restlessness is excitement about the meeting about to take place.

The last time Michael saw his father they got into a great argument and he chose not to make contact with him for a long time.  For years Michael has had tearful nights thinking about his father. He has also had many fleeting thoughts that his father may die without him there. Michael hasn’t entirely forgiven him yet, but he is hoping to today.  He is aware of feeling frightened that his father hasn’t changed very much.  On the other hand he hopes his father is exactly the same as he was before so he can stay angry and stop trying to forgive him. He had a passing fantasy that his father may be sick, which inspired him to reach out. Paradoxically, he feels comforted by and hates this fantasy.

Finally, after scanning for several moments, Michael spots him.  His father sees Michael as well.  His father looks so much older. ‘Maybe he is dying’, Michael thinks. Michael feels a surge of excitement, sadness and annoyance. So many thoughts and memories flood into Michael’s mind, but they are hard to capture. His father approaches Michael and as he comes into earshot he says very loudly, speaking over the deafening noise and with a scowl on his face, “This is a terrible spot you chose!”  Michael’s stomach sinks deeper; a deep sadness washes over him. Everything is as it was before. Nothing has changed.

Later that day Michael meets with his therapist and says, “I had a very difficult meeting with my father.  As you know I haven’t seen him for some time.  Anyway, we met up at a local bar and when we finally talked he was very horrible to me.  He made me feel horribly.  After all this time of not seeing me and he still could not show me more kindness.”

This example highlights a typical occurrence of recalling and retelling an experience. It is usually only possible to recall and retell simplified aspects of the experience.  The objects and emotions characterize what was central to the experience. It is normal to recall and retell experience in a simplified manner.  In fact, it is possible that human thinking itself requires such simplification in order to operate efficiently. Nevertheless, it is this simplified thinking and verbal level of experience that is most readily available to the self and most readily accepted by those who listen to us speak.  What is typical of the process of simplification is the identification of particular objects, activities and emotions of the horizon.  However, beneath the surface of recalling and retelling is a level of experience often unexpressed, the level of horizons.  Much more could be understood about horizons, but thoughts and words are often limiting.

This process of simplification is called objectification. This simplified content is made up of objectified versions of those people, things, actions and emotions that constitute the experiences themselves. Even the concept of the self –a compulsory, evolved and essential construction– is an objectifying of horizons of experiences into an experiencer. The resultant ‘subject’ is also a simplified content that takes experiencing itself as its object. The simplified content can be utilized to form thoughts and sentences that are based in subject-action-object or subject-affect-object propositions.  This is an important layer of mental life.  In this domain, slightly withdrawn as it is from experiential horizons, the entire structure of human cognitive and linguistic life is constructed.  However, just as horizons are essentially about the lived-world experience, internal objects are always about the horizons.  They are useful simplifications of horizons but they are always one step removed from direct lived-world experience.

INTERNAL OBJECTS AS THINKING, FEELING AND PERCIEVING ENTITIES

Ascribing internal objects the capacity for thought, feeling and perception is an error. The sense that internal objects can think, feel and perceive could be better explained by reference to experience of the lived-world itself. The internal objects, drawn out of horizons of experience, are always intricately bound up with the responses one had in the experience of them.  For example, the face and voice of the father can be conjured in the mind, but never in absolute isolation from the responsive perceptions, feelings and thoughts one had about the father when the memory encoded our experience of him.  It follows that the father, as an internal object, is intricately bound up with many other dynamic aspects of experience and that these aspects of experience constitute the dynamism with which we experience this internal object in the historic horizon.  Add to this the emergent horizon, the aspect of experience that is occurring now.  The historic horizon, in this case the experience of the father as an internal object, is coming forward to meet with an emergent situation that has somehow called it forth.  Maybe one has come in contact with a man that looks like the father, or perhaps one is meeting with a woman who holds authority like the father did.  The internal object of the father is now coalescing with an emergent horizon of experience.  It is coalescence itself, the coming together of historical and emergent poles, which accounts for the dynamism with which we experience internal objects and their relations.

If this theoretical expansion is correct and internal object relations are simplifications drawn from horizons, there may be little need for Ogden’s use of Bion’s ‘bizarre object theory’ (1957) to explain the dynamism of internal object relations. Internal object relations have never existed in solitude as discreet mental copies, static and identifiable things-in-themselves that must be invested with the dynamism of living organisms.  These internal object relations have always been objectifications of a broad, multi-sensory, somatic, emotional and cognitive experiential life. Emergent horizons are always creatively synthesizing with historic horizons that are again surfacing and grasping for emergent horizons. Internal object relations were always animated by experiential life, both historic and emergent.  People are the horizons and there is little need to imagine why the objectification of those experiential horizons would also be dynamic and lively.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

We can rarely ever think about or speak of our horizons in a fulfilling way.  This is because horizons are the coalescence of our history and the emergent world.  Horizons are vast, complex and elusive and yet immanent at the same time. As such they are not available to thought or to speech in the manner internal objects are. Horizons are responsive in nature, the experience-of something, and are not the agents of experience that make for narrative retelling. Horizons are also moving targets, never fully objectified nor subjectified, continuously transforming through time.  The memory may subjectify and objectify horizons to some extent, thereby rendering them think-able and speak-able. However, these experiences can never really be shared with or given to another. As demonstrated in Michael’s case, we find the therapist and the client profoundly disappointed that the nuances of his experience with his father are elusive and difficult to communicate.  The nature of horizons is that they are difficult to articulate and require a more patient and effortful engagement.

For this reason it is important to understand something of the complexity and dynamism of horizons of experience.  Every reflection, analysis or conversation about our horizons has already and necessarily been reduced to simplified propositions that inherently lack breadth and accuracy. Our attempts to know and understand others are seriously impaired by the function of simplification and by the process of speaking and yet, paradoxically, these are the most common means for knowing and understanding people. This is, in part, why psychoanalytic clinicians and other humanistic clinicians increasingly emphasize the process of therapy over the content of therapy. An understanding of the importance of experience, as horizons, can tip the scales away from simplification and further toward relational experience as the best process for therapeutic intervention. The content of conversations can also be elaborated more fully in order to reduce the isolation that can result from simplifications.

The concept of horizons also reduces this theoretical danger of closed mental systems.  Theories that isolate the mind too far from the lived-world are vulnerable to mind-world dualism. This has been problematic in psychoanalytic theorizing. It accomplishes this by removing the barrier between lived experience and the representational mind.  With this theoretical expansion it is more difficult to conceive of the mind as a closed location in which the objects live and wreak havoc unbeknownst to us.  The historic horizons of the representational mind are comprised of the responses to the emergent horizons that they respond to.  They are the world’s impression on the mind, yet both poles, the historic and the emergent, are continuously transforming each other.  The internal objects are simplifications drawn from responsive experiences and are dynamic by virtue of their basis in lived experience.  There are no living internal object relations that are born in the mind and exist there autonomously.  Historic horizons are remembered and responsive experiences.  The simplified objects that are imagined out of these horizons are not alive; they are activated by life and by experience.

To be clear, the concept of internal objects or internal object relations should not be eliminated.  In fact, they are concepts that have been very useful to psychoanalytic practitioners for many years.  Instead, we must view internal object relations as a layer of representation constructed upon a backdrop of horizons. This layer simplifies experience –both historical and emergent – to facilitate thought and make verbal articulation possible.  This simplification inverts experience in order to create mental content in the form of the object. Additionally, this simplification creates an experiencer who we call the subject.  Finally, the relations aspect of internal object relations is a simplification that selects discreet activities and emotions that are proximally located between or experientially associated with the subject and the object.

If horizons elude thought and speech, is this concept clinically irrelevant?  Does this theory suggest that verbal simplifications in the form of insights, interpretations and narratives should be eliminated? These are important questions.  The answer to both is ‘no’. Psychotherapists cannot eliminate simplifications. Our thinking and language are dependent on these simplifications.  However, there are a few suggestions to mitigate the negative clinical effects of verbal simplifications.  First, clinicians must always emphasize the process of therapy, the experiences co-created in therapy, over the content of therapy, that which is said in therapy. This is one way we can highlight the experiential horizon over the simplified content.  Secondly, clinicians must adopt a clinical approach that is perspectival (Orange 1995) and contextual (Stolorow 2011).

Perspectival approaches treat insights, interpretations and narratives as fragments of reality as opposed to absolute descriptions of reality. Contextual approaches expand the focus of therapy from simple dyads and simple content to complex environments and experiences. However, for perspectival and contextual approaches to avoid the pitfalls of simplified therapies they cannot eliminate the historic horizon, the representational aspects of horizons. Herein lies the clinical relevance of this theoretical expansion.  It is a reminder that representational aspects of the mind and experiential life are important. They are particularly important in their coalescence. Finally, clinical insights, interpretations and narratives should be stated with tentativeness.  This tentativeness will ensure that all insights, interpretations and narratives are merely attempts to understand the horizons of the other, an experience that is unique, elusive and ultimately private. Tentative insights, interpretations and narratives are meaningful possibilities not certainties. The clinician is now a participant in an emergent horizon that does not demand conformity and uncomfortable syntheses.  Continuous engagement with clients that is process-oriented, perspectival, contextual and tentative can create an emergent horizon that is quite therapeutic.

CONCLUSION

The concept of horizon introduced in this paper is intended as a means of expanding the concept of internal objects and internal object relations as clarified by Thomas Ogden (1983). The horizon directly links the representational world with the broad, multi-sensory, somatic, emotional and cognitive experiential world reducing the danger of dualistic models of mind-world.  The creative and coalescing syntheses between the historic pole and the emergent pole of horizons create an open and flexible mental system. Also, basing the representational world in relationship to the experiential world explains why internal objects relations –constructed as they are from upon horizons– are dynamic and lively.  This expansion also introduces a component of time and process into our clinical theories by recognizing the coalescence between historic and emergent horizons.  This expansion can prove clinically useful as it reminds clinicians of the complexity of human experience and helps us avoid the sort of limiting simplifications that sometimes create misunderstanding in therapy.  If more attention can be given to horizons rather than to the discreet objects, actions and subjects of the representational mind, then clients and their therapists – like Michael and his therapist – can avoid the profound disappointment that may arise when the nuances of human experience are missed.  This is a promising clinical possibility.

If human experience is as complex as is suggested in this paper, nuanced theories are needed to grasp for understanding. The complexity and nuance of human experience will never fit within our concepts but it is an honorable aim to have our concepts adequately approach human experience.

 

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Stolorow, R. (2011). World, Affectivity, Trauma. Routledge. pp 19-34

Whitehead, A. (1929) Process and Reality. Macmilan,