Sullivan's Interpersonal Theory

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Sullivan's Interpersonal Theory

"personality can never be isolated from the complex interpersonal relationships in which [a] person lives" - Sullivan


  • Harry Stack Sullivan
  • He proposed interpersonal theory of personality.
  • He explained the role of interpersonal relationships and social experiences in shaping personality.
  • He also explained about the importance of current life events to psychopathology.
  • The theory further states that the purpose of all behavior is to get needs met through interpersonal interactions and decrease or avoid anxiety.

Stages of development

  • Sullivan explained six developmental stages called "epochs" or heuristic Stages in Development.
  Stages (Epochs) Characteristics
Infancy (Birth-18 months) Gratification of needs
Childhood (18 mo-6 yrs) Delayed gratification
Juvenile era(6-9 yrs) Formation of peer group
Preadolescence (9-12 yrs) Developing relationships within same gender

Early Adolescence (12-14 yrs)

Late Adolescence (14-21 yrs) Forming lasting, intimate relationships
  • Sullivan explained about three types of self:
    • The ‘good me’ versus the ‘bad me’ based on social appraisal and the anxiety that results from negative feedback
    • The ‘not me’ refers to the unknown,  repressed component of the self.
  • Sullivan's theory explains about anxiety, self system and self-esteem:
    • Security operations –those measures that the individual employs to reduce anxiety and enhance security.
    • Self system – all of the security operations an individual uses to defend against anxiety and ensure self esteem


  • Sullivan's interpersonal theory provides the theoretical basis for interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for depression and schizophrenia.
  • Interpersonal theory proposes that depression develops most often in the context of adverse events, particularly interpersonal loss. (Tasman 2008)
  • He also wrote on techniques and approaches on psychiatric interview.


  1. Sullivan HS (ed) (1953 ) The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry . W. W.
    Norton , New York, USA.
  2. Sullivan HS (1953 and 1956) The Collected Works of Harry Stack Sullivan, Vol. 1 and 2. WW Norton, New York, NY, USA.
  3. Sullivan HS (1954) The Psychiatric Interview. WW Norton, New York,
  4. Psychiatry, Third Edition. Ers. Allan Tasman, Jerald Kay, Jeffrey A. Lieberman, Michael B. First and Mario Maj. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2008.
This page was last updated on: 05/12/2020