The Life of Harry Stack Sullivan
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The intent of this paper is to provide readers with an understanding of Harry Stack Sullivan and his development of the interpersonal theory. This paper will include his life, views, and the psychological aspect and treatments available using the interpersonal theory as a focus. This paper will also discuss the development of the interpersonal theory and how a persons development stages are intertwined with the theory.
Harry Stack Sullivan and the Interpersonal Theory
Harry Stack Sullivan was the first person to develop a personality theory in American Psychiatry. The interpersonal theory focuses on the various stages of development; infancy, childhood, juvenile, pre-adolescence, early and late adolescence, and adulthood. Sullivan expressed the importance of a persons healthy development involving intimacy and lust.
The Life of Harry Stack Sullivan
Harry Stack Sullivan was born in New York in 1892 to Irish Catholic parents. Feist and Feist (2009) state, “His mother, Ella Stack Sullivan was 32 when she married Timothy Sullivan and 39 when Harry was born” (p. 214). Sullivan had two other siblings that did not live past their first year of life. Because of this Sullivan was very sheltered by his mother. Feist and Feist also state, “Harrys father, Timothy Sullivan was a shy, withdrawn, and taciturn man who never developed a close relationship with his son until after his wife had died and Sullivan had become a prominent physician” (p. 214). Sullivans father was classified as a laborer and farm worker and moved his family to the Stack family farm shortly before Sullivan turned three. “Although both of Sullivans parents were of poor Irish Catholic descent, his mother regarded the Stack family as socially superior to the Sullivan family” (Feist & Feist, p. 214).
Growing up, Sullivan was an isolated child because of the constant sheltering from his mother. Because of this Sullivans childhood lacked either friends or acquaintances. Upon entering school, he felt alone and like an outsider. When Sullivan was approximately eight, he formed a relationship with a thirteen year old child from a neighboring farm. “Clarence Bellinger, lived a mile beyond Harry in another school district, and was now beginning high school in Smyrna, New York” (Feist & Fesit, 2009, p. 214). The two were considered socially inadequate but prospered as students. They were considerably close, both becoming psychiatrists and neither ever marrying. The relationship between Sullivan and Bellinger reflected upon the interpersonal theory developed by Sullivan. Feist and Feist tell us, “It awakened in Sullivan the power of intimacy, that is, the ability to love another who was more or less like himself (p. 214).
Sullivan was considered a very bright student. At the age of sixteen, he was valedictorian of his graduating class. Conci (2010) advises, “In June 1908, Sullivan graduated from Smyrna High School with the highest grades, and he won a scholarship to Cornell University, where he attended in the fall” (p. 119). Sullivan started his continuing education at Cornell with achievements of becoming a physicist. His academic career at Cornell can be classified to some as a “disaster.” He was placed on suspension for one year and some believe this was not solely because of his academics (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 215). It was told that Sullivan got wrapped up in mail fraud and found himself in trouble with the law. Feist and Feist advise, “He was probably a dupe of older, more mature students who used him to pick up some chemicals illegally ordered through the mail” (p. 215). Regardless as to why Sullivan was suspended, he spent the next two years behind the scenes.
After Sullivans two year hiatus he completed his studies at the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery. While enrolled at the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, Sullivans grades were mediocre, but a rise above his experience at Cornell University. Sullivan finished his studies in 1915, but did not graduate until 1917. Although Sullivan made it known the delay was because he had not finished paying his tuition. Perry (1982) found, “evidence that Sullivan had not completed all his academic requirements by 1915 and needed, among other requirements, an internship” (p.165).
After a brief service in the military, Sullivan went to work at the St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington DC, working with schizophrenic patients. It was during this period in his life that Sullivan made instances of the importance of interpersonal relationships within people. Feist and Feist (2009) report,
“In trying to make sense out of the speech of schizophrenic patients, Sullivan concluded that their illness was a means of coping with the anxiety generated from social and interpersonal environments. Sullivans experiences as a practicing clinician gradually transformed these environments into the beginnings of the interpersonal theory of psychiatry” (p. 216).
Development of the Interpersonal Theory
The most important thing to remember when approaching Sullivans interpersonal theory is that people would not have a personality to display with other people. Feist and Feist (2009) tell us, “Healthy human development rests on a persons ability to establish intimacy with another person, but unfortunately, anxiety can interfere with satisfying interpersonal relations at any age” (p. 213). One important factor displayed by Sullivan is the pre-adolescence development stage. It is during this stage that a child first possesses the need for intimacy but often confuses that need with lustful feelings. “Sullivan believed that people achieve healthy developmental relationships when they are able to experience both intimacy and lust toward the other person” (Feist & Feist, p. 213).
The center of Sullivans interpersonal theory surrounds the seven development stages mentioned in the introduction of this paper. Ones personality can change at any time, but more less occurs during the transition from one stage to another. Feist and Feist (2009) state, “Sullivan hypothesized that as one passes over one of these more or less determinable thresholds of a developmental era, everything that has gone before becomes reasonably open to influence” (p. 225-226). This paper will focus on the early adolescence stage of development. “Sullivan believed that early adolescence is a turning point in personality development.