The selfobject is perhaps the most important concept in Self-psychology. A selfobject is not an object in the normal, physical sense, rather it is a person in our lives we relate to, like a parent or a friend, and whose interactions with us have an effect on how we feel about ourselves. The selfobject is an abstract concept which is used more or less exclusively by the theorists of Self-Psychology, but it is an idea which can be extremely helpful when we’re trying to understand how we became who we are today.
In psychoanalytic jargon, an object is any person to whom we relate emotionally, and there is an entire field of study called Object Relations which looks at these relationships and how they affect human development. In Object Relations, our first and most important object is typically our mother, though in reality it can be anyone who takes on the nurturing role of the primary caregiver to an infant child. This person introduces us to the world and becomes our touchstone for how the world works, how people are supposed to behave, and what relationships are supposed to be like. We then carry these expectations forward with us into adult life.
So, to put it very generally, if our “mother” was snippish, critical, and adversarial, then we will expect other people also to be snippish, critical, and adversarial. Object Relations would also say that we ourselves will probably also tend to be snippish, critical, and adversarial towards others because that is what we have learned to see as ‘normal’ behaviour.
If our childhood objects taught us about other people, then we can say that our childhood selfobjects taught us about ourselves. So, a selfobject is not simply a person to whom we relate, but a person to whom we relate and then use the signals we get from that relationship to decide how we should feel about ourselves. In other words, if you are one of my selfobjects, then how you treat me tells me how to feel about myself. So, especially in early childhood, in order for me to feel like a whole and healthy person who belongs in the world, I need someone to tell me that I am a whole and healthy person who belongs in the world.
However, the specific signals which make us feel whole and healthy will differ from child to child, and adult to adult, depending on their needs, preferences, and experience. This means that our personal definitions of good and bad treatment are extremely subjective. However, this is an accepted part of Self-Psychology, because there is no getting around the fact that the same word or deed will be interpreted completely differently depending on who you ask. And so we can say that in general, a selfobject is someone who supports our sense of being a whole person by validating our feelings and making us feel that we belong in the world and that someone understands us – with the caveat that the specific form of that support and understanding will depend on the individual person.
Even in adulthood, having healthy selfobjects in our lives is absolutely vital to our emotional health and our psychological survival. In other words, our selfobjects are the “psychological oxygen” without which we suffocate, disintegrate, and die.
Because the selfobject concept is explicitly about interaction, Self-Psychology therefore believes that the development of self is a fundamentally social and relationship-based process – one which begins in earliest childhood, and whose focus for the individual child is their parents/caregivers. This makes sense because as we emerge from the protected bubble of infancy and encounter the world around us, these are the first people we meet, and everything we learn about ourselves at this stage comes from them; how they care for us or neglect us, how they hold us or ignore us, how they praise us or punish us, and how they love us or hate us.
Obviously, it is never as black and white as Love vs. Hate, but Self-psychology argues nevertheless that it is how we are treated by our parental selfobjects in this very earliest phase of life which determines whether we develop healthy or unhealthy nuclear self-structures (see The Structure of the Self for more on self-structures).
The Selfobject Matrix
Naturally, our early selfobjects are never ideal, so what matters, ultimately, is the overall tone of the environment in which we grow up. Self-Psychology calls this this overall environment the child’s selfobject matrix. The term matrix is used in its formal sense (and not that of mathematics and/or computer science), to mean the context in which something emerges and/or develops. For the infant child that matrix is the ‘mother’s’ emotional landscape. And so, if the ‘mother’s’ interactions with the child are generally empathetic, supportive, and constructive, then the occasional criticism or over-reaction will have little deleterious impact.
The holistic nature of this view makes it difficult, however, to point to any specific childhood event as the ’cause’ of adult difficulties. Therefore it’s helpful to also think of selfobjects in a more holistic way. By this I mean rather than trying to decide whether a selfobject was good or bad, it is more useful to think of our selfobjects being somewhere on a spectrum between healthy and unhealthy.
And so we can say that a healthy selfobject is someone who shows us that our feelings are real and valid, and that we are loved and accepted and understood. An unhealthy selfobject is therefore someone who makes us feel that our emotions and experiences are meaningless, unacceptable, stupid, or unimportant.
Empathy Failures and Optimal Frustration
Thinking in terms of generally healthy and generally unhealthy selfobjects makes it easier to understand that a healthy selfobject does not need to be a perfect selfobject. As we all eventually learn later in life, relationships are complicated and no one is perfect, especially a stressed out and sleep-deprived parent/caregiver. As such, we cannot expect parents/caregivers to never yell at their children or to never overreact to some relatively minor mistake.
Self-Psychology refers to the (ideally) occasional breakdown of our selfobjects’ sensitivity and understanding as an empathy failure. An empathy failure happens when someone we regard as a selfobject rejects us, insults us, disregards our feelings, or hurts us in some other way. This, in turn, creates feelings of internal fragmentation and anxiety. If we feel this way consistently enough, it can lead to overt psychopathology (i.e. mental-illness).
As we have already discussed, we can experience empathy failures with both our healthy and our unhealthy selfobjects, and it is the general trend of how empathy failures are managed which becomes ingrained in our self-structures. What ultimately sets the healthy selfobject apart from the unhealthy one, therefore, is the consistency with which our selfobjects notice their empathy failures and make efforts to repair the hurt which they have caused.
Empathy Failures vs. Trauma
It is important to note that while empathy failures can be dramatic and impactful experiences in a child’s life, they are generally not traumatic in the usual sense of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In fact, empathy failures have their profound effect on our development precisely because they appear to be trivial and banal. Their subtlety means that they can repeat themselves endlessly over the whole course of our childhood years without us noticing.
This leads to the accumulation of hundreds and thousands of daily injuries to our fragile pride and burgeoning self-esteem. In an unhealthy situation, the result of this is a kind of death by a thousand cuts, in which the daily repetition of tiny devaluations and minuscule embarrassments inscribes into us the sense that we are insufficient and broken, that we will never be good enough, and that we will never be loved.
In a healthy situation, however, our caregivers will be “in tune” enough with our needs and feelings to recognize that they have hurt us and will find some way of healing the injury. This healing can certainly take the form of a direct apology or explanation, but often it can be as subtle as simply not repeating the mistake the next time around.
Later theories refer to this process as “rupture and repair”, but Self-Psychology calls it optimal frustration. To put it technically, the caregiver’s non-attuned empathy failure frustrates the child’s need for validation, and when the caregiver apologizes, makes up for, or does not repeat the mistake, the child’s frustration is put to “optimal” use. In other words, the child learns not only that emotional injuries can be healed, but also that their parents/caregivers care enough to heal them.
These optimal frustrations happen continually in every relationship, quite literally on a moment-to-moment basis. In infancy and childhood, this continual repetition of empathy failures and optimal frustrations teaches us who we are and whether or not our innermost self is lovable, acceptable, tolerable, or repugnant.
If, however, our selfobjects are too preoccupied or insensitive to regularly repair their empathy failures with us, we begin to feel not only that we don’t fit, or that there is something wrong with us, but also also as if we ourselves are falling apart. This feeling of fragmentation and disintigration often leads to what is called disintegration anxiety and it can be utterly terrifying.
Disintegration anxiety results from prolonged exposure to what Heinz Kohut calls “a nonhuman, nonempathically responding world” (i.e. a world without healthy selfobjects). In the absence of positive, validating feedback, we are overtaken by the fear that we are falling apart as a person, and that we are on the verge of psychological death. If this feeling is too prevalent for too long during childhood, it can cause the self itself to erode, wither, disintegrate, and die.
It must be said, though, that the vast majority of parents/caregivers do succeed in doing a good enough job of being a healthy selfobject for their children, such that worst effects of disintegration anxiety rarely manifest. But the profound suffering of which disintegration anxiety is both cause and symptom underscores the importance of having healthy selfobjects at any stage of life. The ultimate antidote to the despair of depression and disintegration is having your feelings validated by a network of healthy selfobjects who understand and who care about you. In other words, a strong, healthy, and supportive social network.