Sullivan's object relations theory

Sullivan's object relations theory

Sullivan laid the groundwork for understanding man based on the interpersonal relationships in which he develops. In its postulates, the elements under study that are, in turn, subject to treatment, are produced by culture. Sullivan focuses his attention on the object relations more than in the intrapsychic conflict.

Sullivan's object relations theory

The psychoanalytic concept of I in Freud it is possibly the oldest attempt to offer a personality theory in which the I play a significant role.

For Freud, the I it represents everything that is healthy and rational in mental life, has an executive function that tries to fit the needs of the it with the demands of surpassed, in order to enable a gratification of the instincts that represents a course of action safe for personal functioning.

In any case, although it refers to a central aspect of personality, its entity and dynamics were not clearly and coherently exposed by Freud himself.

Object relations and the self

Other authors such as Horney and Sullivan studied further the development of itself. Karen Horney recast the psychoanalytic ideas of I Y conferred a sense of self-awareness I didn't have for Freud.

This self-awareness extends to the past and the future: the I It develops in childhood through the child's social interactions with adults and, especially, with his parents.

Those who feel valued and loved by their parents develop a concept of I positive and value themselves well. This concept of I It is an engine and a guide to action to the extent that the subject tends to establish relationships and carry out tasks that are consistent with the capabilities and preferences of his concept of I.

Anxiety appears when you have a concept of I that is not consistent with personal reality or that is very poor. In these cases, the subject transforms the negative self-concept into an idealized, false and unrealistic image, which is expressed with very high and mismatched standards with respect to its own reality.

For Sullivan, the itself it had a social and interpersonal base that came from the first mother-child relationships. The self develops by contact with others and by the child's assessments of how it is valued by others.

Important parts of the self would be

  • The me good (associated with pleasant experiences)
  • The me bad (associated with pain and security threats)
  • And the not me (parts of the self rejected because they are associated with intolerable anxiety)

Finally, during the last years, some psychoanalysts have been interested in the relationship between self and self-esteem. These authors configure the call object relations theory.

Unlike classical psychoanalysis, proponents of this theory consider that the The person's interest is focused on seeking relationships with others rather than gratifying instincts..

Fundamental axioms of Sullivan's object relations theory

  1. The representations of the self are multiple and multidimensional. That is, there are several themselves based on a diversity of elements, which can be integrated in a coherent sense of self or be partial and conflict with each other.
  2. The representations of the self are loaded with emotion. In fact, they are organized according to their association with various emotions, such as joy, sadness, sexual arousal, shame, etc.
  3. The representations of the self are related to the motivational elements of personality, trying to seek pleasure and avoid pain
  4. Self representations can be conscious or unconscious. The latter would be because they were trained before the development of language or certain cognitive abilities or because they were repressed for defensive purposes.
  5. The individual develops representations of himself, others and his self in relation to others. The individual organizes these representations within his system of the self, trying that all the elements are cohesive, integrated and in coherence


  • Navarro, I. V. (2013). The seeds of Harry Stack Sullivan in contemporary psychiatry and psychotherapy.Clinical and Relational Research Vol. 2, 407-423.
  • Ramírez, N. (2010). Object relations and the development of psyche: a psychoanalytic conception.Journal of research in psychology13(2), 221-230.
  • Sullivan, H. S. (1931). The modified psychoanalytic treatment of schizophrenia.Schizophrenia as a human process. Mexico: Herrero Hermanos2.
  • Sullivan, H. S., & Perry, H. S. (1968).The Fusion of Psychiatry and Social Sciences. Editorial Psyche.