Self-Psychology in Modern Psychoanalytic Theory

In the present day, self-psychology may be regarded as an influential movement that has substantially grown in recent decades. This modern psychoanalytic theory that is currently developing as a basis for psychoanalytic treatment focuses on understanding individuals through their subjective experience and emphasizes people’s external relationships and their influence on self-cohesion and self-esteem development. Narcissism, empathy, idealizing, mirroring, self-object, the tripolar self, twinship, and alter ego are the concepts targeted by self-psychology.

Founded and fostered by Heinz Kohut, self-psychology is regarded as a descendant theory considerably influenced by Freud’s psychoanalysis (Rabstejnek, 2015). Focused on neurotic patients, psychoanalytic treatment aimed to interpret the resolution of intrapsychic conflicts and sexual and aggressive drives that affect the child’s inner image formation (Rabstejnek, 2015). For instance, according to Freud’s theory, narcissism, a personality disorder characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, grandiosity, and a lack of empathy for other people, is connected with the wrong direction of libido (Cherry, 2020). In other words, infants primarily direct all their libido, the energy “that lies behind each person’s survival instincts,” inward towards themselves (Cherry, 2020, para. 7). In turn, when primary narcissism is diminished, a person cannot protect and nurture himself and require vital love and affection from without. In addition, an individual’s sense of himself subsequently develops when a child starts to learn cultural expectations and social norms and interacts with other community members and the outside world in general. As a result, the person’s perfect image that he strives to attain, or an ego ideal, is formed.

In turn, self-psychology focuses on a theory of normal and non-pathological development when treatment is required as a corrective therapeutic experience “that allows healthy structure to be belatedly formed in a relationship with an empathic therapist” (Rabstejnek, 2015, p. 1). In general, for self-psychology, the center of any person’s individual psychological universe is the self. According to this theory, children are not weak – they are born string with an innate ability to fit harmoniously into their surroundings of birth and develop a healthy and adequate sense of self (Rabstejnek, 2015). However, if a healthy sense of self seems unachievable for a child, they may rely on external others called self-objects. According to Kohut, self-objects play a highly essential role in any person’s developmental process as they help to meet his needs (Rabstejnek, 2015). Another important concept of self-psychology is transference that may be defined as a specific process of relocation of a person’s desires and feeling from childhood to another object in the case of unmet self-object needs. There are the main types of transference:

  • Twinship or Alter Ego. Kohut stated that people at the earliest stages of their life require a sense of likeliness with other people, especially parents (“Self psychology,” 2016). In the case of health development, they subsequently learn how to tolerate differences. The sign of unhealthy psychological development is alienation, a phenomenon when people feel uncomfortable in themselves.
  • Mirroring. This kind of transference implies the use of other people and their positive response and affirmation to reflect back an individual’s value and a sense of self-worth.
  • Idealizing. Idealizing transference means a person’s need in someone who can make them feel calm. Typical for childhood when parents provide comfort, idealizing becomes limited during the health developmental process.

The concept of transference is also referred to by Donald Winnicott who additionally emphasized the significance of playing and a transitional object (for instance, a toy) for the harmonious psychological development of a child. Moreover, he introduced the concepts of True Self, a sense of reality and being alive in the person’s body and mind, and False Self that may be regarded as a particular behavior that helps to mask a real personality in order to comply with others’ expectation. While False Self is an adaptation to a particular environment, True Self is frequently either partly or whole hidden.


Cherry, K. (2020). Narcissistic personality disorder symptoms and history. verywellmind. Web.

Rabstejnek, C. V. (2015). A brief review of self psychology. Web.

Self psychology. (2016). GoodTherapy. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. 2023. "Self-Psychology in Modern Psychoanalytic Theory." September 18, 2023.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Self-Psychology in Modern Psychoanalytic Theory." September 18, 2023.


PsychologyWriting. "Self-Psychology in Modern Psychoanalytic Theory." September 18, 2023.