Internal Working Model

What do we mean by an internal working model?

In this blog I write about psychoanalysis and psychodynamic counselling and why it is such a useful therapeutic model.  Here I am looking in particular at John Bowlby’s (1907-90) internal working model. I will consider the work of other psychoanalysts as well. 

John Bowlby - Internal working model

John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst and developer of attachment theory who coined the term ‘internal working model’. 

Bowlby used the term internal working model to designate a cognitive framework comprising mental representations for understanding the world, self and others.  This means that you can gain greater understanding about how you relate to others which means it can help you develop better relationships. 

In Bowlby’s theory, by around the age of three the infant will have developed an internal working model guide, a sense of this model which will be the basis of all future interactions with others. It guides future and future interactions. In Bowlby’s internal working model it is important for child development that the child develops a secure attachment relationship with one caregiver, usually the mother.

John Bowlby mother and daughter relationships

Bowlby’s internal working model has three main features:

  1. a model of others as being trustworthy
  2. a model of the self as valuable
  3. a model of the self as effective when interacting with others

It is this mental representation that guides future social and emotional behaviour, as the child’s internal working model guides their responsiveness to others in general.  The primary caregiver, the attachment figure is key to developing a sense of being securely attached, to having a secure base.

Attachment theory or drive theory?

John Bowlby is one of several psychoanalysts whose work took them away from Sigmund Feud’s original drive theory psychoanalytic project.  Like Freud, Bowlby viewed developments in early childhood as being of particular significance for our on-going development, for our future relationships, but Bowlby places a theory of attachment before a theory of drives or instincts.  Bowlby, along with other analysts considered our real relationships with people, not just our fantasies and repressed instincts as of central importance in our development.  Bowlby’s attachment theory has been influential and successful in the UK and is widely valued and referred to particularly within psychology because it enables people to understand how they tend to attach to other people.  Ideas of attachment theory have entered into everyday language.

Bowlby’s is an evolutionary model, he views the child, as it were, as biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others in order to help them survive.  This is different to Freud’s early theories in which there is thought to be no fixed relationship between the infant and its objects (or care givers). 

In one sense Bowlby’s work is representative of a British development in psychoanalysis which viewed the developing child’s real relationships with real people as key to their ongoing development. 

Objects and object relating

Although, when it comes to human relationships, it can at first seem alien to think in terms of objects and object relating, in psychoanalytic language and theory people are referred to as objects.  Psychoanalysis has a particular capacity to think about the way the infant develops their relationships with caregivers and the world. Frequently the problems people have in their present relationships have their origin in their early object relationships.

Beyond Freud’s work

Analysts such as Freud, Klein, Bion, Bowlby and others developed deeply thoughtful and sophisticated theories and models to grasp a sense of the way the individual relates to others.    

One of the features of this branch of psychoanalytic work is the idea that at the same time as the infant is developing its external relationships with the caregivers in the world, it is developing an internal model based upon its experience and phantasy about experience.

For each part of the external sense of things there is an internal sense and correspondent.  From this it follows that we go onto develop relationships with people in the external world based on our sense of our internal world and our internal working model.

To precis Bowlby’s internal working model, if as an infant you were exposed to:

  • a positive sense of love; you would be a secure character type.
  • If you were unloved and rejected; you would be an avoidant character type, and
  • if you were exposed to an angry and confused early caregiver; you might be a resistant character type
  • More recently a fourth attachment style has been identified  – disorganized attachment
Bowlby model

It is this capacity to understand our problems, to understand our internal working models, that really sets attachment theory and psychoanalysis apart as a therapeutic intervention. 

This kind of work is deep and nuanced and aims at helping people to understand the problems that they experience in relationships not as being random and accidental or their fault, but as reflecting the way their internal working models influence and organise their experience. 

As such these therapies tend to take longer and require a greater commitment of time and money.  There are certainly quicker models on the counselling market such as CBT, but they do not have the capacity to get to these depths. 

Working with a therapist who can help you develop insight into yourself in this way can help you create powerful opportunities to change the way you relate to yourself and to other people and so lead more satisfying lives. 

Psychodynamic counselling and psychoanalytic psychotherapy work by enabling you to understand your internal working model, and as you do so to improve the way you relate to other people. 

The possibility being that if you can understand the way you interact in the therapeutic relationship, and if you can change a negative or destructive habit in the confidential setting of the therapeutic relationship, then you might be able to change it in other relationships too. 

This is what makes psychodynamic work so powerful and useful.  This isn’t therapy that tells you to behave differently, think positively and so on.  It isn’t a therapy that starts from the assumption that the problems you experience are your fault and part of your flawed behaviour.  It is not a moral therapy.  It is not looking for someone to blame, though it is often caricatured as being so, it is a therapy that provides potential for deep and lasting change.  

It is therapy that is focussed on providing understanding of who you are which means that you can become more proactive and less reactive. it can enable you to grasp your internal working model, how you live, what you do in relationships and the potentially negative consequences and patterns that stem from that. It is a therapy that looks to help you understand your internal working model and the dynamics that operate and drive particular ways of relating.

Internal working model and Counselling Buckinghamshire

In practice psychodynamic counselling offers the possibility of gaining greater insight into your internal working model and this means that you can develop more satisfying relationships.  Counselling Buckinghamshire is grounded in psychodynamic, psychoanalytic and analytic training, please contact me for a free telephone consultation to discuss how Counselling Buckinghamshire might be able to help you.

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