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).