Elizabeth K. Baker, MA
Kleinian Theory is a psychological theory originally created by Melanie Klein that emphasizes the importance of early relationships in the development of the self-object. While Kleinian theory is often thought to be neo-Freudian it may be better described as neo-Adlerian. Klein’s theory at its’ core is based off of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “object,” which he called Imago. An object according to Freud and adopted by Klein is defined as the mental depictions an individual holds of other people in his or her environment. However, while Freud believed that individuals are guided by drives, Klein believed that individuals were guided by their need for relationship. Thus, she believed the self object developed in relation to the object (typically the mother or primary caregiver) because the self is always in relation to another object, which is called object relations.
According to Kleinian theory, as the self object developed the individual progressed through developmental positions (i.e., paranoid schizoid, depressive) that were associated with different defenses and gradual separation of the self object from the primary love object. For a more detailed discussion of Kleinian theory see Kleinian Theory: A Neo-Adlerian Approach in the Resources portion below.
The question still remains: is Kleinian theory better described as neo-Adlerian, rather than neo-Freudian? In order fully answer this question a thorough examination of the similarities and differences is warranted via comparing Kleinian theory to the 12 basic assumptions of Adlerian Psychology as described by Mosak and Maniacci (1999).
On the surface, Kleinian theory and Adlerian theory are fundamentally different. That is, at the core, Adlerian theory is grounded in the concept of the indivisibility of the human being. That is, Adlerian theory posits that the individual can only be understood in totality within the context in which they live. Conversely, Kleinian theory isolates aspects of the individual, breaking them down into positions, defenses, etc. Overall, Klein emphasized the importance of how the self object was developed in relation to other objects and the object relations one developed by constructing external and internal object representations. Thus, it seems according to the basic tenants of Adlerian Psychology (Mosak and Maniacci, 1999), Kleinian theory and Adlerian theory do not agree on the first point of holism.
The second tenant of Adlerian theory is that of teleology. Adlerian theory posits that all individuals are goal driven and striving towards some goal, which vary widely. Adler believed that all human beings moved towards these goals in a purposeful way, whether adaptively or maladaptively, rather than being driven by libidinal forces and impulses. Similarly, Kleinian theory holds that human beings are driven or motivated by their need for relationship with others. Therefore, it seems Adler and Klein agree on the basic belief that individuals are striving towards a goal rather than being mindlessly directed by their impulses.
The third assumption of Adlerian theory is that individuals are self-created. Adler believed that the individual created themselves and the world around them and that human beings always have the power of choice. Klein also discussed the self-created nature of the developing individual’s creation of internal and external representations of the objects in their world. In the external world, individuals interact with other objects to co-create the world around them. Additionally, in the internal world, the child constructs unconscious phantasies and representations of their external world, which are impacted by their external experiences of the world. These internal representations impact how the child will continue to interact with the external objects in the future. Klein and Adler appear to agree that the individual impacts the creation of their world and experiences.
In the same vein, the fourth assumption of Adlerian theory, soft determinism, asserts that life is open to infinite possibilities, but limited by the contexts in which individuals live. Klein does not specifically address contextual factors and confines that may or may not impact the development of the self or an individual’s experiences. Instead, her work focused on the importance of the early caretaker relationships and the impact it has on the development of self and object relations.
The fifth basic assumption of Adlerian theory is phenomenology. That is, Adler believed the importance of an event does not come from the objective occurrence of the event, but rather the subjective experience of the event. Klein addressed this point in a somewhat indirect manner. Klein notes the individual constructs internal representations of the objects they interact with. In this way, she noted that both objective and subjective experiences of the objects and individual interacted with shaped the individual’s understanding and experiences of the object. Klein noted the internal representation an individual creates subsequently impacts future interactions with the external object. It seems Adler and Klein agree that an individual’s subjective experiences are as important as their objective experiences.
Next, Adlerian theory is a social field theory in that individuals do not exist in isolation because individuals impact and are impacted by their social worlds. Klein wrote about the importance of the early primary caregiver relationship to the development of self. A basic premise of Kleinian theory is that individuals are driven by their need for relationship. Therefore, Adler and Klein agree that human beings live, developed, and are influenced by their social contexts.
Striving for superiority, the seventh basic assumption of Adlerian theory, is essentially one’s motivation to move towards his or her goal. While motivation is not absent from Kleinian theory, it is more focused on examining and understanding the development of self and object relations in order to create an environment for the individual reform more adaptive object relations. It seems as thought Klein and Adler wrote about the same overall goal, to assist the client in moving towards a place where he or she functioned and felt better. Thus, it seems indirectly, Kleinian theory and Adlerian theory agree on the seventh basic assumption.
The eighth basic assumption is that Adlerian theory takes an idiographic orientation. However, Kleinian theory takes a more nomothetic orientation. Klein posited that despite individual differences people progressed through the same stages of development (i.e., paranoid-schizoid, depressive). Adlerian theory is more individualistic in nature as it places a heavier emphasis on understanding the uniqueness of each individual, rather than attempting to place them in pre-determined categories.
Adlerian theory is a psychology of use because he placed less importance on what givens a person was born into, and more on what that individual chose to do with those givens. Adler believed that every experience served a purpose. Klein did not address this basic assumption. The primary goal that Klein describes is that individuals are motivated by their need for relationship, but she did not endorse maladaptive strategies as serving a purpose. Rather, Kleinian theory posits pathology arises when individuals strive to meet this goal in a maladaptive manner, where Adlerian theory would state an individual’s symptoms were serving a purpose. Therefore, Adler and Klein do not seem to agree on this assumption.
The tenth assumption, acting “as if,” is based on the assumption that people have goals that they are moving towards and perceive their world through the lens of their goals. Klein addressed this when discussing the internal representations that individuals construct in their internal world. Individuals construct ideas of what they think the objects in their world are like, which they subsequently believe and respond to as if they were actually that way. In this assumption Klein and Adler appear to agree.
Consistently, the eleventh assumption of Adlerian theory is the self-fulfilling prophecy. Adler believed that individuals would construct their world in such a way that agreed with the beliefs they already held. As an individual continually acted as if their belief was true, the world will begin to respond by fulfilling their initial thought. Klein does not address this pattern of behavior. While it seems likely that it would be a natural extension of her stances on how an individual interact with external objects based on their internal representations, she does not go so far as to address this thought.
Finally, Adlerian theory is an optimistic one because Adler believed that people can and will change. Kleinian theory is comparatively not so optimistic. The goal of the Kleinian therapist is determine where in development the development of self became maladaptive in order to recreate an environment to assist the client in more adaptively develop the self and object relations. However, Kleinian theory does hold that an individual can return to health. Thus, while Adlerian theory appears to be more positively oriented and strengths based, Kleinian theory seems to be more pessimistic.
Overall, it seems Kleinian and Adlerian theories are similar. Both theories place extensive significance on the social world. Kleinian theory focuses more specifically the relationships one develops and the subsequent impact those relationships have on the development of the self. Adlerian theory focuses more specifically on the reciprocal interaction of the social world on the individual, which leads to a co-created world. Additionally, Adlerians and Kleinians seem to place importance on the early caregiver relationship. Adlerians focus specifically on developing a sense of belonging in this early relationship. Kleinian theory note that poor object relations can develop as a result of a negative early caregiver relationship. Therefore, it seems attachment plays a significant part in health according to both Adlerian and Kleinian theory.
Additional areas of similarities that are out of the scope of this paper include similarities in intervention techniques. Both Adlerian theory and Kleinian theory work children utilizing play therapy. For additional reading suggestions refer to the recommended readings below.
In conclusion, Kleinian theory and Adlerian theory share many similarities and differences. After careful comparison, Kleinian theory can be considered 50% neo-Adlerian. However, most importantly, both theorists believe that clients can return to health and are capable of change.
Klein, M. (1930). The importance of symbol formation in the development of the ego. In R. E. Money-Kyrle (Ed.), Love, guilt and reparation and other works 1921-1945 (pp. 219-232). England: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
Klein, M. (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. In R. E. Money-Kyrle (Ed.), Love, guilt and reparation and other works 1921-1945 (pp. 262-289). England: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. In J. Mitchell (Ed.), The selected Melanie Klein (pp. 175-200). New York, NY: The Free Press.
Klein, M. (1952). The origins of transference. In J. Mitchell (Ed.), The selected Melanie Klein (pp. 201-210). New York, NY: The Free Press.
Klein, M. (1955). On identification. Envy and gratitude and other works 1946-1963 (pp. 141-175). New York, NY: The Free Press.
Melanie Klein Trust. (2016). Melanie Klein. Melanie Klein Trust: Furthering the psychoanalytic theory and technique of Melanie Klein. Retrieved from http://www.melanie-klein-trust.org.uk/klein
Mitchell, S. A., & Black, M. J. (1995). Freud and beyond. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Mosak, H., & Maniacci, M. (1999). A primer of adlerian psychology: The analytical, behavioral, cognitive psychology of Alfred Adler. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
Carlson, J., Watts, R. E., & Maniacci, M. (2006). Play therapy. In J. Carlson, R. E. Watts, & M. Maniacci (Eds.). Adlerian therapy: Theory and practice (pp. 227-250). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Dillman Taylor, D., & Bratton, S. C. (2014). Developmentally appropriate practice: Adlerian play therapy with preschool children. Journal of Individual Psychology, 70(3), 205-219.
Klein, M. (1921). The development of a child.
Klein, M. (1923). The role of the school in the libidinal development of the child.
Klein, M. (1929). Personification in the play of children.
Klein, M. (1932). The technique of early analysis.
Klein, M. (1932). The technique of analysis in the latency period.
Klein, M. (1961). Narrative of a child Analysis.
Kottman, T. (2001). Adlerian play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 20(2), 1-12.