I.††††† Overview of Sullivanís Interpersonal Theory

†††††† Although Sullivan had a lonely and isolated childhood, he evolved a theory of personality that emphasized the importance of interpersonal relations. He insisted that personality is shaped almost entirely by oneís relationships with other people. Sullivanís principal contribution to personality theory was his conception of developmental stages, which he saw as having strong interpersonal influences.


II.†††† Biography of Harry Stack Sullivan

†††††† Harry Stack Sullivan, the first American to develop a comprehensive personality theory, was born in a small farming community in upstate New York in 1892. A socially immature and isolated child, Sullivan nevertheless formed one close interpersonal relationship with a boy five years older than him. In his interpersonal theory, Sullivan believed that such a relationship has the power to transform an immature preadolescent into a psychologically healthy individual. Sullivan had only one somewhat undistinguished year of college work before he entered medical school, and after receiving a medical degree, his career showed little promise of success. Six years after becoming a physician, and with no training in psychiatry, he gained a position at St. Elizabethís Hospital in Washington, D.C., as a psychiatrist. There, his ability to work with schizophrenic patients won him a reputation as a therapeutic wizard. However, despite achieving much respect from an influential group of associates, Sullivan had few close interpersonal relations with any of his peers. He died alone in Paris in 1949, at age 56.


III.††† Tensions

†††††† Sullivan conceptualized personality as an energy system, with energy existing either as tension (potentiality for action) or as energy transformations (the actions themselves). He further divided tensions into needs and anxiety.

†††††† A. †††† Needs

†††††† Needs can relate either to the general well-being of a person or to specific zones, such as the mouth or genitals. General needs can be either physiological, such as food or oxygen, or interpersonal, such as tenderness and intimacy.

†††††† B. †††† Anxiety

†††††† Unlike needsówhich are conjunctive and call for specific action to reduce themóanxiety is disjunctive and calls for no consistent actions for its relief. All infants learn to be anxious through the empathic relationship that they have with their mothering one. Sullivan compared anxiety to a blow on the head and contended that it was the chief disruptive force in interpersonal relations. A complete absence of anxiety and other tensions is called euphoria.

IV.††† Dynamisms

†††††† Sullivan used the term dynamism to refer to a typical pattern of behavior. Dynamisms may relate either to specific zones of the body or to tensions.

†††††† A. †††† Malevolence

†††††† The disjunctive dynamism of evil and hatred is called malevolence, defined by Sullivan as a feeling of living among oneís enemies. Those children who become malevolent have difficulty giving and receiving tenderness or being intimate with other people.

†††††† B. †††† Intimacy

†††††† The conjunctive dynamism marked by a close personal relationship between two people of equal status is called intimacy. Whereas malevolence blocks healthy personality development, intimacy facilitates development and decreases both anxiety and loneliness.

†††††† C. †††† Lust

†††††† In contrast to both malevolence and intimacy, lust is an isolating dynamism, because it is a self-centered need. Whereas intimacy presupposes tenderness or love, lust is based solely on sexual gratification and requires no other person for
its satisfaction.

†††††† D. †††† Self-System

†††††† The most inclusive of all dynamisms is the self-system, or that pattern of behaviors that protects people against anxiety and maintains their interpersonal security. Like intimacy, the self-system is a conjunctive dynamism, but because its primary job is to protect the self from anxiety, it tends to stifle personality change. Experiences that are inconsistent with peopleís self-system threaten their security and necessitate their use of security operations, which consist of behaviors designed to reduce interpersonal tensions. One such security operation is dissociation, which includes all those experiences that a person blocks from awareness. Another is selective inattention, which involves blocking only certain experiences from awareness.


V.†††† Personifications

†††††† Sullivan believed that people acquire certain images of self and others throughout the developmental stages, and he referred to these subjective perceptions as personifications.

†††††† A. †††† Bad-Mother, Good-Mother

†††††† The bad-mother personification grows out of infantsí experiences with a nipple that does not satisfy their hunger needs. All infants experience the bad-mother personification, even though their real mothers may be loving and nurturing. Later, infants acquire a good-mother personification as they become mature enough to recognize the tender and cooperative behavior of their mothering one. Still later, these two personifications combine to form a complex and contrasting image of the real mother.

†††††† B. †††† Me Personifications

†††††† During infancy, children acquire three me personifications: (1) the bad-me, which grows from experiences of punishment and disapproval, (2) the good-me, which results from experiences with reward and approval, and (3) the not-me, which allows a person to dissociate or selectively inattend experiences related to anxiety.

†††††† C. †††† Eidetic Personifications

†††††† One of Sullivanís most interesting observations was that people often create imaginary traits that they project onto others. Included in these eidetic personifications are the imaginary playmates that preschool-aged children often have. These imaginary friends enable children to have a safe, secure relationship and to practice interpersonal relations with no threat of negative consequences.


VI.††† Levels of Cognition

†††††† Sullivan recognized three levels of cognition, or ways of perceiving things: prototaxic, parataxic, and syntaxic.

†††††† A. †††† Prototaxic Level

†††††† Experiences that are impossible to put into words or to communicate to others are called prototaxic. Newborn infants experience images mostly on a prototaxic level, but adults, too, frequently have preverbal experiences that are momentary and incapable of being communicated.

†††††† B. †††† Parataxic Level

†††††† Experiences that are prelogical and nearly impossible to accurately communicate to others are called parataxic. Included in these are erroneous assumptions about cause and effect, which Sullivan termed parataxic distortions.

†††††† C. †††† Syntaxic Level

†††††† Experiences that can be accurately communicated to others are called syntaxic. Children become capable of syntaxic language at about 12 to 18 months of age when words begin to have the same meaning for them that they do for others.


VII. Stages of Development

†††††† Sullivan saw interpersonal development as taking place over seven stages, from infancy to mature adulthood. Personality change can take place at any time, but it is most likely to occur during transitions between stages.

†††††† A. †††† Infancy

†††††† Sullivanís definition of infancy includes the period from birth until the emergence of syntaxic language. During infancy, a childís relationship with the mothering one includes two opposing forces, tenderness and anxiety. Because anxiety is a tension in opposition to needs and because it is expressed in the same way as hunger needs (i.e., by crying), mothers sometimes feed an anxious baby, which leads to tension increasing to the point of terror. Such terror is reduced by the built-in protections of apathy and somnolent detachment that allow the baby to go to sleep. During infancy, children use autistic language, which takes place on a prototaxic or parataxic level.

†††††† B. †††† Childhood

†††††† The childhood stage lasts from the beginning of syntaxic language until the need for playmates of equal status. The childís primary interpersonal relationship continues to be with the mother, who is now differentiated from other persons who
nurture the child. Another important relationship during childhood is with imaginary playmates.

†††††† C. †††† Juvenile Era

†††††† The juvenile era begins with the need for peers of equal status and continues until the child develops a need for an intimate relationship with a chum, or a single best friend. During the juvenile stage, children should learn how to compete, compromise, and cooperate. These three abilities, as well as an orientation toward living, help a child develop intimacy, the chief dynamism of the next developmental stage.

†††††† D. †††† Preadolescence

†††††† Perhaps the most crucial of Sullivanís stages is preadolescence. This is because mistakes made earlier can be rectified during preadolescence, whereas errors made during preadolescence are nearly impossible to overcome in later life. Preadolescence spans the time from the need for a single best friend until the eruption of lust, or from about age 8 or 9 until puberty. Preadolescents typically form close relationships with friends of the same gender, although cross-gender chumships are also possible. Children who do not learn intimacy during preadolescence have added difficulties relating to potential sexual partners during later stages.

††††† E. †††† Early Adolescence

†††††† With puberty comes the lust dynamism and the beginning of early adolescence. Development during this stage is marked by a coexistence of intimacy with a single friend of the same gender and sexual interest in many persons of the opposite gender. However, if children have no preexisting capacity for intimacy, they may confuse lust with love and develop sexual relationships that are devoid of true intimacy. Sullivan believed that people who emerge from early adolescence in command of both their intimacy and lust dynamisms will have few serious interpersonal difficulties in later life.

†††††† F. †††† Late Adolescence

†††††† Chronologically, late adolescence may start at any time after about age 16, but psychologically, it begins when a person is able to feel both intimacy and lust toward the same person. Late adolescence is characterized by a stable pattern of sexual activity and the growth of the syntaxic mode as young people learn how to live in the adult world.

†††††† G. †††† Adulthood

†††††† Late adolescence flows into adulthood, a time when a person establishes a stable relationship with a significant other person. However, not everyone reaches emotional adulthood.


VIII.Psychological Disorders

Sullivan believed that disordered behavior can only be understood with reference to a personís interpersonal world. Most of Sullivanís early therapeutic experiences were with schizophrenic patients with whom he had very good success in treating.


IX.††† Psychotherapy

†††††† Sullivan pioneered the notion of the therapist as a participant observer who establishes an interpersonal relationship with the patient. This dyadic relationship between a patient and a participating therapist serves as a model, helping the patient learn to improve relationships with significant others. Sullivanian
therapists attempt to help patients develop foresight, discover difficulties in interpersonal relations, and restore their ability to participate in consensually validated experiences.


X.†††† Related Research

†††††† In the years immediately following Sullivanís death, psychologists conducted little empirical research that flowed directly from his theory. However, more recently, a number of researchers have studied the impact of two-person relationships, which relate directly to Sullivanís notion of the therapist as a participant observer in an interpersonal relationship.

†††††† A.††††† Therapist-Patient Relationships

†††††† William Henry, Hans Strupp, and their associates at Vanderbilt have used the Structural Analysis of Social Behavior to study the dynamics between a therapistís personality and behavior and a patientís reactions and outcomes. An early study (Henry, Schacht, & Strupp, 1990) reported that patients developed relatively stable behaviors that were consistent with the way their therapists treated them. More recently, a team of researchers (Hilliard, Henry, & Strupp, 2000) found that the early developmental histories of both the therapists and the patients contributed to therapeutic outcome. Indeed, therapistsí personal histories had a more powerful effect than their training on patient outcome.

†††††† B.††††† Intimate Relationships with Friends

†††††† Some researchers (Yaughn & Nowicki, 1999) have examined Sullivanís notion that healthy interpersonal relationships are complementary, meaning that each person satisfies the healthy needs of the other person. These investigators found partial support for this hypothesis; that is, they found that college women, but not men, reported complementary interpersonal styles with their close friends. They also found that women were more likely than men to engage in a wide variety of activities with their intimate friends.

†††††† C.†††† Imaginary Friends

†††††† Researchers have also studied Sullivanís notion of imaginary playmates and have found that children who have identifiable eidetic playmates are more socialized, less aggressive, more intelligent, more creative, and have a better sense of humor than children who do not report having an imaginary playmate (Bouldin & Pratt, 1999; Fern, 1991; Seiffge-Krenke, 1993, 1997).


XI. †† Critique of Sullivan

Despite Sullivanís insights into the importance of interpersonal relations, his theory of personality and his approach to psychotherapy have become less popular in recent years. In summary, his theory rates very low on falsifiability and low in its ability to generate research and to present a parsimonious picture of personality. We rate it about average in its capacity to organize knowledge, to guide action, and to be self-consistent.


XII.†† Concept of Humanity

†††††† Sullivan saw human personality as being shaped largely from interpersonal relations. Thus, his theory places great emphasis on social influences and very little on biological ones. In addition, Sullivanian theory rates high on unconscious determinants of behavior, low on uniqueness, and about average on free choice, optimism, and causality.