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Tolpin, M. (1986). 10 The Self and Its Selfobjects: A Different Baby. Progress in Self Psychology, 2:115-128.

(1986). Progress in Self Psychology, 2:115-128

Section III. Development

10 The Self and Its Selfobjects: A Different Baby

Marian Tolpin, M.D.

From the beginning of life, the self is an amalgam of “givens” and “experience,” and its vitality and intactness correspond to the degree to which these two dimensions of selfhood complement one another in growth-promoting ways. As examples of the optimally dovetailing relationship between givens and the experience of parental selfobject functions, we might consider how the baby's maturing visual capabilities—the ability of his eyes to converge and focus on a midline object about 8 inches away—are complemented by the tendency of parents, siblings, friends, and relatives to position themselves precisely where the baby can best focus on them. Mothers, in particular, unconsciously match their “multiple functions” with their babies' maturing perceptual capabilities (Papousek & Papoušek, 1977; Stern, 1977). Similarly, the species-characteristic tendency of mothers, fathers, and others to move through the baby's visual field at a speed commensurate with the latter's ability to follow moving objects testifies to the way in which a selfobject function dovetails with an inborn capacity.

The integral interdependency of self and selfobject function suggests the profound difficulty of conceptualizing givens and experience in discrete, static terms. Just as the infant's inborn givens can be realized only through an environment of complementary selfobject functions, so the parents' provision of these functions represents a given of sorts. To wit, the parents' ability and readiness to sustain the infant's self development by providing selfobject functions are, themselves, basic and ordinarily nonconscious aspects of their own self organizations. It is revealing, in this connection, that when mothers were asked to explain their selfobject functions they, the babies and the investigators alike became upset (Brooks-Gunn & Lewis, 1979; Stern, 1977).


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