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Applying Harry Sullivan’s Theory Of ‘Interpersonal Relations’ For Global Peace – Analysis


The American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) observed that “scientific psychiatry has to be defined as the study of interpersonal relations” (Sullivan 368). Sullivan noted that individuals and social orders functioned in an interdependent manner such that both were affected by changes that happened to one or the other. According to this theory of interpersonal relations, people are not victims of their pasts; on the contrary, their pasts are not stone monoliths that cannot be altered through a deeper understanding of one’s own self in relation to the environment around oneself.


More than any other psychiatrist of his generation, Sullivan understood that communication is at the heart of being oneself. The private self is an illusion and what is real is the self that is generated through the interpersonal space. Once there is a realization of this fundamental point, what follows is that one realizes that one has no choice except to connect to the world in productive ways enabling to create the conditions of peaceful coexistence. The individuals who are able to understand and work through the interpersonal domain, Sullivan calls them “Opinion leaders,” “because they have come to function in their actual community-the group of people to whom they are thus significant-as people who respect themselves for the serious care with which they sift facts from prejudice, and study the probable consequences of alternative courses of action” (Remobilization for Enduring Peace and Social Progress 252). Sullivan himself did not live long enough to pursue the implications of his profound theory. My objective is to show how Sullivan’s model of interpersonal communication can be used to enable a better understanding between peoples, thereby ensuring that there is a greater scope for dialogue, keeping in view that everyone benefits equally in the event of long-term peace. 

Real Peace Would Mean Being At Peace With Oneself?

In a recent interview Noam Chomsky pointed out that the threat of a “terminal nuclear war” seems a realistic possibility in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with powerful nations such as the United States and United Kingdom stoking the flame without any consideration for the future of humanity. In this context, does it make sense to look for hope in an interpersonal theory that claims to resolve the anxieties of common people and enable them to face reality with a sense of equanimity? In other words, can global peace be achieved through an insight into the nature of the interpersonal domain? 

For Harry Sullivan any real peace would mean being at peace with oneself. In this case the “oneself” is not a private, individual self without need for others, but a self that is a part and parcel of the world around him or her. Lack of psychological peace or what can also be called “inner peace” could be the basis for unresolvable existential anxieties. But, peace, as we understand it, must happen as a logical consequence of redistributive justice where a person feels that he or she belongs to a system and has a share in ensuring that it continues without major conflicts. It is extremely unlikely that victims of global injustice are willing to participate in the smooth functioning of a system that does not consider them as equal partners in decision-making. This not only applies to the poorer nations from Asia, Africa and Latin America but also to the poor living in the more developed countries of the west.  

However, such an argument does not undermine the need for self-respect and reconciliation both within oneself and with one’s own surroundings as being imperative for global peace. As Sullivan points out, “We are really up against one of the most difficult of human performances-organizing thought about oneself and others, not on the basis of the unique individual me that is perhaps one’s most valuable possession, but on the basis of one’s common humanity” (Sullivan 4). This idea of “one’s common humanity” is important to understand the wider aspects of the “interpersonal,” failing which, humanity’s problems will continue to exert pressure on the life of a community. In his essay, “Notes on Implementing and Testing World Policy for Promoting Mental Health,” Sullivan observes,

“When it is expanded into prejudicial views about whole groups of one’s fellow man, into massive disparagement of the alleged class of the rich or the poor, the educated or the ignorant, Jews or Catholics, Negroes or Irish, Russians or Japanese, Communists or Capitalists, Conservatives or Liberals or Radicals, Labor or Management, Republicans or Democrats, Psychiatrists or Social Scientists, it becomes an active menace to the community in which one lives. This community may be anything from the family group to the nation and the world, depending solely on the actual field of effect of one’s prejudice. This does not alter the fact that disparagement in lieu of informed judgment is a manifestation of basic anxiety which can be rationalized as insecurity in one’s self-esteem, a demonstration of the inadequacy of one’s personality for living in the world of today.” (250 my italics)


The community is not merely a collection of individuals but rather interpersonal beings functioning within a specific reality. The specific reality is what people do to one another in the process of communication. What, then, is the definition of such a reality? Simply speaking, reality is another human being. The other human being is one’s social, political and economic reality. There is no reality except for the person next to me. Come to think of it, something like a tragedy too is by definition personal because it manifests the role of individual feelings in the making of a personality. Even a public or a national tragedy is dramatized at a personal level. For a state, a political party or a government, numbers are not an issue unless it means a challenge to authority. For instance, the countless numbers of people who happened to be victims of covid-19: their tragedy is deeply personal because public authorities have to respond to such crises for fear that they could turn into mass events upsetting the entire system. 

Thus speaking, there is only one space for an individual: that of a personal relationship. To conceive of a space outside of it is to venture into the realm of vagueness. The personal relationship determines the level of one’s well-being, and the extent to which one is able to be at peace with oneself. The individual or the human person is what emerges from the interpersonal space between two or more beings.

Hence, the question of anxiety is central to Harry Sullivan’s concerns. As Sullivan sees it, 

“Before anyone can remember, except under the most extraordinary circumstances, there appears in every human being a capacity to undergo a very unpleasant experience. This experience is utilized by all cultures, by some a little and by some a great deal, in training the human animal to become a person, more or less according to the prescriptions of the particular culture. The unpleasant experience to which I am referring I call anxiety” (Sullivan 8). 

We are victims of our pasts and it is up to us to overcome the victimization through an honest appraisal of one’s own self. For instance, the existential anxiety generated when an Israeli citizen encounters a Palestinian from the Occupied Territories translates into the anxiety of Israel as a nation in how it views the occupation. For Sullivan these anxieties can be worked out provided we have the will for it. As Sullivan notes,

“No matter what kind of social organization there is, everyone who is born into it will, in certain ways, be adapted or adjusted to living in it. If the person is very fortunate, he will be pretty well adapted to living in that social organization. If he is extremely fortunate, he may come to know almost by intuition, you might say which simply means that it isn’t clearly formulated-so much about living itself that he can move into a quite different social organization; and fairly rapidly-but by no means immediately-he may learn to live quite successfully in this new social organization.” (Sullivan 5)

This kind of an “optimism of the will” characterizes Sullivan’s views on how interpersonal communication can be successfully used to create an alternative to the current scenario where anxiety-ridden people tend to project or compensate for their own feelings of inferiority by taking it out on the world in front of them. Sullivan says in his article, “Remobilization for Enduring Peace and Social Progress”:

“The most dreadful aspect of the world today seems to me to reside in this widespread discontent and fatuous self-deception which at any moment can be used to destroy the peace and at the same time to stigmatize the thoughtful as enemies of the very people whose interest they are wise enough to seek to further.” (252)

For Harry Sullivan, to believe in resolving one’s anxieties in an interpersonal space and to recognize such a faith in the human community as imperative for global peace, would be a step in the right direction. 


Harry Stack Sullivan (1948) “The Meaning of Anxiety in Psychiatry and in Life,” Psychiatry, 11:1, 1-13, DOI: 10.1080/00332747.1948.11022666

Harry Stack Sullivan, (1947) “NOTES ON IMPLEMENTING AND TESTING WORLD POLICY FOR PROMOTING MENTAL HEALTH,” Appendix III, “Remobilization for Enduring Peace and Social Progress,” Psychiatry, 10:3, 239-252, DOI: 10.1080/00332747.1947.11022643

Harry Stack Sullivan (1947) “Remobilization for Enduring Peace and Social Progress,” Psychiatry, 10:3, 239-252, DOI: 10.1080/00332747.1947.11022643

Sullivan, Harry. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. Routledge, 2011.

(This is the transcript of an online talk delivered at the conference on “Communication, Conflict and Peace” at The Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies, Liverpool Hope University, Liverpool, UK.)

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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