Harry Stack Sullivan was born in Norwich, New York, on February 21, 1892. He was schooled at Smyrna Union School and began his higher education at Cornell University. After two years, he transferred to the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery and earned his MD in 1917. Sullivan focused his attention on interpersonal relationships and in particular, the effect of loneliness on mental health. He expanded upon Freud’s theories in his work with the mentally disturbed, and spent much of his time working with individuals suffering with schizophrenia.
Contribution to Psychology
Sullivan was the first to coin the term "Self System," a phrase that described personality traits that are formed in childhood as a result of employing survival mechanisms. When an individual reaches maturity, this self-system becomes the foundation for the behaviors exhibited in relationships, called parataxical integrations by Sullivan. Sullivan theorized that people engage this behavior pattern to elicit specific responses, or reactions, in others. When their expectations are unrealistic, it creates what he called a parataxic distortion, a dynamic similar to transference, by where people view others as a sum of their past reactions and behaviors. To overcome these challenges, Sullivan described different communication styles used by people struggling with distinct behavior patterns as either syntactic or prototaxic.
How clients interact with others is the basis of interpersonal psychoanalysis, a discipline that was based on Sullivan’s work. He preferred to refer to psychological disturbances as “problems in living,” and this phrase soon became the chosen way of referring to mental illness by many involved in the antipsychiatry movement led by Thomas Szasz.
From 1925-1929, Sullivan worked at the Sheppard Pratt Hospital and conducted experimental treatment, without medication, on schizophrenic patients with an amazing success rate. The patients were all gay and this experience may have been especially personal for Sullivan as it was reported that he himself was gay.
Sullivan contributed much to the field of psychology through his teachings, his writings, and his leadership. He was a co-founder of the William Alanson White Institute and also was instrumental in launching the first edition of the journal Psychiatry.
Books by Harry Stack Sullivan