IPA Inter-Regional Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

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V.B. Self-Psychology Perspectives

Heinz Kohut Self-Psychology was developed over time by Heinz Kohut (1971,1977,1984), who had become increasingly dissatisfied with the Freudian drive-defense model’s capacity to understand his own clinical experiences with patients of wide spectrum of personality disturbances. While classical psychoanalysis focused on psychopathology as the result of the patient’s defensive reactions to unconscious impulses and desires, Kohut observed that interpreting these unconscious conflicts was largely ineffective in reaching his patients ‘where they really lived (and suffered)’ (Kohut, 1971, 1977). His patients didn’t seem to fit the model of being dominated by guilt generated by unconscious impulses but seemed to lack a sense of self that was resilient and vigorous. Instead of what he termed the Freudian “guilty man”, Kohut was encountering ‘tragic man’ (1977) who suffered from a sense of emptiness and despair. Kohut began to look at what needs to happen developmentally between children and parents in order to develop an adequate sense of self. In Kohut’s self-psychology the self is not present at birth but emerges beginning in infancy through relationship with a caregiver (Galatzer-Levy and Cohler, 1990). Kohut came to view the self as a functional unit, determined by experience rather than by internal drives. Consonant with his ideas about self-development he presented a reevaluation of the concept of narcissism, viewing it as neither pathological nor undesirable, but as part of the human experience (Kohut, 1966). He thus came to view narcissism as a normal developmental phenomenon, which can provide a sense of identity, value, meaning and permanence. Transformations of narcissism according to Kohut “… are man’s creativity, his ability to be empathic, his capacity to contemplate his own impermanence, his sense of humor and his wisdom” (Kohut, 1966, p. 257). The narcissistic line of development is active from the beginning of life and is a precondition for adequate personality functioning. The integration of narcissism into the healthy personality represented a radical departure from a psychoanalytic worldview that saw narcissism in pejorative terms (Siegel, 1999). The heart of self-psychology is the self, the core of the personality, which is conceptualized as a mental system that organizes a person’s subjective experience in relation to a set of developmental needs (Wolf, 1988). It includes the skills, talents, deficits, and temperament with which a person is endowed at birth. The self is the essence of a person’s psychological being and consists of sensations, feelings, thoughts and attitudes toward oneself and the world (Banai, Mikulincer, and Shaver, 2005). A person’s sense of self develops and is sustained through his/her self-object experiences (Kohut, 1984). The concept of a self-object was introduced by Kohut to describe an aspect of a function in the relationship between self and others. From birth on, Kohut contends, we are intimately connected to others and need to feel that they are reliably available to provide the emotional nutrients necessary for optimal development (Wolf, 1988). What we


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