The term self-object refers to any narcissistic experience in which the other is in the service of the self, the latter being defined as a structure that accounts for the experience of continuity, coherence, and well-being. It is a source of narcissistic feeling.
The notion of selfobject appeared in the work of Heinz Kohut as early as his 1968 article, "The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders," in his discussion of the narcissistic transference, in which the analyst is an archaic selfobject function in the narcissistic pathology. It was further developed in The Analysis of the Self (1971) in Kohut's reconceptualization of narcissism. It refers to a normal narcissistic function that evolves in stages. The selfobject can be the object of a fixation that is the basis for a narcissistic transference. When the object is narcissistically invested, the narcissistic object relation is opposed to object-love.
The hyphen (self-object ) disappeared in The Restoration of the Self (1977), because the selfobject is not reducible to the archaic configurations of narcissism, but is rather defined as a dimension of experience. In 1979, Kohut generalized a selfobject that is inseparable from the self, of which it is the existential correlate and the source. At the beginning, Kohut reminded us in his 1980 article, "Selected Problems of Self Psychological Theory," the descriptor selfobject was reserved for pathology in the sense of an archaic fixation, with the emphasis being placed on the grandiose self or the omnipotent selfobject. Like the object, the selfobject is at first replaceable, before becoming meaningful. In the mature self/selfobject relationship, the archaic selfobjects continue to exist at a deep level and to resonate as leitmotivs at various times.
In How Does Analysis Cure? (1984), the selfobject became a dimension of experiencing another person whose functions are related to the self. The selfobject can thus be archaic or mature, anachronistic or appropriate. A support for the vulnerable self, it is the appropriate medium of the healthy self, like the oxygen that is necessary for life. The self is a feeling of unity, strength, and harmony if, at each stage of life, it receives the appropriate responses from the selfobject environment: availability and receptivity, the conditions for all mental life. The selfobject is an intra-psychic experience. In times of temporary vulnerabilty, the better equipped the subject is to find the selfobjects he or she needs, the healthier he or she will be. The selfobject is not necessarily a person; it can be music, an outing, a talent, culture, and so forth.
It is often difficult to distinguish between that which comes from the object and that which comes from the selfobject, especially in adults. In pathologies or in the context of treatment, the distinction is easier to make. The object is recognizable through representation and comes from desire. The selfobject is an archaic or mature function that comes from need. If the other is the target of desire, anger, love, or aggression, that other is an object. If the other maintains cohesion, strength, and personal harmony, it is a self-object. Object-loss results in mourning; the relationship to the selfobject cannot be lost but can instead undergo transformation.
Kohut's successors disagreed about the generalization of this term. In the view of some, the selfobject reflects vulnerability, even if it is temporary, in the self. An intact Self, according to this view, does not need a selfobject and the notion should be reserved for pathology. However, Kohut's view is clear: The selfobject is the oxygen that we are only aware of when we think about it. Deficiencies in the self result from the self/selfobject relationship. What was once limited to pathologies is generalizable to every subject and every course of treatment, and pathology stems from narcissism alone. The selfobject preserves the ambiguity of being simultaneously both a relationship and an experience. The metapsychology of the self underlying this concept can be criticized.
See also: Alter ego; Amae, concept of; Disintegration products; Idealized parental imago; Narcissistic injury; Narcissistic rage; Self psychology.
Kohut, Heinz. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
——. (1978). The psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. In The search for the self: Selected writings of Heinz Kohut (Vol. 1). New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1968)
——. (1984). How does analysis cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
——. (1991). Four basic concepts in self psychology. In The search for the self: Selected writings of Heinz Kohut (Vol. 4). New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1979)
——. (1991). Selected problems of self psychological theory. In The search for the self: Selected writings of Heinz Kohut (Vol. 4). New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1980)