Self psychology is a psychoanalytic theory developed by Heinz Kohut and is a central tenet of our approach in working with relational trauma. An Austrian American psychoanalyst (1913-1981), Kohut originally followed the teachings of Freud, but came to reject Freud’s theories about human suffering coming from internal conflicts, in favour of his own new insights that human issues seemed to arise from external conflicts - in relationship with others.
This shift, from internal drives to external drives, was considered heretic at the time, but increasingly it is now understood that just as Kohut observed, human issues are deeply impacted by a person’s relational experiences – particularly in childhood.
Kohut was especially interested in the development of the Self and what gives a person a solid “self structure” and a positive “sense of self”. His investigations centred around narcissistic pathology, as he attempted to understand why a person might become narcissistic and what this said about their unmet relational needs.
Kohut hypothesised that narcissism in a person, came from them experiencing insufficient parental empathy and attunement in childhood and that this pathology was what we would now describe as a form of relational, attachment or developmental trauma – rather than an ego issue as Freud had proposed.
Kohut identified several key relational needs that human beings must have met in their developmental years, in order to be healthy and reach their potential. Calling them ‘self object needs’ he recognised that children are incapable of meeting these needs themselves and are entirely reliant on their caregivers to have these needs met. He observed that in people who had those needs met in their childhood, this resulted in a resilient sense of self with good self esteem, solid self structure and the capacity to regulate their own sense of Self without reliance on others.
He named the central ‘self object needs’ in human development as mirroring, idealising and twinship:
· MIRRORING relates to the child’s need to be reflected back to themselves in a reliable, regular, attuned and empathic manner. Kohut observed that children are unable to experience themselves directly and that it was this mirroring by caregivers, that developed a child’s entire sense of Self. He realised that the quality of mirroring had a profound impact on the way a child would come to experience themselves.
· IDEALISING is the term Kohut used to convey the idea that children need to hold their caregivers and others in high esteem, attributing positive qualities to them and seeing them as omnipotent, benevolent, available and wise. Kohut observed that children needed to idealise their caregivers in order to experience them as safe and protective, in order to internalise this experience for future reference in relationship with the world and with others. He realised that where caregivers are less than ideal, the child exerts effort to experience their caregivers in positive ways, attempting to imbue them with those qualities the child needs them to have.
· TWINSHIP is the developmental need to experience others as being “the same” or “like me”. Kohut observed the importance for children to see others as being similar to them and aligned with them. Children will mimic their parents in order to experience this deep bondedness and throughout development, humans look to find people with whom they experience twinship and connection. Kohut recognised that over time, children develop more tolerance for difference and differentiation – but that this is dependant on having had enough experience of twinship in their early lives.
In working with relational trauma, understanding Self Psychology and the self object needs Kohut identified, provides a lens through which we can make sense of your own relational experience in childhood and the way it may be impacting you.
In the therapy, your own deficits in these developmental areas may become apparent and we may discover that you have a particular need, for example, to continue to idealise your parents, or significant others in your life – in ways that are not helpful or that perpetuate vulnerability or pain.
Rather than see this as dysfunctional or naïve, we would understand this issue as being evidence of a missed experience in childhood in which you were unable perhaps to idealise your caregivers sufficiently, due to their unavailability, their unsafety, or other things that compromised your experience of them.
These sorts of missed experiences are a form of relational trauma and often underpin unhealthy relational patterns. As self object needs represent critical developmental experiences, clients are often unable to move past them if those needs have remained unmet.
For this reason, it is also a goal of our therapy together that self object needs are not only acknowledged, but can be met in the work itself. This means that the therapeutic relationship can provide a reparative experience for you, in which you can at last have these important relational needs filled.
Idealising your therapist can be part of healing this particular unmet self object need. Far from being something to feel embarrassment or shame about, idealising your therapist can be a powerful way a client can experience a sense of being held by a caregiving figure who is safe, wise, calm, regulating, present, reliable and empathic. In a strong and healthy therapeutic relationship, clients will often find themselves experiencing their therapist as not only a positive person in their lives, but as an almost omnipotent figure - increasingly important, special and influential as the therapeutic bond develops. Over time, the client may finally be able to internalise the idealised therapist as a safe and relational connection – often for the very first time.
This idealisation can be a vital foundational experience as the client has their self object needs met in the unique safety and attentiveness of the therapeutic relationship – in ways that are frequently not possible in ‘real life’ relationships. Just as a child needs to idealise their parent, clients may need to experience their therapist in idealised ways for a period of time in the therapy, immersing themselves as long as they need to, in this deeply cohering and reassuring experience.
Kohut’s ‘self psychology’ provides ground-breaking insights into fundamental human needs, a vital understanding of what happens when those needs are not met and in our experience, an important lens on the often hidden relational needs that underpin so many mental health issues.