Heinz Kohut

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Heinz Kohut (German: [ˈkoːhuːt]; 3 May 1913 – 8 October 1981) was an Austrian-American psychoanalyst best known for his development of self psychology, an influential school of thought within psychodynamic/psychoanalytic theory which helped transform the modern practice of analytic and dynamic treatment approaches.

Early life

Kohut was born on 3 May 1913, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, to Felix Kohut and Else Kohut (née Lampl). He was the only child of the family. Kohut's parents were assimilated Jews living in Alsergrund, or the Ninth District, and they had married two years previously. His father was an aspiring concert pianist whose musical ambitions were hindered by the traumas he endured in World War I, and Felix moved into business with a man named Paul Bellak. Kohut's mother opened her own shop sometime after the war, something that few women would do at the time in Vienna. Else’s relationship with her son can be described as “narcissistic enmeshment”.[1]

Kohut was not put into school until the fifth grade. Before that he was taught by several tutors, a line of “Fräuleins and mademoiselles”. Special care was taken that he learned French. From 1924 on he attended the Döblinger Gymnasium in Grinzing or the 19th District, where the Kohuts would build a house. During his time at the school he had one more tutor, but the role of this person was to engage him in educational discussions, to take him to museums, galleries, and the opera. This man was the first friend in his life. Before that he had been isolated from his peers by his mother.

At school a special emphasis was given to the Greek and Latin languages and Greek and Roman literature. Kohut also came to appreciate Goethe, Thomas Mann and Robert Musil.[2]

In 1929 Kohut spent two months in Saint-Quay-Portrieux in Brittany, in order to study French. At school he wrote his thesis on Euripides’ play The Cyclops. His Latin teacher, who had anti-Semitic sentiments and later participated in the Austrian Nazi movement, accused him of having plagiarized this work. The thesis was accepted after Kohut’s father intervened.[3]

Kohut entered the medical faculty of the University of Vienna in 1932. His studies took six years, during which time he spent six months in internships in Paris, first at the Hôtel-Dieu and then at the Hôpital Saint-Louis. The latter hospital specialized in the treatment of syphilis, which provided shocking experiences for Kohut. In Paris he became acquainted with Jacques Palaci, a Jewish medical student from Istanbul, and paid a visit to him in 1936. The following year Kohut’s father died of leukemia. Sometime after this Kohut went to psychotherapy with a man named Walter Marseilles, who does not seem to have been very competent at his trade. Early in 1938 Kohut began a psychoanalysis with August Aichhorn, a close friend of Sigmund Freud.[4]

After Austria was annexed to Germany by Hitler on 12 March 1938, the new regime meant difficulties for Kohut, as he still had to take his final exams at the medical faculty. He was eventually allowed to take them, after all the Jewish professors had been removed from the university. The Nazis then effectively confiscated all property owned by Jews. The property had to be sold at much less than its real value, and much of the rest was taken by the state in taxes. Kohut eventually left Austria, landing first in a refugee camp in Kent, England. Many of his relatives, who had stayed behind, were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.

In February 1940 he was allowed to travel in a British convoy to Boston, from where he travelled to Chicago by bus. A friend from Vienna, Siegmund Levarie, who had earlier emigrated to live with an uncle in Chicago and would subsequently be a famous musicologist in the United States, arranged a visa for him and invited him to join him there.[5]

Career as a psychoanalyst

During the 1940s, Kohut furthered his medical training through residencies in neurology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, where he was a lecturer in psychiatry.

Kohut became a prominent member of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. He was such a strong proponent of the traditional psychoanalytic perspective that was dominant in the United States that he jokingly called himself “Mr. Psychoanalysis”.[6]

He served as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association during 1964-65.

Development of self psychology

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, Freudian analysis focused on individual guilt and tended not to reflect the new zeitgeist (the emotional interests and needs of people struggling with issues of identity, meaning, ideals, and self-expression).[6] Though he initially tried to remain true to the traditional analytic viewpoint with which he had become associated and viewed the self as separate but coexistent to the ego, Kohut later rejected Freud's structural theory of the id, ego, and superego. He then developed his ideas around what he called the tripartite (three-part) self.[7]

According to Kohut, this three-part self can only develop when the needs of one's “self states”, including one's sense of worth and well-being, are met in relationships with others. In contrast to traditional psychoanalysis, which focuses on drives (instinctual motivations of sex and aggression), internal conflicts, and fantasies, self psychology thus placed a great deal of emphasis on the vicissitudes of relationships.

Kohut demonstrated his interest in how we develop our “sense of self” using narcissism as a model. If a person is narcissistic, it will allow him to suppress feelings of low self-esteem. By talking highly of himself, the person can eliminate his sense of worthlessness.

Historical context

Kohut expanded on his theory during the 1970s, a time in which aggressive individuality, overindulgence, greed, and restlessness left many people feeling empty, fragile, and fragmented.[7]

Perhaps because of its positive, open, and empathic stance on human nature as a whole as well as the individual, self psychology is considered one of the “four psychologies” (the others being drive theory, ego psychology, and object relations); that is, one of the primary theories on which modern dynamic therapists and theorists rely. According to biographer Charles Strozier, “Kohut...may well have saved psychoanalysis from itself”.[6] Without his focus on empathic relationships, dynamic theory might well have faded in comparison to one of the other major psychology orientations (which include humanism and cognitive behavioral therapy) that were being developed around the same time.

Also according to Strozier, Kohut's book, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Analysis of the Treatment of the Narcissistic Personality Disorders,[8] “had a significant impact on the field by extending Freud's theory of narcissism and introducing what Kohut called the 'selfobject transferences' of mirroring and idealization”. In other words, children need to idealize and emotionally “sink into” and identify with the idealized competence of admired figures. They also need to have their self-worth reflected back (“mirrored” Note : This term isn't a synonym of "mirroring") by empathic and caregiving others. These experiences allow them to thereby learn the self-soothing and other skills that are necessary for the development of a healthy (cohesive, vigorous) sense of self. For example, therapists become the idealized parent and through transference the patient begins to get the things he has missed. The patient also has the opportunity to reflect on how early the troubling relationship led to personality problems. Narcissism arises from poor attachment at an early age. Freud also believed that narcissism hides low self-esteem, and that therapy will reparent them through transference and they begin to get the things they missed. Later, Kohut added the third major selfobject theme (and he dropped the hyphen in selfobject) of alter-ego/twinship, the theme of being part of a larger human identification with others.

Though dynamic theory tends to place emphasis on childhood development, Kohut believed that the need for such selfobject relationships does not end at childhood but continues throughout all stages of a person's life.[9]


In the final week of his life, knowing that his time was at an end, Kohut spent as much time as he could with his family and friends. He fell into a coma on the evening of October 7, 1981, and died of cancer on the morning of October 8.[6]



In collaboration with Heinz Kohut

See also


  1. Strozier 2001, p. 3, 16, 19, 22, 66.
  2. Strozier 2001, p. 21, 23–24, 29, 32.
  3. Strozier 2001, p. 34–35.
  4. Strozier 2001, p. 45, 48–52.
  5. Strozier 2001, p. 56, 59–62, 68.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Strozier 2001.
  7. 1 2 Flanagan, Laura Melano (1996). "The theory of self psychology". In Berzoff, Joan; Flanagan, Laura Melano; Hertz, Patricia. Inside out and outside in. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson. ISBN 1568217773. OCLC 76937378.
  8. James, Martin (1973), "Review: The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychological Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders: By Heinz Kohut", International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (54): 363–368
  9. Elson, Miriam (1986), Self Psychology in Clinical Social Work, New York: W.W. Norton, ISBN 0393700151, OCLC 13395953

Further reading

External links

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