Heinz Kohut and why we still need empathy for ‘childish’ feelings

There’s a common idea that when we become adults we must be independent and ‘rational’. We must not behave ‘childishly’ by needing others too much or not being able to easily handle our feelings.

But how nice it would be, as adults, if we were able to receive the empathy that many children get!

For example, if a child is very anxious about something, such as making friends at school, his parents will probably try and comfort or reassure him.

They may empathise with his anxiety, perhaps telling him that they too sometimes felt anxious about school when they were small. Then they might give him some practical tips on making friends or handling his feelings.

As a result, the child feels understood and supported – more able to take on the challenge of school.

But we do not usually extend this kind of empathy and understanding to other adults in our lives, such as partners. If our partner is very anxious about something that we don’t understand we may judge them (openly or to ourselves) as being ‘childishi’ or ‘irrational’.

We may even go further, suggesting they ‘get a grip’ or ‘don’t make such a big deal about it’.

But just because we are adults does not mean we no longer need the empathy and support we got as children.

Pioneering psychotherapist Heinz Kohut was the first to argue strongly that the needs we have as children do not suddenly disappear when we become adults. He was challenging the view that well-adjusted adults should be independent, self-reliant and get along without others if they need to.

Kohut defined the needs that children have, and which we continue to have as adults:

  • the need to be mirrored: children need to be shown by adults that they are worthwhile and valued. This happens not through what adults say but throught subtle cues, such as facial expression, tone of voice and attention. When the child feels this positive attention he or she grows up feeling secure and loved.
  • the need to idealise: if the child experiences at least one parent as calm, confident and powerful then he or she has someone to turn to when the world feels overwhelming. Over time the child absorbs or ‘internalises’ this influence and so is able to soothe themselves when things are difficult.
  • the need to be like others: children need to know that they belong and are not too different from others or that they don’t fit in.

Kohut’s argument was that these needs continue throughout life and that, at various times, we need to feel support and empathy from those closest to us.

Therapist Michael Kahn says in his book Between Therapist and Client: “Kohut’s theory is a useful counterweight to the quite common belief that as mature adults we are supposed to do it all on our own, that only the weak need other people.”

While all adults continue to have these needs for mirroring and empathy, those whose needs were not adquately met in childhood will have more severe needs. These people are still looking, as adults, for these childish needs to be met. In therapy these “immature” feelings can be welcomed and explored, not criticised and judged.

In therapy the individual is able to get in touch with the unmet needs of the child, and the probable anger and sadness that flowed from that situation. By experiencing an empathic response from the therapist the adult can begin to release some of the difficult feelings and, over time, to become more able to comfort themselves and take responsibility for their lives.

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