What Is Psychoanalysis?

Sigmund Freud's Theory and Therapy

(Last Updated On: October 5, 2022)

Psychoanalysis is an approach to psychology that originates in the work and theories of Sigmund Freud. In addition to Freudian psychoanalysis, this approach to psychology inspired the psychodynamic approach, which encompasses theories by other thinkers, including Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Erik Erikson, and Alfred Adler.  

The psychodynamic approach is rooted in the basic belief that people have unconscious desires, thoughts, feelings, and memories that, while outside of conscious awareness, still influence a person’s behavior.

In this article:

An Overview of Psychoanalysis

Freud believed that the contents of the unconscious could lead to psychological distress and psychopathology. Bringing these hidden desires, memories, or thoughts into awareness could lead to catharsis, which would dispel the distress and help people gain insight.

Key elements of psychoanalysis include:

  • The idea that unconscious drives impact a person’s behavior
  • Psychological distress is often the result of upsetting information that has been hidden from consciousness
  • That early childhood events play a critical role in the formation of personality
  • That personality is comprised of three elements: the id, ego, and superego
  • That people rely on defense mechanisms to protect the ego from distress caused by the desires and demands of the primitive id, which is fueled by the unconscious mind

In order to deal with the distress caused by the unconscious, Freud believed that certain techniques, including talk therapy, could bring some of this information to light, a phenomenon he referred to as catharsis.

He also believed that the interpretation of dreams could offer insight into the workings of the unconscious mind.

The goal of psychoanalysis is to help people gain insight into their unconscious desires and motivations to make healthier, more informed choices in their lives.

How Does Psychoanalysis Work?

Psychoanalysis generally involves weekly 50-minute sessions in which people talk about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The therapist will help the person to explore how these relate to early childhood experiences and current relationships.

For psychoanalysis to be effective, a trusting relationship must be formed between the therapist and the patient. This is because the process requires people to discuss sensitive and personal information.

The therapist may also use other techniques, such as dream interpretation, to help the person gain insight into their unconscious mind.

What Are the Benefits of Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis can benefit people struggling with mental health issues, relationship problems, or major life transitions. It can help people to understand themselves better and make healthier choices.

Some of the benefits of psychoanalysis include:

  • Improved self-awareness
  • Greater insight into personal issues and problems
  • Better coping skills for dealing with stress and anxiety
  • Improved ability to manage difficult emotions
  • Stronger relationships
  • Greater life satisfaction

How Effective Is Psychoanalysis?

While some critics have suggested that psychoanalysis is not as effective as other types of psychotherapy, there is evidence to indicate otherwise. Studies suggest that psychodynamic therapies are as effective as other treatment approaches. Not only that, the beneficial effects last for years after therapy has been terminated.

Other research suggests that psychodynamic therapy can be effective in treating various conditions, including anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

What Are the Limitations of Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis is not a quick or easy process. It requires a significant time commitment and can be expensive.

In addition, because it relies on self-exploration and disclosure of personal information, it may not be suitable for people unwilling or unable to talk about sensitive topics.

Psychoanalysis may also be less effective for people who have experienced trauma or who have certain personality disorders. It may also not be effective for people who have serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Psychoanalysis vs. Other Therapies

Psychoanalysis is different from other forms of therapy in a few key ways.

First, it focuses on the role of the unconscious mind in shaping behavior. Other therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, focus more on the role of conscious thoughts and beliefs.

Second, psychoanalysis emphasizes the importance of the therapist-patient relationship. This relationship is key to helping the patient gain insight into their unconscious mind.

Third, psychoanalysis tends to be a long-term treatment that is done in weekly sessions. Other therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, are often shorter in duration and may be done in a group setting.

Despite these differences, psychoanalysis can be an effective treatment for various mental health conditions.

Key Freudian Ideas

To better understand how psychoanalysis is used, it can be helpful to know a bit more about the theories that played a role in its development.

The Conscious and Unconscious Mind

 Freud believed that the mind was divided into two parts: the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious mind includes everything we are aware of at any given moment, while the unconscious mind contains hidden desires, thoughts, memories, and feelings.

The Id, Ego, and Superego

 Freud believed that personality was comprised of three elements: the id, ego, and superego.

The id is the primitive, instinctual part of the mind that is driven by the pleasure principle. This means that it seeks to gratify its needs and desires regardless of the consequences.

The ego is the part of the mind that helps us deal with reality. It mediates between the id and the outside world, ensuring that our actions take into account both our needs and the realities of the situation.

The superego is the moral part of the personality. It internalizes the values and morals of society and acts as a guide for behavior.

Defense Mechanisms

 Defense mechanisms are coping strategies that we use to protect ourselves from psychological distress.

Common defense mechanisms include:

  • Denial: Refusing to accept that something is true
  • Repression: Pushing unpleasant thoughts and feelings out of consciousness
  • Projection: Attributing one’s own thoughts, feelings, or desires to someone else
  • Displacement: Redirecting emotions from the original source to a more harmless target
  • Sublimation: Channeling negative impulses into positive actions

Psychoanalytic Theories

There are many different psychoanalytic theories, but they all share a common focus on the unconscious mind and its influence on behavior.

Some of the most influential psychoanalytic theories include:

  • Freud’s Psychosexual Theory: This theory suggests that human personality develops through a series of stages focused on different erogenous zones.
  • Jung’s Analytical Theory: This theory emphasizes the importance of the collective unconscious, which is a shared store of knowledge and experience that all humans have.
  • Adler’s Individual Psychology: This theory focuses on the individual’s striving for superiority and power.
  • Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory: This theory suggests that human personality develops through a series of eight stages, each of which is focused on a different psychosocial task.
  • Kohut’s Self Psychology: This theory emphasizes the importance of self-esteem and self-cohesion.
  • Lacan’s Structural Theory: This theory focuses on the way that language shapes our experience of reality.
  • Klein’s Object Relations Theory: This theory emphasizes the importance of early relationships with caregivers in shaping personality.

Frequently Asked Questions About Psychoanalysis

How long does psychoanalysis last?

The length of psychoanalysis varies depending on the individual and the issue being addressed. Some people may only need a few months of treatment, while others may continue for years.

What is the difference between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy?

Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are both talk therapy. Psychoanalysis is more intensive and focused on exploring the unconscious mind. Psychotherapy is an umbrella term for a range of specific techniques, including psychoanalysis. 

Is psychoanalysis still used today?

Psychodynamic therapy continues to be a popular approach to treatment, and psychoanalytic techniques are often utilized in different types of psychotherapy. 

Psychoanalysis rooted heavily in Freud’s ideas has fallen out of favor, but research has shown that the self-examination uses in psychodynamic therapy can help people gain emotional insight that can help them recover from their mental health issues.

History of Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis was developed by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was originally designed as a treatment for people with mental health disorders, but it has since been used to help people deal with a wide range of issues.

During the early years of psychoanalysis, Freud and his colleagues developed many key concepts and techniques still used today. These include the interpretation of dreams, free association, and transference.

In the 1920s and 1930s, psychoanalysis became increasingly popular in the United States. By the mid-20th century, it had become one of the most influential psychological theories.

Important psychoanalytic thinkers included:

  • Sigmund Freud
  • Anna Freud
  • Carl Jung
  • Erich Fromm
  • Alfred Adler
  • Erik Erikson
  • Melanie Klein
  • Karl Abraham
  • Otto Rank
  • Karen Horney
  • John Bowlby
  • Sabina Speilrein

Criticisms of Psychoanalysis

However, psychoanalysis has also been criticized for its focus on early childhood experiences, its lack of empirical evidence, and its emphasis on individual rather than social factors.

Freud’s theories were largely developed through the use of case studies. A case study looks at a single individual or group in great detail. Some famous cases that influenced psychoanalytic theory included Anna O, Dora, and Little Hans.

Freud’s emphasis on sexual drives as a key force behind the development was considered controversial and a source of criticism.

Despite these criticisms, psychoanalysis remains an important part of psychology and continues to influence other theoretical approaches.

Summary

Psychoanalysis is a type of talk therapy developed by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was originally designed to treat mental health disorders, but it has since been used to help people deal with various issues.

Psychoanalysis as it was originally conceived by Freud is no longer the force it once was. However, the psychodynamic approach remains relevant and useful in understanding and treating psychological concerns.

APA Format References:

Paris J. (2017). Is Psychoanalysis Still Relevant to Psychiatry?. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie62(5), 308–312. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743717692306

Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist65(2), 98–109. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018378

Maat, S. de, Jonghe, F. de, Schoevers, R., & Dekker, J. (2009). The effectiveness of long-term psychoanalytic therapy: A systematic review of empirical studies. Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (UK). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK76705/

Fonagy, P. (2015). The effectiveness of psychodynamic psychotherapies: An update. World Psychiatry14(2), 137–150. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20235