What Is Self Psychology?

By: Gabrielle Seunagal

Updated March 15, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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Self-psychology is a form of therapy which centers around empathy, growth and the healthy development of self. In many cases, patients who undergo this form of treatment are encouraged to think about how past experiences may have led up to their current being, according to Good Therapy.

The Prioritization And Betterment Of Self

As the name implies, self-psychology is just that- the psychology of the self. This type of psychology is based on the assertions that past experiences, encounters and even traumas leave their mark (for better or for worse) and largely determine whom one is today.

For example, a child who is constantly belittled by their relatives, peers or other associates may grow up to be insecure adults who are constantly striving to gain the favor of others. Conversely, a young person who is propped up and encouraged as they grow up is likelier to become a self-assured and confident adult.

Self Objects

In the realm of self-psychology, self-objects are regarded as the crutches which people rely upon when they feel incapable of fulfilling their own needs. Someone who lacks security and confidence in themselves may rely upon significant others or friends are self-objects which temporarily provide them with some semblance of belonging and significance.

Self-objects are inherently parasitic because they exist outside of self. One of the ultimate aims of self-psychology is to help patients become self-reliant and able to internalize their self-objects. Instead of relying on significant others or friends to provide them with belonging or significance, one should adopt to view their character, qualities, or abilities as self-objects. Each of the things above exists within self and are not conditional upon external circumstances or acceptance.


Like self-objects, transference is a significant part of self-psychology. Transference pertains to the literal transfer of childhood feelings or needs to another person or thing. This can take place in three different forms: mirroring, idealizing and alter ego/twinship.

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Mirroring involves assessing the outside responses of other individuals as a confirmation of self. Someone who is using mirrors as a form of transference may rely upon what their friends or family members think to make crucial life choices. For example, if a relative congratulates an individual on their lifestyle or choices, that person will internalize the positive reinforcement as a type of self-worth or value. Likewise, if someone faces criticism from a family member or acquaintance, this could prompt a hit to their feeling of inner worth and pride.

As one might gather from the preceding description, mirroring is extremely unhealthy. The inner sense of self should never be wholly reliant upon what others say or feel. There will always be people in this world who disapprove of what someone is doing. That does not always necessarily mean that one is in the wrong or any less valuable or deserving of self-esteem.

The equally dangerous doppelganger of mirroring comes in the form of idealizing. Idealizing is a form of transference which takes place when one relies upon another person or group of people to affirm them or prop them up. Someone who is not fully confident in themselves may idealize a friend and take that friend's words and opinions at face value. If they are having a tough time, they may turn to the friend for comfort. If they are struggling with something else, such as financial issues, a breakup or some other upsetting occurrence, that singular friend may serve as their sole confidant.

Now there is nothing wrong with friendship or closeness, but idealizing is dangerous. It creates an inherent imbalance of power which opens the door to abuse and other issues. Self-psychology exists for the sake of helping one reach the point which they do not have to idealize another individual to affirm who they are or overcome certain hurdles which life may present.

Alter ego/twinship is another manifestation of transference, although this one is not as outwardly insidious as mirroring or idealizing. In a nutshell, alter ego/twinship pertains to the desire to feel similar to others. Now, this is not inherently adverse, but this type of transference becomes problematic after a certain period.

Part of the healthy development of self includes learning about self. This can only be achieved by branching out, having new experiences, and relying upon self, at least to certain extents. When someone is unhealthily dependent upon twinship, they rob themselves of the ability to develop very advantageous traits, such as independence, confidence, and self-assurance. There is nothing wrong with having relationships with other people or sharing certain similarities with others; however, the issues arise when there is a reliance upon these similarities to function or feel whole.

One of the biggest goals of self-psychology is to help patients develop a healthy, robust sense of self so that they are no longer reliant upon self-objects and methods of transference to feel whole.

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Healthy Narcissism, Narcissism And Self Psychology

Narcissism almost inherently carries negative connotations; although healthy narcissism contributes to the innate growth and development of children. The difference between narcissism and healthy narcissism comes in the form of levels and degrees. A healthy degree of narcissism typically engenders resilience, confidence and the ability to rise above challenges and frustrations which come along with life.

The studies of self-psychology have shown that narcissism is often triggered by parents' lack of ability to be there for their children and serve as healthy support systems as the child grows into an adult. This does not necessarily mean that every child of "unavailable" parents or guardians will develop narcissism, but it has the potential to serve as a hindrance later in life. Some people can rise above it, while others struggle. The presence of self-psychology exists largely to help individuals who are having a difficult time in this arena.

Self-psychology has played a major role in the public acknowledgment of the distinction between healthy narcissism and narcissism. Certain traits associated with narcissism can be positive and helpful in moderation; although, a narcissistic personality is harmful.

Criticisms Of Self Psychology

As the old saying states, no good deed goes unpunished. Regardless of how many developments or positive impacts which stem from something, there will always be critics and individuals who see things from a less favorable angle.

Some of the most common criticisms of self-psychology assert that this form of treatment will not prompt permanent changes in suffering individuals. Although no form of therapy is infallible, a person who genuinely develops a healthy sense of self and a healthy reliance upon self as a result of self-psychology is undoubtedly a benefactor of the treatment. That being said, there are certain cases and individuals which may not be helped by self-psychology; however, this can be said about virtually any form of therapy or treatment.

Additional critics of the self-psychology claim that the treatment only deals with a subsection which could be causing problems in afflicted individuals. For instance, personal motivations and unconscious instincts are viewed by critics as issues which self-psychology fails to address. However, these claims could be contested, because self-psychology delves into the various subsections of transference and self-objects. A credible assertion can easily state that unhealthy personal motivations and unconscious instincts are highly likely to stem from self-objects and transference.

Of course, no individual or situation is exactly like the other. The criticisms associated with self-psychology would have to ultimately be determined on a case-by-case basis. There is no one answer to whether critics are right or wrong in each scenario.

The Importance Of Self

Self-psychology centers around the importance of self because that is what determines one's health, well-being, relationships and other aspects of life. Society tends to place a significant amount of weight on external factors and circumstances; however, in most cases, external things can be changed, influenced, or moved by self.

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The inner essence of self is important because it determines what we accept in life, how we treat other people, and what we attract into our lives. You attract what you are. Someone is strong, confident, and able to function both with others and on their own is extremely likely to attract positive outcomes and make decisions which generate favorable circumstances.

Conversely, someone who struggles with their sense of self and self-worth is likelier to make decisions which are destructive and attract toxic individuals and influences into their lives.

If you feel as though you are struggling with developing a strong, healthy sense of self, you can get in contact with BetterHelp at any time and begin your journey toward a healthy sense of self.

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