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Heinz Kohut (3 May, 19138 October, 1981) was an Austrian-born Americanmarker psychoanalyst best known for his development of Self psychology, an influential school of thought within psychodynamic/psychoanalytic theory which helped transform the modern practice of analytic and dynamic treatment approaches.

Early life

Kohut was born on 3 May, 1913 to an assimilated Jewish family and received his MD in neurology at the University of Vienna. Like many Jews, including Freud, Kohut fled Nazi occupation of his native Viennamarker, Austriamarker in 1939. Kohut settled in Chicagomarker and became a prominent member of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. Kohut wassuch a strong proponent of the traditional psychoanalytic perspective that was dominant in the U.S. that he jokingly called himself "Mr. Psychoanalysis."

Development of Self psychology

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, Freudian analysis was too focused on individual guilt and failed to reflect the new zeitgeist (the emotional interests and needs of people struggling with issues of identity, meaning, ideals, and self-expression). [120351] Though he initially tried to remain true to the traditional analytic viewpoint with which he had become associated and viewed the self as separate but coexistent to the ego, Kohut later rejected Freud's structural theory of the id, ego, and superego. He then developed his ideas around what he called the tripartite (three-part) self.

According to Kohut, this three-part self can only develop when the needs of one's "self states," including one's sense of worth and well-being, are met in relationships with others. In contrast to traditional psychoanalysis, which focuses on drives (instinctual motivations of sex and aggression), internal conflicts, and fantasies, self psychology thus placed a great deal of emphasis on the vicissitudes of relationships.

Kohut demonstrated his interest in how we develop our "sense of self" using narcissism as a model. If a person is narcissistic, it will allow him to suppress feelings of low self-esteem. By talking highly of himself, the person can eliminate his sense of worthlessness.

Historical context

Kohut expanded on his theory during the 1970s and 1980s, a time in which aggressive individuality, overindulgence, greed, and restlessness left many people feeling empty, fragile, and fragmented.

Perhaps because of its positive, open, and empathic stance on human nature as a whole as well as the individual, self psychology is considered one of the "four psychologies" (the others being drive theory, ego psychology, and object relations); that is, one of the primary theories on which modern dynamic therapists and theorists rely. According to biographer Charles Strozier, "Kohut...may well have saved psychoanalysis from itself."[120352] Without his focus on empathic relationships, dynamic theory might well have faded in comparison to one of the other major psychology orientations (which include humanism and cognitive behavioral therapy) that were being developed around the same time.

Also according to Strozier, Kohut's book The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Analysis of the Treatment of the Narcissistic Personality Disorders [120353] "had a significant impact on the field by extending Freud's theory of narcissism and introducing what Kohut called the 'self-object transferences' of mirroring and idealization." In other words, children need to idealize and emotionally "sink into" and identify with the idealized competence of admired figures. They also need to have their self-worth reflected back ("mirrored") by empathic and caregiving others. These experiences allow them to thereby learn the self-soothing and other skills that are necessary for the development of a healthy (cohesive, vigorous) sense of self. For example, therapists become the idealized parent and through transference the patient begins to get the things he has missed. The patient also has the opportunity to reflect on how early the troubling relationship led to personality problems. Narcissism arises from poor attachment at an early age. Freud also believed that narcissism hides low self esteem, and that therapy will reparent them through transference and they begin to get the things they missed. Later, Kohut added the third major self-object theme (and he dropped the hyphen in self-object) of alter-ego/twinship, the theme of being part of a larger human identification with others.

Though dynamic theory tends to place emphasis on childhood development, Kohut believed that the need for such self-object relationships does not end at childhood but continues throughout all stages of a person's life.

In the final week of his life, knowing that his time was at an end, Kohut spent as much time as he could with his family and friends. He fell into a coma on the evening of October 7, 1981, and died of cancer on the morning of October 8.


  • Analysis of the Self: Systematic Approach to Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, International Universities Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8236-8002-9

  • How Does Analysis Cure?, Heinz Kohut, ed. Arnold Goldberg, 1984, ISBN 9780226450346

  • 'The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1978-1981, ISBN 0823660176, ISBN 9780823660179

  • The Kohut Seminars on Self Psychology and Psychotherapy With Adolescents and Young Adults, Miriam Elson, 1987, ISBN 0393700410, ISBN 978-0393700411

  • Heinz Kohut: The Chicago Institute Lectures, ed. Paul Tolpin, Marian Tolpin, 1996, preview at google books, ISBN 0881631167

  • Heinz Kohut and the Psychology of the Self (Makers of Modern Psychotherapy), Allen Siegel, 1996, preview at google books, ISBN 041508637X

  • The Psychology of the Self: A Casebook, Heinz Kohut, Arnold Goldberg, 1978, ISBN 0823655822

  • White,M. Weiner,M., The Theory And Practice Of Self Psychology, 1986, ISBN 0876304250

  • Treating the Self: Elements of Clinical Self Psychology, Ernest S. Wolf, 2002, preview at google books, ISBN 1572308427

See also


  1. Strozier, Charles B. Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst
  2. Flanagan, L.M. (1996). "The theory of self psychology". In (Eds.) Berzoff, J., Flanagan, L.M., & Hertz, P. Inside out and outside in, New Jersey:Jason Aronson Inc.)
  3. Elson, Miriam. (1986). Self Psychology in Clinical Social Work

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