Self-psychology was conceived by Heinz Kohut in Chicago in the 1960s, as a modern psychoanalytic theory with clinical applications. It is still being developed as a contemporary form of psychoanalytic treatment.
A sense of 'self' is the fundamental aspect of our life experience, and integrated with the whole of our life. It not only encompasses who and what 'I am,' at critical stages of our growth, but it is the totality of the inner workings of our true-self. The developmental experience of the human, which lasts our entire lives, consists of certain 'milestones' that need to be arrived at in terms of realising our 'self-potential.' Significant others are an essential aspect of each person's self-development. This begins at the very earliest stages of our existence with the critical relationship with our mother, and with this the influence of our father on both mother and her child. This is further complicated in the modern environment with changes to traditional family structures, and the availability and types of societal support.
Each person has a developmental path associated with their 'self potential' that makes up the totality of their being. Impacting on this, in the specific developmental period i.e. baby to child, child to pre-teen, pre-teen to teen and teen to adult is whether their self potential can be realised when viewed against the impacts of significant others, one's environment, and one's ability to realise potential constrained by the artificial restraints placed on one's self through a global society that itself is going through unpredictable and far-reaching change.
In psychoanalysis grounded in self-psychology, the therapist seeks to understand clients from within their subjective experience by prompting introspection, basing their interpretation on the self as the central organising agency of the human psyche. 'Self' refers both to the integrating function of the self, which creates the experience of a meaningful continuity of the sense of self, and to the degree of the ensuing sense of self-cohesion. Clinical phenomena are understood to represent the effects of experiences, which either foster or disrupt the achievement and maintenance of self-cohesion. Self psychology is a developmental psychology deriving its understanding of psyche from contemporary research into the developing infant.
Self-psychology also maintains the perspective that human psychological functioning is always embedded in social interactions. Social interactions, as they relate to the psychological development and the maintenance of self-cohesion, are referred to as 'self-object experiences'. Transference phenomena in human relationships generally and within the analytic process in particular, are seen in relation to fulfilled and/or unfulfilled wishes and needs for those self-object experiences, which foster growth. Since 1959 Kohut and followers have transformed the practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy by deepening the therapist's empathic attunement to the client and describing fundamental human needs for healthy development, particularly idealising, mirroring, and twinship (or "alterego") needs.
Kohut's work has developed into the study of experiences (usually with other people) that nourish the self and which define the experience of the self and self-esteem. Healthy narcissism is the appearance of a strong, vital, cohesive self striving with ambition and ideals toward the full realisation of a person's skills and talents. Pathological Narcissism is the appearance of a weak, vulnerable self attempting to maintain self-cohesion and bolster self-esteem. Freud's method of free association within the empathic ambiance of the consulting room can eventually develop into the analyses of self-object transferences. Disruptions in this ambiance are analysed as empathic failures of the analyst and should result in a restoration of the empathic ambiance in order for the analysis to proceed. Repetitions of this disruption-restoration process allow a person's sense of self to change and develop in fundamental ways and define the psychoanalytic process.
Intersubjective systems theory is a major contemporary school growing from self-psychology. It is a two-person theory of psychology consistent with both modern systems theory and self-psychology with significant contributions from Stolorow and Attwood.
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