Some Technical Implications of Klein's Concept of 'Premature Ego Development'

By Mitrani, Judith L. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Some Technical Implications of Klein's Concept of 'Premature Ego Development'


Mitrani, Judith L., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


In this paper, the author revisits the problem of 'premature ego development' first introduced by Melanie Klein in 1930. She also highlights several developments in post-Kleinian thinking since the publication of that paper, which can be seen as offshoots of or complements to Klein's work. The author proposes a link between this category of precocious development and the absence of the experience of what Bion termed the 'containing object.' She puts forward several technical considerations relevant to analytic work with patients who suffer as a result of early developmental failures and presents various clinical vignettes in order to demonstrate the ways in which these considerations take shape in the analytic setting.

Keywords: symbol formation, premature ego, containing function, transference, countertransference, autism, projective identification

The phenomenon of premature ego development was introduced in Klein's (1930) seminal paper on the importance of the symbol-forming function of the mind. In this paper, I first call attention to several developments in post-Kleinian thinking since the publication of Klein's paper, which can be seen as complementary to her work, including my own thoughts, firmly rooted in that same discipline, on the specific link between this sort of precocity and a deficiency of the experience of what Bion termed the 'containing object' related to maternal anxiety. Second, as the main contribution of this work, I put forward several implications for psychoanalytic technique with patients who suffer as a result of this aspect of early development gone awry and who have thus become difficult to reach. Throughout, I present detailed clinical vignettes to demonstrate the ways in which my particular line of thinking takes shape in the analytic setting.

Klein's analysis of an autistic child

Klein (1930) presented findings from the analysis of a 4 year-old boy, Dick. Although at the time Klein analyzed Dick, Kanner's (1943) work on early infantile autism had not been published, one can ascertain from Klein's keen observations, paralleling Kanner's to a remarkable degree, that Dick would have been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.

Klein introduced the concept of 'premature ego-development' (1930, p. 33) to sum up Dick's dilemma. She described Dick's as a case of 'premature empathy' (p. 33) for and 'premature and exaggerated identification' (p. 29) with the mother. 'The genital phase had become active in Dick prematurely ... [sadistic phantasies] were followed not by anxiety only, but by remorse, pity and a feeling that he must make restitution' (p. 33).

She posits that Dick suffered from a far-too-early onset of what she would later call the 'depressive position' (1935). In the transference, Klein observed Dick and inferred his untimely concern with issues related to the survival of his mother in earliest infancy.1 Although Klein had posited the existence of an ego from birth, and before that in utero, in this work she made an important discrimination between normal healthy ego development on the one hand and premature pathological ego development on the other. Additionally, she explicitly takes into account and appreciates the impact upon the baby Dick of environmental influences that coalesce with those constitutional factors that are the predominant focus of her metapsychology and model of the mind, i.e. the role of innate envy, of the baby's congenital intolerance of frustration and of an inborn tendency to rely upon primitive omnipotence to defend against elemental anxieties. Elsewhere, in the formalized outline of Klein's model, the role accorded to environmental influences is not always apparent and mentions of these factors are generally relegated to footnotes or may be inferred from clinical material. All the same, these peripheral notations are relevant for the understanding of the plight of and the psychoanalytic work with the patients discussed below. …

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