Harry Stack Sullivan’s interpersonal theory

Harry Stack Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory of Personality Development is one of the best known in the field of psychoanalysis.

In this article, we will describe the main concepts and postulates of this model, the emphasis on interpersonal relationships very significantly influences subsequent developments in psychotherapy.

    HS Sullivan’s interpersonal theory

    Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) published the work in 1953 “The interpersonal theory of psychiatry”; in this he developed his personality model, Which is part of the paradigm of psychoanalysis. Specifically, we can classify Sullivan as neo-Freudianism, with authors such as Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Erik Fromm, and Erik Erikson.

    Sullivan advocated a view of psychiatry according to which this science should be about the study of interactions between human beings. This way emphasized the fundamental relevance of interpersonal relationships (Both real and imagined) in the configuration of personality, and therefore also of psychopathology.

    For this author, personality can be defined as a model of behavior linked to situations of interaction with other people. It would be a stable and complex entity, determined both by innate physiological and interpersonal needs and by learning through early experiences and the process of socialization.

    In this sense, the personality would be formed gradually according to the contact with the social environment and the own capacity to satisfy the needs, as well as the tension which these cause as well from a biological point of view as psychological. Errors in this type of learning and a lack of psychological adaptation would lead to pathology.

    HS Sullivan’s personality theory, and in particular his focus on social interactions, led to the emergence of the school of interpersonal psychoanalysis. This current also differs from the Freudian variant by its interest in individuality and by the importance it attaches to the mutual relationship between therapist and patient.

      Stable factors that shape the personality

      According to Sullivan, the construct we know as “personality” consists of three stable aspects: dynamics and needs, The auto-system and personifications.

      They all develop from interaction with other people and how we resolve our physiological and social impulses.

      1. Needs and dynamics

      Interpersonal psychoanalysis defines two major sets of human needs: Those of self-satisfaction and those of security. The former are associated with physiology and include diet, excretion, activity or sleep; security needs are more psychological in nature, such as avoiding anxiety and maintaining self-esteem.

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

      2. The self system

      The self system develops throughout childhood when we experience anxiety and get relief from other people. It is a psychic structure which fulfills the function of manage anxiety, i.e. struggle with security needs. With age, it also assumes the function of protecting self-esteem and social image.

        3. Personifications

        Sullivan uses the term “personification” to refer to the way children interpret the world: attributing to individuals and groups the characteristics of others, based both on experiences of interaction and on personal beliefs and fantasies. The personifications will have great importance in social relationships throughout life.

        Means of experience: the development of the mind

        Following Sullivan’s approach, the personality is formed by transferring what is interpersonal to the intrapsychic. In this way, if a person’s needs during childhood are satisfactorily met, he or she gains a sense of self-confidence and security; otherwise, you will develop a tendency to feel insecure and anxious.

        The ways we experience our physical and social environment they change according to age, the degree of mastery of the language and the proper satisfaction of needs. In this sense, Sullivan described three modes of experimentation: prototactic, paratactic and syntactic. Each of them is subordinate to those that appear later.

        1. Prototactic experiment

        Babies live life as a succession of independent organic states. There is no conception of causation or a true sense of time. gradually you will become aware of the parts of the body that interact with the outside, In which there are feelings of tension and relief.

        2. Paratactic experiment

        During childhood, people differentiate themselves from the environment and acquire knowledge about how to meet 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 “paratactic distortion” for reference to the emergence of such experiences at later stages of life. They essentially consist of establishing relationships with others in a manner equivalent to what has happened with significant people in the past; this would manifest itself in the transference, for example.

        3. Syntactic experience

        When the development of the personality takes place in a healthy way, syntactic thinking arises, which has a sequential and logical character and is constantly changed according to new experiences. outraged symbols are validated by consensus with other people, which gives social significance to the behavior.

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