About Psychoanalysis

The Psychoanalytic Tradition

Freud was the first psychoanalyst. Many of his insights into the human mind, which seemed so revolutionary at the turn of the century, are now widely accepted by most schools of psychological thought. It was Freud, for example who recognized that important factors which influence thought and action exist outside of awareness, that unconscious conflict plays a part in determining both normal and abnormal behavior, and that the past shapes the present. Although his ideas met with antagonism and resistance, Freud believed deeply in the value of his discoveries; he rarely simplified or exaggerated for the sake of popular acceptance. He saw that those who sought to change themselves or others must face realistic difficulties. But he was also convinced that psychological understanding enlarged the realm of reason and responsibility and that, while these might sometimes seem limited powers beside the darker and blinder forces in human nature, they could make a substantial difference to troubled individuals and to civilization as a whole.

Building on such ideas and ideals, psychoanalysis has continued to grow and develop as a general theory of human functioning while always maintaining a profound respect for the uniqueness of each individual life. Ferment, change, and new ideas have enriched the field, and psychoanalytic knowledge and practice have adapted and expanded. But competent psychoanalysts still do not underestimate the persistent power of the irrational in shaping or limiting human lives, and they therefore remain skeptical of the quick cure, the deceptively easy answer, and trendy or sensationalistic. Like Freud, however, they believe that psychoanalysis is the strongest and most sophisticated tqol for obtaining further knowledge of the mind. And they also believe that psychoanalysis, by using this knowledge for greater self-awareness, offers the best hope of relieving needless suffering, of releasing thwarted potential, and of improving and deepening human relationships.

What is Psychoanalysis?

When people ask what psychoanalysis is, they usually want to know about treatment. As a therapy, psychoanalysis is based on the observation that individuals are often unaware of many of the factors that determine their emotions and behavior. These "unconscious" factors may create unhappiness, sometimes in the form of recognizable symptoms, at other times as personality peculiarities, difficulties in work or in love relationships, or disturbances in self-esteem. Psychoanalytic treatment demonstrates how these factors affect current relationships and tasks, tracing them back to their origins and showing how they have changed and developed during the course of the individual's life.

Analysis is an intimate partnership in the course of which the patient becomes aware of the underlying sources of his or her difficulties not simply intellectually, but emotionally — by re-experiencing them with the analyst. The patient comes three to five times a week, lies on a couch, and attempts to say everything that comes to mind. Gradually, hints of the unconscious sources of current difficulties begin to appear — in slips of the tongue, in what is evaded, in the ways the patient relates to the analyst. The analyst elucidates these for the patient, who corrects, confirms, rejects, adds further thoughts and feelings. During the years that an analysis takes place, the patient works with these insights, going over them again and again with the analyst, and experiencing them in daily life and in dreams. Eventually the patient's life — his or her behavior, relationships, sense of self — changes in deep and abiding ways. In the long run, patient and analyst join in efforts, not only to ease cramped life patterns and remove symptoms, but also to expand the freedom to work and to love.

Child and adolescent psychoanalysis, both offshoots of adult psychoanalysis, share with it a common theoretical framework for understanding human psychological life while also using additional techniques and measures to deal with the special capacities and vulnerabilities of children. For instance, the young patient is helped to reveal his or her innermost wishes and worries, not only through words, but also through drawings and fantasy play. In the treatment of all but late adolescents, parents are usually consulted to round out the picture of the child's life.

The goal of child and adolescent analysis is the removal of psychological roadblocks that are interfering with normal development. The analytic work widens the patient's self-knowledge by reducing what he or she must keep out of awareness, freeing the young person of crippling symptoms and inhibitions that have stood in the way of psychological growth.

Is Psychoanalysis Only a Therapy?

Although psychoanalysis began as a tool for ameliorating emotional suffering, it is not only a therapy. It is, in addition, a method for learning about the mind, and also a theory, a way of understanding the processes of normal everyday mental functioning and the stages of normal development from infancy through old age. Furthermore, since psychoanalysis seeks to explain how the human mind works, it can also contribute insight into anything the human mind produces. In so doing, it has had a profound influence on many aspects of twentieth-century culture.

As a general theory of individual human behavior and experience, psychoanalytic ideas enrich and are enriched by the study of the biological and social sciences, group behavior, history, philosophy, art and literature. As a developmental theory, psychoanalysis contributes importantly to such areas as child development, education, law, and family studies. Psychoanalysis also contributes to biology and medicine through its studies of the complex relationship between body and mind, and has furthered knowledge in such areas as psychosomatic disorders, the role of emotions in normal health, and the importance of psychological variables in medical illness.

In addition, psychoanalytic knowledge is the basis of all other dynamic approaches to therapy. Whatever the modifications, the insight of psychoanalysis are the underpinnings of much of the psychotherapy employed in general psychiatric practice, in child psychiatry, and in most other individual, family, and group therapies.

Finally, psychoanalysts are active throughout the community as practitioners, teachers, supervisors, consultants, and researchers. They work not only in their offices, but also in hospitals, medical schools, colleges, psychiatric training programs, social agencies, educational institutions, day care centers, and in many other settings.

Written by: The Committee on Public Information

Arlene Heyman, M.D. and Gerald Fogel, M.D.
Copyright© 1985
The American Psychoanalytic Association
All rights reserved.