Towards a Maturational Theory of the Self

Given at the plenary sessions of the International Federation of Medical Psychotherapy
Conference in Opatia, Yugoslavia in September 1985

by Dr Robert Gordon

What do I mean by a maturational theory? Perhaps first I should quote the Oxford Dictionary. 'Mature' comes from the latin word 'maturus' which means ripe and the dictionary definiton is 'complete in natural development or growth'.

The word maturation of course then means 'the action of coming to full growth and development' and again I quote the Oxford Dictionary. So the title of my paper 'Towards a Theory of Maturational Psychotherapy' could be translated or redefined as Towards a Theory of Step by Step process; given the opportunity to grow, the individual will make the strides necessary to develop a cohesive self and a self capable of creativity, and in the main, successful goal-directed behaviour.

Before I proceed further with my paper I would, however, like to draw your attention to something that is often confusing in the writings of therapists and that is the difference between ego and self. it is my belief that the ego can best be defined and considered as that part of the human individual which, in the main, is neurophysiological, and is involved in data gathering through the sensory systems and whose function can be very significantly affected by that part of the human being that is known as 'the self'.

The self, in my opinion, is made up of experience, experience from very very early days, that is slowly laid down. As Robert Stolorow has put it, the self develops into structure. It is the structuralisation of experience that is the 'self'.

It is also important to appreciate that experience, which we gather in through the ego, has both a cognitive and an affective component, and that the affective component of experience is the significant determinant of the way the experience is laid down and the way the human individual then deals with the experience, which has now become structured. Further there is now fairly clear evidence to indicate that this structuralisation of experience becomes part of the mechanism by which the ego functions. As Michael Lewis, the researcher into affective behaviour, has put it: "with sufficient repetition, enduring fundamental structures, similar to those that may emerge on a genetic basis, can be found. In computer parlance: there can be a virtual 'conversion of software into hardware'".

It is also my contention that self, this organisation of experience, begins with what is called the 'nascent self', the very early elements of experience that are gathered into the mind of the child by the mother-child interaction. It is my proposition, also, that the mother acts as a 'translator' of experience, by the very intimate and unique interaction between the child and the mother. She also, in those very early days, shapes what Tomkins and Izard believe are innate affects, of which they believe there are nine. I believe that the mother shapes these affects: heightening some, ignoring others and reacting to still some more. Also, these affects, shaped in the main by the mother, when excessively intense in the child, provoke soothing by the mother which, later on, becomes self-soothing within the individual.

In this affective shaping she, from very early on, names, validates, and mirrors the affect hence she gives these affects significant meaning for the child. From this early nascent self, or perhaps it would be better to say, around this nascent self, the child bathes in its own experience and develops its cohesive self. As I have said earlier: it is structuralisation of experience that makes up the self.

The concept of self is not new. Freud himself considered the self but did not elaborate on it. In England Sutty, Fairbairn, Guntrip, Balint and Winnicott clearly saw the self as the centre of human experience.

In America Freudian theory took hold very significantly after Freud's visit but to my mind very little further development occurred there until very recently. Partly, I think, due to the work of Hartmann and Kris who developed a very significant stature on the analytic scene in America and seemed to direct thinking more in the direction of 'Ego Psychology'.

It was Heinz Kohut who began to rethink Analytic Theory in the late 1960's and who was able to make 'a giant leap forward for mankind'. His appreciation of the self-object transferences through the empathic listening perspective, and understanding of the role of affects and affect shifts in the therapeutic process, and the concept of transmuting internalisation, are I believe, fundamental elements in understanding the psychological structure of personality and of personality change.

If one accepts that the human personality structure evolves through stages to maturation then it may not be too difficult to appreciate that Kohut's concepts centre around the issue of developmental arrest. That specific derailments in the mother-infant interaction, repeated again and again over a period of time, bring about the arrest of the natural psychological growth of the human infant and create deviant personality structures which, later in life, can be readily discerned by the competent psychotherapist. Alterations of these structures can be brought about by psychotherapy, when one appreciates the relevance of Kohut's style of therapeutic intervention.

The whole process of development must centre about the development of the self and particularly that of boundary formation which is the individual's ability to appreciate a 'me' and a not me' part. Russell Meares, in research undertaken with children, believes this individuation, this separateness through boundary, probably occurs around the age of four, and that prior to that, a sense of separateness is not consistently present. Meares' fascinating paper of what a 'secret' might mean is well worth reading in this regard.

Margaret Mahler's work observing mother-child interaction, I believe, has been an important contribution towards maturational theory. Mahler's substages of development, when viewed from a self-psychological point of view, reveal intriguing validations of Kohut's theories.

Margaret Mahler's theoretical frame of reference was, as you are aware, Keinian. This, I believe, led to her misunderstanding of what she so carefully observed in her research.

Let me exemplify. The substages of symbiosis, differentiation, practising subphase, rapproachment and 'on the way to object constancy', when viewed through Kohut's eyes, explain a great deal about human development.

At about four to five months of age, according to Mahler, at the peak of symbiosis, the first subphase of separation-individuation, called differentiation, becomes evident. I quote: "it is synonymous in our metaphorical language with 'hatching' from the mother-infant symbiotic common orbit; the child appears to begin to look outside itself".

At about seven to ten months, and up to fifteen to sixteen months of age, the practising subphase period is evident.

To quote Mahler again: "during the entire practising sub-phase the mother continues to be needed as a stable point, a 'home base', to fulfill the need for refueling through physical contact". Again I quote, "this phenomenon was termed by further 'emotional refueling'. And this emotional refueling allowed the child, once refueled, to quickly go on with his explorations once more, and become absorbed in his pleasure in functioning".

During this practising sub-phase what Greenacre (1957) has termed the 'child has a love affair with the world' and during this period, from ten to twelve, to sixteen to eighteeen months, for the junior toddler, 'the world is his oyster'.

I would like to quote Mahler again: "Phenomena are of great importance at this stage, most children in the practising subphase appear to have major periods of exhilaration or at least of relative elation, they become low keyed only when they become aware that mother was absent from the room, at such times their performance and motility slowed down; their interest in their surroundings diminished."

And they appeared to be preoccupied once again with inwardly concentrated appreciation of Kohut's concept of the bi-polar self and in particular that of the grandiose pole to fully appreciate this sub-phase.

But to continue with Mahler, the subphase of rapproachment, from about sixteen months to twenty-five months, brings the infant into toddlerhood. I quote: "he now becomes more and more aware and makes greater and greater use of his awareness of physical separateness". In this phase one can see 'active approach behaviour' and "stimulated by his maturationally acquired ability physically to move away from his mother, and by his cognitive growth, he now seems to have an increased need and wish for his mother to share with him every new acquisition on his path of skill and experience".

I quote Mahler again: "quality and measure of the wooing behaviour of the toddler during this subphase provide important clues to the assessment of the normality of the individuation process".

This subphase of rapproachment will, as I shall show you, highlight the other pole of Kohut's bi-polar self - that of the idealised parent imago.

It may be easier now for me to demonstrate the subphases in Kohut's model by diagram.

If we look at the diagram for the 'practising subphase' it is very apparent that the child requiring emotional refueling is likely to be developing a degree of separation anxiety, not the overwhelming and typical separation anxiety that is to come soon, but enough anxiety to require refueling. The mother's role in this refueling, in undoubtedly mirroring her ability to empathically respond to her child's affective need and to play her role in the continuing function of soothing, which later becomes internalised as self soothing by the maturing individual.

This mirroring of affect, which, as I have said earlier, begins with the dawning of consciousness in the infant and continues year after year until life's end in the adult, is the key function of 'the other' in this diadic relationship and in subsequent relationships in man's life.

What is mirrored by the mother builds up into a validation of inner reality.

The fundamental concept of the 'self-object', illuminated by Kohut, holds the key to the understanding of this mirroring of affect - alongside the cornerstone paper by Stolorow and Socarides on 'Affects and self-objects' (1984-5) which highlights, and I quote, "that selfobject functions pertain fundamentally to the integration of affect and that need for phase appropriate responsiveness to affect states in all stages of the life cycle".

During the rapproachment subphase, the mother has an added function - as you will see from my diagram here. Her function needs to be that of what I call 'validation of external reality' and of tuning the affect of the child to external events in a reality-testing way.

Thus, for example, when the child brings a shell that it has discovered on the beach, and, in his excitement, shows his mother what he has, then her role is, I believe, to share the pleasure and excitement of the discovery, to validate the adventurous significance of the child's explorations and to allow the child to encompass the relevance of the moment of experience into his structuring self.

To do so, she must in fact be idealised; the child must believe that the mother knows, and that the child can learn from this knowing and that reality can be confirmed, and significantly validated, by his mother.

When the mother repeatedly fails in her task in rapproachment subphase then, the child is left uncertain and frightened about 'the world out there'

Thus, to reiterate, in 'practising subphase' the mother's role is about mirroring the child's affective experience and building, with these experiences, an ongoing self-soothing component into personality structure. In the rapproachment subphase the mother's role is to validate external events, to further categorise experience into affective files and to enhance the reality testing of the toddler.

If these two functions are sustained by the 'good enough mother' then the child develops what Kohut calls the bi-polar self. The child can use its talents and abilities, develop independent initiative, sustain its efforts towards achievement of ambitions and goals, sustain moral values and ideals, and consistently, through self-soothing, retain a sense of integration of self.

Relinquishing instinct theory and drive defence concepts was, in his model of personality organisation, crucial to Kohut's work. As his theory evolved it became apparent that expressions of 'instinct in conflict' were breakdown products of a fragmenting self and not primarily evident features of an integrated self.

Conceptualised in terms of the self, even Winnicott remained wedded to instinct theory, particularly to that of aggression, and saw the ability of the therapist to 'survive attack' by the child or patient as playing a vital part in establishiing reality, and placing 'the object outside the self'.

What then has this maturational concept to offer to the development of Psychotherapy in the future?

Firstly, tradition, culture and specific maternal practices, which will in some way vary from country to country, leave their special and particular mark on the individual. Thus psychotherapists need to be sensitive to tradition, culture and language when working in psychotherapy, and very mindful of the 'shaping' by mothers in that specific cultural context.

Psychotherapists using Kohut's frame of reference will discover just how applicable it is from country to country, and, particularly, when outside the frame of reference of western man.

It will undoubtedly require a therapist steeped in the culture and tradition of a country to be able to function adequately for his patient, and it is very likely that both psychotherapist and patient will need to be of the same culture to achieve the greatest advantage with this style of therapy.

Secondly, instinct theory, with its emphasis on sex and aggression, will be put in its rightful place, recognised for what it is, as 'breakdown products of the self'. The emphasis placed on hostility and aggression will be understood for what it really is: a reaction to underlying fragmenting anxiety and a breakdown in self cohesion. The 'persecutory therapist' may, through the appreciation of this theoretical frame of reference, become more empathic and appreciative of the structure of the patient's self.

By understanding assertiveness - healthy assertiveness is part and parcel of the cohesive self in its thrust towards fulfillment of ambitions and goals - a more thorough and deeper appreciation of the difference between assertion and hostility will be achieved. Recognition of what healthy assertion means to the child, in his thrust toward a healthy self, may well rewrite some child rearing books by the year 2000.

We do not know all there is to know about the self but I believe that 'mother-infant observation' and Kohut's appreciation of the 'self-object' and of the 'self' have directed us along a path which the future will show to be a much more empathically sensitive appreciation of what 'a human being, being himself' represents.


BLANCK, R. & BLANCK, G. (1974) Ego Psychology Theory and Practice. Columbia University Press., New York.

BLANCK, R. & BLANCK, G. (1979) Ego Psychology II: Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology. New York; Columbia University Press.

BRANDCHAFT, B. & R. D. STOLOROW (1984) The Borderline Concept: Pathological Character or Iatrogenic Myth. Empathy, Vol. 1, Joseph Lichtenberg, Ed., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

CRAIN, W. C. (1980) Theories of Development Concepts and Applications. Prentice-Hall International, Incorporated Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

FLAVELL, J.H. (1963) The Developmental Psychology by Jean Piaget. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

FREUD, A. (1968) Indications and Contra Indications for Child Analysis. The Writings of Anna Freud, 7:1 110-123.New York: International Universities Press 1971.

FREUD, A. (1968) Difficulties in the Path of Psychoanalysis, The Writing of Anna Freud, 7:124-156. New York: International Universities Press, 1971.

FREUD, A. (1970) The Infantile Neurosis. The Writings of Anna Freud, 7:189-203. New York: International Universities Press, 1971.

FREUD, S. (1937) Analysis Terminable and Interminable. Standard Edition, 23:209-253. London: Hogarth Press, 1964.

FREUD, S. (1957) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.

GOLDBERG, A. (EDITOR) Advances in Self Psychology, International University Press,

GREENACRE, P. (1957) The Childhood of the Artist: Libidinal Phase Development and Giftedness.

GREENACRE, P. (1971) Notes on the Influence and Contribution of Ego Psychology to the Practice of Psychoanalysis. In: Separation and Individuation, Ed. J.B.McDevitt and C.F. Settlage. New York: International Universities Press, pp.171-200.

KOHUT, H. (1979) The Two Analyses of Mr. Z, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Part 1, Ep 3-28.

KOHUT, H. (1971) The Analysis of the Self. International University Press.

KOHUT, H. (1977) The Restoration of the Self. International University Press.

KOHUT, H. (1984) How Does Analysis, Cure? The University of Chicago Press.

LEWIS, M. (1979) The Self as a Developmental Concept. Human Development, 22, 416 - 419.F

MAHLER, M. S. & PINE, F. (1975) The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

MEARES, R. (1976) The Secret. Psychiatry, Vol. 1719. No. 3.

MEARES, R. & HOBSON, R. F. (1977) The Persecutory Therapist. British Journal Medical Psychology, 50, pp. 349-359

MEARES, R. (1986) On Boundary Formation: A Model of Depersonalization and Some Implications for the Borderline. Psychiatry, February.

PIAGET, J. (1963) The Child's Conception of the World (J. & A. Tomlinson, Trans.). Paterson, N.J., Littlefield, Adams and Co.

SOCARIDES, D. D., & STOLOROW R. D. (1984-1985) Affects and Self-Objects. The Annual of Psychoanalysis, 12/13, 105-119.

WINNICOTT, D. W. (1965) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.

WINNICOTT, D. W. (1971) Playing and Reality. Tavistock Publications.

Bookmark this Page: [IE]  [Netscape users: press CTRL + D] | Print this Page:

"Towards a maturational theory of the self"  © 1985-2004. Dr Robert Gordon.