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