Harry Stack Sullivan


Born on a farm in upstate New York on February 2, 1892, Harry Stack Sullivan received his MD from the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, 1917. For most of his life, Sullivan served on hospital and medical school staffs, including St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, DC and the University of Maryland. At his death in 1949, he was the director of the Washington School of Psychiatry.

He published only one book during his life (Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry), but several volumes of his lectures have appeared posthumously.

According to Sullivan, people are surrounded by interpersonal fields, and must be understood within that context. Known for his interpersonal theory of human relationships, Sullivan used the concept of dynamism.

A highly complex dynamism which protects the individual from anxiety is called the self system. In a child this system is composed of good-me, bad-me and occasionally non-me dynamisms. The self system is Sullivan’s version of Freud’s superego.

Other complex dynamisms which are composed of feelings, attitudes and self images are called personifications. Personifications people hold in common are called stereotypes.

According to Sullivan, there are three modes of experience: protaxic (flowing sensations), parataxic (the development of superstitions and relationships), and syntaxic (the use of words and numbers). There also are two sources of tension: needs and anxiety. Needs are biological necessities, and anxiety is the result of real or imagined threats. The process of meeting one’s needs is described in Sullivan’s theory of personality development, which has seven stages, each one allowing the development of greater personal relationships.


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