Part Object vs Whole Object Relating

Goenka ji, the man behind Vipassana Meditation, tells a tale about a little kid. The tale has never failed to move me, despite its repetition over the last 10 years. 

A mom makes kheer for her little son, and offers it to him in a plate. Kheer is an Indian dish, much like rice pudding,. It can be had hot or cold. The child gets mad and says “I want it in a cup.” The mother explains that it would cool faster in a plate and he’d be able to enjoy it much more, but the child insists, and so she gives it to him in a cup.

As he begins to eat, he stops, and throws another tantrum “It has stones !!! I don’t want kheer with black stones !” Mom explains “they are not stones, these are cardamoms, they enhance taste, and are good for health.” But the child insists they are stones, and he is not going to eat them!!! He sulks and pushes the kheer away, refusing to eat it.

The expasperated mom sighs and given in to his whims with helpless resignation, knowing he is wrong, but unable to do anything. She tells him “all right, eat the part that you want, throw away the rest. Hopefully one day you will learn to appreciate not just the part, but the whole!”

I was earlier talking to a friend about religions, cultures, ethnicity, individuality and relationships, and I happened to remember this tale, for in each of these cases, we tend to accept the other’s reality in parts, discounting other parts. Sometimes we even discount the whole. Sometimes we split the world into right-wrong, good-bad, acceptable-unacceptable.

Melanie Klein, a renown British Psychologist, talks about the ability to move from part object identification to whole object identification as part of  developmental achievement. This movement is representative of the stage where the child does not just see the mother as a breast, a giver of food,  nourishment and love, but also begins to see her as a whole object, as another human being that has its own wants, needs, and wishes. The same mother that loves, repremands, and then repairs the relationship, at the same time continuing to love the child in all aspects of its behavior. The faith in the underlying love, and the return to the mother as a consequence of the reparative attempt by either party, is a very significant developmental achievement that allows for a relationship to continue, despite the inherent struggles for power and control. that this, or any relationship entails. Children whose mothers are either missing, or negligent fail to master this skill. The lack manifests itself in the inability to tolerate dissent, or separation, or independence of the partner.

Successful resolution of this stage of development causes the child to move from part object relating to whole object relating. The child is not relating only to one aspect of the mother – the loving, nurturing part, but to the mother as a whole in her various aspects of relating, some good, some not so good.  Kohut calls it graduating from Selfobject relations to Object Relations. This process heralds the onset of the ability to continue loving the mother in spite of the ups and downs in the relationship. In this stage, the child recognises that the mother is not just an extension of his likes and dislikes, but is a separate individual in her own right, with her own likes and dislikes that may contrast with the child’s causing her to appear sometimes good, sometimes bad. Such a realisation is very disheartening for the child, for it reduces mother’s idealism, and the grandiosity associated with mother’s power that the child had attributed to himself, and also creates a perceived separation in the incestuous symbiosis. The disillusionment, however, is growth promoting, as it lays the foundation for his adult relationships, and his ability to not split the later objects into black and white, good or bad, god and satan. It facilitates the ability to see the other as an interated whole – constituting of good and bad parts – and to continue in a relationship despite its ups and downs…

The transcendance of this split is inherent in the symbolism of multiple faces of the mother in Hindu religion as well. The Great Mother appears as benign Laxmi, Saraswati, Parvati, as well as Chamundi and Kali. The ability to maintain a relationship with the whole, the Great Mother, despite its many manifestations and aspects, represents the human capability for whole object relations.

Interesting how the realms of spiritality and psychology meet at these borders. Psychology and religion seem to explore the same phenomenon, they seem to use different language in describing it. This had led to a prediction that psychology is the new religion of the contemporary world.  

One response to “Part Object vs Whole Object Relating”

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