An infant tries to maintain an original sense of perfection and omnipotence within an illusion of unity with the motherly figure. The idealised parental imago (IPI) is the figure the child attempts to attach to for strength, security and stability in times of distress. The child gazes at and uses the IPI as the perfect model to emulate. Feeling safe and protected by the admired other, a place of comfort and soothing, who provides the desired qualities such as power, goodness and love.

Over the years, the accumulation and integration of the idealised object gradually lead to the child structuring this soothing, powerful and safety-enhancing experience. Positive idealisation with an idealised figure leads to developing goals and ideals. Developing the grandiose self (G/S) preserves the delusional sense of power, perfection and unity with the motherly figure. Phase-appropriate caregiving responses of echoing, reflecting, approving, and admiring the child’s exhibitionism and self-assertion allow for the self’s maturation. Kohut discusses self-object transference as the receptacle to the therapeutic reactivation of stalled development processes.

  1. Idealising transference – the child feels enhanced and powerful, calmed and soothed
  2. Mirroring transference is the revival of early states in which parental figures affirm, approve of and praise the child.
  3. Alter ego / Twinship transference – need to see and understand others and be seen and understood. The other is like me.

Freud suggests primary narcissism is caught in the development phase between eroticism and object love. The withdrawal of libido from others is invested in developing the self at the expense of relatedness.

  • Fixated at the stage of primary identification or undifferentiation between self and object.
  • Retreat from anxieties of oedipal conflicts to a defensive, self-involved position.

Healthy narcissism is one of self-confidence and self-esteem, developed in conjunction with stable growth-promoting relationships. Able to bounce back when faced with external distress or discomfort without idealising the object’s validation. Pathological narcissism has excessive self-preoccupation and difficulty in regulating self-esteem. An unstable self-concept, with grandiose fantasies of self-importance and a sense of entitlement, an inability to experience others in relation, only as need-gratifying providers. Vulnerable to shame and humiliation, experienced as alienating in need of understanding and support.

The greater the narcisisitc libido , the lesser the object libido.

The ability to feel good about oneself interferes with loving others. The maturation of narcissism involves accepting one’s dependence on our self-object milieu. Attempts to protect from future shame or humiliation by employing defences of repression. The disavowal of expansive exhibitionism and exposure to reduce threats of shame. Painful feelings of hopelessness and despair usually follow the isolation and alienation of objects or rupture in relationships with self-objects. A sense of being different on every conceivable level, pathetic and ridiculous. Normal development comprises of a nascent self-awareness accompanied by compassion and competition with others. A formation of ideas, a constructed ideal we can strive towards. We can begin to establish criteria for failure, morals and shortcomings.

Repeated self-object failures in childhood lead to the formation of rigid ideals with a repeated failure to live up to them. Closed to mutual influence, fixed and bounded, enables psychic autonomy. Usually separated by two bipolar poles.

  1. A pole which emulates the basic strivings for recognition and power
  2. A pole to maintain guiding ideals
  3. The arc of tension between 2 poles can activate basic talents and skills.

The true self emerges through the interplay between the body and the selective responses of attachment figures. Certain potentialities are encouraged, and others are not, creating the “Nuclear self”. A sense of self is strengthened through intense, invigorating, positive emotional experiences, where one can express their emotions clearly and intensely. An underlying quality of richness continually undergoing growth by virtue of efforts to resolve the inevitable tensions between one’s actual and ideal selves. A lifelong process of internalisation of ideals through relationships with admired others.

A move from dependence (symbiosis ) to independence (autonomy)

In infancy, the self-object needs urgent and total enveloping, where the child relies exclusively on their mother for fulfilment. As increased distance becomes tolerated and less urgent, newer objects (father) help with fulfilment, providing mirroring and ego responsiveness. An effective way to learn is via ruptures and disruptions in treatment/ attunement, as we can see the concept of regulation and maintenance of homeostasis being threatened. The therapist who is alert to self-object relatedness pertains to their experience by

  • Being alert to and inquiring about affect of the client
  • Acknowledge the contribution of the child`s experience.

Seven types of self-objects need

  1. Mirroring – need to be recognised, accepted, affirmed and valued
  2. Idealising – need to experience oneself as part of and protected by an admirer, significant or respected other.
  3. Alter Ego – need to experience an essential likeness to the other
  4. Efficacy – one has to impact on the important other and be able to evoke needed self-object experience
  5. Adversarial – the ability to still experience the attachment figure as a benign opposing force. Can still be supportive and responsive whilst tolerating an oppositional stance.
  6. Self-delineating – need for assistance with the articulation and perceptual and affective experience.
  7. Validation – of one`s affective experience.

When the sense of symbiosis fades, the child attempts to preserve unity by forming two images: the grandiose self (G/S) and the idealised parental imago (IPI). The child may compensate by trying to be perfect, compliant and cute. Any attempt to repair the underlying belief there is something wrong with them. The failure in mirroring affects association with exhibitionism and exposure, such as pride, excitement and a sense of efficacy. When seeking to mirror, the child encounters multiple inevitable frustrations, injuries, and misunderstandings. This should help develop manageable doses and limits to their grandiose power. These “optimal” failures help develop internal means to maintain self-esteem and self-soothe. The archaic needs for mirroring can gradually mature, where perfection and constant attention-seeking validation and praise can diminish.

The child responds with a self-protective mechanism; when the injury is too overwhelming, they create a vertical split and separation in their experience, disavowing early narcissistic needs. Needs for mirroring are hijacked and turned against development potential, creating an unconscious prison for the child. This allows a person to hold distorted beliefs and engage in archaic acts of perversion. Primitive fantasies fail to undergo normal maturation and transformation. The child is deprived of their primary source of self-esteem, and they become hypersensitive and vigilant to real or imagined slights. The child is inclined to react to any indication of their limitations or failures with shame and then express it as narcissistic rage. There is a desire for constant mirroring, an absence of genuine pride, and always vulnerable to narcissistic injury. The child’s early expansive grandiosity is met with massive deflation and undergoes repression to prevent re-traumatisation, walling off from awareness of any healthy grandiosity.

A core sense of worthlessness, emptiness and deadness entails.

Failure to idealise with the parent diminishes their sense of safety and ability to modulate anxiety, fear and aggressive feelings. A continued yearning to experience a relationship with idealised others leads to codependency, seeking external power sources, and soothing. With further separation, the child can move towards a twinship transference, a sense of being part of the community like the other. Consolidating an engendered sense of self, a likeness with the same-sex parent. We see in adolescents the compulsory adherence to sameness in dress, music and values, where differences are threatening. The group provides self-definition and validation as the adolescent forms a new identity. In adulthood, we should enjoy a sense of likeness and value others for their difference, as we also hold onto our individuality.

Self Cohesion

A secure feeling of being a unit/person safely positioned in the world, a continuum in time, a centre to initiate action and a receptacle of impressions. The development of empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself with the inner life of another person. We must distinguish empathy from sympathy, whereby we project our similar perceived experience into the other. I feel for them based on how I feel in the same situation. Empathy involves transcending or surpassing one’s subjectivity or being aware of our subjectivity. Kohut suggested empathy consists of a mode of neutral observation, a way of knowing. A way to create and sustain personal bonds is to help with a more profound understanding and explanation.

Empathy is employed in Four ways.

  1. It enables caregivers to understand and respond to the child`s self-object needs.
  2. It helps ascertain the child`s emotional state and helps convey an understanding of that state.
  3. It informs caregivers how to interact with the child and helps re-establish narcissistic equilibrium after injury.
  4. Appropriate parental functioning is necessary to respond to the child`s emotional life.

As cohesion is strengthened, there is a greater sense of continuity and enhanced vitality. Increased self-agency and self-esteem lead to the formation of realistic ambitions and goals. One can start to use compensatory self-objects as support and ways to reconsolidate a sense of self. For example, a weakness in exhibitionism and ambition may be compensated for self-esteem provided by the pursuit of ideals.


Symptoms, behaviours and dysfunctional patterns of relatedness are seen as attempts to protect the vulnerable, an impediment to self-realisation with defensive adaptation. The patterns are not necessarily caused by intrapsychic conflict but by arrested and distorted self-development with insufficient self-object experiences. A constant lack of an available self-object is the main cause of the derailment. A disturbance in affect regulation due to frustrations in attaining essential needs. The child does not develop regulating structures and resulting functional capacity.

The underlying condition appears as frequent upsurges of anxiety,
depression, irrationality, fear or phobias—the reliance on archaic forms of
object relatedness to operate in an adult world. Identity fragmentation leads to diminished self-coherence, with a deep loss of continuity of self. It is a feeling of falling apart, being unable to hold oneself together, losing their
bearings with nothing to grasp onto for homeostasis. A deep fear of
disintegration, an intolerable experience that needs protecting and the primary principle of preservation. Exposure, at a time of need, leads to disintegration anxiety, with the indifferent, cold and rejecting response creating an emotional crisis.

Oedipal Pathology

Immature parents tend to experience their child’s growing assertion as competition and sexuality, with increased assertion experienced as hostile and threatening. The child will feel criticised, injured and isolated rather than supported with growing issues and self-expression. If these demands are not met with maturity and attunement, they will transform into primitive, isolated and sustained forms of hostility. The experience of a disapproving faceless mother is terrifying, a traumatic experience and a loss of motherly ties.

The child feels betrayed, unaccepted and misunderstand.

Perverse sexual activities are attempts to compensate for deficits in self-structure and counteract inner deadness and self-fragmentation. The erotic activity to replace the original disappointing experience is expressed in pregenital expressions and desires for pleasure. An addictive, ferocious quality like a child seeking their mother’s breast. The entrance of a stable self-object attachment into the client’s psychological world allows for desexualisation. This allows and permits the tolerance of otherwise disavowed experiences and affects. The aetiology or predisposition towards addiction lies in an early and severe disturbance in idealising a self-object. The mother (self-object) cannot provide the function of a stimulus barrier by offering the child a calm, soothing environment. Without gradual internalisation, the child remains fixated on their quest for the idealising experience. The addictive trigger mechanism stimulates narcissistic fantasies and feelings of bliss, consisting of grandiosity, invulnerability, numbing out or tranquillity.

Clinical Process

Clients enter therapy with internal unconscious conflicts, usually between a desire to be understood, to experience a needed experience on the one hand, and, on the other hand, waiting in fearful anticipation of being painfully traumatised again. Resistance to the process is triggered by disintegration anxiety, not forbidden drive wishes, with a need to preserve the fragmented self. Ruptures indicate that the relationship has repeated old dysfunctional patterns, allowing for a greater opportunity to analyse the parts and roles the client and therapist occupied. There is an unconscious hope the therapist can contain their painful feelings and experiences, make sense of them and share the experience in a calm environment. This will allow the patient to express self-object yearnings, as they have more confidence and assurance they won’t be met with a frustrating and rejecting object again. They can learn ruptures are manageable and help strengthen their capacity for affect tolerance and regulation. The painful affect states gradually become integrated and transformed.

It’s not the therapist’s job to interpret defences to challenge them, get rid of them or bypass them. The therapist’s understanding, empathy, and acceptance create a sense of safety for the patient to become aware of their defences and no longer feel the need to employ them. The therapist’s experience as a caring and attentive self-object within the clinical transference allows for the fearful and conflicted areas of the patient’s subjective life to be revealed more freely, explored and hopefully resolved. This will enable the patient to participate in the idealising transference to reactivate the development process arrested in childhood. To use the therapist as a drive and affect regulatory object to establish values and standards. Unmet needs are mobilised, and the patient can feel connected, safe and protected by the new idealised figure.

The mirroring transference mobilises the archaic, primitive form of the grandiose self, which has been split off from the more reality-conscious part of the personality. The therapist can assure and show the previous expression of grandiosity, fantasy and wishes will be approved of and supported. This establishes the admiring other, who understands the patient’s deep desire for recognition and affirmation. Using their counter-transference experiences and feelings, the therapist can enrich the clinical relationship with more emotional depth and relational dynamism and give more meaningful context for the experience in the way we behave.

Lessem, P.A (2005) Self Psychology: An Introduction, Jason Aronson publishing