Michael M. Maka, MA
Self-Psychology is a theoretical model that is rooted within the psychoanalytic school of thought. Heinz Kohut, the creator of Self-Psychology, initially began his psychoanalytic career as a Freudian psychoanalyst, however, his theoretical orientation soon changed after applying his own tenets and hypotheses to patient care. Even though Kohut’s model is viewed as being heavily Neo-Freudian, there are various tenets within Self-Psychology that align quite close with Individual Psychology. Thus, as a means for justifying the aforementioned statement, this entry will provide a brief overview of Self-Psychology in order to bolster the apparent similarities between Adler and Kohut’s proposed theories for understanding the human condition.
In many ways, Kohut followed an all too similar path to that of Freud, in the sense of working towards becoming a neurologist who then turned to psychiatry, which could have been the result of the immense amount of respect that he held for Freud’s work, coupled with undergoing his own analyses. Over time Kohut was able to gain an immense amount of respect from the psychoanalytic community by becoming a training analyst at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and President of Division 39 for the American Psychological Association, which went alongside cultivating his own hypotheses that now reside within Self-Psychology.
In short, Self-Psychology places a strong emphasis on self-object needs being met. Kohut indicated that self-object needs are vital intrapsychic events and experiences that originate in one’s earliest years of life and persist throughout the lifespan, such as: the need to idealize, be affirmed, valued and validated, and experience affinity with another individual. Through such needs being met, Kohut hypothesized an individual would be capable of cultivating a healthy sense of self. Based upon the precepts that Kohut suggested, change within the patient emerges through the remobilizing of experiences that ought to have been met by the earliest of caretakers, together with providing valid interpretations. It also becomes paramount for the clinician to employ empathy in order to understand the patient and his/her ailing as a means for ameliorating symptoms in a more efficacious manner.
With regards to the areas where Self-Psychology and Individual Psychology come together, one can claim it to be around empathy, holism, the self, and the influence that one’s earliest years of life have on personality configuration. On the subject matter of empathy, both Kohut and Alder viewed this as being a simple demand within therapy as a way to provide the clinician with orientation to clinical observations, which includes the patient’s symptoms, experiences, manner of life, and development. With regards to holism, which is the idea of viewing individuals in their totality, Adler and Kohut may have come to an agreement on this subject matter. To be specific, both clinicians had negative views of the deductive nature that psychoanalysis originally had on conceptualizing and treating patients; therefore, the movement away from such a method for understanding people could be the predominant reason for why a great deal of psychoanalytic clinicians today began to align themselves more-so with Kohut’s beliefs, which hold a great deal of original concepts that are rooted in Adlerian theory.
An additional point of convergence for Self-Psychology is on its stance of the self. Even though Kohut contemplated the importance of the self, he stated that the self is not a definable idea because it is at the epicenter of all human experience. Based upon this understanding that Kohut had of the self, there are a several parallels between his views and that of what Adler and his followers conceived. For example, Adlerians discuss the self-concept and the self-ideal as being influential factors for how one understands who they are as a person, which influences the manner in which they create and receive their reality. In many ways, the aforementioned ideas about who one is as an individual resides within Kohut’s understanding of the self, specifically on how one’s sense of self becomes skewed, thus, leading to a faulty personality configuration being established. Lastly, the biggest possible point of agreement between Kohut and Adler’s theory is around the subject matter of early life experiences influencing personality configurations and/or one’s style of life. In Individual Psychology, it is said that the development of an innate potentiality for cooperation initially occurs in the relationship with the child and his/her caretakers. It is arguable that Kohut would agree with the aforementioned statement, due to his belief of individual’s finding their sense of self through the eyes of another. Therefore, such agreement nurtures the idea that these two theories agree upon the importance of early interactions creating a blueprint for how one comes to understand who they are as an individual and where their place is amongst others.
As it can clearly be seen, Kohut and Adler’s theoretical tenets align with one-another across several domains; thus, when individuals claim Self-Psychology to be Neo-Freudian one can also make a coherent argument that Kohut’s model is just as much Neo-Adlerian. The following are essential writings in Self-Psychology.
Kohut, H. (2009). The analysis of the self. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Kohut, H. (2009). The restoration of the self. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Kohut, H., Goldberg, A. & Stepansky, P. E. (2012). How does analysis cure? Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Lessem, P. A. (2005). Self psychology: An introduction. Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Siegel, A. M. (1996). Heinz kohut and the psychology of the self. London, UK: Routledge.
Wolf, E. S. (2002). Treating the self: Elements of clinical self psychology. New York, NY: Guilford Press.