Harry Stack Sullivan

Interpersonal Psychiatry

“Harry Stack Sullivan was one of the most important seminal thinkers in American psychiatry…He synthesized the contemporary ideas of psychiatry and social science together to form what has been called ‘social psychiatry.’ (Raghueer, 2011, p.87)”  Sullivan’s unique perspective blends insights from the fields of psychiatry with the social sciences.  He describes psychiatry as the “study of processes that involve or go on between people, (Morgan, 2014, p. 2).”

Sullivan on Personality

According to Sullivan: “‘personality’ is itself a hypothetical entity which cannot be isolated from interpersonal situations and, indeed, interpersonal behavior is all that is observable about personality, (Morgan, 2014, p. 2).”  Consequently, he believed it should be understood as a pattern of characteristics that define our relations with others.  Personality characteristics from this perspective are observable traits which define our interpersonal relationships, (Morgan, 2014).  What follows are a few key concepts that define our personalities according to Sullivan:


“Sullivan conceptualized personality as an energy system…existing either as…potentiality for action…or…actions themselves” (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 67).”  Tension, is a term Sullivan uses to define as the “potentiality for action that may or may not be experienced in awareness, (Feist, n.d., p. 217).” In other words, it is a predisposition to act in a particular manner.  Once we act on this tension this energy has transformed into an overt behavior.  Sullivan describes two main types of tensions:


“Needs are tensions brought on by biological imbalance between a  person and the physiochemical environment both inside and outside the organism, (Feist, n.d., p. 217).”  These needs can pertain to physiological needs (i.e. food and oxygen) interpersonal needs, (i.e. tenderness or love), and finally zonal needs (pertaining to a body part).


Anxieties are much more vague, “calling forth a nonspecific action” (Feist, n.d., p. 218).”  Sullivan believed these anxieties are learned from our parents and empathetic connection we have with them during infancy.  While needs generally pertain to normal and healthy tensions, anxieties are disruptive forces in our lives (Raghuveer, 2011).  In addition to disrupting personal relationships, they produce behaviors that are aimed at anxiety relief over learning.  Consequently, people are less liable to learn from their experiences when aiming to relieve anxieties (Feist, n.d.).


Dynamisms refer to behavioral traits or habits that characterize an individual’s approach to life and include two major categories: “first, those related to specific zones of the body…second….composed of three categories – the disjunctive, the isolating, and the conjunctive, (Fiest, et al, n.d. (219).”

Disjunctive Dynamisms (Malevolence)

“The disruptive dynamism of evil and hatred is called malevolence [is] defined by Sulllian as a feeling of living among one’s enemies.” (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 67).”  Sullivan felt this behavior results as a toddler when parents respond to a child’s needs by attempting to ignore or control their behavior (Feist, n.d.).  In time, children learn to protect themselves and limit expression of needs for tenderness and intimacy.

Isolating Dynamisms (Lust)

“Lust is an isolating tendency requiring no other person for its satisfaction…It manifests itself as autoerotic behavior even when another person is the object of one’s lust, (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 220).” It is based solely on sexual gratification.

Conjunctive Dynamisms (Intimacy & The Self System)

INTIMACY – “Grows out of the earlier ned for tenderness but is more specific and involves a close interpersonal relationship between two people who are more or less of equal status, (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 220).”  It facilitates interpersonal development while decreasing both anxiety and loneliness (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 67).”
THE SELF-SYSTEM   –  The self-system is crucial to personal development and consists of behaviors that maintain our sense of personal security by protecting us from feelings of anxiety (Feist, et al, n.d.; Raghuveer, 2011).  In this respect, these behaviors form in response to interpersonal experiences and they can be thought of as “security operations” (Feist, et al, n.d.; Raghueer, 2011)
  1. DISSOCIATION – one type of security operation involves blocking certain experiences out of our awareness (Raghuveer, 2011).
  2. SELECTIVE INATTENTION – “is a refusal to see those things that we do not wish to see, (Feist, et al, n.d.).”  


“Personification consist of an image that an individual has of himself or of some other person.  It is a complex of feelings, attitudes and conceptions that grows out of experience with need-satisfaction. (Morgan, 2014, p. 3).

Good Mother, Bad Mother

This concept, admittedly has a somewhat Freudian feel to it.   “The bad mother/good mother personification results from an infant’s breastfeeding experiences (Morgan, 2014; Raghuveer, 2011).  The bad mother personification is a byproduct of negative breast feeding experiences and the infant’s hunger needs are not met (Feist, n.d.).  As you might expect the good mother personification is a byproduct of positive breastfeeding experiences, (Feist, n.d.).  While the good mother is conceived of as caring and tender, the bad mother is anxious and malevolent.

Me Personifications

“During mid-infancy a child acquires three me personifications (bad-me, good-me, and not-me) that form the building blcks of self-personification (Fiest, n.d., p. 222).”

GOOD ME – is a byproduct of a young child’s experiences of parental approval (Raghuveer, 2011).  Here the child works hard to please and up hold parental standards as a “good me”, (Feist, n.d.).
BAD ME – is a byproduct of a child’s experiences with punishment and disapproval (Raghuveer, 2011).  In this personification, children learn they are “bad” through interactions with parents (Rosenthal, 2005).  
NOT ME – a “not me” personification exists as a byproduct of selective inattention in order to avoid feelings of anxiety or unresolved trauma (Feist, n.d.).  Here, the child choose to avoid experiencing aspects of oneself that are associated with unresolved trauma and anxiety (Feist, n.d.; Rosenthal, 2005).  

Eidetic Personifications

Eidetic personifications are “unrealistic traits or imaginary friends that many children invent in order to protect their self-esteem….[they] can create conflict in interpersonal relations when people project  onto others imaginary traits that are remnants of previous relationships. (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 223).”

Levels of Cognition

Sullivan also describes levels of cognition that function as modes of thinking or experiencing reality, (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 223).”  He has a threefold level of classification for how we experiencing reality (Morgan, 2014):

Prototaxic Level

“Experiences that are impossible to put into words are to communicate to others are called prototaxic. (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 88).”  This level of cognition represents our early modes of experiencing reality during infancy.  For example, “a neonate feels hunger and pain, and these prototaxic experiences result in observable action…[like] sucking or crying. Feist, et al, n.d.).”

Parataxic Level

“Experiences that are pre-logical and nearly impossible to accurately communicate to others are called parataxic (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 88).”  “Parataxic experiences are more clearly differentiated from protaxic experiences but their meaning remains private….[for example]…when a child is conditioned to say ‘please’ in order to receive candy…an illogical belief that a cause-and-effect relationship exists. (Feist, n.d, 224).”  This illogical conclusion is called a parataxic distortion.

Syntaxic Level

Experiences that can be accurately communicated to others are called syntaxic (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 88).”  “Experiences that are consensually validated and that can be symbolically communicated take place on a syntaxic level.  Consensually validated experiences are those on whose meaning two or more persons agree. (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 224).”

Stages of Development

“Interpersonal theory emphasizes the importance of various developmental stages – infancy, childhood, the juvenile era, preadolescence, early adolescence, late adolescence, and adulthood. (Feist, n.d., p. 213).”  According to Sullivan, healthy development is based on an individuals degree of success in maintaining intimacy in interpersonal relationships throughout life (Feist, n.d., & Morgan, 2014).



Feist, J; Feist, G.J. & Feist, G.J. (n.d.) Theories of Personality. McGraw Hill.  Retrieved from: http://highered.mheducation.com/sites/dl/free/0073532193/993171/Feist7e_Ch8_Sullivan.pdf
Morgan JH (2014) The Interpersonal Psychotherapy of Harry Stack Sullivan: Remembering the Legacy. J Psychol Psychother 4: 162. doi:10.4172/2161-0487.1000162
Raghuveer Reddy G. (2011) The stalwarts: Harry Stack Sullivan. AP J Psychol Med; 12 (2): 87–9.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.

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