Harry Stack Sullivan and His Study of Interpersonal Relationships

Harry Sullivan

Harry Sullivan

On February 21, 1892, American Neo-Freudian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan was born. Sullivan developed a theory of psychiatry based on interpersonal relationships. He believed that anxiety and psychotic behavior could be traced back to families who did not know how to relate to their children, who consequently did not feel accepted and loved. Sullivan’s work on interpersonal relationships became the foundation of interpersonal psychoanalysis.

Harry Stack Sullivan grew up in Norwich, New York and attended Cornell University starting from 1909. In 1917, he received his medical degree from the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery.

Sullivan developed a theory of psychiatry based on interpersonal relationships where cultural forces are largely responsible for mental illnesses. Sullivan prodeced to characterize loneliness as the most painful of human experiences and extended the Freudian psychoanalysis to the treatment of patients with severe mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia.

Harry Sullivan also developed the so called Self System, meaning that psychology traits were developed during childhood and reinforced by positive affirmation and the security operations developed in childhood to avoid anxiety and threats to self-esteem. He further described the Self System as some kind of steering mechanism toward a series of I-You interlocking behaviors. Sullivan coined the term Parataxical Integrations, noting that certain action-reaction combinations could dominate the thinking pattern of adults and limit their actions and reactions toward the world. He termed the resulting inaccuracies in judgment parataxic distortion. Further, Sullivan introduced the concept of prototaxic communication as a more primitive, needy, infantile form of psychic interchange and syntactic communication as a mature style of emotional interaction.

Harry Sullivan and his work on interpersonal relationships became the foundation of interpersonal psychoanalysis. The school of psychoanalytic theory and treatment stressed the detailed exploration of the nuances of patients’ patterns of interacting with others. Sullivan was among the founders of the William Alanson White Institute, considered by many as the world’s leading independent psychoanalytic institute, and of the journal Psychiatry in 1937. He further headed the Washington School of Psychiatry from 1936 to 1947.

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