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The Structure of Self

According to Self-Psychology, the Self is made up of three self-structures: the nuclear structure, the compensatory structure, and the defensive structure. The different layers of self-structure vary in flexibility and in the roles they play in determining who we are and how we behave. 

These structures can be visualized as the layers of an apple, with the nuclear structure as the innermost “core,” the seeds of the self. The apple’s flesh would be the compensatory structure, which stabilizes, protects, and feeds the core by wrapping around it and filling in whatever cracks and gaps there might be. Finally, the defensive structure would be the apple’s skin, a thin outer shell which protects the apple’s core and flesh from the anxieties created by the events of life.

The two inner layers, the nuclear and compensatory, make up the basic beliefs and feelings we have about ourselves. These include feelings of being lovable or unlovable, or that our needs are or aren’t important, or that we do or don’t deserve the love and respect of our parents and peers. The nature of these feelings and how they fit together determines what we expect the world to be like, as well as how we are supposed to behave towards others and how they are supposed to behave towards us. These expectations are also known as our self-selfobject relations, which we will discuss in a separate post.

Nuclear Self-Structure

The nuclear self-structure is the first to be “laid down.” It emerges at about three years old and is generally finished developing by the age of five or six. This is the stage of life when we first begin to interact with the world and start to form emotional bonds with the people around us. How those people respond to our attempts to connect tells us who we are, how we should feel about ourselves, and what we can expect from future relationships. These experiences repeat themselves many, many times over the years, and eventually they begin to crystallize and become patterns of thought, belief, and action. Because it is the earliest to develop, the nuclear self-structure becomes the bedrock of our future personality and self-perception.

Self-Psychology also says that once the nuclear self has solidified, its structure is permanent and cannot be changed by any amount of experience. This means that whatever “defects” we develop during the earliest years of life become a permanent part of us and stay with us through the rest of our lives.

Compensatory Self-Structure

However, Self-Psychology also believes that everyone has a natural ability and need to develop in a healthy and stable way. To do this, we need to make up for whatever “defects” we picked up in our earliest years. And so, in later childhood, after the age of five or six, we begin to lay down a second, compensatory self-structure. Like the nuclear structure, the compensatory structure is made up of self-related beliefs, attitudes, and expectations.

Importantly, this is that we are not doomed to lead difficult and miserable lives just because our first few years didn’t go so well. On the contrary, Self-Psychology says that

The most productive and creative lives are lived by those who, despite degrees of traumatization in childhood, are able to acquire new structures by finding new routes toward inner completeness.(Kohut, 2013, pp. 44)

In other words, in order to make up for early “defects” we have to develop the ability to cope with difficulty and maintain a creative, productive, and optimistic view of life. Not only that, but Self-psychology also believes that the overall self actually consists mostly of compensatory structures,. This means that in ideal circumstances the nuclear self-structures end up having little influence on our thought and behaviour.

Defensive Self-Structure

Like the nuclear structure, however, the compensatory self-structure develops through relationships with other people, who are themselves flawed, and therefore rarely does so under ideal circumstances. This means that our compensations will inevitably develop at least a few of their own “defects,” if not a great many. To make up for these, we employ a third “defensive” structure, which comprises a number of tactics that we employ to manage the anxiety we feel when our nuclear self is under threat from the outside world. These are the famous “ego-defenses” like denial, repression, projection, rationalization, and so on.

Importantly for Self-psychology, this means we choose our defensive “style” according to the needs of our nuclear self and the weaknesses of our compensatory structures. In this, the defensive self-structure functions differently from the nuclear and compensatory structures in that it is reactive and not formative; it does not contain any “bedrock” feelings or beliefs of its own.

Summary of the Structures

So, to summarize how the three structures fit together: If you come to feel at a very young age that “people will only love me if I am well-behaved,” and nothing is done to change that feeling before your nuclear structures “solidify,” then you will never be able to shake this belief. However, through new relationships with new friends, teachers, and mentors you might be able to lay down the new compensatory structure “I won’t be abandoned because I did the wrong thing.” This new belief makes up for (but does not replace!) the unhealthy nuclear-structure belief. However, if you get angry enough with a friend for being dismissive towards you, for example, you might nevertheless be afraid that expressing it to the friend will destroy your friendship. This might lead you to displace that anger by at first holding it in, and then starting an argument with a stranger on the bus.

The Laying Down of Structure

Obviously, that is a very simplified example and the inner workings of the self are rarely that clear to see and that easy to interpret. The laying down of self-structure is a long and subtle process of making personal meaning out of the events of everyday life. As we will see in our discussion of optimal failures these events can be moments of conflict and rejection, but most often they are as subtle as a father’s eyebrow being raised in quiet criticism, or a mother taking a minute too long to respond to our cries, or a caregiver patting us on the head when what we wanted was a hug. These subtle events repeat themselves over and over during our formative years. The patterns of belief and expectation which this creates can be very difficult to identify and even harder to change. This is what Self-Psychology means when it speaks of “laying down” self-structures.

The Therapeutic Perspective

An attractive feature of Self-Psychology theory is its optimism. Self-Psychology believes that even as adults our compensatory structures can be changed. This means that change is possible for just about everyone, no matter how old we are or how deeply embedded out “defects” might be.

As Kohut says, the practical goal of any psychotherapy is not for any specific kind of personality, but to develop

“[the client’s] increased capacity to be reassured by a friend’s wordlessly putting his arm around his shoulder, his newly obtained or rekindled ability to feel strengthened and uplifted when listening to music, his broadened sense of being in tune with the preoccupations of a group to which he belongs, his liberated ability to exhibit joyfully the products of his creativity in order to obtain the approval of a responsive selfobject audience.” (Kohut, 2013, p. 76)

So this is the main goal of Self-Psychology-based psychotherapy. As we establish a relationship with our therapist, we can observe our own patterns as they play themselves out. The therapist then helps us look at our self-structures and understand how they came to be. The therapist becomes a positive model, a kind of surrogate parent, who helps us reshape our old childhood patterns of thought, belief, and interaction. At the end of therapy we will hopefully be able to have satisfying relationships with the people in our lives and to look forward to a creative and productive future.

Published inExplanationSelf-PsychologySimple