Object constancy refers to our ability to retain a stable relationship and emotional connection with another person, even when that relationship encounters problems.
When things go wrong in your life or your relationships, do you take it in your stride, remain confident, and keep a cool head, or are you more inclined to become anxious and to feel your emotional stability threatened?
The capacity to keep calm despite the inevitable changes and challenges life throws at us can be linked to our ability to adapt, to maintain confidence in our own emotional perspectives, to our ability to maintain object constancy.
How Object Constancy Develops
If we are lucky, we will have been raised in families in which, in Winnicott’s words, good enough love and care was to hand. In such a situation, when a child shows signs of distress, it is noticed and responded to with appropriate care. In Winnicott’s model, the good-enough mother is a mother who adapts to her infant’s needs. So the child learns to accommodate difficult experiences and feelings.
When this happens, the child develops a sense of security in their object world, and the caregivers around them, and all being well, goes on to internalise that sense of object constancy.
This internalised experience of object constancy becomes the bedrock of our emotional stability.
It is a bit like being inoculated against emotional instability, and if you grew up in such an environment you may find it easier to keep a sense of emotional stability despite the challenges life throws at you. You will have started to acquire emotional stability. You will be able to adapt to things without losing your emotional stability.
But what if you weren’t so lucky, and didn’t receive good enough care and attention in childhood?
When we lack the emotional stability that goes with having internalised a sense of object constancy, we may find the inevitable moments of ambiguity that happen in relationships too much to bear.
Instead of absorbing the occasional experience of confusion when, for example, our partner lets us down or does something we don’t like, we might overreact. What might look like a small thing to someone else may become highly disturbing for us. In those heated moments we come face to face with our own uncertainty, we get distressed, and what might start out as a small altercation becomes an occasion of upset. These moments can be exhausting and leave us feeling shattered, a bit like a toddler who feels they have had everything taken away from them.
And this is why we want to be able to improve our capacity to maintain the emotional stability that comes from developing a better sense of object constancy. When we have this we are much less prone to be upset by small things. It is a bit like we develop our own shock absorbers.
Can you develop your own sense of object constancy later in life? Can you do it for yourself?
It is possible to develop a sense of object constancy even if you didn’t experience it in your early family relationships. It takes work and commitment, but it is possible to improve.
With the right kind of self-care we can become able to recognise that though we might lack this gift, because we didn’t grow up with people, or environments, that adapted to our needs, and weren’t given it as children, we might still be able to create a sense of object constancy for ourselves. People who find a way to do this are surprised at just how reliable and satisfying it is.
- The first step is to recognise that our problems are less to do with what other people do to us, arguments with our partners and others, and more to do with our own weaknesses. More to do with the fact that we lack object constancy.
- From this we might try to remember it. Mood-altering substances, alcohol, and drugs are likely to be problematic for us because they make it harder for us to remember that we have to keep one eye on our object constancy. Mood-altering drugs create spikes in our sense of what is happening to us, and we lose our sense of emotional stability. It becomes too hard for us to adapt and, as it were, we lose ourselves.
- Each time we find ourselves reacting to some chance comment, or some piece of bad luck, we have to learn to sense check our reaction. To remind ourselves to stay focussed on preserving a sense of object constancy.
- The more we practice these habits the more they can become part of our lives. The more that is the case the more we find our emotional stability improving.
The impact of learning how to look after ourselves like this can have far-reaching consequences. Improving your own object constancy may have a beneficial impact on your children. Often these kinds of problems are handed down from one generation to the next. The more constructive attention you can give to this, the more you may be able to help your children acquire it.
So what kinds of psychotherapy and counselling focus on developing the kind of object constancy I’m describing here?
Therapists who have trained in psychodynamic and psychoanalytic models are likely to know more about the details and nuances of Winnicott’s work and the school of object relations. It is sometimes hard to know what a therapist is like in the early stages of working with them. To paraphrase Winnicott: Mothers, like therapists, can be good or not good enough; some can and some cannot enable their clients to develop object constancy.
Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often key to developing a clearer understanding of our reactions and the reasons for our reactions. By giving yourself a safe space to speak you may start to discover a greater sense of emotional stability.
The chance to reflect on your memories, feelings and experience can be powerful and transformative. Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you and your sense of your problems have developed.
I have been working with people on issues such like this for more than twenty years. My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live.
Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.
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