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Discuss the personality theory of put forth by Harry Stack Sullivan.

 Theory of Harry Stack Sullivan: Harry Stack-Sullivan included both social and cognitive aspects. He believed anxiety exist due to social interactions. He suggested techniques, much like defence mechanisms, as tolls for people to use to reduce social anxiety.

On failures in interpersonal relationships, he developed a model to point out as being largely responsible for mental illnesses. It is the “interactional,” not the “intrapsychic,” forces that should be studied to find the causes and develop treatments for, even the most severe psychoses. After the search for satisfaction via personal involvement with others, Sullivan characterised loneliness as the most painful experiences for people.

According to Sullivan, Selective Inattention is one such mechanism. For example, mothers show their anxiety about child rearing to their children through various means. After learning selective inattention, the child begins to ignore or reject the anxiety or any interaction that produce the uncomfortable feelings.


Sullivan believed we develop Personifications of ourselves and others through social interactions and our selective attention or inattention. Defences can help reduce anxiety, but they can also cause a misperception of reality. He focused much toward a cognitive approach to understanding personality. He observed that these personifications are mental images that allow us to better understand the world and ourselves.

Three basic ways through which we see ourselves, according to Sullivan, are the bad-me, the good-me and the not-me.

The bad-me is the negative aspects of a person. They are hidden from others and even the self. The anxiety occurs because of the recognition of the bad part of ourselves like when we recall an embarrassing moment or experience guilt from a past action. 

The good me is the part of us we share with others and that we often choose to focus on because it produces no anxiety

The not-me includes all those things that are so anxiety provoking that we cannot even consider them a part of us. The not-me is kept out of awareness by pushing it into the unconscious mind.

Modes of Experiencing

Sullivan presented three modes of experiencing: the prototaxic, parataxic and syntaxic modes.

Prototaxic Mode

The prototaxic mode is the first kind of experience the infant has. Sullivan’s hypothesis is that all that the infant “knows” are momentary states. The infant vaguely feels or ‘prehends’ earlier and later states without realising any real links between them. The infant is not aware of itself as an entity separate from the rest of the world. The experience the infant feels is all of a piece, undifferentiated, without definite limits. His experiences are ‘cosmic’.


With the development and maturation, the infant’s original undifferentiated wholeness of experience gets broken. The child experiences the ‘parts and diverse aspects. The various kinds of experiences are not related logically. Depending on circumstances, they ‘just happen’ together, or they do not happen at all. Different experiences are felt as concomitant and not connected in an order. Yet the child cannot relate them to one another or make logical distinctions among them. What is experienced is assumed as the ‘natural’. The child does not make any reflection and comparison and thus there is no logical movement of ‘thought’ from one idea to the next.

Thus in the parataxic mode, the child experiences everything as momentary.


After the child grows, he understands the language and learns the ‘consensually validated’ meaning of language. He learns from group activities, interpersonal activities and social experience. In consensually validated symbol activity, an appeal to principles is accepted as true by the hearer. A persons acquires or learns the syntaxic mode of experience when this happens.

Developmental Epochs

Like Freud, Sullivan believed that childhood experiences determine the adult personality. The mother plays the most significant role throughout the childhood. In his developmental theory Epochs, he mentioned the stages and believed that we pass through these stages in an order but the timing of such is dictated by the social environment. Much of the focus in Sullivan’s theory focuses on the conflicts adolescents face. 

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