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Kohut’s Self Psychology

Self Psychology: The Newest Development in Classical Psychoanalysisheinz-kohut

Self psychology: theory that the self is the center of psychological motivation, organization, and change in personality

  • Assumes that psychological damage to the self produces psychopathology

Self Psychology as Object-Relations Theory

Objects-relations theory: the course of human development depends on the quality of the relationships established between individuals, particularly between parents and their children

  • Object relations: mental representations of real external people that exist within the individual or self
  • Self-objects: representations of psychologically important people who can help us cope with and resolve problems

Pre-Oedipal Development of the Nuclear Self

  • Nuclear self: foundation of personality, established through a learning process initiated by empathic parents, in which individuals modify their unrealistic beliefs about themselves and their caretakers
  • Primary narcissism: initial state of well-being and satisfaction in which all of the infant’s needs are gratified and the infant feels an oceanic perfection and bliss
  • Grandiose self: primitive view of oneself as great
  • Mirroring: process whereby a person sees himself or herself in the face of the other (usually the mother)
    • Child can internalize others’ approval and admiration
    • Facilitated by empathy: ability to assume the perspective of another person; to know and understand his or her experiences
  • Optimal frustrations: ideal, nontraumatic, frustration of a person’s needs (by parents) that fosters new learning and personal growth
  • Transmuting internalizations: process whereby individuals learn more realistic and effective ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving as a consequence of interactions with empathic parents
  • Idealized parental imago: children’s initial view of their parents as perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful
  • Need to idealize: need to seek security by identifying with all-powerful figures, usually parents
  • Cohesive self: personality that is organized and healthy, and functions effectively, because its narcissistic energies are primarily invested in the pursuit of realistic goals

Disturbances to the Self

Borderline states: disorders of the self in which damage to the self is permanent or protracted; in contrast to the psychoses, the central defect is better covered by major defenses

  • Schizoid personality disorders: defective self structures are protected against further damage by aloofness and superficial involvement in relationships
  • Paranoid personality disorders: deficiencies in self structures are shielded against further damage by using hostility and suspicion to keep potentially injurious objects at a safe distance
  • Psychosis: severe disturbance of the self in which defenses do not cover major defects in the self

Narcissistic personality disorderspsych narcissist

  • Understimulated self: individuals feel empty, bored, and depressed because their parents have failed to respond empathically to their mirroring and idealizing needs
  • Fragmenting self: person feels uncoordinated, in some cases, the person may feel tired, mentally slow, and awkward following threatening experiences
  • Overstimulated self: individuals exposed to excessive stimulation in childhood, because their fantasies of greatness were continually reinforced by unempathic caregivers
  • Overburdened self: person has not had an opportunity to merge with the calmness of an omnipotent self-object, usually a parent
    • Result is lack of the self-soothing capacity that could have been learned through such contact
  • Mirror-hungry personalities: individuals who crave self-objects whose confirming and admiring responses will increase their feelings of self-worth
  • Ideal-hungry personalities: individuals who experience themselves as worthwhile as long as they can relate to people they can admire
  • Alter-ego personalities: individuals who feel worthwhile only if they have a relationship with a self-object who looks and dresses like them and has  similar opinions and values
  • Merger-hungry personalities: individuals who experience others as their own self
  • Contact-shunning personalities: intense longing to merge with self-objects; such individuals are highly sensitive to rejection, to avoid this pain, they avoid social contact

The Role of Narcissism in the Development of the Self

  • Unhealthy narcissism: unrealistic feelings of grandeur, exhibitionism, poor impulse control, and impoverished relationships with their parents
  • Healthy narcissism: person sheds excessive parental dependencies, starts to exercise autonomy, develops skills, and becomes a creative, empathic, and achievement-oriented person within a context of enduring interpersonal commitments
  • Autonomous self: self of an individual who has achieved optimal mental health and a freedom from inhibitions that interfere with his or her ability to act productively

Assessment Techniques

  • Dream analysis
  • Free association
  • Empathy as the primary data collection toll
  • Transference
    • Counter-transference: therapist tends to react to the patient on the basis of his or her own narcissistic needs and conflicts
    • Mirror transference: a person who had not been adequately mirrored, that is, confirmed and given approval by his mother, relives these experiences with the therapist
    • Idealizing transference: a patient see the therapist as an admirable and powerful figure to fulfill their unmet childhood needs of  comforting, protective parents
    • Alter-ego transference: a patient seeks for the therapist to fulfill their unmet childhood needs of comfort and acceptance from their own parents

Theory’s Implications for Therapy

  • Goal of therapy is to redirect narcissistic energies from the unrealistic self structures to the nuclear self and its ego
  • Patients who have undergone therapy will not undergo miraculous changes
    • Instead, when therapy is successful, individuals will show considerable improvement in various areas of their lives
  • On the whole, good analysis means that patients are able to experience the joy of existence more keenly and consider their life more worthwhile

Evaluative Comments

  • Comprehensiveness: broad scope
  • Precision and testability: not very precise and very difficult to test adequately
  • Parsimony: too reductionistic
  • Empirical validity: so far, not much empirical support for much of the theory, with the exception of theorizing about unhealthy narcissism
  • Heuristic value: highly heuristic, at least in stimulating professionals in psychoanalysis to reconsider many of the concepts they hitherto had adopted uncritically
  • Applied value: has high-applied value in generating profitable research on narcissism

Bernstein, D.A. & Nash, P.W. (2008). Essentials of psychology (4th ed.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Feldman, R. (2013). Essentials of understanding psychology (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Friedman, H.S. & Schustack, M.W. (2012), Personality: classic theories and modern research (5th ed). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Ryckman, R. M. (2013). Theories of personality (10th ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

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