IPA Inter-Regional Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

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The above multidimensional definition reflects, extrapolates from, and expands on the regional dictionaries and encyclopedias across the three continents (Lopez-Corvo, 2003; Skelton, 2006; Auchincloss and Samberg, 2012).


The concept has its roots in the 1940’s England with the clinical research on schizophrenia (psychotic thought disorder), studied by Melanie Klein and her followers Herbert Rosenfeld, Hanna Segal and Wilfred R. Bion. (The term may also link to WR Bion’s experience as a war time tank commander. Containment as a military term implies restricting and minimizing conflict on the battlefield without necessarily eradicating it, thus making it more manageable.) Klein’s “Notes on Schizoid Mechanisms” (1946) elucidated her view on the pathological fixation point of schizophrenia in the primitive early phase of infant life, from birth to 3 months, what she called the “paranoid-schizoid” position. In this position part-object relations, persecutory and annihilation anxiety, and primitive defense mechanisms such as splitting, projective identification, denial and omnipotence are active. Rosenfeld (1959, 1969) particularly deepened the understanding of projective identification in his clinical studies (1950-1970). He revealed the process in the patient’s infantile, primitive world: patients project the inner objects, part objects and conflictual parts of self into the object – the mother’s breast and body/the therapist – to handle them through the object, subsequently making them part of the self by introjecting them back, and identifying with them. This projection and re- introjection process became a fundamental part of Bion’s research on container-contained. The first incipient references to the Container-Contained theory appeared in Bion’s 1950’s writings, particularly in The Development of Schizophrenic Thought (1956, in: Bion, 1984); Differentiation between psychotic and non-psychotic personality (1957, in: Bion, 1984); On Hallucinosis (1958, in: Bion, 1984), and Attacks on Linking (1959). Making a reference to the baby’s relationship to the breast, within Melanie Klein’s theory on projective identification (Klein, 1946), he highlights the importance of the adaptation between the mother/her breast and the baby, in confronting the disintegration and death anxiety that the newborn experiences. The satisfactory presence of the container breast is the key when it comes to facing emotions and modifying them, allowing for emotional learning. Thus, Bion’s formulations of the projective identification concept as a primitive defense of the ego evolve into a description of a normative developmental realistic projective identification, implicit in the container – contained model.


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