Self Psychology

Self-psychology is a psychoanalytic orientation developed by the psychiatrist Heinz Kohut at the beginning of the ’60s that brings a breath of fresh air to the often inflexible and much too anchored in theories field of psychoanalysis.

Short overview:

According to Kohut, people’s problems appear when essential needs that individuals have during childhood are not being fulfilled, needs that are related to their self and not to innate sexual drives. With having such an idea, Kohut proposes a psychoanalytical system that places the patient at the core of the healing process, orienting it according to his/her needs as opposed to theories that must be applied at any cost. Self-psychology is very popular today as it continues to emphasize empathy in the therapeutic relationship as well as exploring and crediting the subjective self of those that partake in the therapeutic process.

Main concepts:

  • Self: Unlike Freud who spoke of psychic instances of the individual in terms of id, ego, and superego, Kohut proposes a new perspective over the personality of individuals. According to him, people develop 4 instances of the self or, simplified, 4 types of self: the nuclear, virtual, cohesive, and grandiose selves. They develop since the youngest of ages, interaction with others being an element that helps in shaping these selves.
  • Empathy: Being a psychoanalyst himself, Kohut saw the source of all the problems of individuals in defective childhood experiences. Most often, a lack of empathy from the part of the parents prevents the child from developing the 4 types of self and in this way accounts as the cause of pathologies that may plague adult life (Nersessian & Kopff, 1996). In therapy, individuals seek to obtain the psychoanalyst’s empathy, which helps them understand and overcome their childhood conflicts because the therapist is not only meant for a clinical approach of exploring an infantile past bombarded with sexual fantasies.
  • Selfobject: Exterior objects that children do not perceive as different from them. Examples can go from parents that are in the care of the child up to a certain toy belonging to the child or even to a specific part of the maternal body (the breast, for example). These self-objects have the purpose of assuring the child’s continuity and security, which are absolutely necessary in order for him/her to know the world and interact with it from early ages (Kohut, 2009).
  • Optimal frustration: According to Kohut, in order to develop, individuals need to have an optimal frustration level (one that is too great could become traumatic, a too-small one may not be perceived as an obstacle). The relationship with the mother has to offer optimal frustration doses from very early ages precisely for the reason to help the individual build a solid basis of the self.


Just like classical psychoanalysis, self psychotherapy continues to be in very high demand in our day. Unlike the classical psychoanalytical approaches, therapists trained in self-psychology prefer to rather “empathize” than “analyze”. A great deal of emphasis is placed on sustaining and analyzing the client from his/her point of view, which is also subjective. The therapist tries to understand how they experiment with the problems they are facing, as opposed to giving verdicts only by looking for answers in their past. If you would like to go the more traditional route, you can book an appointment at Estadt Psychological Services today.

Even though childhood remains the source of problems that lead the patient into therapy, it is interpreted in a flexible and personal manner. The applications for Kohut’s theories are useful both in resolving individual problems as well as those of couples. For the latter case, the accent falls on the way in which different instances of somebody’s self have developed and on the way in which the interaction between the selves of individuals that form a couple leads to the apparition of various problems. In the same time, the application of Kohut’s theories can be made on a cultural level, interpreting a number of works of art (books, films) as well as the relations cultivated between notorious historical figures, such as the relation between Jung and Freud (Homans, 1979).


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