Dr. Jeffrey Seinfeld - In Memoriam


Dr. Jeffrey Seinfeld, deep object relations thinker, scholar, and theorist, who died unexpectedly on January 25th, 2011. He was a world-renowned author, a philosopher, great teacher and mentor, and a friend to everyone in his path. Dr. Seinfeld was a full professor of the NYU School of Social work and a scientific faculty member and great supporter of the Object Relations Institute since its birth 20 years ago. Dr. Seinfeld was full of life, energy, and ideas, as he was preparing to be a discussant at the ORI's annual 20th anniversary conference.

Now, this conference (on Dialectics of Mortality and Immortality) will be dedicated to memory of Dr. Seinfeld, as the ORI community mourns this tremendous loss.

All who were blessed to be a part of Dr. Seinfeld's life are welcome to share pictures, interviews, stories, essays, and links related to him, his work, his writing, and friendships - are welcome to submit them to Dr. Inna Rozentsvit, ORI's web publisher/editor and community relations coordinator (write to: admin@orinyc.org).

Click here to view In Memoriam poster dedicated to our beloved Dr. Jeffrey Seinfeld.

Visit our YouTube channel (ObjectRelations2009) - to view the video clips from our 2009 and 2010 annual conferences with Dr. Seinfeld's charismatic presence.


Psychoanalysis and Spirituality - 2010 Annual Conference - Object Relations Institute NYC

Psychoanalysis of the Object Relations, the Tango, and the Demon-Lover - 2009 Annual Conference - Object Relations Institute NYC

Remembering Jeff Seinfeld - YouTube video by Dr. Mike Gropper, childhood friend of Jeff Seinfeld



Here are some thoughts from Dr. Susan Kavaler-Adler, the Founder and Executive Director of the ORI, about the man who lived so vividly before he died:

…Jeffrey Seinfeld was a mench!  Jeffrey Seinfeld was a friend!  Jeffrey Seinfeld was a brilliant teacher, theorist, author and colleague.  He was one of the most loyal and enthusiastic supporters of the Object Relations Institute! Dr. Seinfeld continued to present yearly in workshops and conferences for the Object Relations Institute, throughout the twenty years of the Institute’s development and its enrichment of the field of American psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Very shortly before he died, he shared his wonderful spirit at the ORI’s 20th Anniversary Holiday luncheon.

Jeffrey was with us form the beginning!  He spoke vividly and ecstatically in his extemporaneous and improvisational style.  At the first ORI conference, I was his discussant, with a paper elaborating on Jeffrey Seinfeld’s object relations thinking with my own.  Many years—actually 20 years—followed with Jeffrey and I in duets, back and forth, as presenters and discussants, and with Jeffrey discussing the ideas of many of our conference presenters. 

Jeffrey also did his own workshops for the Object Relations Institute each year.  This year, Jeffrey spoke about Manic Depression and Bipolar disorders.  He was also scheduled to be one of three discussants at ORI’s 20th anniversary conference on “Dialectics of Mortality and Immortality: Time as a Persecutory versus a Holding Object.”  How extraordinarily persecutory was time in this case, Jeffrey’s mortality expiring so soon?  Our mutual missing of him will be shared by dedicating this February 26th, 2011 20th Anniversary ORI conference to him; to our endearing and compassionate friend, Jeffrey Seinfeld.

Jeffrey Seinfeld taught 50 students at a time about object relations theory at N.Y.U., where he served as a full professor for decades.  He inspired all who listened to him with his theoretical astuteness applied to the most quotidian daily clinical situations.  His spoken clinical vignettes and scenarios were always peppered with humor, often of a self-deprecating—or at least humbling—variety.  Jeffrey would grasp the most abstract theoretical constructs and bring them down to the everyday level of kitchen table conversation.  Jeffrey was a master at this—at applying all to the nitty-gritty, one-to-one phenomenon of the clinical situation.  Professor Jeffrey Seinfeld did it all with an energy and grace that danced out the volume of his didactic messages.  We all enjoyed him while we imbibed his pearls of wisdom.

May all members of the Object Relations Community join the ORI Board and the Training Committee in remembering the thrill of sharing thoughts, feelings, and conversations with our dear friend, colleague, and raconteur, Dr. Jeffrey Seinfeld.


Dr. Seinfeld’s childhood friend, Dr. Mike Gropper, who now practices psychotherapy in Israel, wrote this note to the ORI community:

I have lost my best friend. It was just last month that we gave a workshop together on Bipolar Disorder at the Institute. It was our first experience teaching together, and it was awesome. Jeff and I grew up together in Irvington, New Jersey. We were childhood friends and saw each other as brothers. He had a tough life as a kid, but he managed to succeed and overcome many obstacles along his journey to success. Jeff was a brilliant psychotherapist and analyst, superb university professor and teacher to many, and superb writer. I know that those of you that knew Jeff and had a chance to learn from him and/or were his friend will truly miss Jeff, his smile, and warmth and his positive energy that he expressed. He was an amazing guy. I will miss him.


My prayers go out to his wife Rhonda, his daughter Leanora, and her husband.


Best to all of you.

Dr. Mike Gropper, Raanana, ISRAEL; drmikegropper@gmail.com



Encountering Clinicians: Exclusive NJSCSW Interviews with notable contributors in the field of Mental Health:

Interview with Dr. Jeffrey Seinfeld May 2010

(Interview by Jack Schwartz, LCSW, PsyD, Editor NJSCSW Forum)

Introduction: It is an honor to and a thrill to have as our first featured contributor Dr. Jeffrey Seinfeld. Dr. Seinfeld professor of social work joined the faculty at NYU in 1987 Dr. Seinfeld’s professional areas of interest include Object Relations Theory and Existential Philosophy. He has received national recognition for his contribution to Object Relations Theory and Practice, and in 1997, was awarded the New York University Distinguished Teachers Medal.  At the School of Social Work, he has taught classes in Human Behavior and the Social Environment, and Practice, at the MSW and PhD levels. He is a noted clinician and the author of many articles and five books on psychotherapy.

Forum: To get started Dr. Seinfeld, tell us about the evolution of your clinical approach?

Dr. S:  What influenced me psychodynamically was ego-psychology, British Object Relations and Self-Psychology to some degree.  I have also been influenced by various philosophical traditions, especially the existentialist, like Sartre, also Martin Buber and on the spiritual side eastern philosophy, all which informed me in my thinking.  The first extensive reading I did was Freud and Melanie Klein, which I liked a lot. I read both thoroughly upon graduating social work school.

Forum: Why Melanie Klein?

Dr. S: It was the emphasis in her work on destructiveness in children and then their efforts at reparation.  In my early training I worked at the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services (Bronx Office) from 1976 to 1987.  At the Jewish Board I was exposed to the Modern Psychoanalytic School, the work of Spotnitz and others, so I was inclined to think about childhood aggression, I was seeing that a lot in the children I worked with. Not that I am a Kleinian, but to understand the importance of aggression in children, through Melanie Klein.  Klein’s work was an early inspiration to me.

Forum: Klein’s work saw aggression as more intrinsic and less do to outside experience, how do you see it?

Dr. S: Klein did a lot of her work during WWII in England with children who were under a great deal of duress and trauma.  Winnicott, who was working as a psychiatrist, at a social work agency, picked up on Klein’s work and he saw the types of dynamics that the children were displaying as a result of trauma, and Klein failed to take into account the environment into those dynamics.  A lot of the disintegration, spitting, aggression in kids was a result of the separation from their families, dropped into unfamiliar homes, exposed to violence; Klein didn’t take that into account enough. I see the type of aggression Klein talked about more as a result of trauma, rather than innate.

Forum: From the Object Relations perspective, we see the connection from Klein to Winnicott, but what of Fairburn, which you mention in your writings?

Dr. S: Yes, there is a big line from Klein to Winnicott, in fact Klein supervised Winnicott.  Whenever you read Winnicott you have to think about that he is in dialogue with Klein.  So Winnicott is taking in what Klein is saying but bringing in the environment.  Meanwhile Fairburn is up in Scotland and reading Klein, so kind of experiencing Klein in a more isolated way.  He was also working with soldiers, who were in combat so he had a different concentration, so he was seeing different dynamics and thus came up with this whole idea of the “moral defense”.  This involves the internalization of the abuse, and the need for a sense of recognition. Our sense of self is a lot based on the need to be seen for whom we really are and the lack of that leads to pathology and that ties up to Winnicott’s “true self”.   Although Winnicott was rather negative about Fairburn, feeling he tried to separate himself to far from Freud, Winnicott respected that Fairburn had a gift in working with traumatized individuals and understood how the abuse could be internalized.   I was drawn to Fairburn because he was also interested in philosophy, he was divinity student, and was especially influenced by the writings of Hegel.

Forum: You mentioned ego psychology?

Dr. S: When the Ego psychologist’s came here after WWII and they idealized American life, especially coming out of Nazi Germany and the occupation.  They got taken with American individualism and American freedom, so a lot of their writing is a rewriting of Freud but through an appreciation of what America was.  There work reflects the idea of adapting to America with the individual as the model, the notions of separation, parenting all come to play, and a looking at ego functions, then to ego interests, and it’s really about adapting to American life. For all its limited scope we can appreciate who they were and what they were struggling with.  We can see the difference, for example in British Object Relations where we see the theory developed through context of children separated from their parents and discovering the need for attachment, and how pathology occurs when relationships are broken down.  You see the British and the Americans are looking at things from a different vantage point, although they were looking at the same phenomena. Even Mahler’s work on separations-individuation it really supports the idea of individualism.

Forum: You also mentioned the influence of Self Psychology.

Dr. S: Self psychology has a lot of the concepts of Fairburn and Winnicott, but it deviates, the Kohut speaks of how the relationship is about serving narcissism and how to build a healthy type of narcissism through healthy positive self-object relations and he focused so much on the self object failures on the part of the parents or surrogate  which leads to the patients having pathological reactions, what that misses that the British school understands, is that sometimes the failure on the part of the surrogate can be induced by the patient.  Maybe it is not the therapist’s failure but it is something that is being induced by the patient in order to bring the therapist into a kind of pathological way of relating.   Some pathology occurs through external events but gets internalized.  Destructiveness becomes internalized, plus we have to look at stage of development and the child’s capacity to understand and interpret the environment.  The environment may fail but the child brings his own interpretations of those failures.  Fairburn would point out that children have different frustration tolerance, and that they may interpret more of a sense of rejection, of course children go through rejection, but it is important to note how the child experiences a situation.

Forum:  I want to review your key works, The Bad Object, The Empty Core, Holding and Interpretation, and Containing Rage, I noticed that two of your books emphasize the individual’s internal experience “bad” and “empty”, while the other books speak of the therapists experience “holding” and  “containing”. It is like a dialogue is occurring between your books; did you write them with that in mind?

DR. S: That’s true, there is a different perspective, I try to under to understand the phenomenology of the inner state of the client and try to reflect that back, trying to understand and get into their head and understand their experience.

Forum: I noticed your work is a lot about language, about articulating the inner state of the individual.

Dr. S. Yes, I try to find the words that as close to it as possible.  And, I stand corrected when I am off.  I often play with language back and forth with the client if my language is not quite precise enough.  There is a kind of rhythm that happens with each client in the way we communicate.  Some encounters are really lively, some are more cerebral.

Forum: Are there clients that you cannot find a rhythm?

Dr. S: Yes, it’s kind of common; I often talk about what is happening between us if that occurs.  Or, if there are difficult situational things that are very valid, but the very validity of it may stop them looking at themselves.  So, I try to get them to look at their attitude about the situation and get them to consider maybe they have a part in their situation- there part in way they are feeling about it.   For example, I treated an attorney who was struggling with a severe regression, and he didn’t want to do a thing for himself.  He didn’t take care of himself and he was regressing more and more. After reviewing in detail all the things of his life that were stressing him and making him regress, and after a lot of mirroring, I then said to him that the baby wants to be taken cared of like a little prince and there is a part of him who is like ‘king baby’ and felt really entitled and that people should take care of him just the way he wants and if they don’t they don’t think he is important enough- when I said that, it hit home.  It is not that they don’t care enough but also they you are not important enough to be cared for. But, to say something like that you have to build a lot of trust and connection.  You have to consider the paranoid-schizoid position, that is where everything happens, the client often feels I am just blowing in the wind through all these circumstances, as opposed to the depressive position, where the person feels responsible to make things happen, you have to empathize enough with the paranoid-schizoid position to support the defenses against the regression, so that leads to the person taking responsibility for himself. You have to relate to the person’s developmental level, I do a lot of work with those two positions, which determines whether I respond empathically or more interpretatively.

Forum: Returning to your books, talk more about the writing of The Bad Object.

Dr. S: The Bad Object comes out of my work in the Bronx with very difficult borderline patients with a very negative transference and how to understand their state of mind.  The Bad Object is about the phenomenology of the borderline, about what happens in the transference.  Some of them had no idea what therapy was all about or about what the hell I was doing.  They would reject the process, the therapy would threaten them and they were more comfortable in a sado-masochistic mind set, abuse, abandonment.  It is very difficult for the therapists; I thought about this a lot through the years, especially for the beginning therapist. I remember a case very early on of a woman who I use to see who would idealize me and then went into a stage of real devaluing negative transference. What I discovered when working with her, when she got to the negative transference she would make progress, but it took me awhile to realize that. For a while I was the greatest therapist who ever lived, everything I was saying to her sounded poetic to me and her, but I probably sounded like an idiot, but only when she crashed, by the way I believed that too; where she felt enraged at me, but I hung in with her and after a while I discovered there was great therapeutic value in the fact that I could stay  and let her be enraged and find everything in the world wrong with me, she even said that the only thing she believed in was therapy and I took that way from her because I was such a lousy therapist. She started getting better and better. Years later after significant progress, she said to me ‘You’ve changed, you seemed like you are growing’.  There was this merger between us.

Forum: How about The Empty Core?

Dr. S: I was very interested in apathy, the phenomenology of apathy, working with schizoid clients, I was interested in the schizoid personality, as described by the British Object Relations people.  It was about apathy, and how the transference and countertransference is experienced. I realized that I was becoming sicker when working with them, which is part of the countertransference, because you can get so apathetic with them, because they’re so apathetic. 

Forum: Looking at it, it seems that the first book is about bad objects and the second book is about dead objects.

Dr. S: Yes, that is exactly it.  It takes a long time to differentiate the two, and you often have to see a patient frequently, once a week is difficult to see it. In the empty core experience you often see the clients’ inability to come up with things or associations would be an indication.  The key is to find something alive within them, I am able to listen and engage them to connect to the thing that is alive. It is usually not human relationships, not people, but something they are connected to, and then they get connected through me through the something. I remember sitting with a patient for four years and I was listening to some pretty dead stuff, so I was able to help her deal with her borderline partner, but listening to her was tough, lot of yawning and twitching from boredom. You have to focus on the subtle bit that brings them alive, and by focusing on that it happens more and more, although it is not obvious, very subtle.  For the schizoid you try to bring them more alive in what you think would be of more human interest and that is not what brings them alive, oftentimes we try to force the issue instead of finding out what it really is for them.  With borderlines I get my blood pressure going with schizoids I get more twitchy.

Forum:  The shift in the emphasis in the last two books,( Holding and InterpretationContaining, Rage, Terror and Despair), is the therapists role. The shift from the internal object relations experience of the patient, to the therapist experience. I find these books incredibly insightful and key in understanding the art of contemporary psychotherapy.

Dr. S: Thanks. That’s right about the shift.  These books address a wide range of phenomena, including working with addicts, and with various regressive states and figuring out the developmentally where a patient is in the treatment and the corresponding action of the therapist. 

Forum: Did you train in other disciplines outside of one to one psychotherapy?

Dr. S: I had training in family therapy, and I did group therapy with kids and adults, I worked with a lot of single mothers and their children.  I worked with a lot of disadvantaged people, some long term patients continued with me in my private practice. Also I did work with people in recovery, a lot of different experiences.

Forum: Any new projects?

Dr. S: First on my list, is that I am going to be director of the spirituality program at the NYU School of Social Work. Spirituality in clinical practice which I will be writing on next, II think it is a neglected area in psychotherapy.  In some ways it will be an updating of what Winnicott talked about with the idea of the transitional object and the concept of god, some notions about recovery, some of the Buddhist traditions, I am still working on it. It is not about theology, it will be more pragmatic.

Forum: What do you see ahead for clinical social work?

Dr.S: I see the trend of field in the macro kind of way, with the health insurance concerns, lack of appreciation of long term treatment.  I think there will always be a need for the clinician but things are changing, and we are affected by the things that are going on nationally and internationally.  A lot is unknown especially in the world of psychopharmacology and we are still in the beginning of that.  I believe psychotherapy is here to stay, but I think it is changing but maybe not for the good.  Social work itself is going to remain important and it is the part I am optimistic about.  We do have experience with so many of our population who are considered needing help, the more disenfranchised.  We will play an important role in the future because of our ability to work with many types of people who are struggling with domestic abuse, subject to addiction, medical illness, bereavement, all kinds of people with problems.  That’s why social workers have more credibility than any other mental health profession. 

Dr. Seinfeld’s books include:

A Primer on the Negative Therapeutic Reaction. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson (2003).  

Containing Terror, Rage & Despair: An Object Relations Approach to Psychotherapy (1996).  

Interpreting & Holding: The Paternal and Maternal Functions of the Psychotherapist. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson (1993).   

The Empty Core. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson (1991) .

The Bad Object. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson (1990).