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Layton, L. (1990). A Deconstruction of Kohut's Concept of the Self. Contemp. Psychoanal., 26:420-429.

(1990). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26:420-429

A Deconstruction of Kohut's Concept of the Self

Lynne Layton, Ph.D.

KOHUT'S SELF PSYCHOLOGY HAS indisputably opened many clinical doors that had seemed to remain shut to drive theory. His elaboration of selfobject functions, of the role of empathy and empathic breaks in the formation of the self and the treatment of self disorders, of the clinical value of remaining in tune with the experience-near, of the difficulties contemporary Americans have with the regulation of self-esteem and the many kinds of selfobjects (drugs, food) they use temporarily to restore a fragile sense of self—all of these findings have enabled those of us who feel that this theory fits what we see to reformulate both our descriptions of pathology and our methods of treatment. Nonetheless, I would like to focus here on what I consider major shortcomings of Kohut's theory, specifically the notions of two separate lines of development (narcissism and object love) and of the bipolar self that is the developmental culmination of the line of narcissism.

While claiming only to be a theory of the subject, self psychology seems to have several elements of a relational theory. Central is the concept of empathic resonance between people. The theory's developmental perspective holds that the self grows from relationships with early objects, and Kohut first differentiated his field of study from that of Freud on the basis of the kinds of transference relationships that unfold in analyzing those with narcissistic disturbances. I would like to suggest here, however, that despite appearances, and to the detriment of the theory, Kohut's formulations ignore relationship, and that they do so by setting up a framework of false dichotomies—such as work and love, objects and selfobjects—and then privileging one side of the dichotomy while devaluing the other. I will do a symptomatic reading of Kohut's texts to show how, in particular, the privileging of work in the theories


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Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Vol. 26, No. 3 (1990)

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