Main Pages

By Region

Pages

Resources

Self Object

Glossary of Spiritual Wisdom

Excerpts about Self Object

Defining a Self-Object

The self-object is an object that is not seen by the self as completely separate from the self 

The Void, pg. 121

Development of the Concept of Self-Objects

In his later theory, Kohut abandons ego-psychological terminology, and defines the development of the self as the development of the bipolar self that begins as the nuclear self. In this theory he departs from the concept of primary narcissism. He develops the concept of self-objects, which are objects the child experiences as part of herself, and thus are not seen as objects in their own right, or with their own needs, but are there to satisfy the narcissistic needs of the self. The child expects to have control over such objects, like she  controls her body movements. Kohut differentiates two primary kinds of self-objects, basically the self-objects related to the grandiose self, and the self-objects that are the idealized objects. He defines their functions in terms of these two configurations, thus identifying the nature of the environmental response needed for the integration of the two configurations. 

Fully Experiencing a Certain Emptiness is Necessary to Resolve the Need for Idealized Self-Objects

We find, then, that the state of lack of support is the psychological recognition of an existential emptiness, a deficient state experienced phenomenologically as nothingness, or vacuity. Retracing our steps, we can see that the breakdown of the idealizing transference produces a state of deficient emptiness, with a sense of lack of support. It is our experience that fully experiencing this emptiness is necessary to resolve the need for idealized self-objects. Self psychology and object relations theory explain this emptiness as the absence or loss of a psychic structure, or as a consequence of the loss of a certain object relation. We find this explanation only partly accurate. It is true that when a certain object relation (in this case the idealizing transference) or a psychic structure (in this case the structure related to ideals or to the superego) is lost, this emptiness usually arises. However, this does not mean that the emptiness is necessarily the absence of this object relation or of the psychic structure. An alternative explanation would be that the loss of the object relation and/or psychic structure merely reveals an underlying emptiness. Our perception is that the idealizing transference functions to support the sense of self, but does so by veiling this underlying emptiness. Thus, the idealizing transference is a defense against this underlying emptiness. 

Relating to a Teacher Like a Child

The student who is dealing with narcissism tends to relate to his teacher and to significant others in his life like a child does when it is developmentally normal to need an idealized self-object: “Since all bliss and power now reside in the idealized object, the child feels empty and powerless when he is separated from it and he attempts, therefore, to maintain a continuous union with it.” (Kohut, 1971) The student believes, at least unconsciously but often consciously, that his teacher possesses perfection and greatness. This perception is based not on reality but on his own narcissistic needs. He does not question this image of his teacher, believing it to be true, and feels blessed and fortunate to have such an extraordinary teacher. He cannot help but adore his teacher, believing him to be the best thing that has ever appeared on the earth. His mind might be somewhat incredulous of the intensity of his love and admiration, but his feelings are completely convincing. 

Resolving the Need for Idealized Self-Objects

We find, then, that the state of lack of support is the psychological recognition of an existential emptiness, a deficient state experienced phenomenologically as nothingness, or vacuity. Retracing our steps, we can see that the breakdown of the idealizing transference produces a state of deficient emptiness, with a sense of lack of support. It is our experience that fully experiencing this emptiness is necessary to resolve the need for idealized self-objects. Self psychology and object relations theory explain this emptiness as the absence or loss of a psychic structure, or as a consequence of the loss of a certain object relation. We find this explanation only partly accurate. It is true that when a certain object relation (in this case the idealizing transference) or a psychic structure (in this case the structure related to ideals or to the superego) is lost, this emptiness usually arises. However, this does not mean that the emptiness is necessarily the absence of this object relation or of the psychic structure. An alternative explanation would be that the loss of the object relation and/or psychic structure merely reveals an underlying emptiness. Our perception is that the idealizing transference functions to support the sense of self, but does so by veiling this underlying emptiness. Thus, the idealizing transference is a defense against this underlying emptiness. 

Student Seeing the Self-Object as an Extension of Himself

In the realization of the Essential Identity, it is useful to discriminate the self-identity from the self-entity; it is specifically the former that replaces the Essential Identity as the sense of self-recognition. However, Being will challenge all structures of the ego-self, and self-realization will challenge not only the self-identity structure, but all structures that support it or are related to it. The most significant of these is the self-entity structure. This structure supports the identity in many ways. It becomes increasingly challenged as Being reveals its more profound dimensions. This aspect of the process manifests initially as the arising need for more primitive forms of idealized and mirroring self-objects. Specifically, the student recognizes his need for a merged relationship that provides support and mirroring. He begins realizing his need to depend on the self-object, to know his experience of himself, and to value it. So he expects the teacher, or significant others in his life, to know how he feels and to satisfy his needs, without him having to communicate them himself. This exposes the need for the merged mirroring self-object, which may also manifest as seeing the self-object as an extension of himself, which has no value or existence independent from him. He becomes hurt and enraged if the self-object does not act solely to please and serve him, if she acts in an independent way that neglects his needs or does not make them her only concern. The absence or loss of this merged self-object allows him to feel an emptiness characterized by the lack of a sense of identity and by loneliness. In this state, he feels the loss of both himself and the other; he is lost and also lonely, indicating the loss of both mirroring and the merged connection. 

Student’s Turn to Mirroring Self-Objects to Help Him Preserve the Integrity and Cohesion of His Capacity for Self-Recognition

This process of self-realization naturally applies pressure on the conventional sense of identity. Issues arise which affect the central narcissistic structure, that of self-identity. The transformation of narcissism consists largely of the transformation of this structure, leading to the realization of the Essential Identity. The increasing pressure on the structure of self-identity exposes its underlying vulnerability and shakiness. The student attempts to find ways to shore up his sense of identity, but can no longer turn so easily to idealization; he has seen through it. So he turns to mirroring self-objects to help him preserve the integrity and cohesion of his capacity for self-recognition. This manifests as the need for mirroring, particularly in the mirror transference onto the teacher. Investigating this narcissistic transference in depth leads us to a thorough understanding of the sense of identity and its underlying structure. We become increasingly aware of the properties of the self-identity, which we have up to now taken for granted to be part of who we really are. This awareness begins to transform the self-identity, making it more flexible and realistic. So this structure becomes less and less opaque, until it is transparent enough to reveal the essential identity. This is the central process of the transformation of narcissism, which begins by observing and understanding the need to be seen and mirrored. 

The Perfect Qualities of the Idealized Self-Object Reflect the Qualities of Something Real

Having explored idealizing transference and the dimension of Diamond Will, we can see more clearly the connection between the idealized object that is needed to support one’s narcissistic identity, and the essential quality that is the support for the true identity. The idealized object is usually seen as big, strong, powerful, perfect, intelligent, and loving. These characteristics are like the experience of the Diamond Will: immense, powerful, loving, spacious, and solid. We saw in Chapter 20 that the grandiose self is a distorted image of the Essential Identity. In relation to the Diamond Will, which is the true support for the Essential Identity, the image is not only distorted, but projected on an external object, usually a parent or teacher. This is the source of idealization: The perfect qualities of the idealized self-object are not merely created from the needs of the child, but reflect the qualities of something real. These qualities, which are considered by depth psychologists to be delusional idealizations, are the real characteristics of the only thing that can support the child’s real identity: the Diamond Will of Essence. The child needs the idealization, which is simply the projection of the Diamond Will on the parent, because he knows—albeit unconsciously and indirectly—what he needs to sustain his sense of true identity. 

The “All Good” and “All Bad” Self-Object Representations

The symbiotic phase does not comprise only gratifying experiences; it includes many painful and frustrating experiences. When the infant’s needs are not met adequately or immediately, he cannot but experience frustration, rage and other painful affects. But the infant’s experience of this negativity is not experienced as his own or his mother’s; it is part of a merged relationship. There are still no clear concepts of self and other, and no clear boundaries between the two. Thus the frustration and suffering can only be experienced as what we call “negative merging,” in contrast to the positive merging of the experiences of gratification. The first structures of ego develop at this time. They are defensive structures which attempt to protect positive internalizations from the negative affect of the painful ones. The pleasurable and positive merged experiences are internalized as “all good” undifferentiated self-object representations, and the painful and negative merged experiences are internalized as “all bad” undifferentiated self-object representations. These representations are then organized into overall “all good” or “all bad” undifferentiated self-object representations.

Subscribe to the Diamond Approach

 
See past editions of the Diamond Approach newsletter