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Self, The


The concept of the Self that was proposed by Heinz Kohut in The Analysis of the Self (1971) is not a Freudian concept and it does not appear as such in the Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (Laplanche and Pontalis); nor does another concept of self that refers to the narcissistic axis of the psyche. When Freud spoke of the instinctive mechanism of "turning around upon the subject's own self" in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c, p. 126), he did not mean the subject's own self as an intrapsychic entity, but rather an equivalent of the subject's own body, upon which the second phase of the drives was founded.

The concept of "Self" is really the invention of Heinz Kohut: the Freudian idea of the "splitting of the ego," through the Kleinian idea of the splitting of the object molding the ego, by way of the mechanisms of introjection and projectionled, finally to the Kohutian idea of a Self, which becomes the object of all the narcissistic cathexes.

Understanding Kohut's model is only possible within the context of the history of ideas. In the 1960s the nosographic concept of limit-states and borderline pathologies, belonging neither to neurotic nor psychotic structures, surfaced. This resulted in the progressive delineation of hybrid or composite disorders, centered on issues linked to representation or identity of the Selfthat is to say, in the last resort, to narcissistic personality disorders (Otto Kernberg).

Researchers and clinicians had swung back-and-forth from the oedipal to the narcissistic axis. This see-sawing may be what is behind the emergence of the concept of Self. In effect, Heinz Kohut proposed a new theory of the ego, adding a notion of the Self, partially of Winnicottian provenance (c.f. Winnicott's false self) to the Freudian Ich.

In any case, the Kohutian theory of the Self has shown itself to be quite fecund. It has had considerably more of an impact in the Anglo-Saxon world than in Europe, especially in France, where it has been often understood as an attempt to desexualize psycho-pathology, or even as something similar to the ego psychology of Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris, and Rudolph M. Loewenstein. Even Kohut has been very critical of the so-called psychology of the ego. Anxious to purify psychoanalysis of any notion foreign to its domain, Kohut first defined empathy as specific to psychology, thinking of it as a technique of vicarious introspection enabling knowledge of another's psyche. He did this as part of the larger project of extending psychoanalysis to types of personalities previously thought unanalyzable.

Having defined two particular transferences, the "mirror transference" and the "idealizing transference," he reconsidered the question of narcissism, which, according to him, could not be understood as a simple libidinal retreat into the ego. For Kohut, the quality of lived experience defines narcissism, which he then opposes to what he termed a "Self-object" relation, in which other people seem to exist predominantly in roles defined by function. In the cure, as in psychic ontogenesis, narcissism and object love develop con-jointly and interactively, with Self-object roles finding themselves gradually interiorized in the form of internal regulatory structures (there is a hint of a goal of adaptation in this model).

On this basis, in The Analysis of the Self (1971), Heinz Kohut proposed what he called a restricted theory of the Self and, later, what he called a general theory of the Self. This was presented as complementary to Freudian theory, but in reality it attempted to subsume the latter into a larger model. The Self became progressively a relatively autonomous principle of motivation, integrating the drives, and accorded its own program of realization; it no longer was separate from the Self-object, a concept that was enlarged to include the entire narcissistic dimension of experience. A third kind of transference was described as "alter-ego transference," where the controlling element is the need for a peer, particularly someone of the same sex. For Kohut, the Self is something very much different from intrapsychic entities like the ego, id, or superego.

Beyond a certain number of notions, like the corporal or archaic Self, the nuclear Self, the consistency of the self, the permanent disintegration of the self, the fragmented self, and self-esteem, Kohut has particularly emphasized the notion of the grandiose Self to try to account for "the child's solipsistic vision of the world and the manifest pleasure he derives from the admiration he receives from it." However, his descriptions of the grandiose Self cover a wide range of phenomena, from "paranoiac delirium and the crudely sexual acts of the adult pervert, to certain kinds of simple, sublimated satisfaction that adults derive from what they are, what they do, and what they succeed in."

Some authors have attempted to deal with the concept of Self from a more topical point of view. Among them is Jean Bergeret, who describes the ego ideal as originating in the maternal, rather than the paternal, attachment. Finally, the concept of the Self, in spite of all ambiguity and the criticism directed at it, has been shown to be of heuristic value; it has influenced many works, including The Privacy of the Self (1974), by Masud Khan, and, more recently The Forces of Destiny (1989) by Christopher Bollas. For Bollas, the destiny of the subject is the result of an encounter with an object; certain objects favor the emergence of the true Self, while others obstruct and condemn the individual to organize himself around a false Self.

Donald W. Winnicott has also used the notion of the Self in developing his work on the "false self." Both concepts, however, invite questions about the status of the Freudian theory of drives, which runs the risk of being somewhat obscured.

Bernard Golse

See also: Self psychology.


Bollas, Christopher. (1989). The forces of destiny. London: Free Association Books.

Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

Kernberg, Otto F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. New York: Jason Aronson.

Khan, Masud. (1974). The privacy of the self. London: Hogarth.

Kohut, Heinz. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1967). Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Oppenheimer, Agnès. (1995). Psychanalyse du Moi, psychologie du Moi et psychologie du Self. Encyclopédie médicochirurgicale (Vol. Psychiatrie ).

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Self, The (Analytical Psychology)


Jung originally defined his concept, "the Self," (Selbst), as follows: "As an empirical concept, the Self designates the whole range of psychic phenomena in man. It expresses the unity of the personality as a whole."

"But insofar as the total personality, because of its unconscious component, can only be partly conscious, the concept of the Self is, in part, only potentially empirical and is to that extent a postulate. In other words, it encompasses both the experienceable and the unexperienceable (or the not-yet experienced). From an intellectual point of view it is only a working hypothesis. Its empirical symbols, on the other hand, very often possess a distinct numinosity, that is, an emotional value. It thus proves to be an archetypal idea . . . which differs from other ideas of the kind in that it occupies a central position befitting the significance of its content and numinosity."

Of the content and development of his ideas, Jung wrote: "The Self appears in dreams, myths, and fairy tales in the figure of a 'supra-ordinate personality, ' such as a king, prophet, or savior, etc., or in the form of a totality symbol, such as the circle, square. . . . When it represents . . . a union of opposites it can also appear as a united duality in the form, for instance, of Tao as the interplay of Yang and Yin." Related ideas pertaining to Self-symbolism were initially described by Jung: "The Self is not a philosophical idea since it does not predicate its own existence."

By way of critical appraisal the Journal of Analytical Psychology published a symposium on the self in 1985. In Joseph L. Henderson's contribution it is written: "I am impressed with how much serious thinking by Jungian analysts has gone into clarifying the multi-faceted subject. For the most part the theoretical basis as expressed by Jung himself has been reaffirmed, namely that the Self as a symbol of totality of psychic life and as a central archetype of order equally exist."

But if we place metaphor to one side and look at the manifestation of self-hood in action we may find our centering totality at work in more humanly understandable forms, as in analysis where analyst and analysand enter into a common ego-self relationship.

The self in this context approaches the concept of the self in other psychologies, such as Kohut's self-psychology. Perhaps Jungians are in general becoming more comfortable with self as a psychological concept only and less in awe of the self as an archetype with its metaphysical aura.

Knowing the danger that too much emphasis upon the self may have an inflationary effect on the ego (grandiosity), or that too little emphasis upon it may aggrandize the importance of ego consciousness over the unconscious, normal self-definition is found where ego and self are separate but inherently related. Jung writes: "Sensing the Self as something irrational, as an undefinable existent, to which the ego is neither opposed or subjected, but merely attached, and about which it revolves very much as the earth revolves around the sunthus we come to the goal of individuation." The individuated ego senses itself as the object of an unknown and supra-ordinate subject. It seems that a psychological inquiry might come to a stop here.

Joseph L. Henderson

See also: Archetype (analytical psychology); Compensation (analytical psychology); Ego (analytical psychology); Individuation (analytical psychology); Numinous (analytical psychology); Projection and "participation mystique" (analytical psychology); Psychological types (analytical psychology); Shadow (analytical psychology); Transference (analytical psychology).


Henderson, Joseph L. (1985). The self in review. Journal of Analytical Psychology, London, 30, p. 243-246.

Jung, Carl Gustav. (1923). Psychological types. Coll. works, Vol. VI. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1971, p. 460-461.

Kohut, Heinz. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York, International Universities Press.

. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York, International Universities Press.

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"Self, The (Analytical Psychology)." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"Self, The (Analytical Psychology)." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from