Not to be confused with Psychology of self.
Kohut maintained that parents’ failures to empathize with their children and the responses of their children to these failures were ‘at the root of almost all psychopathology’. For Kohut, the loss of the other and the other’s self-object (“selfobject”) function (see below) leaves the individual apathetic, lethargic, empty of the feeling of life, and without vitality – in short, depressed.
The infant moving from grandiose to cohesive self and beyond must go through the slow process of disillusionment with phantasies of omnipotence, mediated by the parents: ‘This process of gradual and titrated disenchantment requires that the infant’s caretakers be empathetically attuned to the infant’s needs’.
Correspondingly, to help a patient deal in therapy with earlier failures in the disenchantment process, Kohut the therapist ‘highlights empathy as the tool par excellence, which allows the creation of a relationship between patient and analyst that can offer some hope of mitigating early self pathology’.
In comparison to earlier psychoanalytic approaches, the use of empathy, which Kohut called “vicarious introspection”, allows the therapist to reach conclusions sooner (with less dialogue and interpretation), and to create a stronger bond with the patient, making the patient feel more fundamentally understood. For Kohut, the implicit bond of empathy itself has a curative effect, but he also warned that ‘the psychoanalyst … must also be able to relinquish the empathic attitude’ to maintain intellectual integrity, and that ’empathy, especially when it is surrounded by an attitude of wanting to cure directly … may rest on the therapist’s unresolved omnipotence fantasies’.)
The conceptual introduction of empathy was not intended to be a “discovery.” Empathic moments in psychology existed long before Kohut. Instead, Kohut posited that empathy in psychology should be acknowledged as a powerful therapeutic tool, extending beyond “hunches” and vague “assumptions,” and enabling empathy to be described, taught, and used more actively.