Harry Stack Sullivan Interpersonal Theory Explained


Harry Stack Sullivan admits that he had a rather isolated childhood, yet with his interpersonal theory, he shows that if people had no social interactions at all, they would not have a personality. People must have a social context in which they develop their personality.

There are three facets which can influence the development of this personality, especially in the earliest stages of its formation.

  • Anxiety. If people are scared of social interactions, then their personality will develop a preference for avoiding them. This creates fewer satisfying interpersonal relationships over time, which causes the individual to rely on a few, if not one, relationship that helps them to develop their personality.
  • Geographical Location. People who live in rural areas have fewer opportunities to develop relationships than people who live in urban or suburban areas. With a limited pool of personalities and relationship possibilities, the growth and development of a personality is naturally limited.
  • Family Size. Children who grow up as an only child have different intimate relationships in their earliest years than children who grow up with siblings. When a child is the only child in the family, their social interactions occur primarily with their adult parents. When siblings are present, there are more opportunities to socially interact with others who are the same age, even in rural settings.

By going through this developmental process, it becomes possible for people to discern the interactive differences that occur within each relationship. The interactions of a brother and sister, for example, would be different than the interactions between a man who is interested in courting a woman. Close friendships can be defined from lustful pursuits.

This allows each individual to develop their own personality, which Sullivan suggests becomes their system of energy.

Can a Person’s Personality Become Their Energy System?

The Harry Stack Sullivan interpersonal theory suggests that a person’s personality is the foundation of their energy system. Sullivan describes this energy as either providing a positive or a negative outcome. It can either create tension (negative) or create transformations (positive).

Tension is created by energy that is formed through anxiety. Feeling tired, hungry, or having nightmares can all enhance this form of energy. Some people may experience tension when they have high levels of sexual excitement that are not satisfied in some way. This form of energy can be created consciously or unconsciously.

Some tensions can be caused by an imbalance that is caused by the surrounding environment. If a person’s specific physical needs are not being met, then tension is the likely income. A person who has food security, a safe place to sleep, and warm clothes to wear will have less tension than someone without those things if all other attributes of their personality are equal.

Transformations may occur through overt or covert actions. The energy that is created through Sullivan’s interpersonal theory is converted into behaviors. Those behaviors then become the foundation of an action-based decision that is made.

Overt actions occur when a behavior causes a specific, conscious decision to be made. If your stomach hurts because you feel hungry, the behavior may be based in frustration. “I haven’t eaten anything,” is the thought. A conscious decision is then made to find something satisfying to eat. When the hunger is relieved, the transformation energy cycle will be complete.

Covert actions can occur through transformational energy as well. This is often seen in the establishment of a habit or routine. People can complete actions without thinking about them because the processes within the mind become automated. Someone might not have lived in the same town for 5 years, but if they drive there in a route that would have taken them home, they may just begin driving to that location without realizing what they are doing.

Traits and Habits Are Related to Specific Body Zones

The energy that is spent in positive or negative ways eventually become positive or negative traits and habits of a person’s personality. These interactions can be intimate, lustful, malevolent, or self-centered.

Each decision has a “right” or “wrong” element to it. The definition of good or bad is based on the relationships that helped to establish that person’s personality in the first place. That’s why one person can look at a political decision and support it while another can resist it and both will feel that they are justified in the actions that are being taken.

The Harry Stack Sullivan interpersonal theory shows us that the relationships with whom we surround ourselves are influential on who we are as people through our personality. Even one relationship is enough for someone to develop a strong, influential personality.