Self Psychology Psychoanalysis

What Is Self Psychology? - An Introduction

A theory introduced by Heinz Kohut in the early 70's with the publication of his now famous monograph, The Analysis of the Self (1971), self psychology has burgeoned into the most significant analytic theory since Freud first introduced psychoanalysis to the scientific world in the early 20th century.

Having been trained in the theories of American ego psychology, Kohut established a reputation as a staunchly conservative Freudian analyst, winning him in 1964 the presidency of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Yet it was his integrity, not his politics, and his deep concern for the many stalemated or premature terminations among his patient population, that eventually prompted him to question the very theories upon which he had staked his scientific surety and built his reputation.

When asked by a fellow scientist what had caused him to alter his thinking, he readily admitted that he "had more and more the feeling that my explanations [to patients] became forced and that my patients's complaints that I did not understand them...were justified" (Kohut, 1974, pp.888-889).

Setting aside his classical theory, Kohut took the lead from his patients in discovering his theory of the self. In particular, it was the case of Ms. F., a woman in her mid-20's, who insisted that he be perfectly attuned to her every word.

This taught Kohut (1968, 1971) about empathy as experience-near observation, the clinical stance from which he would make his major discoveries.

For example, whenever Kohut strayed from Ms. F.'s experience by offering an intervention that reflected even a slight revision to what she had arrived at on her own, she became enraged that he was ruining what she had accomplished and "wrecking" her analysis.

By relinquishing his clinical assumption that her anger was an expression of her resistance to the analysis, which he recognized was impeding his ability to grasp the fullness of Ms. F.'s experience, Kohut learned to see and understand things exclusively from her viewpoint.

He termed this mode of observation, experience-near.

Thus, in these moments when he captured her feeling of being misunderstood and offered a response that more or less reflected what she was thinking and feeling, he observed that her previous sense of well-being was quicklyquickly restored.

In time Kohut hypothesized that this sequence of disruption and reparation of the empathic connectedness between analyst and analysand is an inevitability in any effective treatment; at the same time, he suggested that if these disruptions of empathy are kept to an "optimal" (vs. "traumatic") level, they are not harmful but, in fact, are an essential ingredient in the development of psychic structure and analytic cure.
These initial observations from an experience-near empathic perspective led to Kohut's understanding of Ms. F.'s need for recognition, a need he viewed as a "developmental arrest" due to empathic failures of childhood and that he later theorized to be a mirror selfobject transference.

Thus, it is this experience-near mode of observation that Kohut viewed as empathy.