Theory: Self Psychology

Adult Psychoanalytic Training (APT)
2016-17, 2nd Trimester — Fridays, 3:30-5:00pm
Donald Schimmel, PhD


Welcome to our course on Self Psychology. Our objective with this course is to assist you in learning the foundations and central tenets of Self Psychology. During this seminar we will also make reference to, and encourage discussion of, how the theory and practice of Self Psychology have evolved since its founderHeinz Kohut. Seminar readings include an introductory book by Peter A. Lessem on Self Psychology, original works by Heinz Kohut, and scholarly articles by other notable Self Psychologists.

The readings:

  1. Lessem, (2005). Self Psychology: An Introduction. Lanham: Jason Aronson, Inc.
  2. Unless otherwise stated, all articles are accessible on PEP Web. Any article or chapter not accessible on PEP Web will be made available as a PDF file prior to the first

Learning Objectives

At the end of this course, associates will be able to:

  1. List the central tenets of Self Psychology, as originally conceived by Kohut
  2. Trace the development and evolution of Self Psychology
  3. Identify how Kohut and leading contemporary Self Psychologists (e.g., Bacal, A. Goldberg, and E. Wolf) have reformulated such concepts as: 1) narcissism; 2) resistance, defense and repression; 3) transference and countertransference; 4) castration anxiety; 5) the oedipal triangle; 6) the role of sexuality, aggression and drive; 7) trauma; 8) shame; 9) dreams
  4. Describe and distinguish Kohut’s views on: 1) the “bipolar self”; 2) the “vertical and horizontal split”; 3) the three narcissistic or “self objects” transferences: “Mirror”, “Idealizing”, “Alter ego” or “twinship”
  5. Define Kohut’s view’s on: 1) empathy; 2) disruption and repair; 3) optimal frustration and responsiveness; 4) transmuting internalization

January 6, 2017

[62 pages]

Lessem, P. (2005) Ch. 1 “In the Beginning” in Self Psychology: An Introduction, pp1-10.

In Chapter 1, Lessem provides an outline of Kohut’s Self Psychology. For example, he discusses Kohut’s three main narcissistic (or Self Object) transferences: Mirror, idealizing, and twinship or alter-ago. He discusses the difference between a “self object” and a “selfobject need.” Finally, he explores Kohut’s view of narcissism as a separate line of development.

Lessem, P. (2005) Ch. 2 “The Reformulation of the Concept of Narcissism” in Self Psychology: An Introduction, pp11-25.

In Chapter 2, Lessem begins with a review of Freud’s original concept of narcissism. He further describes Kohut’s reformulation of narcissism in terms of a separate development line or continuum. In addition, Lessem briefly compares the classical psychoanalytic view of shame with Self Psychology’s view of shame. (We focus more on Self Psychology’s view of shame in week seven.)

Lessem, P. (2005) Ch. 3 “The Self and Selfobject Concept” in Self Psychology: An Introduction, pp26-62.

In Chapter 3, Lessem further elaborates on Self Psychology’s view of self experience as the center of human motivation. Also in this chapter, Lessem introduces Kohut’s concept of the vertical and horizontal split.

Read pages 1-53; pages 54-62 are optional.

January 13, 2017

[30 pages]

Kohut, H. (1966). Forms and Transformations of Narcissism. JAPA, 14:243-272.

This 1966 article by Kohut was published prior to his 1971 landmark book, The Analysis of the Self. In this article, Kohut provides a metapsychological account of narcissism. He also discusses what he would later call the “Bipolar Self.”

January 27, 2017

[49 pages]

Kohut, H. (1977). Ch. 4 “The Bipolar Self” in The Restoration of the Self, pp171-219.

In this chapter, Kohut elaborates two complementary forms of bipolarity:

  1. The bipolarity between the need for mirroring and the need to idealize
  2. The bipolarity between a more superficial, mostly conscious layer of self and a deeper nuclear self that in the presence of pathology may have little access, and make little contribution, to awareness.

He illustrates this pair of dimensions with a case involving a sexual fantasy of crossed penises.

February 3, 2017

[49 pages]

Bacal, H.A. (1990). Theories of Object Relations: Bridge to Self Psychology. Ch. 11, pp225-273.

In this chapter, Bacal reviews Self Psychology’s major concepts in the context of Object Relations Theory.

February 10, 2017

[33 pages]

Lessem, P. (2005) Ch. 4 “Empathy” in Self Psychology: An Introduction, pp63-78.

In Chapter 4, Lessem discusses how Kohut conceptualized empathy and how Kohut’s ideas about empathy have been misunderstood. Also central to this chapter is Kohut’s view of empathy as an observational stance known as the “observation-empathic mode of listening.”

Lessem, P. (2005) Ch. 5 “How Self Psychology Conceives of Psychological Growth and Therapeutic Action” in Self Psychology: An Introduction, pp79-95.

In Chapter 5, Lessem discusses how Self Psychology conceives of psychological growth and therapeutic action. Specific emphasis is placed on Kohut’s ideas about “optimal frustration”, “transmuting internalization”, “corrective self object experience”. and the concept of “compensatory structure”.

February 17, 2017

[35 pages]

Kohut, H. & Wolf, E.S. (1978). The Disorders of the Self and their Treatment: An Outline. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 59:413-425.

This article presents a spare, if wordy, conceptual outline of the state of Self Psychology in 1978, including a definition of the self and a taxonomy of pathology from this point of view.

Lessem, P. (2005) Ch. 6 “Psychopathology: Disturbance and Disorders of Self-Experience” in Self Psychology: An Introduction, pp96-117.

In Chapter 6, Lessem’s focus is on Self Psychology’s view of psychopathology and how self psychologists view trauma. Specific emphasis is placed on the theory of the etiology of disorders of self-experience, including disintegration anxiety, Oedipal pathology, castration anxiety, perversion and addiction.

February 24, 2017

[48 pages]

Tuch, R.H. (1997). Beyond Empathy: Confronting Certain Complexities in Self Psychology Theory. Psychoanal Q., 66:259-282.

In this article, Tuch dissects the concepts of empathy and empathic failure, limitations on empathy as a method, and analytic phenomena that lie along the boundary between empathy and enactment. He illustrates with a case of a man who was afraid to lie on the couch.


Morrison, A.P. (1983). Shame, Ideal Self, and Narcissism. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 19:295-318.

Morrison examines the idea of shame from both ego psychological and self psychological perspectives. He concludes that Self Psychology offers a more coherent explanation of shame and is also better suited as a therapeutic framework to foster self-acceptance.

March 3, 2017

[51 pages]

Lessem, P. (2005) Ch. 7 “Clinical Process” in Self Psychology: An Introduction, pp118-158.

In Chapter 7, Lessem discusses Self Psychology’s view of the clinical process. For example, Lessem explores contemporary Self Psychology’s ideas about listening styles and how there can be alternatives to empathy. Lessem also explores how Self Psychologists understand and work with resistance/defense and how these views differ radically from classical drive theory and ego psychology. Additionally, Lessem discusses Kohut’s ideas about disruption and repair, optimal responsiveness, self-state dreams, and finally countertransference.

Lessem, P. (2005) Ch. 8 “Intellectual and Sociocultural Influences on Kohut” in Self Psychology: An Introduction, pp159-168.

In Chapter 8, Lessem explores the historical influences on Kohut and Self Psychology. Of central importance is the historical shift from the logical-positivist model to the post-modernist model of scientific inquiry.

March 10, 2017

[43 pages]

Kohut, H. (1977). Ch. 5 “The Oedipus complex and the Psychology of the Self” in The Restoration of the Self, pp220-248.

In this chapter, Kohut critiques the ego-psychological conception of the Oedipal complex from a Self Psychological point of view. He suggests that the crisis and ensuing Oedipal conflicts would not occur if the child’s family is functioning normally, and proposes that Oedipal conflicts are “disintegrating results” of narcissistically impaired parents’ empathic failures toward the child’s developing sexuality.

Malin, A. (1993). A Self-Psychological Approach to Resistance: A Case Report. IJP, 74: 505-518.

Malin discusses the Self Psychological view of resistance, that rather than a defense against the anxiety associated with change, it is best seen as a necessary attempt to protect the enfeebled self. He illustrates the idea with a case in which the patient insisted that the analyst remain silent.

March 17, 2017

[31 pages]

Kohut, H. (1984). “The Curative Effect of Analysis: The Self Psychological Reassessment of the Therapeutic Process” in How Does Analysis Cure?, Ch6, pp80-110.

In this chapter, Kohut elaborates (not entirely consistently) his theory that psychoanalysis cures via “optimal frustration” of the patient’s self object needs, and by “transmuting internalization” for which it is essential to give the patient, via interpretation, the benefit of theory. He also explains how this accounts for the effectiveness of other schools of psychoanalysis despite their incorrect understanding.

March 24, 2017

Wolf, E.S. (1989). Chapter 7 Therapeutic Experiences. Progress in Self Psychology, 5:105-119.

Wolf examines further the idea that internalization of episodes of empathic failure is crucial to psychoanalytic efficacy. He presents arguments from several sides to support this idea, while acknowledging that some favor the alternative idea of optimal gratification. He cites the clinical example ofthe death of the cat.

Wolf, E.S. (1993). Chapter 2 The Role of Interpretation in Therapeutic Change. Progress in Self Psychology, 9:15-30.

In this article Wolf discusses the process of interpretation from a Self Psychological point of view and contrasts it with other theories. He cites different purposes an interpretation can serve, and how they pertain to different stages of analysis.

Buirski, P. and Haglund, P. (1999). Chapter 3 The Selfobject Function of Interpretation. Progress in Self Psychology, 15:31-49.

The authors in this article pull together three themes concerning the therapeutic action of interpretation: cognitive understanding, the experience of feeling understood, and fulfillment of a selfobject need. They give a clinical example of two sessions showing a remarkable degree of empathic attunement.