Interpersonal psychoanalysis

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Interpersonal psychoanalysis is based on the theories of Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949), an American psychiatrist, who believed that the details of a patient's interpersonal interactions with others can provide insight into the causes and cures of mental disorder.[1][2]

Selective Inattention

Sullivan proposed that patients could keep certain aspects or components of their interpersonal relationships out of their awareness by a psychological behavior described as selective inattention. The term has to a degree passed into common usage: '"Selective inattention", Deborah said, laughing at the words of psychiatry, whose private language and secret jargon had not the beauty or poetry of Yri'[3].


Sullivan emphasized that psychotherapists' analyses should focus on patients' relationships and personal interactions to obtain knowledge of affecting patterns and tendencies - personifications. Such analyses would consist of detailed questioning regarding moment-to-moment personal interactions, even including those with the analyst himself.

For Sullivan, 'personifications embody one's assumptions, schemata, internalised representations of others and reflected appraisals of the self'[4]. They can form the basis for 'the later ambiguities in interpersonal relations that Sullivan termed parataxic distortion...a very similar concept to the standard psychoanalytic transference/projection mechanisms'[5].

Sullivan and the Neo-Freudians

'Like the other neo-Freudians that Sullivan worked with, he rejects the orthodox Freudian drive model, although he retains a variant of the pleasure principle'[6]. Sullivan's interdisciplinary emphasis - linking him with 'psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counsellors and clergy. Horney, Fromm, Thompson and Fromm-Reichman were all associates'[7] - was an important part of his enduring influence.


The point has been made that Sullivan's 'need to separate himself from Freud was perhaps so great that he persistently invented new, often obtuse, terms for concepts already well expressed by Freud'[8].


Curtis, R. C. & Hirsch, I. (2003). Relational Approaches to Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. In Gurman, A. G. & Messer, S. B. Essential Psychotherapies. NY: Guilford.

Curtis, R. C. (2008). Desire, Self, Mind & the Psychotherapies. Unifying Psychological Science and Psychoanalysis. Lanham, MD & New York: Jason Aronson.

See also


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  1. Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton.
  2. Evans, F. Barton (1996). Harry Stack Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.
  3. Hannah Green, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (London 1967) p. 171
  4. Paul Brinich/Christopher Shelley, The Self and Personality Structure (Buckingham 2002) p. 65
  5. Brinich, Self p. 65
  6. Brinich, Self p. 65
  7. Brinich, Self p. 64
  8. B. F. Evans, in Brinich, Self p. 65