Sullivan's basic conception of humanity is summed up in his one-genus hypothesis, which states that "everyone is much more simply human than otherwise" (1953b, p. 32). This hypothesis was his way of saying that similarities among people are much more important than differences. People are more like people than anything else.
In other words, the differences between any two instances of human personality— from the lowest-grade imbecile to the highest-grade genius—are much less striking than the difference between the least-gifted human being and a member of the nearest other biological genus, (p. 33)
Sullivan's ability to successfully treat schizophrenic patients undoubtedly was greatly enhanced by his deeply held belief that they shared a common humanity with the therapist. Having experienced at least one schizophrenic episode himself, Sullivan was able to form an empathic bond with these patients through his role as a participant observer.
The one influence separating humans from all other creatures is interpersonal relations. People are born biological organisms—animals with no human qualities except the potential for participation in interpersonal relations. Soon after birth, they begin to realize their potential when interpersonal experiences transform them into human beings. Sullivan believed that the mind contains nothing except what was put there through interpersonal experiences. People are not motivated by instincts but by those environmental influences that come through interpersonal relationships.
Children begin life with a somewhat one-sided relationship with a mothering one who both cares for their needs and increases their anxiety. Later, they become able to reciprocate feelings for the mothering one, and this relationship between child and parent serves as a foundation on which subsequent interpersonal relations are built. At about the time children enter the first grade at school, they are exposed to competition, cooperation, and compromise with other children. If they handle these tasks successfully, they obtain the tools necessary for intimacy and love that come later. Through their intimate and love relationships, they become healthy personalities. However, an absence of healthy interpersonal relationships leads to stunted psychological growth.
Personal individuality is an illusion; people exist only in relation to other people and have as many personalities as they have interpersonal relations. Thus, the concepts of uniqueness and individuality are of little concern to Sullivan's interpersonal theory.
Anxiety and interpersonal relations are tied together in a cyclic manner, which makes significant personality changes difficult. Anxiety interferes with interpersonal relations, and unsatisfactory interpersonal relations lead to the use of rigid behaviors that may temporarily buffer anxiety. But because these inflexible behaviors do not solve the basic problem, they eventually lead to higher levels of anxiety, which lead to further deterioration in interpersonal relations. The increasing anxiety must then be held in check by an ever-rigid self-system. For this reason, we rate Sullivan's theory as neither optimistic nor pessimistic concerning the potential for growth and change. Interpersonal relations can transform a person into either a healthy personality or one marked by anxiety and a rigid self-structure.
Because Sullivan believed that personality is built solely on interpersonal relations, we rate his theory very high on social influence. Interpersonal relations are responsible for both positive and negative characteristics in people. Infants who have their needs satisfied by the mothering one will not be greatly disturbed by their mother's anxiety, will receive genuine feelings of tenderness, can avoid being a malevolent personality, and have the ability to develop tender feelings toward others. However, unsatisfactory interpersonal relations may trigger malevolence and leave some children with the feeling that people cannot be trusted and that they are essentially alone among their enemies.
Chapter 8 Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory 239
Key Terms and Concepts
• People develop their personality through interpersonal relationships.
• Experience takes place on three levels—prototaxic (primitive, presymbolic), parataxic (not accurately communicated to others), and syntaxic (accurate communication).
• Two aspects of experience are tensions (potential for action) and energy transformations (actions or behaviors).
• Tensions are of two kinds—needs and anxiety.
• Needs are conjunctive in that they facilitate interpersonal development.
• Anxiety is disjunctive in that it interferes with the satisfaction of needs and is the primary obstacle to establishing healthy interpersonal relationships.
• Energy transformations become organized mto consistent traits or behavior patterns called dynamisms.
• Typical dynamisms include malevolence (a feeling of living in enemy country), intimacy (a close interpersonal relationship with a peer of equal status, and lust (impersonal sexual desires).
• Sullivan's chief contribution to personality was his concept of various de\'elopmental stages.
• The first developmental stage is infancy (from birth to the development of syntaxic language), a time when an infant's primary interpersonal relationship is with the mothering one.
• During childhood (from syntaxic language to the need for playmates of equal status), the mother continues as the most important interpersonal relationship, although children of this age often have an imaginary playmate.
• The third stage is the juvenile era (from the need for playmates of equal status to the development of intimacy ), a time when children should learn competition, compromise, and cooperation—skills that will enable them to move successfully through later stages of development.
• The most crucial stage of development is preadolescence (from intimacy with a best friend to the beginning of puberty). Mistakes made during this phase are difficult to overcome later.
• During early adolescence young people are motivated by both intimacy (usually for someone of the same gender) and lust (ordinarily for a person of the opposite gender).
• People reach late adolescence when they are able to direct their intimacy and lust toward one other person.
• The successful completion of late adolescence culminates in adulthood, a stage marked by a stable love relationship.
• With Sullivan's psychotherapy, the therapist serves as a participant observer and attempts to improve patients' interpersonal relations.
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