Actualisation Theories of Klein in Counselling – 2000 word essay

Melanie Klein has made a significant contribution to the advancement of psycho-analytic theory and practice during the 20th century, following in the wake of Sigmund Freud. As such, her work addresses the absorbing question of how best to represent human nature. The major tenets of her theoretical framework of psycho-analysis can be identified and evaluated, and her work can arguably be more closely scrutinised, when juxtaposed with a very different, albeit equally significant contribution to modern psychology, namely the humanistic approach of Carl Rogers. On pragmatic grounds, it is apt to focus upon Klein’s models of the competing forces of the life and death instincts, and consider if they present a more realistic view of human nature than the humanistic belief in the actualising tendency, articulated by Rogerian humanistic psychology.


Austrian-born Klein’s (1882-1960) dominant methodology was the close observation of young children, while American-born Rogers’ (1902-1987) mainly worked with adults. Such basic differences in practice significantly influenced the widely disparate conceptualisations of human nature derived by these influential therapeutic practitioners. To evaluate the assertion that Klein’s life and death instinct paradigm presents a more realistic view of human nature than the humanistic belief in the actualising tendency, the criteria to make such an assessment must be identified. Since human nature can be taken to mean the underlining essence of human persons that tends to remain relatively constant throughout the life cycle, Klein’s study of the formative influences responsible for the formation of that nature are apposite, but so are the quantum of inter-personal clinical observations made by humanistic psychologists of adult life, by therapists such as Carl Rogers.


Klein’s theoretical conception of the notion of phantasy (her spelling) is an insightful rendering of human nature, as it describes the inner world of a child, recognising that a child’s growing knowledge of significant others such as mothers, are shaped not only by external data, but by inner impressions and impulses that a child blends with how things actually are (Segal 2004:29). Klein’s theory emphasised the importance of the unconscious, irrational impressions, feelings and impulses of a child in framing the child’s thoughts and thereby his or her development, which provides a rational basis for explaining how human nature is often subjected to anxieties, fears and unanswered apprehensions. Klein’s work focuses upon the formative relationship between parents and young children, and introduces the notion that a child’s projected positive or negative feelings towards a parent, can be shaped by their experience or fantasies concerning parental authority, and a sense of dread regarding their sexuality or growing sense of self (Segal 2004:29). Furthermore, Klein’s conceptualisations of negative human experiences, (even experienced at a young age), such as envy, jealousy, fear of dread, and even fear of extinction, are explained within her paradigm of the death instinct, a primal drive adapted from Freud, first published in 1920 in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (Segal, 2004:19) where Freud appropriated the classical Greek term ‘thanatos’, which finds expression even in infanthood. The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), based upon lectures Klein presented before the British Psycho-Analytic Society in 1925, signalled Klein’s view of the seminal importance of the life and death instincts, describing child development in terms of conflict between libidinal and destructive forces (Klein 1932: 61).


Klein’s notion of the phantasy of attack, energised by the primal death instinct, accounts for both the fear of annihilation, the force to withstand its threat and the desire for annihilation at the same time (see Nitsun 1996: 147). This child possessed force, (later explanatory of violence and severe aggression in adult life, begins as early as a child’s variety of attacks upon its mother’s breast. Just as the breast is bitten or hit to help milk flow (see Segal 2004:33-34), so the good breast, bad breast antithesis encapsulates the synergy between the two counter life forces, namely Freud’s “biological drive to return the organic” (Nitsun 1996: 147), with an instinctive cessation of life to relieve pain, interplaying with the competing instinctual drive of libido, or ‘eros’, encapsulating the spirit of life and the sexual energising of human life from infanthood throughout life.


Klein’s model does account for some of humanity’s most stridently destructive attitudes and actions, including envy, jealousy and aggression. Klein’s complex explanation is that “aggression …is the death instinct turned outwards…which, through the process of projection, becomes fixated upon an external person who becomes a persecutor, yet in part this instinct remains within the ego system, turning against the individual making the individual also the persecutor (see Nitsun 1996:147). This process explains the ironic desire for annihilation. Indeed, some theorists even close to Klein seem to misunderstand her conceptualisation of the death instinct, yet such errors may show that Klein’s complexity diminishes the explanatory sufficiency of her models. For Money-Kyrle (2003:502) argues that while Freud “postulates a primary impluse to seek death, (Klein), a primary impulse to fear and avoid it.” Yet as exaplined below, the interposition of the ego, in Klein’s view, demonstrates how the one individual can both fear death and wish for it simultaneously, and thereby experience significant psychic discord.


Aggression can be explained as the death instinct turned outwards. Klein’s explanation for how the death instinct turned outwards as aggression through the process of projection can become fixated upon an external person becoming a persecutor, yet in part this instinct remains within the ego system, turning against the individual making the individual also the persecutor (see Nitsun 1996:147), explaining the desire for annihilation. A child’s defensive responses are viewed by Klein as a protective mechanism against anxiety, which she believes is rooted in the first death threat. The phantasy of an original hostile invasion shapes a child’s sense of inner and outer relationships (Stonebridge and Phillips 163). Klein’s major departure or advancement upon classical Freudian psycho-analysis, concerning her “shifting away from psycho-sexual phases, to the phenomenology of the ego’s relationship to primary objects (the mother’s body), under the sway the life and death instincts” (Glover ch 3).Her notion that children negotiate their world by forming object relations, makes sense of the significance of the mother’s body in the life of the infant child.


This is consistent with her notion of the mother/good breast, which when absent as the mother begins to wean the child, finds the child in what Klein coined the depressive state, where much pain is experienced, due to the mother child separation (Segal 2004:41). In this survey of Klein’s effectiveness in explaining human nature, it is important to note that her mutual life and death instincts and their interplay, can go some way to explaining more anti-social behaviour, such as schizoid phenomenon in borderline personality cases, and a host of other personality disorders, grounded in a dysfunctional instinctive arrangement, between the life and death instincts. Nonetheless, Klein’s notion that the “disintergation of the infantile psyche can be expalined by the death wish” (Likierman 2001:167) lacks empirical proof.


In many ways humanism and humanistic psychology, approaches the human condition from an entirely different perspective. The foremost difference arguably, is that unlike the array of unconscious and irrational desires and instincts which undergird human behaviour accroding to Klein’s psycho-analytic models, humanism attributes dignity to all human beings whether functional or dysfunctional in behaviour, claiming a rational basis for all human behaviour, even for what is ostensibly a highly destructive and meaningless action, such as suicide. This position posits that people do things for a reason, which if understood through therapy, can unlock dysfunctional patterns and allow people to meet basic needs through more life affirming methods.  Furthermore, while Klein (and Freud before her) can be accused of postulating an overly atomistic view of human nature and its operations, a strength of humanism’s actualising tendencies, propounded by such leaders as Carl Rogers, is that there is

“one central source of energy in the human organism; it is a function of the whole organism rather than some portion of it; and it is perhaps best conceptualized as a tendency toward fulfillment, toward actualization, toward the maintenance and enhancement of the organism” (White 2000).


There is appeal in thinking that an individual’s mental, emotional and physical faculites basically aim to serve the same teleological outcome, namely the betterment of the life condition, rather than all individuals being cast as a prisoner of primal unconscious drives that continue to shape how people live, without them even being aware that their rational life is not the determinative factor in how they live.


Moreover, Rogerian humanism presupposes human nature to be “trustworthy, resourceful, capable of self-understanding and self-direction, and able to make constructive changes to enable people to live productive lives” (White 2000). While human experience confirms that people can act in the most unadulterated and altruistic manner, challenging Klein’s model of dual instincts to account for an over developed superego, while other people genuinely seem to be positively motivated in their behaviour by a future reward, whether the results of a weight-loss program, a promotion, securing an academic qualification or getting married and having a family, it seems a jaundiced view to explain such actions as extensions of a life wish grounded in the libido, or the desire to escape a death wish of annihilation. Instead, Rogers’ actualisation drive appears to be a more cogent explanation for positive human behaviour.


Yet for Rogerian humanist actualisation to be a more realistic view of human nature than Klein’s instinctive drive theory, is has to account for abnormal psychology and aberrant behaviour. The way is does so, instead of appealing to unconscious psychic drives which are unresolved within the individual, is to examine how the cognitive life of the individual has developed thought patterns which prevent the realisation of higher goals such as self-awareness, strong values, a sense of meaning in life and freedom of choice” (Comer, 2004:70). Rogers’ plausible explanation for the development of dysfunctional behaviour is the deprivation of positive regard, needed from childhood onwards and usually received in the form of unconditional love from parents in infancy. In his client centred therapy, Rogers theorised that young people who are deprived of unconditional positive regard, learn to find conditional worth leading to distorted views of themselves, and perhaps creating a void between their true feelings and their projected image seeking affirmation (see Comer 2004: 71).


One of the drawbacks of client centred actualisation therapy is that dysfunctional clients do not find a powerful mechanism for transformative change, simply by receiving unconditional positive regard for a therapist over a period of time. This indicates that while the client may well have been denied loving parenting as a child, it does not explain the more complex variables that cause one such individual to resort to dysfunctional behaviour, while another does not.


In recent years, both theoretical paradigms evaluated in this essay have been recognised, if utilised in part with more popular views of human nature. The merits of psycho-analytic analyses, (recognising that people do carry a psychic residue from past experiences with them into future relationships and self-assessments), and the actualisation theory acceptance of the humanist premise that much human behaviour is rationally motivated, is to be welcomed. However, cognitive therapy has emerged as a more effective therapeutic form in most cases, as science recognises the critical function of our thinking in the determination of which we see ourselves as, as how we perceive others and the world in which we live. In the final analysis, Klein’s dual instinct theory cannot be regarded as offering a more realistic view of human nature than the actualisation tendency, since our nature while aberrant at times, functions better when our hearts, minds and bodies work in unison.































Comer, R.J., 2004, Abnormal Psychology, Worth Publishers, New York.


Fairbairn, W.R.D., 1956, A Critical Evaluation of Certain Basic Psycho-Analytical Conceptions, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, VII: 49-50.


Freud, S., 1922, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The International Psycho-Analytic Press, London.



Klein, M., 1932, The Psychoanalysis of Children, Delacorte Press/S. Lawrence, Michigan.


Klein, M. 1957, Envy and Gratitude, Tavistock Press, London

Klein, M., Heimann, P., and Money-Kyrle, R.E., 2003, New Directions in Psycho-Analysis, Tavistock Press, London

Likierman, M. 2001, Melanie Klein, Continuum, London

Nitsun, M. 1996, The Anti-Group’, Routlege, London.

Segal, J., 2004, Melanie Klein, Thousand Oaks, London

Stonebridge, L. and Phillips, J. 1998, Reading Melanie Klein. Routledge. London.

White, I.E., 2000, The Humanistic Theories of Carl Rogers (1902-1987) available at