Kohut believes certain portions of the mind are not available to conscious thought, which holds psychic phenomena such as wishes, memories, fantasies and prohibitions. Freud coined the term “libido” to describe energy he believed was associated with drives, motivation and instincts. He also stated that for civilisation to succeed, we must prohibit these sexual and aggressive impulses from living together, paying the price of neurotic suffering. The conflict between instinctual drives and cultural prohibitions. The mind establishes defences against the awareness of the prohibited drives to protect itself.

Freud established a tripartite topography.

  1. System Consciousness – the most superficial layer where contents are conscious
  2. Preconscious – middle layer
  3. Unconscious – deepest layer – no access to consciousness.

Within the transference, we can see the intrusion of the unconscious into the preconscious. Primary processes in the unconscious are irrational, impossible things established in fantasies. Secondary processes work in the preconscious as rational and ordered thought. The transference mechanism is responsible for slips, dreams and neurotic symptoms. Seeds embedded within the unconscious are responsible for intrapsychic conflicts; infantile sexuality, for example, lies in the primordial sexual instinct as an intense pleasure-seeking set of drives. They are experienced as wishes that push for instant gratification.

Sexual and aggressive instincts are expressed through a childhood wish for an incestuous relationship with an opposite-sex parent and a murderous wish towards a same-sex parent (Freud). The activity must be free from attachment to the conflict-inducing sexual wishes and keep the conflict desexualised, to function normally.

  • Boys – fear of castration by Father
  • Girls – fear of abandonment by Mother

The experience of optimal frustration is responsible for differentiating between a wish and a fantasy. This helps with the delayed gratification capacity of the child. Trauma occurs when the aspect overwhelms the capacity to maintain balance. The trauma depends upon the vulnerability of new structures at the time of the event. An immature, vulnerable ego will be easily overstimulated and traumatised, creating primal regression. The walling off of unmanageable intensities within the unconscious is called “Regression.” These walled-off forces remain unmodified in the form of the unconscious and inaccessible. Significant libido and psychic energy are left at these fixation points, prone to retreat under stressful situations. A developed psyche uses a pleasurable narcissistic state as protection. Anything unpleasant is attributed to the outside, and anything pleasurable is attributed to the self. The psyche is already differentiating between the self and the non-self.

If the underlying symptom is removed without resolving the underlying conflict, the anxiety will remain.

Psychosis is the movement towards a pre-object state with no libidinal attachments to objects. Unconscious ties to objects are lost, and a sense of nothingness, annihilation and drifting in space occurs.

Phobias – the threat of unmastered drives leaking through ego defences. Unmastered drives are projected onto the world as dangerous. The nurturing parent should have helped soothe the drive and make it secure.

Kohut`s Depiction of Tripartite Model

This model has a non-transferential area (superego ), a place where optimal frustration occurs ( non-conflicted, non-sexual structures ). Kohut teaches the neutralisation, knitting of the drives, into the fabric of the ego is an identification with the parental love of the child’s aggression. The child can then respond to their own rages in the same firm, loving manner. The child soon realises their weakness and vulnerability can no longer be denied and projects their narcissism onto their parents to save the fantasised omnipotence. They see their parents as godlike (idealised objects) and attempt to remain earlier narcissist perfection. When the image of the other perfect parent is lost due to frustrations, the parent is introjected, becoming part of the superego called the “Ego ideal”. This keeps the idealised parent forever present with no separation, and emotional growth is stunted. The child learns to curb undesired drives to remain in the parent’s good graces, but tension resides between the ego and ego ideal.

Change occurs through the structural building, with the gradual metabolism of manageable frustrations. The recovery of unconscious memories of the traumatic experiences is processed and worked through. Grandiose fantasies seek a witness to their grandiosity and perfection of the self. The important other fulfils the child yearning to be admired. Without optimal frustration and integration, this grandiosity remains infantile and unhealthy.

  • Parental mirroring – enacts the mobilisation of the grandiose self
  • Idealising of a parent – enacts the mobilisation f the idealise parental imago.

5 Steps of emotional development

  • Creativity – to play imaginatively within one`s surroundings
  • Empathy – The world is seen as an extension of the self. The inner experience of the other is the same as yours. Encoding of mothers’ feelings and behaviours.
  • Transcience – acceptance of one’s mortality, abandoning omnipotence and accepting one’s permanence. A quiet pride.
  • Humour – a quiet inner triumph and ability to laugh at oneself.
  • Wisdom – letting of narcissistic delusions an acceptance of death and a higher self.

The child must reclaim the parent’s idealisation or will forever require attachments to an idealised figure to feel better and intact. The internalised idealisation is gradually modified by the child’s experience of the parent’s limitations. By mourning the idealised parent ( loss of object ), the child gradually withdraws idealising energy to create new ego structures. These structures assume the functions previously performed by parents, such as mirroring and soothing. If the frustrations are too intense or consistent, the child cannot process the overwhelming loss, and no internalisation occurs.

Idealising Transference

3 phases of trauma disturbances

  • Pre-oedipal – The basic capacity to maintain and re-establish narcissistic balance; without empathic attunement, there is a lack of a stimulus barrier and no tension regulation seeking optional stimulus via addictions. A diffuse vulnerability in managing tensions and soothing oneself. When minor/multiple stresses are not internalised via soothing, the child is left seeking external validation and soothing.
  • Later Pre-Oedipal – development of drive controlling and neutralisation. Sexualised narcissistic needs act as a method to attempt soothing. Affirmation of sexuality is expressed via infantile methods such as masturbation or voyeurism—childlike attempts to restore vitality and libido.
  • Oedipal to latency period – the superego is still incomplete, always searching for external idealising objects to obtain approval and leadership. The insufficient and underdeveloped superego can not provide internal idealisation. If the object allows idealisation, they are perceived as a separate identity and establishes differentiation from the self. The child can love their own uniqueness and independence whilst retaining positive elements of the idealised parent.

The fear of being reexposed to early traumatic experiences and the threat of losing one`s personality leads to the need to merge idealised objects for emotional equilibrium. Any separation brings to awareness the object can not be controlled and is not always present. Any lack of immediate understanding, recognition, validation or availability will be met with despondency and narcissistic rage. A therapist will have to adjust their level of empathy to the child’s narcissistic attachment. A narcissist`s primary concern is the ego`s reaction to the gradual withdrawal of libido from the narcissistic invested archaic object. New structures are formulated and established if the child can contain and soothe the gradual withdrawal.

Grandiose Self

A second attempt to regain the lost blissful state by crteating a sense of perfection within the self. Any imperfections are assigned to the outside world and others. Once the parents accept the child’s omnipotence, grandiosity and exhibitionism, they transform. The child will gradually relinquish crude exhibitionism and grandiose fantasies and accept their real limitations. This allows the child to be emotionally developed with more maturity and capacity to face the reality ego.

Types of Mirroring Transference

The grandiose self (G/S) is reactivated and experienced in the form of mirroring transference.

  • Merger – merger through the extension of G/S. The child expects unquestioned control and dominance. Where the other is experienced as part of the self. Any transference and experience of separation are deemed aggressive, and the child rebels against such tyranny.
  • Alter Ego or Twinship – More mature emotional development and a later trauma—some degree of separation where the other is similar, but not an extension.
  • Mirror – Most mature form where the other is deemed as a separate person, but who is important within the framework of the needs of the G/S reactivation.

The child needs to be able mirrored by their mother and be able to look at her critically. The mother needs to participate joyfully with the child’s exhibitionism. Participate in the child’s body-self experience to create a sense of wholeness. Healthy Narcissism strengthens ego functions and increases the capacity to play. The mirror transference allows the therapist to create object constancy within the narcissistic realm. The ability to listen and show understanding maintains the cohesion of the self. This reconnects and establishes a new mind/body cohesion as well.

Within the transference neurosis, therapy aims to increase the ego’s dominance over unconscious libidinal wishes. Crude exhibitionistic demands remain outside the child’s awareness, activated by a vertical split of the forces of regression. Healthy narcissistic energies are not available for ego-syntonic activities and realistic success. With part of the personality split off from the central sector, defences maintain diminished self-esteem. There is normally a vast contradiction between thought and behaviour within the personal structure.

Awareness of the split and its disavowed contents is the first stage of treatment, where the ego is strengthened. This allows new energy to be released and no longer needed to retain the split. The grandiosity hidden in the vertical split or walled off beneath the horizontal split is mobilised. Fantasies exposed and associated with the mirror transference are worked through. The humiliating crude exhibitionism is modified, and disavowed contents are available to enhance self-esteem. A therapist is assigned the role of an approving witness and admirer of the client’s greatness, as they hold and contain intense feelings of overstimulation.

If the enfeebled self is severely disturbed by unempathetic parents, the self turns towards pleasure by stimulating the erogenous zones. It also brings about oral/anal distorted drive orientations and the enslavement by the drive correlated to infantile sexuality. Hostility and destructiveness are a by-product of the fragmenting self, where rage is motivated by narcissistic injury. The bedrock is not the threat of castration or physical survival but the threat of the destruction of the self. Assertiveness has fractured into a rage and sexual perversions for stimulation. To escape from depression, the child turns towards oral and phallic sensations with great intensity. These behaviours become crystallised in adult relationships.

  • Guilty Man – lives in accord with the pleasure principle. Attempts to satisfy drives but cannot do so because of environmental pressures and internal conflicts.
  • Tragic man – Tries to express inborn patterns of the nuclear self to live in a creative and fulfilling way. Failures usually overshadow success, the tragedy of unmet potential.

Bipolar Self

The self contains two opposing poles, one of ambition and one of ideals. The child’s healthy, expansive narcissism normally evolves into ambition. The other pole is the yearning to merge with a stabilising, tension-regulating idealised self-object. This normally evolves into ideals and a moral compass. A tension arc exists between the two poles, where they are driven by their ambitions but are led by their ideals.

5 Categories of Primary Disturbance

  1. Psychoses – serious distortion of the self
  2. Borderline – less effective defensive structures and fragile self-stability
  3. Schizoid/Paranoid – both employ emotional distancing and withdrawal
  4. Narcissistic personality – Temp breakup of the self. autoplastic symptoms such as hypersensitivity to slight, depression and hypochondria
  5. Narcissistic behaviour disorder – alloplastic symptoms such as sexual perversions, delinquency and addictions.

The first step is to address the vertical split, the maintained façade of superiority and dependency. The 2nd stage addresses the depleted and depressed self behind the repression barrier.

Oedipus complex

Empathic parents try to help modulate the child’s impulses and civilise the child. Parental pride enhances the child’s emerging self and constitutes the child’s joy and vigour with appropriate sexuality. A father with a narcissistic balance does not feel challenged by their child’s assertiveness. He allows the child to merge with and idealise him, embrace his strength and develop healthy masculinity. A retreat to pre-oedipal phases protects one from castration anxiety, a defensive enactment. Homosexuality develops as resistance to masculine, assertive men and fear of competitive men—an act of submission to avoid retaliation by one`s father and enmeshment with mother for protection.

The mother remains overly involved and supportive, fulfilling all the child’s narcissistic wishes as long as they remain allegiant with her. An expression of incestuous love with her, enslaved by her and unable to break free. The relationship with the father is an attempt to save oneself from suffocation, where the father has normally fled to survive, sacrificing the child in the process. Awareness of the mother`s limitations and engulfment generates severe anxiety and resistance. The threat or actual loss of the archaic idealised object creates anxiety, confusion and disorientation. Massive disavowed contents of the child’s awareness of the mother’s strangeness enable the idealisation to continue, and protect one against annihilation anxiety. As one relinquishes the archaic self-object, one can turn towards a strong father figure—a need for a masculine man to idealise and feel proud to be with.

  1. The first step is to work at point 1, which confronts losing a merger with the mother and losing oneself in the process.
  2. The 2nd stage confronts the traumatic overstimulation and disintegration as one becomes conscious of the hidden rage masking their assertiveness, sexuality and exhibitionism.

Parental faulty attunement and responses are rarely verbal; normally, they withdraw affect in a state of inhibition. The weakened self fragments, non-sexual oedipal affection, and non-hostile oedipal assertiveness break down into overt sexuality and hostility. The child experiences pathological sexual drivenness and destructive hostility when the self fragments. A continued propensity to experience fragments of love (sexual fantasies ) and assertiveness ( hostile fantasies).

Analytic Cure

It consists of 3 elements.

  1. Analysis of defences -the self is freed from early need and bonding with the archaic object. Free to choose self-objects with a higher level of emotional maturity.
  2. Working through of unfolding transferences
  3. Development of empathic communication and transactions between self and self-object on mature adult levels. Replaces the level of repressed or split-off unmodified narcissistic communications.

Kohut, H. (1996) Heinz Kohut and the Psychology of the Self, Routledge; 1st edition