What is the focus and methodology of Interpersonal Psychoanalysis?

Interpersonal psychoanalysis is a branch of psychoanalytic theory that focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in shaping an individual’s psychological development and functioning. It differs from traditional psychoanalysis, which primarily focuses on the individual’s internal conflicts and drives, by emphasizing the impact of external factors such as family dynamics, social interactions, and cultural influences. This approach views the individual as a social being, shaped by their relationships with others, and places a strong emphasis on the therapeutic relationship between the therapist and client. The methodology of interpersonal psychoanalysis involves exploring and understanding the dynamics of these interpersonal relationships, with the goal of promoting insight, self-awareness, and more fulfilling relationships. In this essay, we will delve deeper into the focus and methodology of interpersonal psychoanalysis and its contribution to the field of psychology.

Interpersonal psychoanalysis is based on the theories of Harry Stack Sullivan (1892–1949), an American psychiatrist, who believed that the details of a patient’s interpersonal interactions with others can provide insight into the causes and cures of mental disorder.
Selective inattention

Sullivan proposed that patients could keep certain aspects or components of their interpersonal relationships out of their awareness by a psychological behavior described as selective inattention. The term has to a degree passed into common usage: ‘”Selective inattention”.



Sullivan emphasized that psychotherapists’ analyses should focus on patients’ relationships and personal interactions to obtain knowledge of affecting patterns and tendencies – personifications. Such analyses would consist of detailed questioning regarding moment-to-moment personal interactions, even including those with the analyst himself.

For Sullivan, ‘personifications embody one’s assumptions, schemata, internalised representations of others and reflected appraisals of the self’. They can form the basis for ‘the later ambiguities in interpersonal relations that Sullivan termed parataxic distortion…a very similar concept to the standard psychoanalytic transference/projection mechanisms’.


Sullivan and the neo-Freudians

‘Like the other neo-Freudians that Sullivan worked with, he rejects the orthodox Freudian drive model, although he retains a variant of the pleasure principle’. Sullivan’s interdisciplinary emphasis – linking him with ‘psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counsellors and clergy. Horney, Fromm, Thompson and Fromm-Reichman were all associates’ – was an important part of his enduring influence.



The point has been made that Sullivan’s ‘need to separate himself from Freud was perhaps so great that he persistently invented new, often obtuse, terms for concepts already well expressed by Freud’.

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