Sullivan & Interpersonal Theory

Overview of Sullivan’s 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 the relationships we have with other people. Sullivan’s principal contribution to personality theory was his conception of developmental stages.

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 upper New York State in 1892. A socially immature and isolated child, Sullivan nevertheless formed one close interpersonal relationship with a boy 5 years older than himself. In his interpersonal theory, Sullivan believed that such a relationship has the power to transform an immature preadolescent into a psychologically healthy individual.

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After an unhappy public school experience, Sullivan enrolled in medical school and eventually became a physician. Six years after receiving his medical diploma and with no training in psychiatry, Sullivan gained a position at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, as a psychiatrist. There, his ability to work with schizophrenic patients won for 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. In 1949, at age 56, he died while alone in a hotel room in Paris.

Tensions & Harry Stack Sullivan

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.

  • 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 they can be interpersonal, such as tenderness and intimacy.
  • Anxiety
    • Unlike needs—which are conjunctive and call for specific actions to reduce them—anxiety 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 called anxiety the chief disruptive force in interpersonal relations. A complete absence of anxiety and other tensions is called euphoria.

Dynamisms of Harry Sullivan

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.

  • Malevolence
    • The disjunctive dynamism of evil and hatred is called malevolence, defined by Sullivan as a feeling of living among one’s enemies. Those children who become malevolent have much difficulty giving and receiving tenderness or being intimate with other people.
  • Intimacy
    • The conjunctive dynamism marked by a close personal relationship between two people of equal status is called intimacy. Intimacy facilitates interpersonal development while decreasing both anxiety and loneliness.
  • Lust
    • In contrast to both malevolence and intimacy, lust is an isolating dynamism. That is, lust is a self-centered need that can be satisfied in the absence of an intimate interpersonal relationship. In other words, although intimacy presupposes tenderness or love, lust is based solely on sexual gratification and requires no other person for its satisfaction.
  • Self-System
    • The most inclusive of all dynamisms is the self-system, or that pattern of behaviors that protects us against anxiety and maintains our interpersonal security. 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 our self-system threaten our security and necessitate our 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 we block from awareness. Another is selective inattention, which involves blocking only certain experiences from awareness.

Personifications in Interpersonal Theory

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

  • Bad-Mother, Good-Mother
    • The bad-mother personification grows out of infants‘ 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.
  • 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 not attend to the experiences related to anxiety.
  • Eidetic Personifications
    • One of Sullivan’s 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 with another person, even though that person is imaginary.

Levels of Cognition in Interpersonal Theory

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Stages of Development in Interpersonal Theory

Sullivan saw interpersonal development as taking place over seven stages, from infancy to mature adulthood. Personality changes are most likely during transitions between stages.

  • Infancy
    • The period from birth until the emergence of syntaxic language is called infancy, a time when the child receives tenderness from the mothering one while also learning anxiety through an empathic linkage with the mother. Anxiety may increase to the point of terror, but such terror is controlled 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.
  • Childhood
    • The stage that lasts from the beginning of syntaxic language until the need for playmates of equal status is called childhood. The child’s primary interpersonal relationship continues to be with the mother, who is now differentiated from other persons who nurture the child.
  • Juvenile Era
    • The juvenile stage begins with the need for peers of equal status and continues until the child develops a need for an intimate relationship with a chum. At this time children should learn how to compete, to compromise, and to cooperate. These three abilities, as well as an orientation toward living, help a child develop intimacy, the chief dynamism of the next developmental stage.
  • Preadolescence
    • Perhaps the most crucial stage is preadolescence, because mistakes made earlier can be corrected during preadolescence, but 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 puberty. Children who do not learn intimacy during preadolescence have added difficulties relating to potential sexual partners during later stages.
  • Early Adolescence
    • With puberty comes the lust dynamism and the beginning of early adolescence. Development during this stage is ordinarily 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.
  • 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.
  • Adulthood
    • Late adolescence flows into adulthood, a time when a person establishes a stable relationship with a significant other person and develops a consistent pattern of viewing the world.

Psychological Disorders

Sullivan believed that disordered behavior has an interpersonal origin and can only be understood with reference to a person’s social environment.


Sullivan pioneered the notion of the therapist as a participant observer, who establishes an interpersonal relationship with the patient. He was primarily concerned with understanding patients and helping them develop foresight, improve interpersonal relations, and restore their ability to operate mostly on a syntaxic level.

Critique of Interpersonal Theory

Despite Sullivan’s insights into the importance of interpersonal relations, his theory of personality and his approach to psychotherapy have lost popularity in recent years. In summary, his theory rates very low in falsifiability, low in its ability to generate research, and average in its capacity to organize knowledge and to guide action. In addition, it is only average in self-consistency and low in parsimony.

Concept of Humanity

Because Sullivan saw human personality as largely being formed from interpersonal relations, his theory rates very high on social influences and very low on biological ones. In addition, it rates high on unconscious determinants; average on free choice, optimism, and causality; and low on uniqueness.

Cool Related Links:

The Tao of Sullivan

Harry Stack Sullivan

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