Mental Help Net
Basic InformationMore InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersBlog EntriesVideosLinksBook Reviews
Maximizing Effectiveness in Dynamic Psychotherapy Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy101 Healing Stories101 Things I Wish I'd Known When I Started Using HypnosisA Primer for Beginning PsychotherapyA Therapist's Guide to Understanding Common Medical ProblemsACT With LoveAlready FreeAssessment and Treatment of Childhood Problems, Second EditionBad TherapyBecoming MyselfBefore ForgivingBeing a Brain-Wise TherapistBiofeedback for the BrainBody PsychotherapyBody SenseBoundaries and Boundary Violations in PsychoanalysisBrain Change TherapyBreaking ApartBuffy the Vampire Slayer and PhilosophyBuilding on BionCare of the PsycheChoosing an Online TherapistClinical Handbook of Psychological DisordersClinical Intuition in PsychotherapyClinical Pearls of WisdomCo-Creating ChangeCompassion and Healing in Medicine and SocietyConfessions of a Former ChildConfidential RelationshipsConfidentiality and Mental HealthConfidingContemplative Psychotherapy EssentialsCouch FictionCounseling with Choice TheoryCritical Issues in PsychotherapyCrucial Choices, Crucial ChangesDecoding the Ethics CodeDepression 101Depression in ContextDo-It-Yourself Eye Movement Techniques for Emotional HealingDoing CBTDoing ItE-TherapyEncountering the Sacred in PsychotherapyEnergy Psychology InteractiveEssays on Philosophical CounselingEthics in Psychotherapy and CounselingEveryday Mind ReadingExercise-Based Interventions for Mental IllnessExistential PsychotherapyExpressing EmotionFacing Human SufferingFairbairn's Object Relations Theory in the Clinical SettingFamily TherapyFavorite Counseling and Therapy Homework AssignmentsFlourishingFlying ColorsGod & TherapyHandbook of Clinical Psychopharmacology for TherapistsHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHealing the Heart and Mind with MindfulnessHealing the Soul in the Age of the BrainHeinz KohutHow and Why Are Some Therapists Better Than Others?How People ChangeHow to Give Her Absolute PleasureHow to Go to TherapyIf Only I Had KnownIn SessionIn Therapy We TrustIn Treatment: Season 1Incorporating Spirituality in Counseling and PsychotherapyIs Long-Term Therapy Unethical?Issues in Philosophical CounselingIt’s Your HourLearning from Our MistakesLetters to a Young TherapistLogotherapy and Existential AnalysisLove's ExecutionerMan's Search for MeaningMeditations on Self-Discipline and FailureMetaphoria: Metaphor and Guided Metaphor for Psychotherapy and HealingMindfulnessMindfulness and AcceptanceMindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for DepressionMindworks: An Introduction to NLPMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMotivational Interviewing: Preparing People For ChangeMulticulturalism and the Therapeutic ProcessOf Two MindsOn the CouchOne Nation Under TherapyOur Inner WorldOutsider Art and Art TherapyOvercoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and BehaviorsPhilosophical CounselingPhilosophical MidwiferyPhilosophical PracticePhilosophy and PsychotherapyPhilosophy for Counselling and PsychotherapyPhilosophy PracticePhilosophy's Role in Counseling and PsychotherapyPlato, Not Prozac!Process-Based CBTPsychologists Defying the CrowdPsychology, Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis, and the Politics of Human RelationshipsPsychosis in the FamilyPsychotherapyPsychotherapyPsychotherapy As PraxisPsychotherapy East and WestPsychotherapy for Children and AdolescentsPsychotherapy for Personality DisordersRational Emotive Behavior TherapyRational Emotive Behavior TherapyRationality and the Pursuit of HappinessRecovery OptionsRent Two Films and Let's Talk in the MorningSaving the Modern SoulSecond-order Change in PsychotherapySelf MattersSelf-Compassion in PsychotherapySelf-Determination Theory in the ClinicSexual Orientation and Psychodynamic PsychotherapyStrangers to OurselvesTaking America Off DrugsTales of PsychotherapyThe Art of HypnosisThe Case Formulation Approach to Cognitive-Behavior TherapyThe Compassionate ConnectionThe Crucible of ExperienceThe Education of Mrs. BemisThe Fall Of An IconThe Gift of TherapyThe Great Psychotherapy Debate: The Evidence for What Makes Psychotherapy Work The Husbands and Wives ClubThe Love CureThe Making of a TherapistThe Mummy at the Dining Room TableThe Neuroscience of PsychotherapyThe Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social BrainThe New PsychoanalysisThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Portable CoachThe Portable Ethicist for Mental Health Professionals The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday LifeThe Problem with Cognitive Behavioural TherapyThe Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender RoleThe Psychotherapy Documentation PrimerThe Real World Guide to Psychotherapy PracticeThe Schopenhauer CureThe Talking CureThe Therapeutic "Aha!"The Therapist's Guide to Psychopharmacology, Revised EditionThe Therapist's Ultimate Solution BookThe UnsayableThe Wing of MadnessTheory and Practice of Brief TherapyTherapyTheraScribe 4.0Thinking about ThinkingThriveToward a Psychology of AwakeningTracking Mental Health OutcomesTreating Attachment DisordersWhat the Buddha FeltWhat Works for Whom? Second EditionWhy Psychoanalysis?Yoga Therapy
Therapist Search
Find a Therapist:
 (USA/CAN only)

Use our Advanced Search to locate a therapist outside of North America.

Related Topics

Psychological Testing
Mental Disorders
Mental Health Professions
Treatments & Interventions

by David P. Celani
Columbia University Press, 2010
Review by Terry Burridge on Dec 14th 2010

Fairbairn's Object Relations Theory in the Clinical Setting

"'Psychological meaning is either regarded as inherent and brought to the relational field, or as negotiated through interaction.'(Mitchell 1988:5) "This comment sums up Fairbairn's work and thinking-and the radical import of it. As Celani points out throughout his book, the dominant analytic model of thinking in the movement's early days was that of the Freudian drives-which may be simply understood as a set of hardwired motivators which shape our behavior. (Rather like a computer which comes with a pre wired set of material which determiners how it works. Whilst these drives can be added to or modified, they remain essentially as the machine's "givens".) Fairbairn's contribution was to emphasize "... the central importance of individually constructed meanings based on unique relational experience, a complete repudiation of Freud's notion of universal, instinctually based meanings." (Celani p.208)

From the standpoint of the early 21st Century, this seems an unremarkable statement. We are used to the whole idea of individual and personal narratives which are chosen over a pre-determined set of givens. (One clear example of this process may be found in the field of psychiatry where numbers of individuals choose to tell a different story about their experiences to that told by the givens of the medical model.  Thus "breakdown" becomes re-interpreted as "breakthrough" and "psychotic" phenomena become spiritual rites of passage.)

Fairbairn's work took a long time to come to any acceptance in the analytic community. He seems to have been dismissed as a slightly precocious child trying to talk to grownups on equal terms. Very amusing but eventually tiresome and of no lasting value. Some of this reaction seems to have been a consequence of his living in Scotland-a view doubtless shared today! Had he been in London where the majority of analysts met and worked, he might have had a different response to his work- although the International Journal of Psychoanalysis did publish his work. The other factor that seems to have caused his work to be overlooked was that he was writing during the war between the Kleinians and the Freudians.  "'There was relatively little notice taken of Fairbairn's work in the British Psychoanalytical Society ... Melanie Klein was not enthusiastic about it, though valuing his observations, while  Anna Freud gave no idea that she had noticed it... (Sutherland 1989:144)' " (Celani p.208) It seems that the two dominant "mothers" of early psychoanalysis had blithely castrated one more of their "sons". Small wonder that Fairbairn emphasized the importance of a loving, nurturing bond between a child and at least one of its parents! (A role that Celani and others are now taking on.)

Celani describes his own long years of clinical practice with Borderline patients inn terms that are instantly recognizable to all clinicians. He writes "As a clinician, I was struck by the fact that many of my patients were preoccupied, (if not consumed) either by the rejection they wee receiving from their 'new' relational objects or by past rejections they had received from their parents, and yet they were unable to separate from the people who were rejecting them. In many cases, their sole purpose in life was focused on winning the love of people who appeared to hurt them endlessly." (Celani p.2)

This theme of rejection and of the importance of subsequent reparative echoes Bowlby's work-and the dogged clinging on to a bad object was demonstrated so clearly in Harlow's work. It is also the emphasis on the importance of a reparative relationship with a therapist that makes Fairbairn's work so hopeful; and appealing. A long quote from Celani illustrates this-as well as making it clear how much pressure may be applied to the therapist.

"The therapist must be willing to be transformed repeatedly and yet remain calm while applying his or her master narrative to the scenario that has just been reenacted between them. The next question is: What aspect of transference interpretation is mutative? The answer, I believe, is the therapist's ability to tolerate the pressure from the patient's projecting of one of his internal structures onto the therapist without completely disallowing it..." (Celani p.124)

We are here in the realm of the mother-baby dyad and Winnicott's work on the mother's containing function of both her baby's love and its hate. (Much easier to mange with a baby of six months than a "baby" of thirty years!)

Some of Fairbairn's work is technical and esoteric-does the baby internalize both Good and Bad objects?  Are we born as an emotional tabula rasa to be written on by our experience of the world around us or do we come pre-packaged with drives, instincts and the like which pre-determine our responses to the world-and its response to us in turn. And from this philosophical base, what kind of interventions do we make with our patients?

And from a nursing perspective, at least, these questions can seem irrelevant. If my patient is disturbed on the ward, my task is to manage that. And to keep everybody safe. To muse about that person's inner world can seem a luxury that we cannot -- and need not-afford. Yet an understanding of what it was that prompted my patient to respond in a particular way is crucial. If past behavior is an indicator of future patterns of behavior, then an understanding of that "presenting past" is essential if we are to see any change.

I am pleased to have discovered Fairbairn-and to have had his work presented so well and so sympathetically by Celani. Fairbairn comes across as a very contemporary thinker who has a clear and caring view of human hurts.


© 2010 Terry Burridge



Terry Burridge is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Buckinghamshire New University. He has spent most of his professional life as a psychiatric nurse and now spends considerable time and energy trying to inspire future psychiatric nurses to be the best kinds of nurses that they can be! He is very much influenced by psychoanalytic thinking and sees analytic theory as offering a valuable critique to many other areas of human activity. He can be contacted at

Follow us on Twitter!

Find us on Facebook!

This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:
verify here.

Powered by CenterSite.Net