Harry Stack Sullivan

Harry Stack Sullivan (who lived from February 21, 1892 to January 14, 1949) was an American Neo-Freudian psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who proposed that the earliest sense of self stems from the mother-infant bond, which evolves into a more elaborate self-system.


Sullivan was the only surviving child of Irish parents who emigrated to the US following the potato famine. His childhood has been described as poor, lonely, and socially isolated.

Sullivan attended medical school in Chicago, and originally trained in the psychoanalytic tradition. Sullivan’s theoretical approach, referred to as interpersonal psychiatry and self-psychology emphasized social factors related to the development of the sense of self.

Works & Commitments

Having studied therapists Sigmund Freud, Adolf Meyer, and William Alanson White, he devoted years of clinical and research work to helping people with psychotic illness. Unlike Freud, Sullivan considered the developmental implications of parent-child as well as peer relationships critical influences on the personality. Sullivan introduced the term ‘significant other’ to refer to important relationships (Sullivan 1953).

Sullivan proposed what he called the chum period in order to describe the psychological importance of same-sex friendships that occur by about age 10. Beginning with the significance of having companionable playmates in order to learn crucial social skills, Sullivan considered the experience of ‘chums’ essential for subsequent emotional and social well-being.

Because such relationships provide opportunities to develop trust, caring, and loyalty, Sullivan argued that close chumships could actually counteract some of the detrimental effects of poor parent-child relationships, and prepare children for subsequent partnerships with loved ones. Similarly, Sullivan argued that a child who is deprived of chumships would be at risk of subsequent social difficulties as an adult.

Sullivan was well known for his clinical work with people with severe psychoses. He approached therapy with the premise that even those people with the most severe forms of schizophrenia could benefit from the human relationship provided in psychotherapy (Evans 1996).

Sullivan’s emphasis on the role of interpersonal relationships in the healing process is congruent with social work values. His attention to cultural influences on mental illness, considered quite radical at the time, is also congruent with social work approaches because of its focus on social factors rather than pathology alone.