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What is a Self Psychology

Self psychology is a modern psychoanalytic theory which was conceived by Heinz Kohut in Chicago in the '60'a, ;70s and '80's and is still developing as a contemporary form of psychoanalytic treatment.

Kohut served as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association and was a pioneer in developing psychoanalysis in the United states. At one point he earned the nickname "Mr. Psychoanalysis."

The core concept of Self Psychology is that we make every effort to understand our patients from within their own subjective experience. In some way, it can be said that we "empathize" rather than externally "analyze." In other words, we help patients deepen, as much as possible, their own understanding of their emotions and interpersonal situations and, if they are in relationships, help them try to understand how their own way of seeing or understanding things may interact with their friend or partner's way of seeing things.

Self psychology maintains the concept that people do not live in vacuums and that every human's welfare is embedded in social interaction. One can expect an analyst who is a self psychologist then, to refrain from making judgments but to have stance of constant inquiry about how the patient views his or her interpersonal surround and to be interested in how that surround affects the patients emotional state.

If a self psychologist is seeing a couple, the exploration again will be focused on how each partner experiences the other and what the interaction is of each of the two subjectivities. (This is a more modern branch of self psychology called Intersubjectivity Theory which I also practice).

Unlike Freudian theories, self psychology is a two person theory which is interested in, and validates that, one person does have an effect upon the other. In other words, if the patient has a reaction to the therapist, in this form of treatment, it will be taken seriously and not automatically assumed to be driven by some past relationship with a parent (transference).

Every effort will be made to carefully attend to the patient's reactions, and if necessary to be flexible and accommodate to the style of work that facilitates what a particular patient needs. Unlike the Freudian approach, the self psychological approach does not legislate almost all silence, total neutrality or total abstinence. Within the Self psychology model each patient/ therapist dyad is formed according to the established need of a particular patient, obviously within the bounds of clinical work and ethics. For this reason, the analyst is open to, interested in, and welcoming to feedback about what is helpful.

Some patients like me to talk and be responsive. Others like me to be totally quiet. Some like to know something about me. And some prefer to know nothing personal at all.

One of the most key differences between Self Psychology and most other analytic theories is in the way we see anger and rage, especially angry acting out. Freudian analysts see anger and sex as manifestations of biological drives or instincts, both located in any single person, and which must be tamed and civilized by the ego. Self psychologists see rage reactions as the result of injuries, usually by another person onto a vulnerable self. We go on to say that all of us have vulnerable selves from time to time. Some of us are just more vulnerable more often depending on the nature of our childhood developmental experiences.

While the goal of a successful treatment for Freudian is to tame the sexual and aggressive drives, the goal of a Self Psychology treatment is to strengthen a vulnerable self. Hopefully, when one has been in a self psychological treatment one will be able to be more resilient, to bounce back from injuries or set backs more quickly than before. And, more simply put, one will feel happier, feel more vital, and as Kohut called it, have "a warm glow of joy".

A person in a self psychological treatment learns to monitor his or her life in terms of looking for experiences that foster a sense of self cohesion and self esteem and, when faced with things that disrupt a sense of well being, to have the ability to self soothe and self-right. One will also have a sense of the legitimacy of various needs, which gives a sense of strength. And with a sense of strength one can pursue choices one may not have ventured into before. In addition to choices, someone who has had a self psychological treatment learns a vocabulary with which to train others to "meet" his or her needs, because the world of human needs is not all that mysterious (if they are not pathologized as some other analytic theories tend to do), so he or she is no longer left passive to the happenstance of someone important in their life getting it right.

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