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Isabel Menzies Lyth

Isabel Menzies Lyth (1917–2008) was a British psychoanalyst in the Kleinian tradition, best known for her work on unconscious mechanisms in institutional settings.



Born and raised in Scotland, Isabel Menzies took a double first in economics and experimental psychology at St Andrews in 1939, and became a lecturer there from 1939-45.[1] During the war she became involved with the group around W. R. Bion studying social dynamics in officer training at the War Office Selection Boards and in the relationships of prisoners of war at Civil Resettlement Units. Menzies then moved to London to join them at the Tavistock Institute;[2] qualified as a psychoanalyst in 1954; and underwent a second training analysis with Bion himself.

In 1975, she married the analyst Oliver Lyth, with whom she worked on anxiety in institutions at Oxford.[3]

Theoretical contributionsEdit

Building on the work on social fantasy systems of Elliott Jaques,[4] Menzies produced in 1959 a classic study of hospital systems as defences against the anxieties raised by caring for people in life and death situations.[5] By establishing a rigid hierarchy, fixed psychological roles and a routinisation of work, the hospital was able to diffuse responsibility and anxiety from the individual nurse to the system as a whole. That benefit came, however, at a cost:[6] the use of the primitive defences of splitting, denial and projection prevented more mature forms of coping with anxiety to emerge, and thus stifled individual growth.[7]

Menzies (Lyth) continued to explore the role of institutions in containing anxiety throughout her life, but conceded that, despite her wide theoretical acclaim, in practice institutional structures remained in large part impervious to psychoanalytic modification.[8]

Selected writingsEdit

  • ____'The Functioning of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety' Human Relations 13 (1959) 95-121
  • ____Containing Anxiety in Institutions (1988)
  • ____'The Functioning of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety' Human Relations 13 (1959) 95-121
  • ____'The Dynamics of the Social: Selected Essays' (1989)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ C. Goldman, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2005-008 (2013) p. 710
  2. ^ D. Armstrong, Social Defences Against Anxiety (2014) p. 147-9
  3. ^ Isabel Menzies Lyth
  4. ^ R. D. Laing, Self and Others (1969) p. 38
  5. ^ R. Skinner/J. Cleese, Life and how to survive it (1993) p. 117-8
  6. ^ J. Shaw, Gender and Anxiety (2003) p. 35-6
  7. ^ A. Aiyeqbusi, Therapeutic Relationships with Offenders (2008) p. 56
  8. ^ Jane Ellwood ed., Psychosis (1995) p. 47-8

External linksEdit