Crop ethnic client discussing problems with anonymous psychologist, Self psychology

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Click below to listen to this article:

Self psychology

Self psychology is a branch of psychoanalysis that focuses on the self as the central organizing principle of human experience. It was developed by Heinz Kohut in the 1970s and 1980s, and it emphasizes the role of empathy, selfobject relations, and optimal frustration in the development and maintenance of a healthy self. Self psychology aims to understand and treat psychological disorders that result from disturbances in the self, such as narcissism, borderline personality disorder, and depression. In this article, we will introduce the main concepts and applications of self psychology, as well as its strengths and limitations.

What is self psychology?

Self-psychology is based on the premise that people need to have positive self-images to be mentally healthy, and that psychological problems arise from disruptions or deficits in the development of the self. According to self-psychology, the self is composed of three main components: the grandiose self, the idealized parent imago, and the twinship or alter ego. These components represent different aspects of how people relate to themselves and others, and how they seek validation, admiration, and belonging.

Self-psychology proposes that people can achieve a sense of wholeness in the self by resolving the conflicts and tensions between these components, and by developing a cohesive and realistic self-image that incorporates both strengths and weaknesses. It also emphasizes the role of empathy and attunement in facilitating this process, both from the therapist and from significant others in the person’s life. Self-psychology suggests that when people experience empathy and understanding from others, they can heal the wounds in their self and achieve a more harmonious and integrated sense of self. Self psychology also rejects the Freudian notion that sexual drives are the main motivators of human behaviour, and instead proposes that humans are driven by a need to experience themselves as meaningful and valuable.

Sign up for our Newsletter!
We will send you regular updates regarding new articles, as well as hints and tips regarding self-transcendence. We aim to limit this to once per month, though some months we will have additional special editions covering significant articles worthy of being the sole focus of a newsletter. There will be no sales spam or selling your address to third parties.
The role of empathy, selfobject relations, and optimal frustration

Empathy, selfobject relations, and optimal frustration are three key concepts in self psychology that explain how the self is formed and maintained.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. In self psychology, empathy is not only a skill, but also a mode of perception that allows the therapist to access the inner world of the patient. Empathy helps the therapist to identify and respond to the patient’s selfobject needs, which are the needs for mirroring, idealization, and twinship.

Selfobject relations are the interactions between the self and the objects that provide selfobject functions. Selfobjects are not separate entities, but rather aspects of the self that are experienced as external. Selfobjects can be people, such as parents, partners, or therapists, or things, such as ideals, values, or beliefs. Selfobjects help the self to feel cohesive, valuable, and connected.

Optimal frustration is the degree of challenge or disappointment that stimulates growth and development of the self. In self psychology, optimal frustration is contrasted with traumatic frustration, which overwhelms and damages the self. Optimal frustration occurs when the selfobject fails to meet the selfobject need in a way that is tolerable and manageable for the patient. Optimal frustration allows the patient to modify their selfobject expectations and develop new capacities and skills.

The grandiose self, the idealized parent imago, and the twinship

The grandiose self is one of the two primary selfobject needs in early childhood, along with the need for mirroring. The grandiose self expresses the child’s innate sense of greatness, perfection, and omnipotence, which needs to be validated and supported by others. The grandiose self also seeks to merge with or incorporate others who are seen as extensions of oneself.

Mirroring is a concept in self psychology that refers to the process of receiving accurate and empathic feedback from others about one’s self. Mirroring is essential for the development of a healthy sense of self, as it helps individuals to recognize and validate their own feelings, needs, and desires. It also facilitates the integration of different aspects of the self, such as the ideal self, the real self, and the false self. Mirroring can occur in various contexts, such as in interpersonal relationships, therapy, or group settings. Mirroring can have positive effects on one’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-acceptance.

New article alerts!
We will notify you of new articles as soon as they are published. There will be no sales spam or selling your address to third parties.

The idealized parent imago is another selfobject need that emerges in childhood and persists throughout life. It refers to the need to look up to and admire another person who is seen as powerful, calm, and confident. The idealized parent imago provides a source of strength, security, and guidance for the self. The idealized parent imago can be a parent, a teacher, a leader, a hero, or a deity.

The twinship or alter ego is the third selfobject need that Kohut identified later in his work. It is the need to feel similar to and connected with another person who shares one’s essential characteristics, values, and experiences. The twinship or alter ego provides a sense of belonging, acceptance, and validation for the self. The twinship or alter ego can be a sibling, a friend, a partner, or a group.

Therapeutic theory

Self psychology is applied in therapy by creating an empathic and supportive relationship between the therapist and the client, in which the therapist tries to understand the client’s experience from their perspective, and helps them explore their selfobject needs and how they can be met in healthy ways. It also helps clients identify and resolve conflicts between their actual self and their ideal self, as well as between their self and others. Self psychology aims to help clients achieve a more integrated and authentic sense of self, as well as a greater capacity for self-regulation, self-expression, and self-growth.

Self psychology aims to help clients develop a cohesive and healthy sense of self through empathic attunement and selfobject transference.

A therapy session in self psychology might look something like this:

  • A client comes to the therapist with feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and emptiness. The therapist listens attentively and empathically to the client’s narrative, trying to understand the client’s subjective experience and emotional needs.
  • The therapist also tries to identify the client’s selfobject needs, which are the needs for mirroring, idealizing, and twinship that are essential for the development and maintenance of the self.
  • The therapist then provides appropriate selfobject responses to the client, such as validating, affirming, and supporting the client’s sense of self-worth, competence, and uniqueness.
  • The therapist also helps the client explore and integrate the different aspects of their self, such as their goals, values, talents, and interests.
  • The therapist also helps the client cope with any selfobject failures or disruptions that might have occurred in their past or present relationships, such as neglect, abuse, criticism, or rejection.

The goal of the therapy session is to help the client restore or enhance their self-cohesion, self-esteem, and vitality, and to foster their growth and fulfilment as a human being.

Empathic attunement is the ability to sense and respond to the emotional needs and experiences of another person, especially in a therapeutic setting.

Selfobject transference is the process of projecting one’s own self onto another person, who then becomes a source of self-esteem, validation, or soothing.

Self psychology focuses on the development and maintenance of the self through interpersonal relationships.

A hypothetical example of empathic attunement and selfobject transference in self psychology could be the following:

  • A client who suffers from low self-worth and chronic loneliness seeks therapy to cope with his depression.
  • He develops a strong attachment to his therapist, who listens to him with compassion and empathy.
  • He sees his therapist as a perfect and idealized figure, who can understand him better than anyone else and who can make him feel good about himself.
  • Furthermore, he transfers his own self onto his therapist, who becomes a selfobject for him.
  • The therapist, in turn, tries to attune to his client’s emotional state and needs, and to provide him with a safe and supportive environment where he can explore his feelings and identity.
  • The therapist also helps him to recognize and work through his selfobject transference, and to develop a more realistic and integrated sense of self.
What are the applications of self Psychology?

Self psychology can be applied to brief psychotherapy, which is a form of treatment that has a limited duration and a specific goal. In brief psychotherapy, the therapist focuses on the state of the patient’s self and on the establishment of a self–selfobject bond, which is a relationship that provides the patient with the psychological functions that are needed for a healthy sense of self. Self psychology can help the patient to understand how their early experiences may have affected their self-esteem, self-regulation, and self-soothing abilities, and to develop new ways of relating to themselves and others.

Self psychology can be useful for treating disorders that involve disturbances of the self, such as schizoid, schizotypal, avoidant, paranoid, obsessive–compulsive, narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. These disorders are characterized by deficits in self-cohesion, which can manifest as devitalization, fragmentation, or compensatory strategies.

According to self psychology, these disorders result from a lack of adequate mirroring, idealizing, or twinship experiences in early childhood, which impair the formation of a stable and vital self. Self psychology aims to provide these missing experiences through empathic attunement and validation of the patient’s selfobject needs. Selfobject needs are the needs for others to provide functions that the self cannot perform on its own, such as affirmation, admiration, guidance, or support.

There is some evidence that self psychology can be effective for treating disorders of the self. For example, a study by Silverstein (2007) found that patients with borderline personality disorder who received self psychological treatment showed significant improvements in self-cohesion, affect regulation, interpersonal functioning, and symptom reduction compared to patients who received supportive therapy. Another study by Nordgaard et al. (2021) found that patients with schizophrenia spectrum disorders who had high levels of self-disorder and formal thought disorder showed better outcomes after receiving psychodynamic therapy than after receiving cognitive-behavioural therapy. These studies suggest that self psychology can address the underlying self-disturbances that contribute to these disorders and enhance the patient’s sense of vitality and integration.

Strengths and limitations of self psychology

One of the main strengths of self psychology is that it offers a comprehensive and empathic understanding of the development and functioning of the self, which is influenced by the quality of interpersonal relationships, especially with caregivers in early childhood. Self psychology emphasizes the role of selfobject experiences, which are interactions that provide the self with mirroring, idealization, or twinship, and thus help the self to maintain its cohesion, vitality, and esteem. Self psychology also recognizes the importance of self-regulation, which is the ability to balance one’s needs and desires with the demands and expectations of others and the environment.

One of the main limitations of self psychology is that it tends to neglect the role of biological, genetic, and environmental factors that may also affect the self and its disorders. Self psychology also relies heavily on the subjective perspective of the patient and the therapist, which may introduce biases and difficulties in assessing the validity and effectiveness of the treatment. It may also be criticized for being too optimistic and idealistic about the potential for change and growth in patients with severe narcissistic disturbances, who may resist or reject the therapeutic alliance and interventions.

Self psychology has also been criticized by some psychoanalysts and psychologists for being too narcissistic, too subjective, and too optimistic. Some of the main criticisms of self psychology are:

  • It neglects the importance of other psychic structures, such as the id, the ego, and the superego, and their interactions with the self. Its effect is promoting that the individual seeks happiness by seeking the correct types of interactions in others, which in itself is a narcissistic tendency, rather than seeking to allow the individual to receive their happiness from within self.
  • It overemphasizes the role of empathy and selfobject relations, and underestimates the role of conflict, aggression, and drive in human motivation and behaviour.
  • Furthermore, it assumes that the self is a coherent and unified entity, and ignores the possibility of multiple selves, dissociation, and fragmentation.
  • It idealizes the self and its potential for growth and healing, and overlooks the reality of human suffering, trauma, and pathology.
  • It relies too much on introspection and self-analysis, and lacks empirical evidence and scientific rigour to support its claims.
Further reading

If you would like to learn more about self psychology, here are some weblinks for further reading:

Self Psychology GoodTherapy

Self psychology Wikipedia

Psychology of self Wikipedia


Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content