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The Seeds of the Self

An interview with Otto Kernberg
by Susan Bridle


Otto Kernberg

When we began doing research for this issue of What Is Enlightenment? eight months ago, exploring as many different spiritual and psychological approaches to understanding the ego as we could get our hands on, a contemporary psychoanalytic philosophy of ego development known as "object relations theory" captured our attention. We were fascinated to discover that many leading thinkers at the interface of psychology and spirituality, including A. H. Almaas, Ken Wilber, Jack Engler and Claudio Naranjo, rely on object relations theory in their own models of psychological and spiritual development. In particular, a number of transpersonal psychologists have found remarkable parallels between the ancient Buddhist doctrine of the illusory nature of the self and this modern Western analysis of the constructed nature of the self. In his anthology Transformations of Consciousness, coedited with Ken Wilber and Daniel Brown, Jack Engler writes, "It may come as a surprise that . . . both Buddhist psychology and psychoanalytic object relations theory define the essence of the ego in the same way." Needless to say, since exploring the essence of the ego is exactly what we were seeking to do, we wanted to speak with someone well-versed in object relations theory—a subtle and complex interpretation of the architecture of the ego that is now one of the most influential schools of contemporary psychological thought.

We were delighted when Otto Kernberg—one of the primary engineers of the theory—squeezed an hour into his busy schedule to speak with us. Kernberg, who at age seventy-two still works a seventy-plus-hour workweek, is a renowned psychoanalyst, clinical researcher, developmental theorist, psychiatric treatment innovator—and a legend in the annals of psychology. A native of Vienna, he immigrated to Chile with his parents during the Second World War. He earned his undergraduate, medical and psychoanalytic degrees in Santiago, where he began his professional and academic career in the 1950s. Dr. Kernberg is not only a principal architect of object relations theory but is also widely regarded as the world's leading expert on borderline personality disorders and pathological narcissism. Current President of the International Psychoanalytic Association, founded by Sigmund Freud in 1908, he is also Director of the Personality Disorders Institute and the Cornell Psychotherapy Program at The New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center and Professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell University Medical College. He is the author or coauthor of thirteen books as well as dozens of research papers.

In his more than forty years of research, including clinical work with severely disturbed patients, Dr. Kernberg has inquired with laser-like precision into the subatomic components of the psyche and identified what he believes are the most fundamental building blocks in the construction of self-identity. In our conversation, as he walked me through the basics of object relations theory, I was drawn with him into looking at human experience through the piercing clarity of the object relations microscope. I began to grasp intellectually, intuitively and even experientially his intricate vision of how the separate sense of self gradually takes shape from the moment of birth—how undifferentiated fragments of raw experience eventually cohere into emotionally charged images of self and others, and progressively coalesce into an integrated, internalized sense of self and an integrated inner "representational world" of others. Indeed, after a course in object relations from Kernberg himself, or after reading the books in which he outlines his theory, it's hard not to be convinced that selfhood is not inherent in human experience from birth, but is in fact entirely a mechanically constructed phenomenon.

I found contemplating the nature of the self as described by object relations theory to be a mesmerizing experience. Yet at the same time, I had the uneasy feeling that as the separate sense of self was being deconstructed, so also was the mysterious source of our humanity—like a woven sweater from which one pulls a thread, unraveling it inch by inch, reducing it to a pile of cotton fibers. A materialist scientist, Kernberg believes that the discovery of an integrated theory of consciousness—modern psychology's Holy Grail—is the task of neurobiology working in conjunction with modern research in psychoanalysis.

Speaking with Dr. Kernberg about the nature of the ego was meeting a visionary, encountering a mind with rare quality of attention, expanse of perspective and subtlety of discrimination. He possesses an unusual flexibility and originality of thought that easily embraces subjects normally beyond the scope of traditional psychoanalytic thinking, making him not only a defender of Freud's genius but a Freudian revisionist with a mission for psychoanalysis in twenty-first-century society and culture. I was honored to have the chance to explore the mystery of the seeds of the self with one of modern psychology's foremost pioneers.


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This article is from
Our Ego Issue


More articles and interviews about similar subjects:
Psychology of Ego

Psychological Development