Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Self Psychology for Social Workers: Interview with Tom Young, Ph.D.

[Episode 107] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is about self-psychology. Tom is a retired professor of social work from Widener University and the author of several publications on social work and self psychology. In today's episode Tom talks about the role of empathy in self psychology, the function of mirroring, idealizing, and twinship experiences in the development of the self, how self psychology can be applied in individual, couple, and family contexts. Tom talks us through a case involving an adolescent male and shares resources for those interested in learning more.


Download MP3 [52:22]


Hey there podcast listeners, Jonathan here. Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is about self-psychology. Self psychology is part of the psychodynamic tradition which includes drive theory, ego psychology, and object-relations theory. I know some of you hearing the word “psychodynamic” and thinking, "old stuff.” But I have some good news for you. Self Psychology was developed in the 1960s by Heinz Kohut in Chicago. And in the world of therapy, the 1960s isn’t really that long ago. It is about 15 to 20 years after after Carl Rogers started developing person-centered therapy which is still the most commonly used therapy, and about the same time that Tim Beck was developing cognitive therapy, which is probably the therapy with the most research behind it.

Self psychology is neither widely used, nor does it have much empirical support. So why should you listen to the rest of this episode? Well, my guest, Dr. Tom Young, is really interesting. And he makes a good argument that self-psychology is the psychodynamic approach that has the best fit with social work. Tom is now a retired professor of social work from Widener University and the author of several publications on social work and self psychology. Tom sees self-psychology as the only truly strengths-based psychodynamic therapy. That said, one of the critiques of self psychology is that Kohut, like many theorists of his day, traced nearly every psychological problem back to the mother. In Kohut's case, he blamed mothers for a failure to empathize with their child. Kohut was the first psychodymanic theorist to put empathy at the center, an act which some have suggested ushered in the era of relational dynamic therapy. As Tom discusses, empathy in self psychology is a way of addressing unmet developmental needs, which is slightly different than the way Carl Rogers saw empathy. Speaking of development, Tom and I talked about three experiences that Kohut said were fundamental in the development of the self: mirroring, idealizing, and twinship. Don't worry, Tom will bring those ideas to life.

One term that Tom uses that might need a little more explanation is "selfobject" (and that’s without the hyphen – just one word, selfobject).  Kohut saw "selfobjects" as "things" that serve psychological functions for the "self" that help us stay cohesive.  They perform those functions through reflecting back who we are, providing us someone or something to idealize, or helping us feel connected to others.  So selfobjects are literally outside of a person, but are essential components of the internal "self." Selfobjects can be people, objects, or activities. Here are a few examples:

  • Have you ever had the experience of going out with new parents only to realize that they have completely lost the ability to talk about anything other than their baby? Even though the baby outside of them and hopefully at home with a babysitter, their baby is an essential part of the parents self-identity. 
  • If you take a mobile phone from a teenager and they say "it is like you're ripping my arm from my body," the phone is a selfobject. The mobile phone connects teens to peers and that connection peers is one of the ways that the developing teen feels whole. 
  • When you went away to college, did your parents give away your bedroom to a younger sibling, or remodel it so it looked nothing like your room. Did you feel upset, like they were giving away a part of you? Kohut would say that your bedroom was a selfobject. If you were surprised at how much you felt the loss of your room, Kohut would say that makes sense since we're only made aware of the role that the selfobject plays when it is taken away. 
  • But once we’re aware of its role, we can consciously turn to it during times of stress for reinforcement.  I think the easiest way to think about this is to think of a song or piece of music that has gotten you through tough times. I've had several friends for whom Stevie Nicks tunes have gotten them through their worst times. Literally times when they wanted to kill themselves. Music acted as a reinforcement, a way to put their fractured self back together, even if just for a few minutes. And sometimes a few minutes of hope is all people need to stay.

Tom talks about how self-psychology can be used with individuals, couples, families and groups and he shares a case study of self psychology with an adolescent male. We end with resources for folks interested in learning more.

Before we get to the episode I want to give a couple of shout outs. First, thank you to everyone who responded to my request to fill out our Podtrac Audience survey. Thousands of people download the podcast, but I know very little about you. In less than two weeks I had over 100 responses. Thank you! If you haven’t filled out the survey, please do. You can find the link on the upper right side of socialworkpodcast.com. So, what did you tell me? You really liked the guests, the introductions, the topics, the audio quality and the host (thank you so much). Two thirds you have listened to 6 or more episodes. Four people responded to the survey without having listened to an episode. Which is, well, I don’t know what to make of that. You didn’t like it when episodes don’t have transcripts and you don’t like the infrequency of episodes. And I hear you on both of those. Transcripts: In the last episode I invited you to donate a transcript. I want to thank the folks who have offered to transcribe episodes of the podcast. Big shout out to John West for donating his transcription of episode 104 - Guardian of the Golden Gate: Interview with Kevin Briggs. If you’re interested in donating a transcript in exchange for a shout out in the next episode, please send me a message on the Social Work Podcast Facebook page: facebook.com/swpodcast. As for the frequency of the podcast, I get them out as quickly as possible. I’m working on some ways to automate some of the tasks with the goal of making the podcast more regular. Until then, I humbly offer you my irregularly scheduled podcast.

And now, without further ado, on to episode 107 of the Social Work Podcast: Self Psychology and Social Work: Interview with Tom Young, Ph.D.

(Message me if you want to transcribe this episode. Thank you!)

References and Resources

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2016, November 1). #107 - Self Psychology for Social Workers: Interview with Tom Young, Ph.D. [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkpodcast.com/2016/11/self-psychology.html


Chocolate Covered Life said...

This was very helpful, I never knew how much I related to self psychology in my work with clients. I just bought Self Psychology in Clinical Social Work off BetterWorldBooks for $5, I look forward to this read and to incorporating more of these principles in my practice!

Eva Pedersen said...

Great work as always Jonathan - bringing a diverse range of topics and presenters to the table.
I was a bit dumbstruck by Dr. Young's response when you asked about how self-psychology's conceptualization of empathy may be different or similar to the Rogerian conceptualization. Dr. Young's initial response was something to the effect, it's more than repeating back what the client is saying. This is exactly the point that Rogers was attempting to make when responding to criticisms about the therapeutic use of empathy. Rogers felt there was a rather rote and superficial way of using empathy that was not at all what he was referring to in his theory. On the contrary Rogers talked about empathy as the act of suspending one's self-perception and experience in order to truly enter the world of the client and further, to express that understanding through accurate reflections of meaning that deepened the client's self understanding. Not only did Rogers conceptualize therapeutic empathy but he also operationalized it for research purposes. So I was a bit dumbstruck by Dr. Young's suggestion that self-psychology had some sort of original or deeper understanding of this construct. I think a large body of literature and research shows that Rogers gets the credit for developing our understanding of empathy as a powerful therapeutic tool and all that come after are building upon his amazing contribution to the field.
Thanks again. Love the show! Eva from BC Canada

Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D., LCSW said...

Eva - So glad you like the podcast. Thank you. I agree with you. I thought Dr. Young's description of empathy was 100% consistent with Rogers.

- Jonathan

N. Bronson said...

Hi. I appreciated finding this podcast on self psychology, which has informed and inspired my work with patients for many decades. I can attest to the therapeutic power and profound usefulness of Kohut's ideas with individuals, couples and families. One point I would like to add which differs with Dr. Young is about borderline personality disorder. One of the revolutionary aspects of self psychology was Kohut's demonstration that patients with so-called narcissistic or borderline personality organizations were treatable (analyzable) within a self psychology model. Self psychology can also be beautifully integrated with treatments for trauma and other conditions associated with great vulnerability and suffering. Kohut showed how such individuals can function on a higher level, experience a much stronger sense of self, and show growth and improvement within a therapeutic relationship guided by self psychology. Nancy L. Bronson, PhD