The Importance of Melanie Klein

6 Feb|Mark Vernon

Melanie Klein photographed in 1957

Mark Vernon profiles the psychotherapist who really brought forward the importance of childhood.

Melanie Klein could be the most important psychotherapist you’ve never heard of. She is the key figure in the second part of our Introduction to Psychotherapy course, released this week.

Born in Vienna, in 1882, and also Jewish like Freud, she came to London in 1925, having been invited to give a series of lectures. They were such a success that she settled in the capital, where she remained until her death in 1960.

Her revolutionary move was to work with children. Freud had presumed that children could be studied, but not analysed. He was fascinated by games like peek-a-boo, and what was so thrilling for the young mind when a familiar face disappeared and reappeared. But a child can’t riff on their experience, as an adult can when making free associations. So he’d not taken the interest any further.

Klein realised that there was, though, a way to make contact with a child’s inner life. In a word: play. She saw that play is a serious business, as any parent will know when they tell their darling one that it’s time to pack up, to stop, to go home. Watch a child lost in play, and watch a performance of what’s going on inside.

Tantrums occur because the child is so fully engaged in acting out their fantasies or giving shape to their dreams. I can just about remember the time, as a child, when in a rage at being told that was enough Lego for the day, I thought to myself: “When I’m grown up, I’m going to remember how important this is! Adults don’t get me!”

Klein realised that a young child’s life is often experienced as traumatic. They’re inclined to treat everything as a matter of life or death, presumably because it feels like that. If you’re hungry, and have no sense that a meal is in the microwave, then you may implicitly conclude that you’re going to be hungry forever.

She argued that children develop various strategies for coping with the constant clash between what’s good in life, and what feels so bad. They tend to split the world up and associate different kinds of feelings with different objects around them. Pink may come to be permanently linked to comfort, if the warm nursery was decorated with rosy walls. A low voice may come to be permanently associated with fear, if a primary carer had the habit of lowering their voice before announcing bad news, like the termination of playtime. Klein called this type of associating, projection.

Unchecked, it carries on into adult life. In fact, when you get the hang of what Klein described, you start to see splitting and projecting occurring all the time. Blue skies good, grey skies bad. Fridays good, Mondays bad. Or, it’s a way to understand, say, road rage. Being delayed for a second at the lights, being inconvenienced for a couple more in the carpark, instantly catapults many back to the playpen or highchair, when what they wanted wasn’t delivered, and they felt impotent, angry, and with no recourse to justice.

Or consider contemporary politics, which seems to regress further week by week. The EU is the source of everything that’s bad, one politician will say, or the source of all that’s good, another will retort, before adding that without Europe, the UK is set to wither and die. There’s some truth in both arguments, of course. But you know Kleinian psychology is at work when the rhetoric goes to extremes. It’s life or death, good or bad that’s operative.

She had other brilliant ideas. The difference between jealousy and envy, she proposed, is that whereas jealousy can propel you to seek what you lack, envy makes you destroy what the other person has. Remember Fatal Attraction.

Her model of the mind is immensely practical. You encounter what she describes every day in the consulting room, and her descriptions can help find a way out. Enjoy part two. She may suggest a forward for you too.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Melanie Klein, but were afraid to ask, now is your chance. Our psychotherapy course with Dr Mark Vernon takes you through the life and work of six key figures in the world of psychotherapy. A fantastic primer in the key developments in psychotherapy since its birth in late 19th century Vienna, Mark’s course will also help you to think about your own life. Find out more here.