Individual Pschotherapy of the Social Mind

As one gains experience in the psychotherapy field one often ends up with more questions than answers.  Young enthusiasm to believe in theoretical models, often changes to awe at the complexity of the human mind. Every form of psychotherapy has inherent in it, the capability of blaming the patient for lack of progress. It is therefore crucial to step back at times, look at one’s models and allow for a different understanding of complex processes.

A major question that I have asked myself repeatedly over the years is why, with apparently similar levels of family pathology are we seeing an increase in individual emotional distress. One example of this is the rise in the incidence of self-injury in adolescents and young adults. While this behaviour was at one time associated primarily with Borderline Personality Disorder, studies have shown that 18-20% of young people exhibit this behaviour. It is easy to just see this as copy-cat behaviour or some kind of emotional fad, but signs of severe distress deserve to be taken seriously. There are many other indications of increased distress in young people, including the vast increase in the number of university students seeking mental health services. There are many other questions that come to mind in considering the mental health of our world:


How do we explain war, terrorism and genocide?

Why is the social media phenomenon so powerful?

What are the psychological roots that can account for religion, soccer riots and line dancing?

In an article titled The “Social Instinct” in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1995, I proposed that there exists a powerful motivational-functional system  or drive to belong that leads to the formation of intra-psychic structures in a parallel line of development to intra-psychic structures related to other drives and individual object relationships. Thus one develops from infancy through adolescence “social introjects” .  Psychoanalytic theorists from Sigmund Freud to Peter Blos have attempted to reconcile social psychology with psychoanalytic theory, yet have always reverted to seeing the internalized sense of the social as secondary to concepts in standard psychoanalytic theory. Thus, Blos, while stating it is time to pull the two fields together, ends up seeing the power of the peer group experience in adolescents as the need at that stage of life to create autoplastic milieus in the service of resolving split parent imagos.

There is considerable evidence that our brains evolved to their present state in response to the need to deal with social complexity.  The consideration of intra-psychic phenomena developing from infancy as the child experiences of the social world becomes internalized adds an important layer to our understanding of human psychological development, as this force can be seen as creating structures in its own right and adding a complexity to all present psychoanalytic theories. One can, for example, look at the Oedipal Complex ,as not just a reaction to the unconscious drives, fears, and the wish for both self-preservation and preservation of primary object relationships, but also as a response to the need to belong and finds one place in the social group of the family.  Overt narcissistic behaviour frequently manifests through attempts to raise one’s status in a social group or to take power within a group. One can view this as an extension of Oedipal struggles or of the manifestation of archaic grandiosity. One could also explain the  Oedipal complex as due to a fundamental drive to ensure one’s place in a social group by first attempting to be the alpha male, and then accepting one’s true place in the family group. Many aspects of intra-psychic development can be seen as having two parallel, but interacting origins.

Judith Harris, in her book “The Nurture Assumption” challenges traditional theories and contends that parents have little to do with the psychological outcome of their children, and explores evidence that the interaction with peers group has significantly more effect than parenting. While both her theory and evidence have considerable flaws, she does raise a seemingly valid point that the effect of parenting may be overstated.  As peer group effects are becoming more powerful due to modern technologies, and the influence of parents, mentors and authority figures may be weakening, we need to have a deeper understanding of the effect of social groups on psychological development.

Just as one can see an individual’s emotional responses in individual relationships as being due to the combined effects of part-object introjects and external world interactions, one can also theorize that one’s sense of belonging and one’s group relationships are determined by one’s “social introjects” in combination to external social groups.


Malcolm Slavin, in his presentation at the 37th International Association of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology conference asserted that “Our need to belong and not belong are essentially entwined in the human condition” and that  “belonging and not belonging goes incredibly deep into our basic human make-up.”  This appears to imply that the need to belong is innate and fundamental.  It follows that we need to look further than child-parent interactions to understand the psychological development of individuals from the time of birth.