Heinz Kohut was an Austrian psychoanalyst born of Jewish descent. Kohut initially promoted Freudian thought but then built on Freud's theories to create his own. In his last essay Kohut wrote, "Psychoanalysis has hardly yet scratched the surface of the fascinating mystery of man...it must turn from the study of Freud to the study of man."
Kohut was born in 1913 in Vienna, Austria. He grew up in a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family. Kohut studied medicine at the University of Vienna and graduated in 1938. Once the Nazis took over, Kohut left Vienna for England and then America. During the 1940s, Kohut studied neurology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago. The community of Chicago psychoanalysts recognized Kohut's contributions to the field and he was often referred to as "Mr. Psychoanalysis." He published various articles on applied psychoanalysis, including the psychology of music. What distinguished him from all other psychoanalysts was his emphasis on the use of empathy. Otherwise known as vicarious introspection, empathy is the only true way for a psychoanalyst to understand his or her patient. He asserted that the individual's "essence is defined when seen as self."
Though Kohut valued Freud's theories and methods, he saw Freudian analysis as taking a turn for the worse. According to J. Brooks Bouson, author of The Empathic Reader, "Kohut came to perceive classical analysis as a coercive, overly systematized scientific method that had all but lost touch with its human subjects." Kohut believed that common psychoanalysis was becoming too impersonal and formulaic, losing its ground as a subjective form of science. In his later years Kohut said, "As I have stated repeatedly since 1959...when science approaches reality via extrospection...we call it physics or biology; when it approaches it via introspection (and empathy), we call it psychology."
Not only did Kohut's methods vary from Freud's, his theories did as well. Freud's Guilty Man is person driven by physical needs and attempts to satisfy those needs. Living "within the pleasure principle," Guilty Man is psychologically motivated by biological functions. Kohut's Tragic Man, on the other hand, is prompted by more than just the pleasure principle, but by his desperate need to fulfill the ambitions and ideals of his inner self. Freud's picture of man is far more primitive than Kohut's. He sees man as tormented by his bestial desires whereas Kohut sees man as frustrated by his spiritual or metaphysical ambitions.
Kohut theorized how man's initial infantile perspective can dominate his feelings for the rest of his life. His theory of the bipolar self explores the two extreme poles of the self experienced in infancy: the grandiose-exhibitionist and the idealizing. The first extreme is when the child feels that the world revolves around him and that the parents are there to meet his every need. Idealization is the infant's experience of being cared for, physically and emotionally, by the parents. Only the parent can relieve the child of feelings of helplessness, sadness and anger. The parent is not viewed as an external, but rather as an extension of the self or "self object."
According to Kohut: "It is not so much what the parents do that will influence the character of the child's self, but what the parents are." If the parents' own "self-confidence is secure," they will display empathy toward the child. The parents' proud smiles "will keep alive a bit" of the child's "original omnipotence" which will be "retained as the nucleus of the self-confidence" that will sustain the individual throughout life. A narcissistic personality is one riddled by insecurity due to the lack of empathy or emotional security exhibited by one's parents. If individuals do not experience the empathy necessary in their childhood, the psychoanalyst is there to provide it for them.
In the last ten years of his life, until his death in 1981, Kohut openly challenged the traditional Freudian theories in his papers, including The Search for the Self, Self Psychology and the Humanities, and in his books such as The Restoration of the Self and How Does Analysis Cure? In his final work, published posthumously, Kohut defined the differences between traditional Freudian psychoanalysis and his own form of psychoanalysis:
"Traditional psychoanalysis...explains man in terms of a psychic apparatus that processes drives.... The psychoanalytic psychology of the self...explains man in terms of a self that is sustained by a milieu of self-objects.... Although self psychology does not disregard psychic conflict and analyzes it when it presents itself in the transference, it does so only as a preliminary step on the way to what it considers the essential task of the therapeutic analysis: "The exploration, in its dynamic and genetic dimensions, of the flaws in the structure of the self via the analysis of the self object transferences" (p. 41). Empathy is key to understanding one's patient and providing him or her with the emotional tools necessary to cope with instabilities and insecurities.