The Interpersonal Theory of Harry Sullivan

The interpersonal theory of Harry Sullivan, like any other, must be understood taking into account the historical context in which it was generated.

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The interpersonal theory of Harry Sullivan, like any other, must be understood taking into account the historical context in which it was generated. This fulfills a fundamental role to be able to understand the why and for what a theoretical development was carried out and to what questions this development responded.

Harry Sullivan was a US psychiatric doctor. His graduation as a doctor coincided with the explosion of the First World War. He worked for many years as an allied military doctor and later at the Pratt Towson Hospital. Sullivan devoted a lot of time to the study of schizophrenia, due to the impact that those patients had on him.

His initial psychiatric practice was inclined toward Freudian psychoanalysis, however, little lasted in this. For his theory -the interpersonal theory of psychiatry- he took some of the psychoanalytic principles related to human dynamics-unconscious motivation, defense mechanisms, and dream interpretation.

Theoretical Influences of Harry Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory

Throughout his short life, Sullivan’s work was influenced by the writings of: Sigmund Freud, George Herbert Mead (for the theory of status and social role), Adolfo Meyer (for his biological method), Leonard Cotrell, Ruth Benedict and especially Edward Sapir.

Sullivan is a third-generation psychoanalytic author, as is Erich Fromm. He can be classified as an independent Freudian, since by using his training he borrowed certain theoretical foundations from Freudian psychoanalysis to give them a different use.

Thus, the main point of study of the interpersonal theory of Harry Sullivan is focused on the ways of relating and communicating. However, his premature death meant that he could not round out his theory. In life he only produced one book and the other 5 were edited after his death.

What is Harry Sullivan’s interpersonal theory about?

The interpersonal theory of Harry Sullivan is quite popular in psychiatry and psychology. Although it is a theory that could not be completed, it had an important development from the study of people diagnosed with schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This author considers that the patterns of relationships between people are very influenced by the experiences of childhood. This is because in that time empathy is born; an empathy that Sullivan defines as the ability of the child to feel in some way the attitude of the people towards him.

“The personality can never be approached for study as something isolated from others, but in relation to other personalities.”

-Harry Sullivan-

Personality formation

Sullivan argues that personality is formed from the interpersonal relationships that each individual has. That is to say, a transfer of the interpersonal to the intrapersonal occurs. Varying the ways in which these experiences are experienced as they go through stages of life, where the mastery of language, social skills and the satisfaction of needs are becoming more complex.

Modes of cognitive experience

This author describes three, having a logical and chronological order among themselves:

  • Technological mode: initial experience in which the baby does not perceive itself as an integrated being, there is no notion of time or causality. Gradually you will become aware of your body as an instrument of interaction with the outside, experiencing sensations of relief and tension.
  • Paratactic mode: from childhood the child begins to differentiate the internal from the external and how to meet their needs. The symbols appear – language, interpretation of gestures – after the experiences that allow establishing causality.
  • Syntactic mode: it is the most advanced mode of personality development. It is expanding as new experiences are existing. The symbols acquired in the praratáctico way are used to relate with other people and to be validated by means of the consensus with these.

Factors in the formation of personality

Sullivan essentially describes major factors in the development of personality. Both with a great influence of interpersonal relationships and language:

Needs and dynamism

It poses a dualism that influences one over the other, but that belong to two different spheres.

  • Needs: biological area and basic needs -feeding, defecation / sexuality, sleep-
  • Dynamism or safety: social or cultural field. Actions learned to relate to the outside world and be able to satisfy their basic needs. They are complex behavior patterns.
  • The infant responds to the emotions of his parents or any other father substitute. These significant adults produce “empathized well-being” if they have a friendly attitude and accept it or “empathized discomfort” if they have an attitude of rejection that causes the development of unhappiness.

The dynamisms that resolve or reduce tension, lead to integrate a situation; those that do not, lead to disintegrate it and generate anxiety. Producing adequate or inadequate patterns, depending on the anxiety processes generated.

“Love begins when one person feels that the needs of another are as important as their own.”

-Harry Sullivan-

The system of the I

It is a complex psychic structure that develops throughout childhood. Its function is to manage anxiety. In other words, it seeks to protect the personality and the social image by dealing with the need for security. That is why it is also known as-dynamism of the self. It is linked to the pursuit of satisfaction and the pursuit of security, thus creating the dynamism of the self.

The interpersonal theory of Harry Sullivan, although it could not be finished and completely schematized, leaves us, as we have seen, some important ideas. For its theoretical development, it was based on fully observable facts, proposing a systematic theory of the development of the personality. Holding that man is the product of interaction with other human beings, plus a biological substrate.