Panel IAAP/IPA: Symbols and Symbolisation in Clinical Practice and in Elisabeth Márton’s Film

Some Analytical Contributions of Sabina Spielrein

Ursula Prameshuber
Rome, Italy
Centro Italiano di Psicologia Analitica

I’m going to talk about Sabina Spielrein as an analyst. So I will concentrate more on Sabina’s theoretical contributions, especially in regard to empathy and relationship which are very much debated in contemporary psychoanalysis today. As is well known, in Freudian psychoanalysis there has been a paradigmatic shift from drive theory to relation and empathy. A very fruitful and interesting dialogue about these issues is doing on between Relational Psychoanalysis and Analytic Psychology. In order to develop my reflections I will examine the article, “The Mother-in-Law,” in which these two themes are pointed out by Sabina. I am not taking into consideration her two major works, “On the Psychological Contents of Schizophrenia (Dementia Praecox),” written in 1911, and “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being,” about which many articles have already been written, underlining the influence they had on Freud’s concept of the death instinct. In conclusion I will add some personal reflections to Sabina’s biography, pointing out her relationship with the female world.

The article “The Mother-in-Law” was published for the first time in 1913 in Imago. In this article Sabina develops two very interesting concepts about the female psyche. One is that the female psyche is defined by relationship, and the other concept reflects a typical female way of psychological understanding, which she called empathy.

Talking about the first concept, Sabina affirms that the female psyche is always connected with the personal sphere, the I-You dimension, the capacity to enter into relationship with the other. Therefore it is the aspect of female psyche which is the basis of every relationship. While Sabina connects the aspects of female psyche to women, Jung extends this concept to men as well and their unconscious female part in his concept of Anima. It seems that the relationship with Sabina Spielrein has in some ways influenced Jung’s Anima concept, which he developed after the break up of his relationship with her. In fact he wrote in his penultimate letter to Sabina:

The love of S. for J. made the latter aware of something he had previously only vaguely suspected, namely of the power in the unconscious which shapes our destiny, a power which later led him to things of the greatest importance. (Covington, 2003, p. 188)

According to Sabina, the female psyche is characterized by relationship while the male psyche is characterized by objectivity. Sabina does not deny the capacity to objectify to women; this capacity is part of the female psyche, but she writes, “women’s ability to do this is much less.” (Spielrein, 1913, p. 589) The predominant part of the female psyche is the relationship, and the capacity to enter into contact with the others.

Her ideas about the female psyche show many similarities with what Jung affirmed in his article, “Women in Europe,” written in 1917. In this article Jung develops his ideas about the female psyche, talking about the importance of a psychological relationship between men and women. Jung affirms:

Woman’s psychology is founded on the principle of Eros, the great binder and loosener, whereas from ancient times the ruling principle ascribed to men is Logos. The concept of Eros could be expressed in modern terms as psychic relatedness, and that of Logos as objective interest. (Jung, 1927, §255)

Sabina’s idea of the female psyche, developed in 1913, was completely different from the psychoanalytical concepts of those days, which viewed women not as psycho-social subjects, but as defined by their biological function, destined exclusively for the procreation of the species. According to this concept, female psychology was identified with a fundamentally passive role.

In quite an explicit way, Freud had described women as completely dominated by their biological task, which found its expression in his famous statement that “anatomy is destiny.” He had never explored the universe of the female psyche, it appeared to him as completely different. He defined it as “the black continent” and left it up to his female colleagues to explore it in the future. But his female colleagues, following Freud’s teaching, also ended up by emphasizing passivity as the basic female structure. A well known example is Helene Deutsch, who in her book The Psychology of Women, written as late as the 1940s, defines passivity and masochism as original characteristics of the female psyche.

Sabina, in contrast with the psychoanalytical culture of her period, underlines the potential activity of the female psyche. According to her women do not only live their emotions and feelings, as well as their relations with the other and the world, in a passive way, but on the contrary live a condition of elevated activity through their empathic capacity.

According to Sabina it is through empathy that the female psyche perceives the other’s feelings in an active way, living them inside herself psychologically. In this way women are able to create a psychological and empathic relationship which forms the basis for every psychologi cal relationship. For Sabina, women’s relatedness is a dynamic act of the female psyche and in this sense is no way inferior to men. She writes in her article:

It is in this ability to empathize that a woman’s great original social significance is to be found, and I do not know how far it is either possible or desirable to wish to embody in women the masculine aspects of feeling by considering them of a “higher” quality. In any case I believe that it would scarcely succeed in full; the woman’s biological roles for the human race are those of a mother and an educator; these roles need so much empathic capacity that the woman according to her basic characteristics can free herself of only a comparatively small part of her feelings through objectivization. (Spielrein, 1913, p. 590)

The second concept that characterizes the female psyche, according to Sabina, is empathy. This word was used for the first time by the German poet Novalis in 1798, connecting the German words “ein” (in) and “Fühlung” (feeling), describing in this way “a fusion with the world and nature, a common feeling, a special way of openness in regard to the other. (Corradi, 1999)

Sabina writes in her article:

Women have fewer possibilities to experience their desires in reality. But as a compensation they possess a much larger capacity to empathize with others and in this way to make experience of their lives. (Spielrein, 1913, p. 589)

Thus, according to Sabina it is empathy that distinguishes the female psyche, the capacity to enter into contact with the inner life of another person, living the other’s feelings and emotions inside oneself. Her conception of empathy is in line with what the German philosopher Edith Stein stated in 1917 in her thesis, entitled “About the Problem of Empathy.” In this phenomenological work Stein concentrates on the experience of a subject that lives the experience of another person on an emotional level. According to Stein, empathy is the capacity of consciousness to feel the emotions of another person, but at the same time recognize them as a different phenomenon inside oneself. (Stein, 1917)

But let’s return to Sabina’s ideas about empathy.

… the woman feels the others’ feelings according to their desires and fears and makes them her own, then she frees herself of the emotion, living these experiences herself psychologically and changing them according to her wishes. (Spielrein, 1913, p. 589-590)

Contrary to the ruling ideas of her times, which viewed empathy either as a projection of one’s own inner aspects on an object (as is the case with Lipps in the field of art), or on a person (as is the case with Jung), the remarkable intuition of Sabina lies in the fact that for her empathy is by no means a form of projection, but represents a real understanding of the other’s feelings. She puts the accent of empathy on the connection, the relationship, an empathic relation. For her, empathy does not mean finding one’s own psychological aspects in the other, but recognizing psychic aspects of the other as real. Many years later this idea found its theorization in the Self Psychology of Heinz Kohut, who stated that empathy and not interpretation is the only tool of psychoanalysis. (Kohut, 1984)

Let’s once more examine what Sabina has to say about the female psyche.

in the widespread diffusion of empathy I see the reason why women, who by no means possess less intelligence or power of imagination than men, have not been able to create works of art of equal value. In order to create a work of art, one must objectify one’s own or the others’ experiences to such an extent that it can be assimilated into the world as if it were impersonal. … This objectivation is much less developed in women. (Spielrein, 1913, p. 589)

We can say that with her ideas about the female psyche, relation and empathy, Sabina showed that in her the quality to objectify was quite developed.

Having talked about Sabina’s theoretical contributions to the female psyche, I would now like to add a few remarks to her biography. In almost all articles and books Sabina’s biography has been examined in regard to her relationships with men: her father, Jung, Freud. I would like to examine her relationship with the female world which is first of all, with her mother. As is well known, the psychiatrists at the Burgholzli, Bleuler and Jung, connected Sabina’s pathology with her difficult and violent relationship with her father. At the first International Congress of Psychiatry in 1907 in Amsterdam, Jung presented the case of Sabina in this way:

Her father had been the object of her infantile libido translation, hence the resistances were directed especially against him, whereas her mother was not affected by them. (Jung, 1908, §56)

Freud, who had been informed about the case by letter, answered that it was an infantile fixation of the libido in regard to the father. (McGuire, 1974) So from the very beginning Sabina’s psychic problems were seen as connected to her relationship with her father, which is quite comprehensible for the early days of psychoanalysis, which were dominated by the drive theory and the theme of the father. Only after his relationship with Freud had broken off, Jung slowly developed his ideas about the libido and the psychological importance of the mother in his work Symbols of transformation, published in 1912. We can presume that Jung’s relationship with Sabina had some influence on the themes treated in this work. Talking about the terrible mother “who devours and destroys and thus symbolizes death itself,”(Jung, 1956, §504) Jung mentions Sabina and her ideas about the death instinct in a footnote.

In order to explore the relationship between Sabina and her mother, I will take into consideration a few biographical elements of her mother’s life.

Eva Lyublinskaya, the daughter of a rabbi, was very interested in music and science, to the point that her father permitted her to study medicine and become a dentist, which was more than unusual in those days in Russia. She seems to have been a quite determined and dominant woman, concentrated on her own realization which she could find neither in her marriage nor in motherhood. What we can deduce from the letters between Sabina and her mother is that their relationship was always one of great rivalry. Sabina’s mother put herself on the same level as her daughter, competing with her also as a rival in love. In a letter to Freud, which was probably never sent, Sabina, talking about Jung writes:

Doesn’t it sound funny, that my mother wants to take my beloved from me for the third time? Before Dr. Jung I was infatuated with two men (I was not yet ripe for love). They both liked me a great deal, but since I was still a child, both the first and the second hero fell in love with my mother head over heels. (Lothane, 2003)

From these short lines we can make some reflections about the kind of relationship which existed between Sabina and her mother. We get the impression of a kind of resignation, a feeling of impotence against an overwhelming mother figure, a strong rivalry and conflict.

Regarding the mother-daughter relationship, the article “The Mother-in-Law” is also of some biographical, and not only scientific, interest. This article was written in 1913, one year after Sabina’s marriage to Dr. Paul Scheftel, which was a surprise to everybody. Contrary to what we might expect from the title, it seems that Sabina does not talk about her mother-in-law, but about her own mother in respect to her son-in-law. Sabina states that mothers-in-law seem more like older sisters than mothers, that they envy the youth of their daughters and live in a constant competition with them. (Spielrein, 1913)

I think that Sabina’s main problem was not her difficult relationship with her father but a negative mother complex. From this vantage point we can explain why it was so difficult for Sabina to belong and identify completely with someone or something. As Jung states in his article “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype” (Jung, 1959), the negative mother complex is characterized by “an overwhelming resistance to maternal supremacy, often to the exclusion of everything else. This kind of daughter knows what she does not want, but is usually completely at sea as to what she would choose as her own fate.” (Jung, 1959, §170).

In fact, in Sabina’s negative mother complex we can also find the reason why she always stayed away from her mother country and to the surprise of everyone, a few months after her mother’s death in 1922, she returned to Russia. The price for this were years of wandering around in Europe, Vienna, Geneva, Munich, Berlin, Lausanne, without ever really settling down. While Jung was able to elaborate his negative mother complex symbolically through his relation with the unconscious and his scientific work, Sabina on the other hand was forced to live her negative mother complex in real life through self-destruction and the destruction of her daughters.

Sabina’s tragic destiny cannot be changed but we can attribute her the place she earns as a pioneer of psychoanalysis by considering her original theoretical contributions, which for a long time have almost been forgotten. The last question is: a pioneer of Freudian psychoanalysis or of Jungian psychology? Well, although her ideas of destruction and their influence on the death instinct are usually underlined and stressed, I think that with her ideas about relation and empathy Sabina can be called a pioneer of Jungian thought that functions as a bridge to contemporary psychoanalysis.


  • Corradi, M. (1999) ‘Empathy’. Conference given at the CIPA in Rome. Unpublished.
  • Covington, C. (2003) ‘Comments on the Burghölzli hospital records of Sabina Spiel- rein’. In Sabina Spielrein. Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis, eds. C. Covington & B. Wharton. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Jung, C.G. (1959). ‘Psychological aspects of the mother archetype’ CW 9/i.
  • Jung, C.G. (1908). ‘The Freudian Theory of Hysteria.’ CW 4.
  • Jung, C.G. (1927). ‘Woman in Europe’. CW 10.
  • Jung. C.G. (1956). Symbols of Transformation. CW 5.
  • Kohut, H. (1984) How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Lothane, Z. (2003) In: Sabina Spielrein. Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis, eds. C. Covington & B. Wharton. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
  • McGuire, W. (1974) (ed.) The Freud/Jung Letters. London: Hogarth/Routledge &Kegan Paul.
  • Spielrein, Sabina (1913) ‘Die Schwiegermutter’. In: Imago, II/6. English transl. by the author.
  • Stein, E. (1917) Zum Problem der Einfühlung. Halle: Buchdruckerei des Waisenhauses.