The central approaches of psychoanalytic self psychology were formulated by Heinz Kohut in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. His later focus on the self is already apparent in his work on narcissism, which he does not see as a mere precursor of object love but as having its own significant developmental line. The foundational works of self psychology include Kohut’s The Analysis of the Self. A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The Restoration of the Self and How Does Analysis Cure?
Kohut borrows the concept of the self from the ego psychologist Heinz Hartmann but gradually develops it further. In contrast to drive theory, self psychology does not see psychological suffering as being centrally rooted in drive conflicts but primarily in a weak or deficiently developed self, which is caused, among other things, by a lack of empathy and receptiveness in childhood caregivers. Kohut understands the Oedipus complex as a secondary phenomenon and interprets it as an attempt to compensate for a deficient relationship between the child and their first important caregivers. The treatment method of self psychology therefore aims at creating a coherent self or healing a damaged self and not—as in drive theory—at working through infantile conflicts.
Since psychic suffering is seen as a lack of self-development, empathy plays a central role in the treatment concept of self psychology. With its focus on the analytical relationship and on intersubjectivity, self psychology contributes significantly to the development of the intersubjective and relational approach in psychoanalysis.
Heinz Kohut (1913, Vienna - 1981, Chicago)
Kohut is an important post-Freudian psychoanalyst and the founder of the first psychoanalytic school to be originally developed in the USA. In 1937 the medical student began an analysis with August Aichhorn in Vienna. The National Socialists’ rise to power in Austria forced Kohut, who came from a Jewish family, to flee to the USA. Kohut was president of the American Psychoanalytic Association (APA) and vice president of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPV) in the 1960s. By identifying the self as an important psychological structure, Kohut distanced himself from the drive-theoretical approach to conflicts, which provoked massive criticism, especially from European psychoanalysts. Nevertheless, self psychology went on to become an influential movement that impacted on many psychoanalytic views beyond the narrow limits of different ‘schools.’ For example, Kohut’s term “self-object” - a mature self-object is created by empathic and affectionate reference persons - is now part of the canon of psychoanalytic terminology.
Picture: Heinz Kohut in the 1970s, courtesy Thomas Kohut
Chris Jaenicke: Self Psychology
Chris Jaenicke, Dipl. Psych., is a psychoanalyst, teaching analyst, clinical supervisor and lecturer at the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie, Berlin e.V. Jaenicke has published on intersubjectivity and self-psychology and is co-editor of the journal Selbstpsychologie. Europäische Zeitschrift für Psychoanalytische Therapie und Forschung. He is the author of several books, such as Change in Psychoanalysis: An Analyst’s Reflections on the Therapeutic Relationship (2010), and The Search for a Relational Home: An intersubjective view of therapeutic action (2014).
Object Relations Theories
Object relations theories are heterogeneous approaches, mainly based on the theories of Melanie Klein, William Fairbairn, and Donald Winnicott. They focus on the infant’s interactional relationship with another person (object) that exists from the very beginning. These pre-Oedipal object relations are regarded as central to the infant’s further psychological development. If they are not successful, they contribute to the development of severe mental illness.
In her central text “Some Theoretical Conclusions Regarding the Emotional Life of the Infant”, Melanie Klein describes the first months of the infant’s life as a time shaped by existential fears. In order to cope with these, the infant makes use of certain defense mechanisms such as the splitting of the self and of objects into good and bad parts (“good” and “bad breast”) and the outward projection of negative parts. Through a good relationship with the primary caregivers (mother), the child learns to cope better with fears and frustrations, to give up the splitting mechanisms, and to deal with ambivalences internally and externally.
An important advancement of the Kleinian object relations theory comes from Wilfred Bion. He describes the function of the mother as a “container”: she “holds” the infant’s unbearable mental states and helps the infant to cope with these tensions and anxieties, which enables their integration into the infantile ego.
Object relations theories have made a significant contribution to the understanding and treatment of paranoid and schizoid conditions in particular. The theory’s intensive engagement with the stages of early object relations is also reflected in its treatment approach: in analyzing the transference relationship between analyst and analysand, it is possible to work on object relations in the here and now.
Melanie Klein (1882, Vienna - 1960, London)
Klein is not only a central founding figure of psychoanalytic object relations theories, which constitute an invaluable enrichment to psychoanalysis today, but she is also one of the pioneers of child analysis. Encouraged by her first training analyst Sándor Ferenczi, Melanie Klein begins to analyze her own children and develops psychoanalytic play therapy as an equivalent to free association in adult analysis. On the invitation of Ernest Jones, Klein moves to London in 1926. Her approaches—which above all assign a central role in psychic development to the early, pre-Oedipal mother-child relationship—bring Klein into conflict with Sigmund Freud’s theories. What’s more, her methods of child analysis are at odds with those of Anna Freud. These differences about the ‘correct’ approach to psychoanalysis culminate in the so-called Controversial Discussions being held in the British Psychoanalytical Society between 1942 and 1944, which finally lead to the establishment of three separate training courses: a Kleinian, a Freudian, and an independent “Middle Group.”
Picture: Melanie Klein, 1957, Courtesy Melanie Klein Trust and Wellcome Collection
Kirkland Vaughans: Object Relations Theories
Kirkland C. Vaughans, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst in New York City. He is senior adjunct professor of psychology at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies (Adelphi University), Director of the Derner Postgraduate Program in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, Director of the Derner Hempstead Child Clinic and Adjunct Clinical Professor at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Furthrmore, Vaughans is the founding editor of the Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy and co-editor of The Psychology of Black Boys and Adolescents (2014).
Relational psychoanalysis is a relatively young psychoanalytic approach which, although it has its own characteristic concepts, cannot be understood as a distinct school. Its approach is integrative and plural. It takes up concepts from other psychoanalytic schools, as well as contemporary feminist, queer, and postmodern discourses.
Jay Greenberg and Stephen Mitchell coined the term “relational” in their work “Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory”, published in 1983. Here they formulate their intention to combine interpersonal psychoanalysis, which goes back to Erich Fromm, Clara Thompson, and Harry Stack Sullivan, with object relations theory. The aim is to counteract to the limitations of individual psychoanalytic approaches—such as the tendency to disregard inner psychological conflicts in the interpersonal approach, the underestimation of social relationships in drive theory, or the inadequate consideration of sexuality in object relations theory—with a complementary perspective. The Freudian perception of the drive is rejected by relational psychoanalysis as monadic; instead, the concept of the “relational matrix” as the primary structure of relationships becomes the focal point. The unconscious is not perceived as consisting of repressed drive representatives; rather, it is constituted of non-integrated fragments that have their origin in relationship experiences.
Relational psychoanalysis is not about one-sided interpretations or the mere disclosure of repressed content but about understanding the dynamically developing intersubjective relationship, which also becomes apparent between analyst and analysand.
Stephen A. Mitchell (1946 - 2002, New York City)
The foundation and further elaboration of the relational approach in psychoanalysis is mainly associated with the name Stephen A. Mitchell. Coming from a political, secular Jewish family, Mitchell first studied cultural studies and philosophy before receiving his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1972. He completed his psychoanalytic training at the William Alanson White Institute in New York, which was founded by Erich Fromm, Clara Thompson, and Harry Stack Sullivan in 1946. Opposing every form of orthodoxy and normativity within psychoanalysis, Mitchell argued throughout his life for a variety of theoretical and practical approaches. His attempt to place the relationship matrix at the center of psychoanalysis also led to a critical revision of the analyst’s position in particular: the analyst is no longer an external, judgmental, interpretative observer, but always also a co-constituent of the psychoanalytic setting.
Picture: Stephen A. Mitchell, Courtesy Margaret Black-Mitchell
Avgi Saketopoulou: Relational Psychoanalysis
Avgi Saketopoulou, Dr., is a psychoanalyst in New York City. She trained, and now teaches, at NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and several other analytic institutes. She serves on the editorial boards of The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, and Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and writes about gender, psychosexuality, race and consent. Recent publications: Holding futurity in mind: therapeutic action in the relational treatment of a transgender girl (2018) and The Draw to Overwhelm: Consent, Risk and the Retranslation of Enigma (2019).
Structural psychoanalysis is closely associated with the name of the French analyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, whose 1953 lecture “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” can be considered the founding work of this analytical school. Starting from a critique of the disregard for the unconscious and for conflicts in the psychoanalytic approaches of his time, Lacan calls for a “return to Freud.” From the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lacan adopts the idea that the unconscious is structured like a language. In structural psychoanalysis, language does not merely have the status of a secondary system of communication; as a symbolic system that precedes the individual, language essentially structures human subjectivity and thus also the unconscious. Lacan regards the unconscious not as a hidden reservoir of repressed drives but as the effects of language that split and alienate the subject.
The concept of the subject’s constitutive lack is central to structural psychoanalysis. In an attempt to overcome this lack, the subject must turn to language as a symbolic system—Lacan also speaks of the “law of the father” or of the “phallus.” This developmental step described by Lacan can be interpreted as a structural version of the Oedipus complex. Structural psychoanalysis approaches the unconscious via an analysis of literal speech. The aim of psychoanalysis according to structural perceptions is not the remembrance of repressed experiences, nor the “abreaction” of affects or the strengthening of the ego, but the “articulation of the truth” of one’s own “desire."
Jacques Lacan (1901 - 1981, Paris)
Lacan is considered one of the most important psychoanalysts in France, an important intellectual of the 20th century, but also an ‘enfant terrible’ of his guild. The trained psychiatrist not only contributed significantly to the dissemination of psychoanalysis in France but also founded his own school with his reinterpretation of Freud’s work from a philosophical and linguistic perspective.
As early as 1936 Lacan made an important contribution to understanding the emergence of the ego in its radical dependence on others with his lecture on the “mirror stage” at the congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association. His criticism of certain manifestations of psychoanalysis, especially of ego psychology, contributed to the rift with his training analyst Rudolf Loewenstein in 1938. His unorthodox theory and practice—Lacan worked with “scansion,” ending an analytical session not on the formal criterion of time, but on the basis of its content—led to Lacan’s exclusion from the Société Française de Psychanalyse (SPF) in 1963 and to the founding of his own psychoanalytic association, the École freudienne de Paris, in 1964.
Picture: Jacques Lacan
Eve Watson: Structural Psychoanalysis
Eve Watson, Ph.D., is a psychoanalytic practitioner in Dublin (Ireland) and lectures on psychoanalysis on undergraduate and postgraduate level. She has published over two dozen articles on psychoanalysis, sexuality and film and co-edited the book Clinical Encounters in Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Practice and Queer Theory (2017) with Noreen Giffney. Moreover, Watson is the editor of Lacunae, the International Journal for Lacanian Psychoanalysis, and academic director of the Freud Lacan Institute in Dublin.
Drive-, Structure-, and Conflict Theory
The core element of Freudian theory shared by all psychoanalytic schools, is the crucial importance of the unconscious. Contrary to the common psychiatric opinions of his time, Freud did not locate the causes of neurotic symptoms in the organic but in repressed drives, fantasies, and desires, which are usually rooted in the Oedipus complex, i.e., in the patient’s relationship to their closest attachment figures (parents). These drives are experienced as unacceptable; they clash with conscious ideas and are therefore repressed. However, they continue to affect the unconscious and influence how we think, feel, and act. They appear in dreams, in slips of the tongue, or symptoms. Freud’s approach is to make the patient cognizant of this repressed content and to revive and work on the conflict in the psychoanalytic situation—the relationship to the analyst, the so-called transference relationship.
Freud’s central assumptions are radical: the conception of a subject that is also determined by unconscious libidinous and destructive drives; the assumption of an infantile sexuality that knows of multiple pleasure possibilities; the notion that gender identity and adult sexuality are not biologically determined but formed through identifications and conflicts in the Oedipus complex. Since Freud, drive theory has branched off into a pluralistic field through various shifts of emphasis. While some proponents took up approaches from object relations theories, others focused on conflict, on the structure of the psyche that was described by Freud as consisting of the ego, id, and super-ego, and on defense mechanisms. Other proponents added intersubjective approaches to the inner psychological dynamics.
Jean Laplanche (1924, Paris - 2012, Beaune)
One of the most important and original advancements of the psychoanalytic drive theory in the Freudian tradition comes from Jean Laplanche. After studying philosophy, Laplanche began a training analysis with Jacques Lacan in the 1940s and finally started studying medicine. In the 1960s Laplanche turned away from Lacan’s theories and treatment methods and began his own unorthodox approach to Freud’s work. While Freud considers the drive as a stimulus that originates in the body and as a “demand made upon the mind for work,” Laplanche locates the drive in a social situation from the outset. Drive-based sexuality emerges in the child through the implantation of enigmatic messages from the adults’ unconscious. In psychoanalysis, Laplanche is not concerned with uncovering an originally given and then repressed content but with new translations, deconstructions, and constructions of contents—which must always remain enigmatic and inaccessible, since they come from the other.
Picture: Jean Laplanche
Ilka Quindeau: Freudian and Contemporary Psychoanalytic Drive-, Structure-, and Conflict Theory
Ilka Quindeau, Prof. Dr., is psychologist, sociologist and psychoanalyst. She is a training analyst (DPV/IPA) and professor of psychoanalysis and was the president of the International Psychoanalytic University in Berlin from 2018 to 2020. Today, she is working as a professor for clinical psychology in Frankfurt. Quindeau has published extensively on gender and sexuality issues, biographical studies and trauma research, i. a. Seduction and Desire: The Psychoanalytic Theory of Sexuality Since Freud (2013). Der Wunsch nach Nähe –Liebe und Begehren in der Psychotherapie (with Wolfgang Schmidbauer, 2017).