Harry Stack Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory

This theory starts from psychoanalysis to understand how relationships affect personality.

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, whose focus on interpersonal relationships significantly influenced later developments in psychotherapy.

HS Sullivan’s interpersonal theory

Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) published in 1953 the work “The interpersonal theory of psychiatry”; in this he developed his model of personality, which is framed in the paradigm of psychoanalysis. More specifically, we can classify Sullivan in 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 this science should have as its object of study the interactions between human beings. In this way, he highlighted the fundamental relevance of interpersonal relationships (both real and imaginary) in the configuration of the personality, and consequently also of psychopathology.

For this author, personality can be defined as a pattern of behavior related 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 socialization process.

In this sense, the personality would be progressively formed as a function of contact with the social environment and one’s own ability to satisfy needs, as well as the tension that these cause from both a biological and psychological point of view. The failures in this type of learning and the lack of psychological adaptation would lead to pathology.

HS Sullivan’s theory of personality, 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 in its interest in individuality and in the importance it gives to the mutual relationship between therapist and patient.

Stable factors that form the personality

According to Sullivan, the construct we know as “personality” is made up of three stable aspects: dynamisms and needs , the Ego System, and personifications.  

All of them develop from interaction with other people and from how we resolve our physiological and social impulses.

1. Needs and dynamisms

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

Dynamisms are complex and more or less stable patterns of behavior that 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 System of the I

The Self System develops throughout childhood as we experience anxiety and alleviate it through other people. It is a psychic structure that fulfills the function of managing anxiety, that is, of dealing with security needs. With age, it also adopts the function of protecting self-esteem and social image.

3. The personifications

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

Modes of experience: the development of the mind

Following Sullivan’s approaches, the personality is formed through the transfer of the interpersonal to the intrapsychic. In this way, if a person’s needs during childhood are satisfactorily met, they will achieve a sense of self-confidence and security; if not, you will develop a tendency to feel insecure and anxious.

The ways in which we experience our physical and social environment change as a function of age, the degree of mastery of language and the correct satisfaction of needs. In this sense Sullivan described three modes of experience: the prototaxic, the parataxic and the syntactic. Each of them is subordinate to those that appear later.

1. 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, 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. Parataxic experience

During childhood, people differentiate ourselves from the environment and obtain knowledge about the 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 refer to the emergence of experiences of this type in later stages of life. They consist fundamentally of relating to others in a way that is equivalent to what happened with significant others in the past; this would manifest itself in the transfer, for example.

3. Syntactic experience

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

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