Adobe Stock Images

Harry Stack Sullivan (1953) developed the concept of a “self-system,” which he defined as an individual’s collection of self-perceptions. The self-system actively protects pre-existing perceptions of the self, working as a filter of new information. The self-system protects through a process of “selective inattention.” Sullivan’s self-system makes evasive cognitive maneuvers, allowing a person to maintain congruence between their interpersonal world and their self-perceptions. Importantly, the selective attention and evasive cognitive protective maneuvers mitigate stress from redefining ourselves when outside evidence conflicts with our personal definition, preventing disturbing cognitive dissonance over primary beliefs about our personhood. 

Many of Sullivan’s theorized evasive maneuvers share qualities with ego defense mechanisms. Comparatively, the self engages in a constant process of translation and transformation of information. Consequently, the self-system evolves to reduce anxiety. The self-system is a unique collection of experiences that we use to describe ourselves. The system is dynamic and self-confirming. New experiences that sustain and support previous self perceptions are easily integrated while conflicting experiences are ignored or transformed.

The self-system is a model for understanding the self, not a physical structure within the brain. The model describes a process of development that greatly impacts how we experience the world. In their research on the self-system, R. Elliot Ingersoll and Susanne R. Cook‐Greuter remind that “the more intently one seeks a self, the more ephemeral it becomes” (2007).

Self-System  and Development of Personality

Our personality is an expression of our self-system. Our personality develops through a dynamic give and take from experience. Because our self-system plays a significant role in the perception, interpretation and translation of experience, the self-system is intricately involved in the development of personality. The early formation of the self-system is developed through two primary functions:

Sullivan specifically identifies two security operations of the self-system:

  1. The exploration of an infant’s own body: for example thumb sucking is a behavioral exploration of a child. The act of thumb sucking helps the infant differentiate itself from others.
  2. The appraisals from caregivers: Interpersonal relationships are vital to personality development and specifically in the formation of the self-system. Consequently, the type of appraisals a child receives determines the kind of self-dynamism it will develop.

As we go grow and cognitive abilities expand, exploration may include more conscious self-check ins, examining felt experience. Appraisals of experience change the meaning. A young child relies mostly on caregivers for assigning meaning to experience. Appraisals are culturally dressed and defined. Markedly, The relationships between child and caregiver are vital to personality development, creating foundations for the self-systems that will continue to appraise inner and outer experience throughout our lives.

A staple of cognitive behavioral therapy is assisting clients to engage in cognitive reappraisal of experiences when default explanations produced by a self-system fail to enhance a person’s life. Basically, new appraisals help reduce anxiety and improve behaviors.​

Adolescents presents significant opportunity for the polishing of self-systems, preparing the young adult for life complexities. During this critical period of development, the adolescent experiences “shifts towards greater complexity, abstraction, and self-referential tendencies in thought patterns” (DuBois, et al. 2000). Significantly, these developments create a more dynamic self-system, preparing youths for processing their expanding (and sometimes conflicting) world.

“Good Me” and “Bad Me” in the Self-System

Early development of self conceptions are developed around appraisals of behaviors that label “good me” and “bad me” personifications. The “good me” personification consists of rewarding experiences (decreases in anxiety). “Bad me” personification are experiences that rise anxiety (typically from punishment or abandonment). From the early beginnings of “good me” and “bad me” labels developments complex concepts of self that process experience in ways that best mitigate discomforting stress and invite pleasurable experiences that eliminate or reduce anxiety.

Self-System and Emotional Regulation

The formation of the self-system is best understood within the realm of perception, evaluation and regulatory behaviors. Much like Freud’s ego construct, the self-system performs protective functions. Sullivan refers to these functions as security operations as opposed to Freud’s defense mechanisms.

Sullivan specifically identifies two security operations of the self-system: Dissociation is a security operation that limits or blocks recognition of undesirable portions of one’s personality. Our conscious mind operates blindly, overlooking large chunks of personal uncomfortable self-information.

Selective attention is also an unconscious process, reducing anxiety by merely ignoring signs of threatening events. Rick Hoyle and Michelle Sherrill wrote that “self-regulation is a fundamental part of the self-system” (2006). By grasping the self-regulating function of the self-system, we begin to see its existence. 

Books on Self-Systems

A Few Closing Words Final On the Self System by Psychology Fanatic

Our mind constantly works to create a safe environment. Sometimes these processes interfere with growth. Notably, the work of Sullivan and other researchers provide an enlightening look into the hidden processes of the mind that create the subjective world in which we dwell.

Models of unconscious processes only benefit when they propel helpful research, treatment, and behavior. Ultimately, the goal should always be lifting ourselves and humanity to new heights. Generally, we can take a curious peek inside, viewing our internal processes through this intriguing and comprehensive model, and judge whether or not this perspective is helpful in our journey to a flourishing life. 

Join 50.2K other subscribers


Bandura, A. (1978). The self system in reciprocal determinism. American Psychologist, 33(4), 344-358.

DuBois, D., Tevendale, H., Burk-Braxton, C., Swenson, L., & Hardesty, J. (2000). Self-System Influences During Early Adolescence:. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 20(1), 12-43.

Fundamentals of Sullivan’s Self System Framework. Ifioque. Accessed 11-22-2021.

Hoyle, R., & Sherrill, M. (2006). Future Orientation in the Self‐System: Possible Selves, Self‐Regulation, and Behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1673-1696.

Ingersoll, R., & Cook‐Greuter, S. (2007). The Self‐System in Integral Counseling. Counseling and Values, 51(3), 193-208.

​​Self System. Wikipedia. Accessed 11-22-2021.

You May Also Enjoy:

Internal Working Models. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Internal Working Models

Internal working models is a concept introduced by John Bowlby. These models shape our expectations,…
Read More

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

Discover more from Psychology Fanatic

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading