Heinz Kohut was a 20th century psychoanalyst who expanded the field of self psychology

Professional Life

Heinz Kohut was born in Vienna, Austria, on May 3, 1913. He was homeschooled until 1924, when he entered public school at the age of 11. He learned to speak French and Greek and studied European literature and biology. He began his secondary education in medicine at the University of Vienna, where he developed an interest in psychoanalysis. He spent one year studying in Paris and graduated in 1938.

Kohut fled the Nazis in Austria in 1939, because his father was Jewish. He traveled to England and then to the United States, where he worked at the University of Chicago hospitals. He gradually transitioned to psychoanalysis, and he eventually became a lecturer in psychiatry at the university. He served as president of the American Psychoanalytic Association in 1964 and vice president of the International Psychoanalytic Association beginning in 1965.

A staunch defender of traditional psychoanalytic theory, Kohut often referred to himself as “Mr. Psychoanalysis,” although later in his career he rejected Sigmund Freud's structural theory and developed a new theory of the self. 

Contribution to Psychology

Kohut began to develop a view of the self with four basic components, beginning with the nuclear self, a biological construct that infants are born with. The virtual self is an image of the baby retained by her parents. The combination of the nuclear self and virtual self should lead to the next component, a cohesive self, but trauma, abuse, and other problems during development can prevent this. The grandiose self is the fourth component, and is an egocentric form of the self that results from feelings of being the center of the universe during early infancy.

Kohut believed that a parent's failure to empathize with the child was at the heart of nearly every psychological problem. Kohut's self psychology is built around this belief, emphasizing that psychological problems and maladaptive coping strategies are the result of unmet developmental needs. For example, when a frightened child’s need to be comforted is not satisfied, he or she could grow into an overly cautious or excessively risk-taking adult.

Empathy is the most important therapeutic tool in self psychology because, according to Kohut, it can help undo some of the damage caused by unmet developmental needs. Kohut argues that empathy in itself can have healing effects, but also notes that empathy can be used as an intellectual tool that gains the client's trust, thus allowing the therapist to gain more useful information and develop effective therapeutic strategies. Kohut introduced several new terms to the field, including:

  • Self-objects, which are objects that an individual experiences as being part of oneself. These “objects” may also include people. For example, an infant might see his or her parents as an extension of self.
  • Optimal frustration is a form of tolerable frustration and disappointment. When a child needs access to a self-object but one is not available, he or she might experience frustration. Optimal frustration occurs when a person experiences frustration that can lead to the development of new coping skills. For example, when a mother soothes a baby who can no longer sleep with a pacifier, this enables the baby to develop the ability to function without the pacifier.
  • Twinship need is the desire to feel similar to other humans. 
  • Tripolar self: These are three fundamental needs, which include needs for grandiose exhibitionism, needs for an alter-ego and needs for an idealized figure (such as a parent). 

During the 1970s, Kohut’s theory of self psychology gained popularity rapidly. Many people who struggled with guilt resulting from material indulgence and self-serving behaviors saw self psychology as a more positive and understanding approach to therapy than traditional psychoanalysis. Because of its accepting approach, self psychology has become one of the foundations of modern psychology, along with object relations, ego psychology, and the theory of drive and motivation.

Books by Heinz Kohut

  • The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders (1971)
  • The Restoration of the Self (1978)
  • The Search for the Self: Selected Essays of Heinz Kohut (two volumes, 1979)


  1. Baughman, Judith S. (Ed). Heinz Kohut. (1998). American Decades. Biography In Context. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
  2. Montgomery, P. L. (1981, Oct 10). Heinz Kohut, Whose Theory Opposed Freud's, Dead at 68. New York Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/424218254?accountid=1229