Why the self is empty. Toward a historically situated psychology

Am Psychol. 1990 May;45(5):599-611. doi: 10.1037//0003-066x.45.5.599.


This article presents a contextualized treatment of the current configuration of self, some of the pathologies that plague it, and the technologies that attempt to heal it. Of particular interest is the historical shift from the Victorian, sexually restricted self to the post-World War II empty self. The empty self is soothed and made cohesive by becoming "filled up" with food, consumer products, and celebrities. Its historical antecedents, economic constituents, and political consequences are the focus of this article. The two professions most responsible for healing the empty self, advertising and psychotherapy, find themselves in a bind: They must treat a psychological symptom without being able to address its historical causes. Both circumvent the bind by employing the life-style solution, a strategy that attempts to heal by covertly filling the empty self with the accoutrements, values, and mannerisms of idealized figures. This strategy solves an old problem but creates new ones, including an opportunity for abuse by exploitive therapists, cult leaders, and politicians. Psychology's role in constructing the empty self, and thus reproducing the current hierarchy of power and privilege, is examined.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Ego*
  • Europe
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Personality Disorders / history*
  • Psychotherapy / history*
  • United States