“Loneliness and the Sense of Belonging” – Thoughts about Immigration, Loneliness and Communities of Those Who Do Not Belong

by Orna Ophir, PhD

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Drawing on unpublished material from the Melanie Klein Archive in London, this paper argues that as result of the interminable work of integration in the intrapsychic world, one can never fully belong to oneself nor, as a consequence, belong to others. It is only in the mourning of the illusion of belonging that this latter could turn into a good object in one’s inner world, leading one to create responsible communities while being responsive to others.


   “The working title that came into my mind on reading your paper was ‘Loneliness and the Sense of Belonging,’ ” wrote Elliot Jaques (1917-2003), the Canadian-born British psychoanalyst, in a letter to Melanie Klein on June 1, 1959,[1] regarding her paper “On the Sense of Loneliness” (Klein 1959). Klein was to present this paper, which turned out to be her last, at the International Psychoanalytic Congress in Copenhagen, on July 27, 1959. This was also the paper that she planned to give during what would have been her first visit to America, in November 1960.

     Although her ideas were gradually but greatly marginalized by mainstream American psychoanalysis, a group of psychiatrists from the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital, working with severely disturbed schizophrenic patients, invited Klein to teach them her theory and technique. In their letter of invitation they wrote: “We are most eager that all here at the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital may have the opportunity to learn from you personally, and earnestly hope that we can prevail upon you to make this contribution to the understanding of your ideas by American psychiatrists.”[2] Planning her visit, Klein chose her paper “On the Sense of Loneliness” and, in the “revised version to America,” [3] she emphasized in greater detail the very sense of loneliness that the schizophrenic individual feels and that is part of mental illness more generally. Klein had to cancel her planned visit because of illness. Very shortly after the aforementioned correspondence, on September 22, 1960, Melanie Klein passed away in University College Hospital in London.

     My earliest clinical interest in Klein was similar to that of many mental health professionals who work with individuals suffering severe mental illness and search for a psychoanalytic frame of reference applicable to this kind of endeavor. Fortunate enough to be working in a hospital setting that was psychoanalytically oriented when I began my work there in the early 1990s, I was introduced to Klein’s ideas about early infantile anxiety situations and to the application of these ideas to the treatment of patients with schizophrenia. Even when a neo-somatic revolution in psychiatry culminated in a significant decrease in the number of psychoanalysts on the staff and to a far greater emphasis on the biology of mental illnesses, the hospital was still psychoanalysis-friendly and remained so, even when I left it 18 years later.  During these years, it was notably Klein’s theory and the insights of post-Kleinian theorists and practitioners that allowed clinicians to think psychoanalytically about very disturbed patients, as their clinically grounded concepts offered hope in a field otherwise full of despair. The knowledge Klein had gained through her study of psychic mechanisms, anxieties and defenses, operative in earliest infancy, radically changed the view that schizophrenic patients were incapable of forming transferential relationships and, therefore, could not be psychoanalyzed.  Although she clearly understood the role of the infant’s early emotional life as illuminating the fixation points of adult psychosis, Klein also acknowledged that the psychoanalysis of schizophrenic patients needed much further exploration. Yet she believed that the work done by psychoanalysts who treated schizophrenic patients in psychiatric settings, clinicians such as Hanna Segal, Herbert Rosenfeld, and Wilfred Bion, “seem[ed] to justify hopes for the future” (Klein 1955, p. 140).

     My historical interest in Klein’s ideas began when I was writing my book about the ways in which mainstream American psychoanalysis gradually and increasingly deserted schizophrenic patients, as it withdrew itself from psychiatric hospitals and universities and invested its efforts in private practice and psychoanalytic institutes (Ophir 2015). Although American psychoanalysts, especially in the Washington-Baltimore area, devoted themselves to work with schizophrenic patients, they broadly defined their work as a form of dynamic psychiatry that was more eclectic than traditional psychoanalysis. As shown in my book, this trend was possibly one of the reasons why they found themselves struggling with the rise of neo-somatic psychiatry, which soon gained jurisdictional hegemony in the domain of mental health.

     It seems that the hopes that Klein held out for the future of the field, and which inspired generations of British psychoanalysts working with severely disturbed children and adults, were not shared by mainstream American psychoanalysts. Along with rejection of Klein’s work, they showed resistance to working with the kind of patients who displayed precisely those layers of the mind Klein and her followers had been studying. My second book project, Klein in America – The Marginalization of Melanie Klein’s Thought in American Psychoanalysis 1924 -2009, uses the double meaning of the German word “klein,” which, translated, means “small,” to study what Martin Jay (1986) has termed the “selective hospitality” (p. xiv) shown to the German intellectual immigration, by applying his concept and its far-ranging implications to the mixed welcome that Klein’s thought and legacy encountered among mainstream American psychoanalysts.

     Immigration is a complicated, multifaceted process that affects not only individuals but also ideas. Although Klein’s ideas were initially enthusiastically welcomed by early American psychiatrists, interested as they were in psychoanalysis and in European thought more generally – representatives such as Smith Ely Jelliffe and Adolf Meyer come to mind – there was a gradual decline in the appreciation of her theory during the mid 1930s. This soon escalated and her theories would be fiercely rejected during the second wave of immigration of analysts from Europe, beginning in the late 1930s and increasing throughout the immediate postwar period. Although her ideas were reintroduced in America by psychoanalysts such as Otto Kernberg and Roy Schafer, notably at the beginning of mid-1960s – and even though her thought and work remained very influential on the West Coast, where Kleinian analysts such as Segal, Rosenfeld and Bion taught during the 1970s (and where analysts trained by them, such as James Grotstein and Albert Mason, continue to teach to this day) – Klein’s original proposals, especially those regarding infantile sadistic phantasies and the death drive, seemed too difficult for American analysts to swallow.

     Aware of American psychoanalysts’ reaction to her work, and perhaps anticipating this eventual difficulty, it is not surprising that of the many papers Klein could have chosen to present during her long-planned trip to America, she selected the paper “On the Sense of Loneliness,” which, after all, is also a paper on the sense of not-belonging. It was when she was finally invited to the place that embraced her nemesis, Anna Freud, and where her own theories were considered “un-American” (Kernberg 2008), that Klein decided to read a paper about the sense of inner loneliness that persists, to some degree, irrespective of external circumstances of de facto acknowledgment and experienced love.

     Klein sees the manifest conviction of some individuals that they belong to no person or to no group as communicating a more profound feeling. She writes: “This not belonging can be seen to have a much deeper meaning. However much integration proceeds, it cannot do away with the feeling that certain components of the self are not available because they are split off and cannot be regained. Some of these split-off parts . . . are projected into other people, contributing to the feeling that one is not in full possession of one’s self, that one does not fully belong to oneself or, therefore to anybody else. The lost parts too, are felt to be lonely” (1959, p. 302).

     According to Klein, we never achieve full and permanent integration because some polarity between life and death instincts always persists, and the death instinct, the aim of which is to disintegrate unities, is always operative, keeping parts of the self, disintegrated at its core. This was the reason Klein saw the loneliness of the fragmented schizophrenic, in whom disintegrative processes are extremely intense and particularly destructive, as the utmost misery of feeling left alone by one’s own internal objects. The lonely schizophrenic individual, distanced from his good internal objects, is, Klein suggests, left only with external hostile objects, which in a vicious cycle create more loneliness and, hence, ever more disintegration. 

     Although Klein is clear about the pathological sense of loneliness emanating from states of disintegration in mental illness, she devotes most of her original paper to a sense of loneliness and of not belonging that afflicts more integrated, healthier individuals as well. One can say that the kind of loneliness she discusses at length in her paper and this sense of not belonging that arises from the very same psychic dynamic is an integral part of mental health. Klein begins by depicting the sources of the sense of loneliness and of not belonging in the depressive position, in which the reality principle prevails and one is more integrated, as are one’s internal and external objects. There is the realistic fear of the death of one’s own loved objects and of oneself, and the thought of such ending, losses and death, intensify loneliness. Integration is also accompanied by the pain of loneliness and not belonging that derives from the acknowledgment of one’s own destructive impulses, and thereby of the danger and the possible loss of one’s good objects as a result of one’s very own aggression. Another source of the sense of loneliness in the more integrative state is directly related to the greater sense of reality one holds. As the sense of reality grows, one is deprived from one’s sense of omnipotence and of idealization. The loss of an omnipotent self and an ideal object contribute, once again, to a feeling of loneliness. Finally, the conflict between the male and the female elements in each person and the integration between these two are related to the working through of the attack on the female/mother and the male/father, and the respective identifications with these contrasting elements likewise contribute to the sense of parts not belonging to the self and to the feeling of loneliness.

     For Klein, then, some of our parts will never belong to the self, and this will always be a source of a sense of loneliness and deprivation. The self is deprived of these parts and these parts, in turn, “feel” lonely. This ubiquitous sense of loneliness and not belonging varies in intensity only because of the presence of some mitigating factors. Among these factors, Klein mentions the innate strength of the ego, which is less liable to fragmentation and more capable of a good early relation to the primal object and the internalization of a good object. All of these are central to the capacity to modulate the pain of loneliness and the sense of not belonging. Where that is the case, Klein notes, love can be given and received: “There is always a connection between being able to accept and to give, and both are part of the relation to the good object and therefore counteract loneliness” (1959, p. 310). Gratitude, creativity, and generosity are further mitigating factors in the sense of loneliness. For example, even when one feels alone and frustrated, one can reach for memories of happy times, and the feeling of trust this inspires, in turn, mitigates loneliness.

     But, all these factors that can diminish the sense of loneliness “never entirely eliminate it” (1959, p. 311), Klein insists. Moreover, all aforementioned factors also can be used defensively, such that loneliness is not consciously felt although it remains unconsciously operative and damaging. One of the many defensive ways one protects oneself against the pain of loneliness is an extreme dependence on the mother. A flight into the internal object, such as hallucinatory gratification, may similarly serve the very same aim. Likewise, precociousness could be defensively used in order to overcome loneliness. Whereas in old age it could be the preoccupation with some idealized past that denies loneliness, in young people it can be the sense of an idealization of the future, and so on. The trouble with these defenses is that when loneliness is not consciously experienced, it does not become a stimulus towards object relations and thus interferes with the very opportunity to find an object that could possibly mitigate the sense of not belonging and of loneliness.

     Although Klein puts much emphasis on the inner sense of loneliness, which derives from inner processes and relations to internal objects, she does not ignore the external influences, beginning with the discomfort of birth. But, in the end, she first and foremost concentrates on the importance of the inner world: “Although loneliness can be diminished or increased by external influences, it can never be completely eliminated because the urge towards integration as well as the pain experienced in the process of integration, spring from internal sources which remain powerful through life” (Klein 1959, p. 313).

     When Elliot Jaques, with whose suggestion to Klein we started out, offers his comments on Klein’s paper, he emphasizes the sense of “belonging,” which Klein addresses but only obliquely. In his letter to Klein, Jaques writes:

(a) The greater the integration, the greater the capacity of feeling that one belongs to oneself as well as to one’s internal parents, family, etc.
(b) At the same time, the sense of belonging is not inconsistent with the feeling of loneliness; for, as you point out, greater integration implies acceptance of loss and hence toleration of a certain amount of loneliness

     Jaques adds that he finds in Klein a clear expression of the circumstance that “the capacity for greater toleration of loneliness in itself reinforces feelings of belonging and the capacity [i.e., to tolerate loneliness, O.O.] allows oneself to belong, that is to say, to commit oneself to good objects.”[4]     Jaques continues and offers Klein his analysis of her paper within the larger framework of her entire oeuvre, as he sees it: “I think you will find, if you look through your paper, that just as the theme of gratitude was in fact already in your previous paper, so here is the theme of the sense of belonging.” He concludes his letter with a suggestion that Klein, who had solicited his comments, would nonetheless not adopt: “The working title that came into my mind on reading your paper was “Loneliness and the Sense of Belonging.”

     It is clear that both Klein and Jaques are discussing loneliness and belonging in intrapsychic terms. It is an “inner sense of loneliness” or an “internal state of loneliness” that is the result of a “ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state” (Klein 1959, p. 300). Likewise, as Jaques suggests, it is a “belonging to oneself as well as to one’s internal parents, family, etc.,” and a commitment to one’s good internal objects. Because full internal integration can never be attained, we can never feel that we fully belong to ourselves and thus we can never fully feel that we belong to others, be they individuals or groups. The only hope one can nourish, according to this theory, then, is to be integrated enough to tolerate losses, to begin with the loss of the very option to fully belong to oneself and to others.

     As internal states find their representations in external circumstances, if one cannot fully belong to oneself, one can surely never fully belong to others. The wish to fully belong, to become a “full member,” of whatever relationships, groups, clubs, or institutions, is also the wish to do away with the pain emanating from the work of integration, which is never fully achieved. The need to fully belong appears to be a universal feature of a state of mental health. Yet the feeling that one has arrived, that one has in fact achieved this belonging, might well reflect a dangerous denial (be it a manic defense or a paranoid-schizoid defense) of the primary violation done to the split-off objects and their subsequent external representation to presumed, non-included“strangers.”

     When Zygmunt Bauman (1993) writes about modern society, he emphasizes that every community produces its own strangers, those who are located outside and who are perceived and characterized as well as excluded as (cognitively and morally, ethnically or aesthetically) alien to it. If we think of a community as a self, further, if a community comprises those who have something in common (whether it be birth, gender, race or any other shared predicate or characteristic), then the strangers are those that are split-off and excluded. But these split-off parts, these strangers, do not disappear and the community can either assimilate them, or – in Bauman’s (somewhat Kleinian) description and corporeal terminology – annihilate them, “by devouring them and metabolically transforming them into a tissue indistinguishable from one’s own.” Alternatively, so the analysis continues, society can rid itself of them by “vomiting the strangers, banishing them from the limits of the orderly world and barring them from all communication with those inside” (p. 201). In sum, those who do not belong, the strangers, appear as a problem to be overcome, either by making the stranger similar or by making their strangeness invisible, unnecessary to have any further dealings with, work with, or work through.

     The alternative to such identitarian (or is it communitarian?) communities is rooted in the acceptance of the painful truth that we never actually entirely overcome primitive anxieties; in other words, that we are never fully integrated and will always only partially belong to ourselves and thus to others. Mourning of the phantasy to fully belong could in and of itself lead to a different kind of community, one in which we are and remain in a fundamentally strange and estranged sense, strangers to ourselves and thus strangers to each other. In Georges Bataille’s view, such would be a community of those who do not belong to any community; for Maurice Blanchot, it would conjure a community whose members are those of a “we who cannot completely say we;” in Jacques Derrida’s understanding, finally, we would from here on aspire to a “we” whose existence must (can and ought) even be doubted (Morin 2006).

     When the inability to belong to one’s self – to one self – and thus also to others, when the impossible wish to fully belong to a community is not so much mourned but instead caught in denial, the inevitable, if unintended, result is that of a community that activates primitive identificatory mechanisms, defining those who belong to it and those who do not. The latter “community,” if one can still call it that, survives and thrives only insofar as it marginalizes, isolates, and does away with the stranger. By externalizing the conflict and projecting it onto others, there is a deep-seated wish to do away with one’s internal sense of not belonging and the correlative strangeness of oneself to oneself.

     Klein, who was born in Vienna, immigrated to Budapest, Berlin, and finally to London. In her unpublished autobiography, she writes that although she felt sympathy for the people who struggled to establish the state of Israel, and although she was proud to confirm her Jewish origins, she would have hated to live in Israel itself: “In my attitude of sympathy with Israel also enters a feeling which though it may have originated in the state of persecution of the Jews, extends to all minorities and to all people persecuted by stronger forces. Who knows! This might have given me the strength to be always in a minority about my scientific work and not to mind and to be quite willing to stand against a majority for which I had some contempt, which in time has been mitigated by tolerance.”[5]

     My own contempt and tolerance were put to the test when I relocated from Israel to the United States in 2008. A “foreign” candidate and a “resident alien,” I was lucky enough to meet a group of other candidates who, even if not foreign to this country, had similar difficulties in fully belonging to psychoanalysis in its institutional form. They, too, felt the duality of, on the one hand, wanting to belong to the long tradition of psychoanalytic theory and practice about which they were deeply passionate, but, on the other hand, not being able to recognize themselves in the forms its institutional life had taken. Realizing the inevitable discontent that is inherent to the existence of individuals in groups and societies, we formed what we hoped to be a different kind of community. It was named Das Unbehagen, after Freud’s famous 1930 book Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (Civilization and Its Discontents). Resisting any form of material exchange, any kind of hierarchical organization, any form of committees or gatekeepers, not to mention any adherence to one way of thinking theoretically and practically, the individuals who comprised this group created a unique community in the psychoanalytic world. It is a community that does not expect anyone’s belonging and does not excommunicate any individual who wants to belong to it, even if he/she charts a singular course. One might say that the term “belonging” is always in brackets in this group as, at times, it seems that it is a community of people who have very little in common (Lingis 1994). 

     Das Unbehagen – a free association for psychoanalysis, as it is called – has served and continues to serve individuals as an important reminder that even when one formally belongs to a psychoanalytic school or to a psychoanalytic institution, association, or tradition, one should never forget that such belonging is, at least partially and perhaps necessarily, somewhat illusory. By contrast, belonging, to those who, like oneself, never feel that they fully belong, is an emancipatory gesture aimed at building an ethical psychoanalytic community in which everyone can be and is welcomed as a “stranger” and, in this sense, as strangely singular, indeed. 

     I truly believe that it has been my strange belonging to this unique community that has allowed me to be the otherwise dutiful and conscientious candidate I was expected to be and remain at my institute, fulfilling my commitments and obligations to the best of my abilities, but also with a more realistic sense of self and others, both internal and external. After all, it is only on the basis of this kind of belonging to those who emphasize a different kind of belonging that one can, perhaps, learn to respond to genuine others in a far more responsive and also responsible – and, I am tempted to add, professional – way.

     As with other illusions, and following the lead of Joshua Durban, the editor of the translation of Melanie Klein’s works into Hebrew, it is only in embracing with love and longing the more primitive illusion of fully belonging that this illusion can turn into a good object in one’s internal world. Instead of becoming a destructive identificatory claim for an idealized form of complete belonging upon oneself and others, this illusion may act instead as a good internal object directing the individual to seek the only realistic possible belonging, that which is only partial. Such good internal company can serve as a mitigating force that may reconcile one with the inevitable state of loneliness and not belonging, and accept and respect it in others.



[1] A letter from Elliot Jaques addressed to Melanie Klein (Melanie Klein Archive at the Wellcome Collection, London, UK). Thanks to the Melanie Klein Trust for allowing me access to this material

[2] From the original invitation extended to Melanie Klein, signed by Lauren H. Smith, physician-in-chief and administrator of the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital, July 19, 1960 (Melanie Klein Archive at the Wellcome Collection, London, UK).

[3] Melanie Klein Archive at the Wellcome Collection, London, UK.

[4] Letter from Jaques to Klein, June 1, 1959.

[5] Melanie Klein’s unpublished autobiography (Melanie Klein Archive, Wellcome Collection, London, UK).



Bauman, Z. (1993). Postmodern Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. Standard Edition 21:57-146.

Jay, M. (1986). Permanent Exiles. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lingis, A. (1994). The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Kernberg, O. (2008). Psychoanalysis in America. In In Freud’s Track, eds. S. Benvenuto & A. Molino. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, pp. 61-77.

Klein, M. (1955). The psychoanalytic play technique: its history and significance. In The Writings of Melanie Klein. Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. New York: The Free Press, 1975, pp.122-140.

Klein, M. (1959). On the sense of loneliness. In The Writings of Melanie Klein. Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. New York: The Free Press, 1975, pp. 300-313.

Morin, M.E. (2006). Putting community under erasure: Derrida and Nancy on the plurality of singularities. In Culture Machine. Vol. 8: Community. Available from: http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/issue/view/4 Acces.sed December 14, 2014.

Ophir, O. (2015). Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry and Psychosis in Postwar America – On the Borderland of Madness. London: Routledge.


Address correspondence to:

Orna Ophir, PhD
255 West 94th Street
New York, NY 10025


Orna Ophir, PhD, is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Humanities at the School of Art and Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland; Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, New York; and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Doctoral Studies Program in Clinical Psychology at Long Island University, Brooklyn, NY. She is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Israel and a Licensed Psychoanalyst in New York State. Dr. Ophir is the author of Psychosis, Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry in Postwar America – On the Borderland of Madness.


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