Self-formation from Heinz Kohut’s perspective

Self-formation from Heinz Kohut’s perspective

The psychological survival of the child and then the adult requires the presence of self-objects that respond empathically to personal needs. Self-objects are formed from the relationship with significant others and are capable of structuring the self in a cohesive and integrated way.

Advertising message Kohut (1971) elaborates a theory of the mind that gradually moves away from the drive field, his theory considers the realization and cohesion of the Self as a motivational property. The Self is conceptualized as a center for initiating, organizing and integrating human motivations.

The fundamental human motivation for Kohut is to achieve self-balance and self-realization in terms of internal cohesion. The forces behind personal fulfillment are represented by personal ideals, ambitions, values ​​and talents; in order for the personal identity or the Self to live the experience of its own subjectivity it is necessary to experience empathic mirroring on the part of the reference figures, and at the same time it is important to feel belonging to the human cosmos through the function of twinning. The relational experience with specific self-objects allows the training of the structural core staff. But let’s see specifically his theory.

The functions of object-self are made explicit by real people, not by mental representations, and concern the parental functions of mirroring, idealization and, finally, the twinship lived also in therapeutic translations. The formation of the nuclear Self is the pivot on which a more mature and cohesive Self will be realized, this takes place through a specific process called transmuting internalization that allows the formation of the psychic structures to be established and indicates in the following way the conditions that make it possible :

Internal values, principles, ideals, goals, ambitions and talents structure the identity; the feeling of belonging to the human race (twinning) to activate and structure the Self by making it participate in one’s own existence inserted with other existences. It all depends on the affective responses (self-objects) that sometimes continue to be redundant to get entangled.

In 1977 Kohut distances himself from Freud, moving away from the concept of primary narcissism intended as a libidinal investment of the Self, but the narcissist according to his perspective is the one who has an experience of structural deficit and does not reach an adequate narcissistic balance in terms of self-esteem and self-acceptance; and the emotional reactive modalities of anger, of grandeur sometimes of arrogance, the fear of fragmentation or some psychosomatic disorders characterize his identity, are narcissistic imbalances that lead to the difficulty of decentralizing with the other and the impossibility of sharing his experience in healthy way.

Kohut conceives the Self formed by an internal structure in three constituents (no longer bipolar as he had considered in Narcissism and Self analysis in 1971) which are formed according to the relationship with his self objects:

The three constituents of the Self refer to three poles:

The Self in relation to its objects – itself can present deficits and therefore can be damaged in one or more of the poles described above and experience three types of translations of objects lived in the therapeutic relationship:

The need to experience self objects undergoes a maturation that lasts for life. In this regard, Kohut distinguishes the “immature archaic objects”, which represent the normal need of early childhood, or are sought later, chronically, in cases of self defects, or in a passing way, in periods of particular tension from those that do not manifest a pathology with mature self objects that we all need for psychological survival.

There are three needs that man has to support his Self:

The archaic need of the object – self does not necessarily derive from the loss of an object of love but from the loss of a more mature object experience.

If the Self is lacking in all the responses of objects – self, the condition of the self worsens and is seriously impoverished. This is why the concept of compensatory structures is fundamental in the Kohutian concept, which serve to make up for the shortcomings of mature self-objects with the possibility of revitalizing themselves in an unhealthy way (for example the use of addictive substances).

An indispensable function of the caregiver or of the Self object is the empathic and mirroring function, since in this way the process of growth and maturation suited to one’s own person is started. Empathy is identifying oneself in the world of the other through vicariant introspection, that is, through the affective resonance that the internal world of the other arouses, but in order to do this a great introspective capacity and empathic response is needed; through this understanding, a new relationship is built that provides reflective and functional experiences for one’s self and identity. Kohut, explains the functional importance of the “self-objects” indispensable for all life and asserts that depending on the qualities of the interactions between the self and its objects in childhood (self-object / self-relations) it will emerge as a solid and healthy structure or more or less seriously damaged (Kohut, 1978). The first “self-object” (mirror or mirror object) experiences the empathic function, usually maternal, and the narcissistic need to receive confirmation of its omnipotence, it structures the child’s sense of vigor and greatness.

The idealizing “self-object” (idealized parental imago) performs the fusional function that the child usually has towards the father, especially in the oedipal phase. This merger refers to the possibility of the child to get confused and admire the father figure, attributable to images of calm and omnipotence to build confident guiding ideals essential for one’s own safety. Through the so-called “transmuting internalization” the function of this object helps to create internal structure and serves to provide a sense of trust and internal security throughout life. In particular, in the states of diffuse anguish, the Self has not had the opportunity to merge with its omnipotent “self-object” and has suffered, says Kohut, the trauma of shared emotion.

When the relationship with the idealized object has been disturbed very early, a widespread narcissistic vulnerability is determined with the inability to maintain an adequate psycho-physical balance. When the traumatic events in the relationship with the object occurred later, but still in the pre-Oedipal phase, there is difficulty in channeling the impulses and the symptomatology is often linked to the sexual sphere (first theorizations). When traumatic disappointments occurred in the oedipal phase, there is a continuous need for an object to idealize and receive approval from. In normal development, idealizing investments are gradually internalized and gradually become a stable idealization of the superego, of the values ​​and principles that make up its contents. In narcissistic disorders the characteristics of the idealizing translation are in some way related to the period in which the process of development of idealizing narcissism stopped following the traumatic experience with the idealized self-object. Even “ideals” are a source of trust and security and calm. During childhood the distressing self tries to merge with idealized figures (the paternal imago) that will serve to promote internal tranquility.

Symptomatic behaviors can be traced back to those unmet archaic needs, drugs and alcohol are probably archaic objects not separated from themselves, merged with it to make up for a lack of object-self. These archaic objects emphasize their failure, they constitute the compensation for the voids of the Self. Stigmatization or judgment accentuate the removal of the needs that are at the origin and, by preventing their expression, thus renders them definitively unworkable. Understanding the protective function of the relationship with archaic objects concerns the possibility of avoiding the anxieties of disintegration. Symptomatic manifestations will allow narcissistic needs to emerge and find a new possibility of evolution in the therapeutic relationship. Structural deficits block these people to archaic configurations of the grandiose Self or to archaic objects that are overrated and invested with narcissistic libido (fixed and not integrated). Unlike the psychotic and borderline cases, narcissistic patients have reached a cohesive self and have built cohesive idealized archaic objects, therefore the threat to a disintegration of the archaic self is not irreversible as in cases of psychosis.

Kohut advertising message, undoubtedly stimulated by the clinical knowledge of the moment, broadens the concept I would say in person, humanizes it, tries to understand the subjectivity and the formation of its personal structure. Through his personal experience and his clinical acuity he ventures this ambitious theory which contributes to make the vision of man more optimistic and to give them a new possibility of existence.

Therapeutic translations and empathy as a therapeutic tool offer the person a new experiential and relational possibility. In the therapeutic context, living in the here and now the translational processes, through the therapist as a function of self object, offers a new possibility of structuring the self.

The therapeutic relationship allows a new vision of one’s own identity, more structured and aware of who we are. Fundamental in order to build a healthy self is the basic harmony between the Self and its self-objects. Secondly, certain non-traumatic deficiencies (which Kohut identifies in the responses of inadequate empathy) of the object itself must occur, the so-called “optimal frustration”. This is actually a biphasic sequence of psychological events from early childhood that repeat themselves an infinite number of times and have consequences:

The Self suffering from a conflict neurosis, or a narcissistic personality or behavioral disorder, is an individual to whom the residual self is still potentially looking for self-objects that give them adequate responses. The residual part of the self can be removed or split and can be looking for self objects that respond appropriately.

According to self psychology, therefore, the essence of psychoanalytic healing lies in the patient’s new ability to identify and find appropriate objects – both specular and idealizable – when they present themselves and be supported by them. The analysis therefore allows the acquisition of a more solid psychological structure; this, however, does not make it independent of objects itself but increases the ability of the self to use objects – self to support itself, as well as the freedom to seek more mature objects. So during the therapeutic translation there is a reactivation of the archaic structures that Kohut calls regression, without the danger of fragmentation (as instead happens in cases of psychosis).

It is a delicate work in which processes that alternate and sometimes get confused are activated, but the ultimate goal is cohesion and the feeling of right to exist as people in a context belonging to the human race of people even if they are different.

The goal of treatment is the rehabilitation of imperfect or weakened structures of the Self. This is only possible by mobilizing archaic needs, which have remained unsatisfied because they have remained unresponsive and therefore deeply removed or split from the central sector of the psyche.

This is an attempt by Kohut to give conceptual answers that start from the clinic and what happens in the analytical process in which precisely translations are activated that must be understood and supported. It is a psychology that integrates with other psychologies, “the relational” and “the intersubjective in which the unconscious dynamic that often stiffens mental processes is taken up and expanded”.

The psychological survival of the child and then the adult requires a specific psychological environment, the presence of self objects that respond empathically to personal needs. Self objects are formed from the relationship with significant others, they are external and real functions capable of structuring one’s self in a cohesive and integrated way in terms of narcissistic balance and self-esteem and cohesive structure. The real “others” are necessary to create a sense of healthy omnipotence and confirmation of one’s self-efficacy (through mirroring) to strengthen a sense of security to face life with confidence and creativity. This integration process starts from birth and the objects themselves serve to build internal structures for a narcissistic balance in terms of self-esteem and self-acceptance. The autonomous self,