Psychodynamic therapist Nadine Moore explores the benefits of relating to others as integrated wholes, rather than entirely good or entirely evil.
Most of us are accustomed to the notion of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in films.
The goodies are ever loving and benevolent and the baddies are entirely evil. Of course, we know straight away which is which.
"Our default way of thinking might be to think that they did it on purpose, they don’t care about us, perhaps they love someone else more than us."
When a baby is born, psychoanalytic thinking pioneered by Melanie Klein believes that a baby too splits ‘good’ from ‘bad’.
When baby is hungry and milk appears quickly, baby sees mum as ever loving, gratifying and ‘good’. But when baby is hungry and perhaps isn’t fed as quickly as she’d like, or the feeding process isn’t satisfying, baby sees mum as hated and entirely ‘bad’.
Melanie Klein wasn’t proposing that she could read baby’s minds but that her work with children and adults indicated that babies relate to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mum as if they are two completely different people.
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She thought that babies could not comprehend that the ‘good’ mummy who makes them feel content and loved is the same person as the ‘bad’ mummy who leaves them feeling frustrated and anxious.
‘Bad’ mummy is kept apart from ‘good mummy’ in order to keep ‘good’ mummy safe from harm. And taking in the experience of an entirely ‘good’ mummy allows baby to internalise a stable, loving internal mother figure.
Recognising the good and bad in people
As adults we come to realise that people are not all good or all bad but a more realistic mixture of both good and bad things. We become more flexible in our thinking and don’t relate to people so concretely.
And compared with a baby who might feel that things are done ‘to’ him, that mummy purposefully keeps milk from him, an adult may be able to think about what is happening for mummy, he may worry and feel concern for her.
As baby grows older she realises that the mummy who asks her to ‘wait a minute’ is the same mummy who offers instant gratification. She begins to relate to mummy as a whole person.
Attitudes that change throughout our lives
But relating to people as entirely bad and feeling persecuted by them, or on the other hand seeing someone as more of a whole and feeling concern for them are different attitudes that adults can dip in and out of throughout their lives.
It’s not like you graduate to seeing someone as a whole person come the age of 18 and then just relate like that forever onwards.
Something might happen that triggers someone to start relating more in one way than the other. Or we may tend to relate to people in a certain way due to our earliest experiences.
Say a friend cancels on us, our immediate thought might be ‘What have I done wrong? Do they hate me now?’, feeling persecuted and paranoid. Or we may tend to think ‘I wonder what happened? Are they okay?’, showing concern for their safety.
Or say our partner forgot to buy something in the weekly shop that we were really looking forward to eating.
Our default way of thinking might be to think that they did it on purpose, they don’t care about us, perhaps they love someone else more than us. Or maybe we can consider the long shopping list they had to remember in their head and feel able to forgive them.
We may tend to relate to people as whole people or we may relate to them as idols or villains.
A client comes to mind who displayed very ‘black and white’ thinking. Things were believed to be unshakeably true without much ability to see more of the ‘grey’.
He took what I said very literally and seemed to believe what I said as gospel truth rather than being able to disagree with me.
He also presented very much as confident, even arrogant, and found it very hard to admit any possibility of his own fragility.
He had recently broken up with his boyfriend who he had idolised without fault, but once he realised that his ex had started to see someone else – he fell completely from grace and was vilified completely. My client began to talk about feeling persecuted by other people, friends, friends of his parents and teachers.
As our therapy progressed and we began to look at parts of him that were vulnerable and fearful and not entirely capable and confident, I began to notice changes. His idolisation of me as the ‘perfect’ mother figure began to reduce. He began to offer his own opinion, say that I hadn’t quite got things completely right. He missed a few sessions without cancelling first. And he began to worry about the welfare of his friends and those close to him.
All signs, maybe, that he had begun to relate to those around him more as whole integrated people who come with faults as well as being brilliant too. And that he had also begun to see himself more as a whole person with different complex parts.
The benefits of relating to a whole person
If we are able to see those close to us as being a mixture of good and bad traits rather than idolising or hating them, we can also be more realistic and feel less devastated if they do let us down. We can feel more forgiving, less likely to harbour a grudge.
We can also be more realistic about ourselves – what we are capable of, what is understandable rather than unforgivable.
We might be able to see ourselves as having sexual desires as well as being academic and intelligent.
We may be able to accept the part of us that is vulnerable and in need of support, as well as the part of us that prides our ability to be independent and cope alone.
It is not easy to relate to others and ourselves as faulty human beings rather than idolised heroes, or the other way round – as evil baddies, but the hard work can be worth it.
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NB - some identities have been changed in this article to protect anonymity.