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J Am Psychoanal Assoc. 1990;38(3):605-36.

Helping patients by analyzing self-criticism.

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  • 1Boston Psychoanalytic Institute.


This paper is addressed to patients' need for help with punitive self-critical attitudes. Such help has not always been sufficiently provided by psychoanalysts, owing to an unrecognized failure of neutrality. Historically, a gradual overemphasis on the concept of an unconscious sense of guilt has acted as a barrier to the appreciation of shame. An alternative concept, punitive unconscious self-criticism, which stands in contrast to constructive self-criticism and is common to the painful affects of guilt, shame, humiliation, and depression, can facilitate helpful analytic treatment. Heinz Kohut's contributions are examined. His analytic stance is differentiated from his theories of development. In the former, characterized by an affirmative attitude, he takes a position of functional neutrality toward shame and pays consistent though unstated attention to the effects of punitive unconscious self-criticism. The affirmative attitude can be employed without adoption of Kohut's self psychology, i.e., without abandoning the basic psychoanalytic approach to mental conflict and development. The concept of punitive unconscious self-criticism and the concept of divergent conflict, provide sufficient explanatory power. Clinical examples are used to illustrate these ideas.

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