This essay compares and contrasts Freud’s classical model of personality with the theory of self psychology devised by Heinz Kohut. Each theory proposes a different understanding of the nature of the human personality in regards to how it is formed and the extent to which it can adapt to its environment during the formative childhood years. Freud’s classical theory of personality promoted a notion of human personality as static, predetermined, and unchanging entity which an individual remained powerless to affect whether positively or negatively.
Kohut’s theory of self psychology by contrast returned human agency to the theory of personality and promoted a more dynamic interplay between the individual and his or her environment. This essay compares and contrasts Freud’s classical model of personality with the theory of self psychology devised by Heinz Kohut. For the purposes of this comparison, personality will be defined as any and all significant and reasonably constant behavioral elements exhibited and repeated in an individual human being (Ewen 4). Each theory proposes a different understanding of the nature of the human personality in regards to how it is formed and the extent to which it can adapt to its environment during the formative childhood years. Freud posited that human personality formed within the first five years of life and could be divided into three strata: the Id, the Ego and the Superego (Ewen 2003). An individual is born with his or her Id, best characterized as an “entirely unconscious” entity possessing the sole motivation to have its physical needs met and avoid pain (Ewen 2003).
The Ego arrives at approximately six months of age and represents the social face of the Id; Ego functions as a mediator between Id’s desires and “the reality principle, delaying pleasure until a suitable and safe object has been found” (Ewen 2003). The final member of the personality triumvirate the Superego forms between three and five years of age to moderate parental influence, conscious and unconscious desires, and “standards of right and wrong” (Ewen 2003). Kohut’s self psychology theory of personality denied the principal tenet of inherent sexual and aggressive forces (Kohut 1996). Self psychology launched the earliest psychoanalytic recognition of the importance of empathy in personality (Kohut 1996). Kohut (1996) focused attention on expanding the therapist’s role to practice relating empathically to the patient (Kohut 1996). Healthy development of personality was fluid and changeable, Kohut (1996) asserted, particularly in the realm of “selfobject experiences;” mutually beneficial experiences with other personalities nurtured the self and contributed to a positive view of the self, and greater self-esteem in the patient (Kohut 1996).
“Healthy narcissism” refers to a robust, ambitious and integrated self that aspires toward full self actualization as well as the fulfillment of proficiencies and talents (Kohut 1996). “Narcissism” by contrast indicates the presence of a powerless self striving to preserve a false self unity and self worth through destructive channels (Kohut 1996). Teicholtz (1999) argued “from the viewpoint of…feminist and postmodern critics” that Freud’s theory was essentially a dinosaur of “male supremacy…heterosexist views, and…derivative emphasis on reproductive sexuality” (Teicholtz 1999). Teicholtz (1999) asserted that Freud’s theory of personality was best “understood as having been multiply determined by a mix of the intellectual/sociopolitical climate of his times, the limiting effects of his personal subjectivity, certain unanalyzed aspects of his childhood misperceptions, and defensive unconscious fantasy” (Teicholtz 1999). Kohut’s theory of self psychology, Teicholtz (1999) states, “can be seen as [an] important waystation…between classical and postmodern theories” (Teicholtz 1999). Kohut championed the value of the “belief in the possibility of psychic order and coherence on the basis of certain kinds of relationships available to the individual during childhood” while simultaneously letting go of Freud’s rigid interpretation of “biological determinism” (Teicholtz 1999).
Kohut reformulated Freud’s concept of the instinctual aggressive drive and characterized it as more of a social construction than a predetermined unconscious response (Kohut 1996). Aggressive responses resemble “preformed action patterns” that are “learned with greater ease than other action patterns” (Kohut 1996). Said drives then were better described as a “biological and psychobiological readiness to express oneself aggressively” (Kohut 1996). Given that “certain patterns are more easily mobilized than others,” Kohut argued that the “drive in and of itself is neutral. You cannot say from the drive whether it is destructive in its social implications or constructive” (Kohut 1996). Kohut essentially asserted that the aggressive response drew meaning exclusively from its context, and not from an iron clad, consistently destructive biological instinct that gave no agency to its human host.
Teicholtz (1999) characterizes Kohut’s theory of self psychology as a bridging theory, and one that extended Frued’s theory into the 21st century Teicholtz (1999). “Kohut’s self psychology was an answer to what he felt were the limitations of Freud’s drive theory. Where Freud saw sexual and aggressive instincts as the driving force of development, Kohut saw the need for a coherent and continuous sense of the self” (Teicholtz 1999). Another area of contrast between the two theorists lay in their understanding of the higher emotions. Freud characterized the fruits of humanity – love for instance – as rewards for a healthy development of personality, yet in Freud’s mind these rewards only arrived once the individual had sublimated his true instincts, and so functioned as “derivatives of the instincts” (Teicholtz 1999).
Kohut, by contrast, saw the capacity for and the realization of love as direct extensions of the “nondrive aspects of self” (Teicholtz 1999). Kohut preferred to characterize human personality as a potential, a perennial bloom that could be influenced positively by his or her environment. Teicholtz (1999) showed that Kohut’s self psychology focused more on the whole human than separate and distinct parts (Teicholtz 1999). In conclusion, Freud’s classical theory of personality promoted a notion of human personality as a static, predetermined, and unchanging entity which an individual remained powerless to affect, whether positively or negatively. Kohut’s theory of self psychology by contrast returned human agency to the theory of personality and promoted a more dynamic interplay between the individual and his or her environment.
Ewen, R.B. (2003). An introduction to theories of personality (6th ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Kohut, H. (1996).
Heinz Kohut: The Chicago institute lectures. P. Tolpin & M. Tolpin, (Eds.).
Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press. Teicholtz, J.G. (1999).
Kohut, Loewald and the postmoderns: A comparative study of self and relationship. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.