What Is Self Psychology?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Amanda L. Wardle
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2019
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Self psychology was developed by Heinz Kohut (1913-1981) in the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis. It is a school of psychoanalytical thought that believes mental illness is the result of stunted developmental needs. Narcissism, the loving of self, was the primary driving factor in Kohut’s theories. Central to his belief in self psychology was the importance of the individual over analytical frameworks and theories. In 1971, Kohut released his seminal work, The Analysis of the Self, which questioned many prevalent theories of the time.

Self psychology recognizes both elements of the self and some parts of psychodynamic theory introduced by Sigmund Freud. The psychodynamic theory outlines drives, conflicts, and complexes. Not all elements of this theory were included in Kohut's framework, however.

Kohut divided the self into four key components: the cohesive, grandiose, nuclear, and virtual selves. Each individual is born with a nuclear self, while the virtual self is the image of the baby in its parents’ minds. The combination of the nuclear and the virtual leads to the cohesive self. The grandiose self comes out of the infant’s narrative point of view as being the center of all experience.


The first element of self psychology is empathy. Kohut believed the root cause of mental illness was the failure of parents to empathize with their children. Being in tune with the child’s needs means the parents can help the child move from the grandiose self to the cohesive self. Kohut theorized that empathy can create a relationship between the patient and the analyst, leading to some repair of the patient’s self.

Self-object is the process by which individuals extend images of the self onto objects and activities. These range from sports to jewelry. The individuals do not feel complete without their chosen activity or object. Self-psychology projects the idea that a child’s self-object habits go on to affect their choices in work, study, and life partners. When this object is unavailable, it creates what Kohut calls optimal frustration, which is a kind of trauma.

Early narcissistic tendencies manifest through idealizing. This element of the self sees individuals trying to connect their self-object with someone they idealize. By connecting with the idealized person, the individual draws upon that person’s power, wisdom, and goodness.

A key element of the self, according to Kohut, is the alter ego. Where the ego is the internal development of the self, the alter ego is a desire to be like others. The alter ego in self-psychology sees the individual adapt the image of themselves to fit others. This also leads to twinship, in which the pain or feelings of another are felt by the alter ego.

The final element of self psychology is the tripolar self. This is separate from bipolar disorders and revolves around the three internal poles: grandiose and exhibitionistic needs, alter-ego needs, and the need for an omnipotent figure. These poles develop from an individual’s interactions with significant other persons in their life.


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