Cornett (2008) noted that even though Sullivan’s early life was characterized by loneliness and isolation, his innovativeness and hard work enabled him to develop his interpersonal theory. In this theory, Sullivan emphasized the role played by interpersonal relations. He noted that personality is to a larger extent shaped by the way in which we relate with other people. Sullivan also came up with the various life developmental stages which he called epochs to explain how interpersonal relations develop. Gable and Reis (2010) have noted that it is Sullivan who also came up with the concept of participant observer on psychotherapy. This paper will seek to examine the life and contributions of Sullivan putting more emphasis on his interpersonal theory.

The Biography of Harry S. Sullivan

According to Cornett (2008), Sullivan became the very first scholar to develop such an extensive personality theory. His parents bore him in the year 1892 in a small community where the main economic activity was farming. The community was located in the Upper New York State. In his early stages of life, Sullivan was a lonely child except for the latter stages in his childhood when he got a friend though much older than he was.

Cornett (2008) observes that after going through the unhappy days in public school, Sullivan eventually enrolled in a medical school to train as a physician. Six years after his first diploma, he secured a place with St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC where he served as a psychiatrist even though this was not his line of training. Rutan (2007) notes that during his service in this hospital, Sullivan earned reputation based on the unique ability he portrayed in working with schizophrenic patients. However, despite all these achievements and the respect he won from his colleagues, Sullivan seemed to have a problem in his interpersonal relation skills. He only had a few close interpersonal relations even from among his peers. This seemed to be his life style till the time of his death when he was found dead in a lonely hotel room in Paris.

The Interpersonal Theory

Sullivan developed his interpersonal theory in the 1930s and 1940s. In this theory, he emphasized the social nature of human condition. The theory has also emphasized the crucial role of anxiety in personality formation and disturbance. The theory also explains how people develop trends during their early stages of life. This is made possible through their interaction with close family members especially their parents. The theory assumes that human behavior can only be understood in totality by analyzing the individual’s perception of their social context (Schwartz & Waldo, 2003).

In discussing his theory, Sullivan has also discussed a number of key related concepts. Cornett (2008) noted that, in his first contribution, Sullivan explained the concept tension in which he had conceptualized personality as an energy system. According to Sullivan (2003), energy can exist as a potential for actions or as the real actions. He gave a further division of tension into needs and anxiety. Explaining these concepts, Sullivan stated that needs refer to a person’s well being looked at in totality. He explained that one’s general needs can either be physiological like food or interpersonal of which he gave an example with tenderness and intimacy.

Sullivan (2003) explained how anxiety differs with the concept of need. According to him, anxieties are conjunctive, and for one to reduce them, he/she must perform specific actions. This is because of its disjunctive in nature which makes it difficult to be removed until a number of repeated actions are taken. He explained that every infant learn to be anxious through the emphatic relationship that she or he enjoys with the mother. According to Sullivan, anxiety is the chief disruptive force in interpersonal relations. He calls a complete absence of anxiety euphoria.

Hostile Derogatory of Self

Sullivan contributed the various effects in which a child is treated by the parents and the care givers can affect the child’s later interpersonal relations. Sullivan had identified different categories of children including those who are neglected and abused. He noted that such vises make the children see themselves as inadequate and unworthy. In expanding on this Sullivan discusses the concept of personification (Cornett, 2008).

Sullivan gave the types of personification Bad-Mother, Good-Mother, me personifications, and finally eidetic personifications. According to Sullivan (2003), bad-mother personification results whenever a child’s mother has a nipple that does not satisfy his/her hunger needs. He observed that this experience continues with all children until the child develops the ability realize how tender and cooperative the mother is where good-mother personification takes over. Sullivan noted that later in the life of a child, the two personification join together to acquire the real image of a mother who is both lovely and cautious (Peterson and Bredow, 2009).  

Sullivan explains that children acquire three kinds of personification during the infancy stage of their development. He calls the first one the bad-me which according to him grows as the infant experiences punishment and disapproval in life. The good-me personification develops whenever the child is approved or rewarded. The last type of me-personification for children is not-me which allows the children to avoid attending to certain anxiety related experiences. Last is the eidetic personification which came up with his observation that people sometimes tend to crate imaginary traits and forced them onto others. This personification normally occurs among the children of pre-school age. It is normally done by imaginary playmates. It enables children to have interpersonal skills (Peterson and Bredow, 2009).

Stages of Development in Interpersonal Theory

Sullivan has also described the maladaptive transformation of personality by identifying seven different stages in interpersonal development, which occur from the time one is an infant to the time he/she matures. He added the changes are majorly experienced during the time on is transiting to the next stage (Basavanthappa, 2008).

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According to Basavanthappa (2008), the first stage is the infancy stage. It includes the children between age zero to the time when the child can experience syntactic language. At this time, the child has begun to receive tenderness from his/her mother. It is also the stage at which the child begins to learn anxiety which is made possible by the empathetic linkage with the mother. At this stage, the child’s level of anxiety may be so high, but it is regulated by the inwardly built protections of apathy. During this stage, the children normally utilize autistic language, which normally takes on a prototaxic or parataxic level.

The second stage is the childhood stage: This is the stage that normally persists from the onset of syntaxic language to the moment the child develops the need for the playmates with equal status. At this stage, child continues to have the mother as the primary interpersonal relationship partner and is able to identify the mother from other care givers.

The third stage is the Juvenile Era: This stage begins when the child develops a need for peers of the same status to the time when the child has developed a need for a closer/intimate relationship. It is at this stage that the children do learn how to cooperate, compete and even compromise. This helps the child to develop intimacy which is basic to the development at the next stage (Sullivan, 2008).

According to Sullivan (2003), the fourth stage is the preadolescence stage. This is the stage at which every mistake a child had made in the previous stages is corrected. It is unique because the errors that are committed during this stage may not be corrected at the later stages of life. This stage begins when a person develops a need for a single best friend to the time of puberty. According to Sullivan (2003), any child who fails to learn intimacy during this stage will most likely experiences difficulties relating to achieving potential sexual partners during the later stages.

The fifth stage is the early adolescence stage. According to Sullivan (2003), puberty automatically ushers in adolescence because of the accompanied lust. He observes that the amount of development experienced during this stage is directly related to the way in which an adolescent relates with the identified intimate friend of the same gender. Reis (2008) observed that it is also partly dependent on the level of sexual interest that one has in people of the opposite gender. Sullivan observes that the problem at this stage normally occurs if one fails to differentiate between love and lust. This may lead to the development of a relationship merely held together by the sexual interest of one or both of the parties.

The sixth stage is the late adolescence. Sullivan (2003) noted that this stage usually begins after the age of 16. It is marked with the feeling of both lust and intimacy towards the same individual. At this stage, people are able to have  stability and have stable sexuality life and the development of the syntaxic model as with the growth and maturating of young in to mature adult age.

The last stage in the Sullivan’s interpersonal developmental theory is the adulthood stage. This is the stage at which an individual finally establishes a stable relationship with other people who are close to him/her. It is also marked by the achievement of consistency in the way in which an individual views the world.

Other Contributions of Sullivan


Sullivan used the term dynamism in his theory to refer to the normal behavioral pattern and further relates it to the tension created by a specific body part. He gave various types of dynamism. These include Malevolence, intimacy, lust and finally self esteem. According to Sullivan, malevolence is defined as a feeling of where one is not wanted. He explains that the children who go through malevolence during the early stages of life will always experience difficulty in practicing tenderness as far as giving and receiving it is concerned. Such children may also find it hard to establish an intimate relationship with other people (Cornett, 2008).

His second type of dynamism is intimacy which he described as the conjunctional type of dynamism which is characterized by a close intimate relationship between two individuals of the same status. According to Sullivan (2003) this type of dynamism facilitates interpersonal development while reducing the level and occurrence of anxiety and loneliness. His third type of dynamism is lust which he notes differs from both malevolence and intimacy because it is a self-centered need and can even be satisfied where there is no intimate interpersonal relationship. Sullivan’s last type of dynamism is self-system which he says is the most inclusive type of self dynamism. It works to protect one against the effects of anxiety. It is the part of dynamism that gives an individual the interpersonal security.

Participant participation Concept

Sullivan is credited as the first scholar to come up with the widely used the concept of participant observation. The concept requires that the counselor must take part in what he/she is doing. That the psychiatric has to participates. The theory suggests that counselors should participate actively in all stages of observing. According to Sullivan, a counselor is a participant observer (Schwartz & Waldo, 2003). Sullivan went a head and gave the role of inference in participant observation. According to Sullivan, inference should be used to know what kind events can be observed by the participants and what kind can not. Here, he differentiated between the overt process and the covert process (Cornett, 2008).

Molehills and Mountains was greatly influenced by the works of Freud. He brought up the concept of One-Genus Postulate, which meant that whenever a therapist who is similar to a patient in some particular way, then the therapist would likely be more successful with that patient (Shubs, 2008).


Even though his work has brought a lot of controversies, it is clear that it has had a big impact on psychoanalysis compared to all other theorists in America. Scholars such as Evans have noted that the contributions of Sullivan have been incorporated into various works that we read today. Some of the sited ones include the British object relations theory and the self psychology. However, some scholars have argued that the theory rates very low in falsifiability, generation of research and the ability for knowledge organization. The work has also been criticized of being redundant to Freud’s 1914 work on narcissism, to his tenacious adherence to an optimistic view of human nature and to its neglect of anything that challenges it (Cornett, 2008). The life of Sullivan is a true reflection of his work.

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