Interpersonal psychoanalysis

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Interpersonal psychoanalysis is based on the theories of American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan (1892–1949). Sullivan believed that the details of a patient's interpersonal interactions with others can provide insight into the causes and cures of mental disorder.[1][2]

Current practitioners stress such features as the detailed description of clinical experience, the mutuality of the interpersonal process, and the not-knowing of the analyst.[3]

Sullivan and the neo-Freudians[edit]

Along with other neo-Freudian practitioners of interpersonal psychoanalysis, such as Horney, Fromm, Thompson and Fromm-Reichman, Sullivan repudiated Freudian drive theory.[4]

They, like Sullivan, also shared the interdisciplinary emphasis that was to be an important part of the legacy of interpersonal psychoanalysis, influencing counsellors, clergymen, social workers and more.[5]

Selective inattention[edit]

Sullivan proposed that patients could keep certain aspects or components of their interpersonal relationships out of their awareness by a psychological behavior described as selective inattention - a term that has to a degree passed into common usage.

A defence mechanism that functions prior to psychological repression, and acts by way of blocking all notice of the threat in question, selective inattention can also be accompanied by selective non-participation.[6]

Both defences as used by patients may be usefully identified by the analyst through examination of his/her countertransference.[7]


Sullivan emphasized that psychotherapists' analyses should focus on patients' relationships and personal interactions in order to obtain knowledge of what he called personifications – one's internalised views of self and others, one's internal schemata.[8]

Such analyses would consist of detailed questioning regarding moment-to-moment personal interactions, even including those with the analyst himself.

Personifications can form the basis for what Sullivan called parataxic distortions of the interpersonal field – distortions similar to those described as the products of transference and projective identification in orthodox psychoanalysis.[9] As with the latter, parataxic distortion can, if identified by the analyst, prove fruitful clues to the nature of the patient's inner world.[10]


Sullivan has been criticised for inventing (sometimes opaque) neologisms for established psychoanalytic concepts, to claim a perhaps spurious intellectual independence.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton.
  2. ^ Evans, F. Barton (1996). Harry Stack Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.
  3. ^ Arthur H. Feiner, Interpersonal Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Relevance (2000) p. 22-6 and p. 44
  4. ^ Paul Brinich/Christopher Shelley, The Self and Personality Structure (Buckingham 2002) p. 65
  5. ^ Brinich, Self p. 64
  6. ^ A. & J. Rosen, Frozen Dreams (2005) p. 108 and 115
  7. ^ Rosen, p. 104
  8. ^ Paul Brinich/Christopher Shelley, The Self and Personality Structure (Buckingham 2002) p. 65
  9. ^ Brinich, Self p. 65
  10. ^ S. R. Welt/W. G. Herron, Narcissism and the Psychotherapist (1990) p. 121-2
  11. ^ B. F. Evans, in Brinich, Self p. 65

Further reading[edit]

  • Curtis, R. C. & Hirsch, I. (2003). Relational Approaches to Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. In Gurman, A. G. & Messer, S. B. Essential Psychotherapies. NY: Guilford.
  • Curtis, R. C. (2008). Desire, Self, Mind & the Psychotherapies. Unifying Psychological Science and Psychoanalysis. Lanham, MD & New York: Jason Aronson.
  • D. B. Stern/C. H. Mann eds., Pioneers of Interpersonal Psychoanalysis (1995)