Developmental Trauma and the Bad Object—Journal Article

Developmental Trauma and the Bad Object—Journal Article

In his recent refereed journal article, published in Transactional Analysis Journal (TAJ), Ales Zivkovic discusses the topic of developmental violations from the perspective of how they influence identity development and their influence on personality structure and functioning (original article). Influences on interpersonal functioning, as well as, manifestations this may have in therapy are also considered.

Developmental trauma and adverse childhood experiences may affect identity formation and result in disruptions in personality functioning, along with the formation of maladaptive personality traits. Violations of early attachment needs may later on also cause re-enactments of such violations in individual’s adult life.

As a child is subject to developmental trauma and other violations of subjectivity—such as verbal, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, or caregiver’s dependency on the child—the child may defend against such violations by internalising and identifying with the caregiver as a bad object and split-off such experiences by dissociating or repressing it. The purpose of this is for the child to, on one hand, maintain attachment to the caregiver, which is essential for the child’s survival, but also, on the other hand, for the child to deal with the abuse psychologically.

This, however, means that the child will begin to unconsciously experience itself as “bad” in order to experience the caregiver as “good”, which is essential in order to maintain attachment. However, because authentic psychological attachment is repeatedly validated, it is experienced as painful. Therefore, the child learns to control the relationship by clinging whilst, simultaneously, disavowing the need for authentic psychological attachment.

As such interpersonal dynamics is internalised in individual’s childhood, the individual’s identity, their subjective experience of themselves, others, and the world, their interpersonal relationships, and their commitment to work and life may be affected in adulthood. Because of the lack of internal object constancy, the individual may need others to maintain their sense of positive self-concept, their self-coherence, and their subjective experience of existence. Psychological clinging may be used to support such interpersonal dynamics.

However, if clinging fails and the individual unconsciously experiences a threat of abandonment to internal or external objects, distancing may be used as coping strategy. The latter may characterised by outbursts of anger, accusations, persecution, devaluation, and disavowal of the need for any attachment. The individual will see the other as “bad” in order to see self as “good” and deny the need for the relationship. The latter is important in order to unconsciously disidentify from internal identification with the bad object and, as such, avoid experiencing self as “bad”.

Should any of these defensive strategies fail, the individual may begin to consciously experience their identification with their internalised “badness” and become symptomatic. This is the last resort attempt of remaining attached to the bad object before the individual loses ties with internal objects and falls into abandonment depression.

When working with clients that experienced developmental trauma, abuse, and other violations, the therapist needs to be prepared for the internalised dyads, resembling developmental relatedness, to surface in the here-and-now. This usually happens through transference enactments and acting out. Such enactments and acting out may be highly unconscious and may mean that the therapist and the client together re-enact the client’s developmental drama. This may happen not only on a psychological level but also on the actual one. As such, they may transform from psychologically perceived persecutors, abusers, and victims into the actual ones.


Zivkovic, A. (2020). Developmental Trauma and the Bad Object: Attachment, Identity, Reenactments. Transactional Analysis Journal DOI: 10.1080/03621537.2020.1771033

TAJ Developmental Trauma and the Bad Object, Ales Zivkovic
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