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Harry Stack Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory

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  • Pages: 5
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  • Category: Theories

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Harry Stack Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory and Psychotheraphy delved into the concept of experience and according to him, our experiences is our basic source of information of the world and the contact point between outer reality and the inner world (Evans 61). In his theory, he stated that experiences flow from the inner and outer worlds and as it do so, the mind rapidly organizes the flow of sensations into complex comprehensions of construed experiences which he refers to as “percepts” (Evans 61). Sullivan suggested that experiences are organized based on three levels of cognition which he referred to as the prototaxic mode, the parataxic mode, and the syntaxic mode (Evans 61).

            The prototaxic mode refers to the earliest and rudimentary form of cognition (Evans 62). An infant’s experience of the world is prototaxic (Evans 62). As infants, we do not yet understand the concepts of before and after, our perception of the world are limited to momentary states (Evans 62). According to Sullivan, infants do not have an awareness of their being as an separate entity from the world (Evans 62). Meaning, the experiences of an infant are all part of one piece, they are not separate and they do not have definite limits (Evans 62). Since the experiences of an infant are undifferentiated, they are difficult to translate into words in order to be communicated (Evans 62).

             According to Sullivan, the parataxic mode of cognition refers to the prelogical experience of the world. After the prototaxic mode, wherein an infant experiences the world as an undifferentiated whole, he now begins to develop a more mature cognition (Evans 62). The experiences of an infant, being all part of one piece, advances and breaks down into parts although he can not yet comprehend that these parts are related in an orderly fashion (Evans 62). This cognition is still at the prelogical level wherein the child still does not have the capacity to make logical conclusions about his experiences (Evans 62). Sullivan identifies erroneous assumptions about cause and effect as a part of parataxic experiences and he refers to them as parataxic distortions (Evans 62).

            According to Sullivan, the indication that the child has achieved the syntaxic mode of cognition is when he eventually learns to make use of language in order to communicate his experiences (Evans 63). As the child matures he is exposed to interpersonal activities which helps him comprehend the rules of language until he is able to accurately represent his experiences through language (Evans 63).

            I can relate a somewhat embarassing experience that occurred to me quite recently to these three levels of cognition. This experience happened right here in the campus and it involves a girl. There is a really nice looking girl who happens to be my classmate in one of the minors that I am taking this semester. She is pretty, smart and she seems to be into sports, too.  She really fits my type and I would really like to get know her it is just that something do not have the chance to talk to her yet. It is probably that or I just get too nervous although, in my defense, I am usually smooth when it comes to girls except for the ones that I really have a thing for.

            A few days ago, I attended the class where this girl that I have a thing for is my classmate. I was disappointed though because I did not see her in the room when I got in and it was not like her to be late. I thought that she was not going to come to class that day so I just took the seat at the back corner of the room.

A few minutes later while our professor was illustrating the lesson on the board she suddenly came in quietly. She probably did not want to be caught coming in late so she quickly took the seat that was nearest her which happened to be the seat right next to me. I was so excited when she took that seat and I thought that it was my chance to finally talk to her and maybe ask her out. I started thinking about how I was going to talk to her. I thought about giving her a compliment on what she was wearing but it seemed to obvious so I thought about an interesting topic to start a conversation, like sports, or something in the news, or the weather. As I was tossing these ideas in my head I suddenly heard her whisper, “What did I miss?”

            I was totally taken by surprise because I was not expecting her to talk to me so my mind just went completely blank. I could not think of anything. I just looked at her. This was probably what Sullivan meant by a prototaxic level of cognition because in that moment I knew that she was talking but I could not think. I was not even thinking of a response. As I have said, I just went blank.

            Probably that episode lasted about a couple of seconds then she asked me again. “Hey! What did I miss?” This time I was more attentive. I understood that she was asking me a question, I understood that the situation warranted an appropriate response, and I was at that moment already thinking about what she actually missed. However, my thoughts were stilled scattered and even though I tried to answer, all that I was able to say was, “Uhhmm… Uhhh…” Relating this to Sullivan’s theory, this is also probably what he referred to as parataxic experience because the thoughts that were running through my head were so disjointed that they were, as Sullivan puts it, nearly impossible to accurately communicate (Evans 62).

            Then finally I managed to make an appropriate response, “Not much. He’s just getting started,” with that I am proud to say that that is what Sullivan refers to as syntaxic experience and for it I received I sweet smile.

Works Cited

Evans, F. Barton. Harry Stack Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory and Psychotherapy. New York: Routledge, 1996.

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