Directly translated from its ancient origins, the word psychoanalysis literally means ‘to unloosen the mind’, a definition that, while helpful, doesn’t go a long way to truly help understand the many theories and practices that make it such an effective form of therapy. Sometimes referred to as psychoanalytic psychotherapy, it’s effectively a way of helping a patient understand themselves better, becoming aware of the source of their issues and helping them to permanently adjust their response accordingly. While there are different schools of psychoanalysis, separated by small nuances, all of them share the same core theories – broken down in this article.
The origins of Psychoanalysis
The concept of psychoanalysis was developed alongside that of the ‘unconscious’. This is part of a theory developed by famous Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud at the start of the 20th century and proposes that the mind can be viewed not as one single entity but as three separate pieces, each with their own agenda.
The first of these pieces is known as the ‘Id’. It’s the part of the mind that’s concerned with the present; the need to eat, have sex and show aggression for example. While the Id is necessary for us to survive, it is short-sighted and only worried about immediate desires. It therefore needs a counterbalance, another voice that looks out for the long-term. This is the second part, otherwise known as the ‘superego’.
It’s the job of the superego to tell you what’s right or wrong, based on what you’ve learnt to be socially acceptable. It can be thought of as an invisible policeman of sorts, making sure that the decisions you make won’t lead to harm or regret. The final piece acts as a judge between the Id and the superego; this is simply known as the ego.
If you imagine the mind as an iceberg, only a small amount is visible from above. This is the part of the mind we are aware of, or the ‘consciousness’ as it’s known. However most thoughts play out in the unconscious, the vast block of ice lying beneath the waves. While the ego and superego exist in all layers of this iceberg (there’s a layer in between the two known as the preconscious), the Id is hidden away, banished to the unconscious. It’s the role of psychoanalysis to dive into these unconscious thoughts, unearthing repressed urges, desires and fears that silently exert their influence on the conscious part of the mind.
There have been many theories about the mind since Freud, however all of them agree that it is only by being able to acknowledge these thoughts and desires that they lose their power to direct our everyday behaviour and choices.
Understanding our defences
Every person will develop their own ‘defence mechanisms’ in order to prevent the Id from rearing its head. This prevents us from experiencing the guilt and anxiety we would feel if we gave into our innermost desires. A common example is the use of sport in order to channel aggression into something productive, this helps satisfy our impulses in a socially acceptable way – a defence mechanism known as sublimation. Other common defences include denial (blocking out events from our awareness), projection (attributing our undesirable thoughts and motives to someone else) and repression (an unconscious mechanism that prevents thoughts from surfacing).
It’s when these defence mechanisms become too restrictive, or unconscious conflicts too strong, that we begin to show signs of mental health symptoms. Psychoanalysis helps treat these by helping us to understand and create more forgiving ones that allow a mature expression of our desires.
Starting a psychotherapy session
The overall purpose of a psychotherapy session is to effectively make the unconscious conscious, therefore helping you to claim control over your emotional life. Needless to say, this is easier said than done. A traditional session will start by asking you to lie down on a couch, with your psychoanalytic therapist sat at the head – just out of view. ‘Free-association’ is the cornerstone of psychoanalysis, an exercise where you’re encouraged to simply say whatever’s on your mind, no matter how trivial, strange or incoherent it might be. The therapy room is a judgement free-zone, where even worrying or socially unacceptable thoughts can be aired – often these are fragments of the unconscious and offer a window into the hidden conflicts that underpin current issues. It can sometimes take some time to get to this level of understanding and openness, as deeply ingrained learned defences need to be dismantled.
In addition to free-association, there are a whole range of techniques a therapist might use in order to help access the unconscious. Amongst these are well-known word-association techniques and dream analysis, used to bring up childhood memories and deep fears which can be explored upon further.
What are psychoanalysts looking for?
While carrying out exercises a therapist looks for and interprets patterns in a patient’s responses, pausing to elaborate on these and explore their meaning further. For example, dreams are full of hidden symbols, often reflecting thoughts from the unconscious. Understanding these can help in uncovering a person’s true motives and desires, allowing them to begin making meaningful change to their life.
Another thing therapists look for in particular is a trait known as transference. It bears similarity to the projection defence mentioned before, however transference involves transferring feelings from one person to another, while projection involves your own feelings. An example of projection would be believing someone hates you as a way to reconcile that fact that, deep down, you hate them. Meanwhile transference might be getting angry at your therapist because they bring up the name of a family member who perhaps was angry towards you. By spotting signs of transference a therapist can begin to unravel family issues and relationships from the past, often the root cause of many issues.
Helping patients to heal
Exploring the innermost workings of the mind can bring vivid memories back to the fore, helping to understand them, and come to terms with them. In this way we can free ourselves from the early patterns of thinking and behaviour that become ingrained in us, as well as helping to resolve conflicting emotions aimed towards ourselves or others.
Good things do not occur instantly and the benefits of psychoanalysis are no different. It’s a journey, and like all journeys, its duration can vary depending on the person who’s travelling and the route they take. However no matter where you tread, the destination remains the same; a permanent change in personality and inner freedom.
At Psytherapy we see the difference that psychoanalytic therapy brings to our clients every day, helping them overcome trauma, anxiety, depression and a number of other conditions that are all too often left untreated. If you would like to find out if psychoanalysis is suitable for you, or would like to find out more, get in touch with our qualified psychoanalytic therapist. As they say, every journey starts with one single step.