Self System

Fundamentals of Sullivan's Self System Framework

Self refers to a person’s self-image or “who we mean when we say ‘I’”. It is a composite of the “reflected appraisals” of significant others.— (Sullivan, 1940)
  • Self system (also referred to as self dynamism) is a personality construct devised by Harry S. SullivanOpens in new window to describe a person’s experiences of social approval and disapproval, resulting first from the mother and later from other significant people in his or her life.

Sullivan used the notion “personification of the self” to denote the contents of one’s own self-image. He proposed the sense of self, or self system, begins to evolve during the first year of life as a consequence of interpersonal experiences of social approval and disapproval between child and mother.

These instances of social evaluation arouse anxiety in the child, who soon begins to use anxiety as a tool to apprehend and distinguish among stimuli that have produced anxiety in the past (i.e., threatening interpersonal situations, the inadvertent expression of one’s own disapproved-of personal attributes or behaviors, etc.).

The self system makes use of anxiety for two related purposes:

This concept of interpersonal security is a particularly significant one in interpersonal theory and has a particular technical meaning. Just as person may be said to seek satisfaction in response to experiencing a given need, so the person seeks security in response to the experience of anxiety.

Sullivan’s self system may be described as “two-edged sword” because it was created negatively to avoid anxiety and positively to gain satisfaction. In this way, the infant is interacting with the environment, and particularly the mothering one, establishing a set of interrelated schemes for achieving such satisfaction. It is this set of schemes which begins to constitute the infant’s self system or personality. Unlike the soul, the self system is constantly gaining in complexity as the individual develops in ongoing social situations.

As a result of early interaction, the self system acquires three main components: the “good me,” the “bad me,” and the “non-me”. See table below.

ComponentDescription
Good-meGood-me is the beginning personification which organizes experience in which satisfactions have been enhanced by rewarding increments of tenderness, which come to the infant because the mothering one or nurturer is pleased with the way things are going.
Bad-meBad me is the beginning personification which organizes experience in which increasing degrees of anxiety are associated with behavior involving the mothering one. Here the child failed to receive nurture and tenderness.
Non-meNon-me is personification of experiences in which the child experiences excessive anxiety due to disapproving emotions transmitted by the nurturing mother. The personification of non-me is most conspicuously encountered by people who are having a severe schizophrenic episode.

Sullivan applied the word “mother” in describing the early interactions of infants, but the mothering person might not be the biological parent or even female. It is the primary nurturer of the child. A mother who is warm and nurturing gives her child a feeling of acceptance so that he experiences the self as the “good.” A tense, rejecting mother gives the child a feeling of being a “bad me.”

Consequently, when there are few affectionate gestures from the mother, the child perceives the self as more bad than good; good self-appraisals are lost and bad self-appraisals dominate. And when the mother uses forbidding or disapproving gestures against certain activities of the child, such as thumbsucking or genital exploration, the effect is to separate or dissociate the genital and oral regions from the child’s sense of what is good and acceptable. Sometimes a child will isolate or separate these forbidden regions and behaviors, disown them, and make them part of the “non-me” aspect of the self system.

Sullivan described an undesirable process called malevolent transformation in which a child who feels “bad” sees badness in everyone else. Because the child is so aware of being bad, the only way for him to feel human like everyone else is to search for the worst in others. Thus, the child is rarely disappointed; the result is that he believes the world is full of enemies. This line of reasoning helps explain suspiciousness and paranoid thinking as outcomes of low self-esteem. Another implication of this theory is that self-love and self-respect are necessary if one is to be able to love and respect others.

Communication between mother and child occurs through a process called empathy, which allows one person to understand and identify with the feelings of another. When the mother feels anxiety, it is transmitted by empathy to the child. Thus, for Sullivan, feelings of anxiety arise out of dependency on others for security. Generated first in the interaction between mother and child, anxiety becomes part of every subsequent interpersonal transaction and is the primary cause of problematic relationships and difficulties in living.

Modes of Experience

Sullivan’s conceptualization of experience included the inner meaning of everything people live through or undergo. He described three distinct modes of experience: prototaxic, parataxic, and syntaxic.

  1. Prototaxic
    The prototaxic mode of experience is that known to the very young infant. It is a continuous flow with no differentiation; there are no connections, no causes or effects, and there is no awareness of self as distinct from others. The separate world does not exist; the infant is the entire world.
  2. Parataxic
    The parataxic mode of experience is broken, but the fragments are unconnected and unrelated. Parataxic experience belongs only to the person involved in it, and its uniqueness cannot be shared with others. Older infants, many children, and some creative people engage in parataxic experience. At times of acute mental disturbance the subjective experience of a client may become a parataxic distortion.
  3. Syntaxic
    Syntaxic experience can be validated consensually by means of language and symbols. In syntaxic experience, meanings and principles can be shared with others and can be accepted by others as true or untrue based on common understanding. In general, syntaxic experience is accepted as valid by a group (Sullivan 1953).

Elaboration of the three modes of experience led Sullivan to describe several strategies people use to handle interpersonal transactions.

Developmental Stages

Like FreudOpens in new window and EriksonOpens in new window, Sullivan described a developmental progression of stages. The table below shows the developmental stages.

PeriodAgeCharacteristicsDescription
InfancyBirth to 11/2 yearsDominant material
influence
The first period, infancy, lasts from birth to one and a half years and is characterized by the dominant influence of the mother. During this period, experience is prototaxic. The infant can rarely be “spoiled,” as mothers sometimes fear, since the idea of cause and effect has not yet evolved.
Childhood11/2 to 6 yearsIncreasing
peer influence
Childhood lasts from the end of infancy until the time when the child begins to cooperate with peers. This period, from age one and a half to six, is marked by clashes between the wishes of the child and those of the parents. Consistent limit setting is necessary if the child is to have a realistic perception of the world.
Juvenile6 to 9 yearsGradual movement
into the world
During the juvenile period, which lasts from age six to nine, the child moves further from the home into the world.
Preadolescent9 years to pubertyDecreasing egocentricity;
increasing socialization
Preadolescence, which lasts from age nine to puberty, introduces movement from what is termed egocentricity toward a more socialized orientation. In the preadolescent period, peer influence is important, and having a best friend reinforces the effect of interpersonal experiences on personality development.
Early adolescence12 to 14 yearsIncreasing independence,
interest in opposite sex
Adolescence is divided into early and later stages. Early adolescence lasts from age twelve to fourteen and is usually characterized by growing independence and interest in the opposite sex.
Late adolescence15 to 21 yearsIncreasing sexuality, intimacyLate adolescence lasts from fifteen to twenty-one years of age and is at time in which sexuality is enriched by establishing a lasting, satisfying intimacy. In discussing sexuality Sullivan expressed concern that the biological sexuality of young people was inhibited by social factors that discourage sexual expression—a concern that may be less true now than it was in his day.