Why is it important to regularly update our internal objects?


3 min read

Jason Brien.

Internal objects refer to our internal representations of external objects. These internal representations exist in our mind and they are the ‘stored’ mental images, memories, visualisations, etc., of people, animals, places and things. Some people interact ONLY with their internal objects and never the external objects (more on this later). An internal object is NEVER a true representation of an external object because we will always ‘taint’ our internal objects with our projections which are themselves influenced by our indoctrinated beliefs, introjections, false memories, biases, stereotypes, education, knowledge, etc. We must always be mindful of this if we are to interact with people in a healthy way.

When we are constantly interacting with people, animals, places, things, etc., it is important that we regularly update our internal objects lest they become ‘outdated’. Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine that you have had absolutely no contact with a friend for 10 years. Everything that you know about this friend, the entirety of your internal object of them, is based only on what you used to know about them. If you refuse to acknowledge the 10-year time period when you had no contact whatsoever (and they obviously had time to grow and change) and you then choose to favour and interact with the outdated internal object of them only (by ignoring them as an external object and dismissing any possible changes made), are you being fair to your friend?

When we have not interacted with people in a long time, we cannot rely upon the internal object that we have of them because our internal object may not truly reflect the external object. This is why I sometimes object to the advice of going absolutely no contact with toxic people. Change can only be proven if it is given a chance to be demonstrated. I also firmly believe that past behaviour can no longer accurately predict future behaviour when current behaviour is substantially removed from past behaviour. If we don’t give people a chance to demonstrate current behaviour, and so demonstrate to us that their current behaviour has significantly changed from their past behaviour, we cannot conclusively or reliably say “They haven’t changed. They are still toxic, dangerous, evil, etc”.

We can of course allow a person to demonstrate current behaviour, find out that their current behaviour has not significantly changed from past behaviour and so update our internal object to “has not changed” and continue to limit or reduce contact with them. For most people it may be a case of “I have given them plenty of opportunities to demonstrate change but they have been unable or unwilling to do so and now, for my own mental health, I need to cut off contact with them”. Obviously there needs to be some kind of cut-off point lest the abusive cycle continues unabated and so deteriorates mental health. I want to make it clear though, I am not suggesting that people must break no contact just to see if a previously toxic person has changed. My point is, we must be aware that our internal objects may not always match the external objects and so we must be mindful of this discrepancy especially when time and space is involved.

Do you remember how at the very start of this article I mentioned that some people will interact ONLY with their internal objects and never the external objects? It is generally suggested and believed that ‘narcissists’ only ever interact with their internal objects and so never with the external objects (directly). Let me explain this more. A ‘narcissist’ will meet a person, immediately construct an internal object of this person, attribute traits, behaviours, characteristics, etc., to this internal object and then interact only with this created internal object and NEVER with the external object. The problem with this approach is that the ‘narcissist’ constantly updates their internal object in fantasy only because they have stopped interacting with the external object and so there is no ‘real’ information coming in.

This is why you become a ‘whore’ despite no external evidence of you cheating or sleeping around. Whilst interacting with their internal object of you, the ‘narcissist’ has become convinced that their internal representation of you is cheating on them and so they label their internal object of you as a ‘whore’ and project that label onto the external object - you. The easiest way to think of the ‘narcissists’ internal object/external object interaction is like this. When you come home after a stressed day at work, you go for a hot shower and whilst you are in the shower, you find yourself arguing in your head with a co-worker. You imagine all the things that you and the co-worker are saying to each other. During this argument with your internal object of the co-worker, the internal object calls you a ‘whore’. The vast majority of us would recognise that the ‘whore’ comment was imaginary. That it came from us and not the real person.

The ‘narcissist’ (and other people too) cannot make this fantasy/reality distinction and so they would go into work the next day and tell everyone that their co-worker called them a whore. Since the ‘narcissist’ is always updating their internal object of you based on fantasy only, they will try and control the external object (you) to match their internal object and not the other way around (matching the internal object based on the real external object as healthy people do). This faulty updating system is why the ‘narcissist’ is so controlling. The ‘narcissist’ has created a ‘safe’ internal version of you which allows them to interact with ‘you’ (internally not externally). Remember, the ‘narcissist’ has learnt that external objects are unsafe, dangerous, etc., so in order for the ‘narcissist’ to stay safe YOU must conform to their internal object of you and if you don’t, they will rage.

Likewise, the ‘narcissist’ has attributed great benevolence, wonderment and admiration to their internal object of you and again, when you the external object does not conform to their internal object of you, because you are inherently faulty and imperfect and so can never achieve the level of perfection they have placed upon your internal object, or because you set boundaries, you disappoint the ‘narcissist’ and so they have no choice but to immediately devalue you (devaluing you keeps them safe). People other than ‘narcissists’ will also update their internal objects using fantasy. Think of people trapped in abusive relationships. These people sometimes find ways to justify the abuse inflicted upon them. They may falsify their internal objects so that their abuser becomes ‘protective’ rather than controlling which allows them to interact with the ‘safer’ internal object (and so tolerate the abuse from the external object for much longer).

Abusive parents can also alter their children’s internal objects of the other parent. By constantly and falsely telling a child “Your mother/father is dangerous, abusive, liar, cheater, etc”, the child grows up to believe the toxic parent and so constructs an internal object of the other parent based on these lies and falsehoods. Over the years, the child interacts ONLY with their internal object of their mother/father (because the external object is not present not because they are a ‘narcissist’) which can lead them to build up anger and resentment. When the child is then given an opportunity to interact with the real external object, they are often hesitant and reluctant because they have had so many bad ‘experiences’ with the parent. Trust and appreciation for the other parent only develops once the child becomes aware that their internal object does not match the external object and so they make the necessary ‘updates’.

Resources

https://melanie-klein-trust.org.uk/theory/internal-objects/#:~:text=In%20essence%2C%20the%20term%20'internal,have%20been%20projected%20into%20it.

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00666/full

https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-49425-8_8