Reconsidering the Self System as it Resides in the Dyadic, Triadic, Ancestral, and Cultural Systems
by Nancy Goldman, Psy.D.
The theme of this year's conference was "Self Psychology Explores the Development of Individuality." The task of Panel 1 was to reconsider the self system as it resides in the dyadic, triadic, ancestral, and cultural systems. The assignment was accepted and executed deftly by panelists James Fosshage, Frank Lachmann, Robert Stolorow, and discussant, William Coburn.
James Fosshage chose to focus on genetic factors for his presentation, stating that, "...relational systems-based theoretical accounts of development tend to neglect constitutional factors." He cited certain exceptions such as motivational systems theory and that of Shane, Shane, and Gales.
Fosshage approached the topic of what individuals brings to their own worlds of systems focusing on two specific psychoanalytic concepts regarding development. He used the term development to indicate "...each momentary actualization of motivational preferences that contributes incrementally to vitality, self-esteem, and increasingly complex levels of self-organization".
First, Fosshage considered the concept of developmental motivation, using the term to denote inherent tendencies to develop, expand in function, and self-organize with increasing complexity. All of this action takes place in keeping with our basic human motivational values or preferences. The linked concept of developmental direction helps to explain the moment-to-moment, always changing priorities of these motivational values or preferences.
Secondly, Fosshage described contributions of systems theory that provide support for the concepts of developmental direction and motivation. Thelen and Smith's concepts of "the view from above" and the "view from below" aptly characterize both the global, methodical, progressive, and linear order of development, as well as the fits and starts and changing non-linear contexts of the local level that do not conform to the "grand plan." Fosshage observes that this describes psychoanalysis from a process perspective.
Frank Lachmann presented us with four "angles" that elaborate his conceptions of the development of individuality. Angle1 addresses the seemingly random chaos that creates unique individuality at a biological level. Individuality cannot be created in isolation. We are all dependent for our survival on a care-giving context; one that can be a background presence as well as an organizing presence on its own accord. Lachmann stated that this is the interface where individuality and complexity theory unite to allow for innovation, diversity, creativity, novelty, and change, but with the apperception of structure and continuity.
Angle 2 borrows from Louis Sander, who recognizes the self as a self-organizing, self-regulating, and self-correcting system. Endeavoring towards a coherent sense of self-as-agent unifies the biological and developmental levels, and is an unquestioned property of the individual. Lachmann, borrowing from Sander, proposed that the brain's capacity to integrate contributes the link between the biological, developmental, and psychological levels. This integration is always in relationship to the relational other, and "expectancies and adaptations are negotiated in interaction between infant and caregiver and play a crucial role" in self-organization.
Angle 3 harkens to what Lachmann refered to as "the heyday of psychoanalytic adventuresomeness of the 1940's, 50's and 60's" when a goal of treatment was to encourage autonomy and "rugged individualism." In subsequent years, there has been a shift towards the analyst's individuality and bidirectional impact in the analytic dyad. Lachmann posits, however, that an emphasis on connectedness was never intended to diminish the development of individuality and the individual's capacity for self-regulation of affect and arousal in the effort to maintain self-cohesion, self-continuity, and positive self-regard.
In Angle 4, Lachmann argued for Kohut's self as a center of initiative and perception warranting equivalent attention to the dyadic, interactive, or intersubjective context in which it resides. Lachmann avers that the "leading edge" of treatment is the patient's resolute pursuit for "agentic experience that exists within, or in dialectical relationship to, the development of the self within the dyad."
Robert Stolorow asserted that attuned relationality of one's singular affectivity provides an experience of individualized selfhood. He cited the philosopher Zahavi's three conceptions of the self as useful in comprehending structures of experience. The Kantian self is not directly experienced, but is the subject of experience that remains consistent and coherent through time. It is the agent of choice and action, and reflection. The narrative self progresses the story of one's life, both developmentally and relationally. It is the object of reflection. Experiential selfhood is the structure of subjectivity and is the source of our most fundamental sense of self. Experiences of selfhood are irreducibly conjoined in a relational context, and are a condition of the potentiality of the narrative self. Experiential selfhood is "...the mineness of emotional life," and is context-dependent and context sensitive.
The Herculean task of responding to these seminal ideas about the development of individuality was left to William Coburn. No small feat, indeed. Through his unique use of the lens of complexity theory, Coburn enhanced our understanding of each of the three proffered perspectives. He reiterated that the individual does not develop in isolation. Development is a larger and infinitely more complex and relational system that precedes the emergence of each new individual life, and then becomes part of a current system.
What I appreciate most about Coburn's response were his suppositions about therapeutic action. He cautions about ascribing too much influence to one idea or another for fear of decontextualizing experience, therapeutic and otherwise. Emotional experience needs to be theoretically inclusive, including Fosshage's tenets of developmental motivation and direction. Coburn agrees with Fosshage that moments that are consistent with an individual's motivation and direction will be experienced as authentic, and this is what we are continually watching for clinically. These moments emerge contextually but belong to the individual and are mutative and transformative.
Therapeutic action for Lachmann involves investigating, elaborating, and encouraging an individual's propensity toward self-transformative experiences of creativity and expression. As analysts, we need to be able to identify and acknowledge when we are witnessing these transformational experiences. We can do this by deepening our appreciation for how self-organizing processes are both informed and impacted by the environment.
Stolorow is working within a spirit of inquiry, looking for a felt sense of mineness in the affectivity, contextuality, and organizing themes of patients. The value of a "relational home" is necessary for any forward movement. The prereflective sense of mineness can be strengthened and consolidated.
Coburn concluded by summarizing the implications of these innovative ideas concerning the development of individuality. Each presenter confirmed contextualism alongside individual developmental aspirations. Each was in harmony with Kohut's appreciation for the necessity of ongoing relational involvement. We are left with an understanding of how inextricable these ideas are to development and conceptualizations of individuality.
Nancy L. Goldman, Psy.D., is a training and supervising analyst, faculty, and Board of Directors member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, in Los Angeles. She has a private practice in West Los Angeles.
Book NewsA new column to announce a book you have written or review a book you love. We have so many talented writers among us. We want to provide a space to shine! Please send submissions to Anne Paris, PhD at
- IAPSP Interviews
Interview with Eldad Iddan
- Feeling, Relating, Existing
A blog by Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.
Conference Panel Summaries:
- Welcome Address
by IAPSP President, Shelley Doctors
- Self Psychology and Weakened Populations
Post-Workshop Reflections of Pure and Applied Psychoanalysis: The Lod Case
by Ra'anan Kulka
The IAPSP eForum is the annual online forum of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology. Edited by Doris Brothers, Ph.D.
- Editor's Introduction
by Doris Brothers
- Letter from the President
by Shelley Doctors
- We, the Analyst: Thinking Differently about the Current Crisis
- by Michael Pariser
- Practicing, Providing and Prevailing in a Suffering Economy
by Susanne M. Weil
If you are interested in contributing to the eForum, please
The views and ideas expressed in these articles may not be shared or endorsed by the governing body of IAPSP and its members. Any opinion written in the eForum is solely that of the author of the article.