Self Psychology: An Introduction (Book Review)
Author: Lessem, Peter A.
Publisher: Jason Aronson
Reviewed By: Michael Gawrysiak, Fall 2008, XXVIII, No. 4, pp. 60-61
In Self Psychology, readers will be impressed by the ease and coherence with which Peter Lessem covers the breadth of self psychological theory. As a graduate student in clinical psychology, it is not often that one finds a book within the psychodynamic discipline that so clearly and concisely introduces both the origins and contemporary qualities of a clinical theory. Given the confusing and often inaccessible tone that can characterize the writing style of Heinz Kohut, this book is more than welcome as an appropriate stepping stone to his original works. I found that Lessem’s clear exposition of the central tenets of self psychology enabled me to delve more deeply into the writings of other self psychology theorists.
Lessem begins the book by introducing Heinz Kohut and tracing his deviation from traditional psychoanalytic theory. His re-conceptualization of narcissism marked an important milestone in the discipline. Kohut was a highly regarded Freudian analyst who had achieved the highest ranking one could as a training analyst at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. Well versed in traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, it was not until his analysis of Miss F. that Kohut was put in the unique position of having to modify the conceptualization of narcissism. He did this to more fully accommodate his analysand’s clinical symptomatology and to develop a more accurate case conceptualization. In response to his analysand, Kohut diverged from the pejorative view that narcissism was a problematic product of infantile self-absorption needing to be outgrown. Kohut adopted the perspective that narcissism was something that needed to be nurtured throughout one’s development. It becomes clear from the reading that Kohut conceptualized narcissism as a vital personal resource that, when appropriately matured, facilitates the capacity for empathy, humor, creativity, and self-esteem. Kohut was impelled to formulate developmental aspects of narcissism in what he called the idealized parent imago and the grandiose-exhibitionistic self. Lessem clearly and concisely outlines the concepts idealized parent imago and grandiose-exhibitionistic self as different facets of development required for healthy maturation of narcissism.
After providing a strong foundation of narcissism from a Freudian and then Kohutian perspective, Lessem moves into a discussion of Kohut’s conceptualization of the self and selfobject relations, positing the selfobject concept as foundational for self psychology theory. Lessem articulates that the self is best understood as a potential that actualizes only in response to appropriate selfobject experiences, which occur throughout childhood, adolescence, adulthood or within the dynamics of psychotherapy. The book outlines how the self emerges in response to the interplay of variables related to an individual’s innate biological features, and how selfobject needs are selectively responded to by prominent attachment figures. Lessem cogently discusses each of the three primary selfobject needs posited by Kohut: the mirroring, idealization and twinship or alter ego selfobject needs. As he articulates the ways in which these needs can facilitate or obstruct psychological development, he unpacks the meaning of selfobject needs, the experiences of each need, and how they do and do not manifest within the therapeutic dyad. Moreover, Lessem expands one’s exposure to the broader and more recent developments in the field of self psychology. By incorporating contemporary authors who have extended the theory by elaborating on guidelines for treatment, as well as those authors who have suggested revisions, Lessem succeeds in portraying self psychology in a modern light.
As a central and fundamental concept in self psychology, empathy is given a thorough discussion in the chapter following narcissism, self and selfobject relations. Kohut, in his most recent publication on empathy, defined it as “the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person. It is our lifelong ability to experience what another person experiences” (Kohut 1984, Page 82). Lessem describes the Kohutian perspective on empathy in a way that is readily digestible and easily understood with regards to attempting to apply it within one’s clinical practice. This chapter concludes with a brief discussion of recent conceptualizations of empathy outlining the advent of understanding empathy as a two-person interactive process.
As a graduate student, I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the chapters focusing on conceptualization of growth and therapeutic action, psychopathology and clinical action. Lessem skillfully and informatively covers how self psychology conceptualized the primary objective of treatment as strengthening one’s sense of self. He clearly demonstrates the use of the selfobject transference relationship as a vehicle of change, to mobilize one towards corrective emotional experiences. Lessem also adeptly covers Kohut’s theory of optimal frustration and transmuting internalization and how these principles apply to one’s therapeutic practice. He further goes on to discuss an understanding of Kohut’s mirroring, idealizing, and twinship selfobject needs, how they are a transferential perspective within the therapy, and ultimately how they are used as mutative properties in service of therapeutic change. As an aspiring clinician, these chapters were particularly helpful in cogently spelling out Kohut’s theory of change within psychotherapy. Moreover, Kohut’s theory was further contextualized into contemporary self psychology through Lessem’s brief elaboration on recent critiques and alternative theoretical explanations of structure building provided by other self psychologists.
Another quality of this book that I found myself appreciating was the respect paid to those clinical theorists who, in many ways, anticipated self psychology. Although Kohut rarely acknowledged if, how, or by whom he was influenced, his ideas exhibited a strong similarity to the concepts articulated by earlier British Object Relations theorists. In the appendix of this book, Ferenczi, Balint, Fairbairn, and Winnicott are all discussed with regards to how their theoretical contributions to psychoanalysis plausibly informed the development of self psychology, or at the minimum anticipated it in many ways. Reading about the theoretical similarities these clinicians propounded upon prior to the advent of self psychology further contextualized numerous ideas Kohut outlined in self psychology.
This book is excellent for anyone interested in quickly developing a broad understanding of the emergence of self psychology, its developmental history, and some subsequent theoretical extensions. Broad in scope, this introduction provides a thorough foundation from which one can begin to move deeper into self psychology. Lessem’s book has been used as required preliminary reading in a graduate student book club focusing on the original work of Kohut. Graduate students who participated in this group agreed that reading this book served as an effective primer in preparation for Kohut, as it make easily accessible the evolution of self psychology concepts. As a graduate student in clinical psychology pursuing edification of psychodynamic theory and psychoanalysis, this book was much appreciated. It is highly recommended for graduate students interested in self psychology or for practitioners wishing to become familiar with the field.
Kohut, H. (1984). How does analysis cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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