Harry Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory: Understanding Self


The interpersonal theory of Harry Stack Sullivan on the development of personality is one of the best known in the field of psychoanalysis. Harry Stack Sullivan published in 1953 “The interpersonal theory of psychiatry”; this was his developed model on human personality, which is framed/renowned in the paradigm of psychoanalysis.  Furthermore we can classify Sullivan within Neo-Freudism, along with authors such as Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Erik Fromm or Erik Erikson.

Sullivan defended a conception of psychiatry according to which its main object of study and focus should be on the interaction between human beings. It is in this way he highlighted the fundamental relevance of interpersonal relationships (both real and imaginary) in the configuration of personality and consequently that of psychopathology.

For Sullivan, personality can be defined as a pattern of behavior related to situations of interaction with other people.  To him personality is a stable and complex entity, determined as much by innate physiological and interpersonal needs as by learning through early experiences and the process of socialization. 

According to this model personality would be formed progressively in terms of contact with the social environment and the capacity to meet one’s needs; it also takes into account the tension one has to face from a biological and a psychological point of view.  Failures to learn during the development of personality and the lack of psychological adaptation would lead to pathology.

The theory of the personality of H. S. Sullivan in particular focuses on social interactions, led to the emergence of the school of interpersonal psychoanalysis. This model differs from the Freudian variant because of its interest in individuality and the importance it gives to the mutual relationship between therapist and patient.

According to Sullivan “personality” is composed of three stable aspects: Dynamisms and needs, system of self and personifications.
All of them are developed from the interaction with other people and how we solve our physiological and social impulses.

Dynamisms And Needs.-   Interpersonal psychoanalysis defines two large sets of human needs: those of self-satisfaction and those of security. The first is associated with physiology and include feeding, excretion, activity or sleep.  On the other hand security needs have a more psychological character, such as the avoidance of anxiety and the maintenance of self-esteem.

Dynamisms are complex and more or less stable behavior patterns which have the function of satisfying a certain basic need or in Sullivan’s words “transforming the physical energy of the organism”. There are two types of dynamism: those that relate to specific parts of the body and those associated with experiences of fear and anxiety.

System of Self Or The “I”.-   The “I” system or system of “self” develops throughout childhood as we experience anxiety and relieve it through other people. It is a psychic structure which fulfills the function of managing anxiety; that is of dealing with security needs. With age it also adopts the function to protecting our self-esteem and social image

Personification.-  Sullivan uses the term “personification” to refer to the ways in which children interpret the world: attributing to people and the collective the characteristics of others, based on interaction experiences as well as personal beliefs and fantasies. Personifications will have a great importance in social relationships throughout life.

If we continue to take a close look at Sullivan’s model, then personality is formed by the transfer of the interpersonal to the intra-psychic.   By this definition, if the needs of a person during childhood are satisfactorily covered and healthy boundaries are set, he will achieve a sense of self-confidence and security; if not, he will develop a tendency to feel insecure and anxious.

The ways in which we experience our physical and social environment change according to age; the degree of language proficiency and the correct satisfaction of needs.  Sullivan described three modes of experience: Prototaxic, parataxic and syntactic. Each one of them subordinates to the previous one.

Prototaxic Experience.- Babies experience life as a succession of unrelated organismic states; there is no conception of causality or a true sense of time. Progressively they’ll become aware of the parts of their body that interact with the outside, in which there are sensations of tension and relief.

Parataxic Experience.- During childhood, we differentiate ourselves from the environment and obtain knowledge about ways to satisfy our needs; this allows the appearance of personal symbols through which we establish relationships between events and sensations, such as those of causality.

Sullivan spoke of “parataxic distortion” to make reference to the emergence of experiences of this type in later stages of life. They consist fundamentally of relating to others in an equivalent way to that which occurred with significant people in our past; when one is unable to clearly differentiate a person’s behavior from the past and attributes it to a different person in the present its called “transference”.

Syntactic.- When the development of personality has occurred in a healthy way, the syntactic thought appears, which has a sequential and logical character and is constantly modified according to the new experiences. In addition, the symbols are validated through consensus with other people, which gives a social meaning to the behavior.

To summarize Sullivan outlined six developmental stages called “epochs”: Infancy, childhood, juvenile era, preadolescence, early adolescence, late adolescence.  When the need for tenderness, security, intimacy and healthy boundaries are set, a person progresses from one stage to another relatively without conflicting emotions.  On the other hand if those needs haven’t been met or boundaries, responsibilities haven’t been set/taught, then a person develops conflict within self; dividing one self into what Sullivan called “The Good Me” “The Bad Me” “The Not Me”.  

Sullivan made a distinction among the 3 selves: The “good me” vs “the bad me” based on social appraisal/recognition and the anxiety that results from negative feedback/trauma.  Whereas the “not me” refers to unknown repressed component of self.  A place one tends to deny exists for there lies our very vivid but unconscious unpleasant memories and thoughts.

Sullivan suggested mental disorders are the result of situations which are incompatible with our perceptions of self and others.  Until the “Not me” is fully addressed and resolved, dissolution of conflict between the “good me” and the “bad me” cannot result, hence preventing integration of self.   In order to integrate then, one must be willing to address that which we most fear and hide from others and from our own selves; only when we take a good look at ourselves and face our own darkness we can start the process of recovery and healing.  Integration will happen naturally as healing takes place and new healthier experiences occur. 

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By Sofia Falcone

I passionately believe one person can make a difference. I write from my own experiences and interests. It is my greatest hope that by writing about my own challenges, victories, hopes and learnings, others may feel inspired to believe more in their inner power and to fully embrace themselves!

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