Self Psychology

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Self psychology is the name Heinz Kohut chose for his psychoanalytic theory, which focused on narcissism.

Beginning with his new metapsychology of the Self in Restoration of the Self (1977), Kohut distinguished between the limited form of self psychology proposed in The Analysis of the Self (1971), in which he maintained the classical theoretical formulations, and a generalized self psychology that formed a system, albeit a replaceable one. The application of self psychology to other pathologies was the result of further clinical and theoretical elaboration, and also of criticisms leveled against Kohut that may have led him to adopt more or less extreme positions.

Kohut presented the limited form of self psychology as both a complement to Freudian psychoanalysis and a critique of Heinz Hartmann's ego psychology. He held that uncovering narcissistic transference makes it possible to analyze narcissistic personalities, just as transference neuroses do for neurosis. The rehabilitation of narcissism against the ideal of health and maturity led to a preoccupation with development of the self and its defects. Soon, however, postulations concerning the self as a narcissistic structure came into conflict with the theory of the drives. Without eliminating the latter, Kohut considered them to be secondary to the structural defects in the self. The status of neurosis always remained ambiguous in Kohut's work, where it was seen both as a nosological entity unto itself and as being included among the disorders of the self. Neurosis is seen as resulting from oedipal conflicts and castration, but the self is deemed either to be whole at this phase of development, or else already weakened and incapable of resolving the difficulties of the oedipal phase, which then becomes a complex.

Self psychology, through the empathic method advocated by Kohut from 1959, focuses on the self and its fluctuations. It considers microstructures, in contrast to the analysis of neuroses, which focuses on macrostructuresthe agencies of the psyche. Self psychology represented an epistemological turning point in which the analyst was no longer, or no longer only, a screen for the patient's projections, but rather a participant in treatment, which the analyst influences; the impact of the analyst's presence and, of course, his or her attitudes and interventions on the patient's narcissism, becomes an object for analysis.

The emergence of self psychology can only be understood in relation to ego psychology, in which the ego, as an agency endowed with functions, is distinguished from self-representations that are the object of narcissistic cathexis. Self-representations are supplanted by representations of the Self, and the Self thus becomes a structure within the psychic apparatus, a reflection of the state of the subject's narcissism.

Self psychology is sometimes considered to be a major deviation from metapsychology. Its focus on a psychology of defects and not only on instinctual conflict has generated a great deal of controversy.

AgnÈs Oppenheimer

See also: Action-thought (H. Kohut); Alter ego; Bipolar self; Borderline conditions; Compensatory structures; Disintegration products; Ego; Ego (ego psychology); Empty Fortress, The ; Fragmentation; Grandiose self; Id; Identity; Instance; Kohut, Heinz; Mirror transference; Narcissistic defenses; Narcissistic injury; Narcissistic transference; Object; Paranoia; Principle of identity preservation; Schizophrenia; Self; Self (analytical psychology); Self-image; Self-object; Self-state dream; Self, the ; Self (true/false); Transference of creativity; Twinship transference/alter ego transference; United States.


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

. (1974). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

. (1984). How does analysis cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Further Reading

Goldberg, Arnold. (1988). A fresh look at psychoanalysis: The view from self psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

. (1998). Self psychology since Kohut. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 67, 240-255.