What Is Psychoanalysis?

The Psychoanalytic Approach to Psychology

Freud's psychoanalysis couch
Robert Huffstutter / http://flickr.com/photos/29528454@N04/6888951554 / cc-by-2.0.

Psychoanalysis is defined as a set of psychological theories and therapeutic techniques that have their origin in the work and theories of Sigmund Freud. The core idea at the center of psychoanalysis is the belief that all people possess unconscious thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories. By bringing the content of the unconscious into conscious awareness, people are then able to experience catharsis and gain insight into their current state of mind. Through this process, people are then able to find relief from psychological disturbances and distress.

Some of the Basic Tenets of Psychoanalysis

  • The way that people behave is influenced by their unconscious drives
  • The development of personality is heavily influenced by the events of early childhood; Freud suggested that personality was largely set in stone by the age of five.
  • Bringing information from the unconscious into consciousness can lead to catharsis and allow people to deal with the issue
  • People utilize a number of defense mechanisms to protect themselves from information contained in the unconscious
  • Emotional and psychological problems such as depression and anxiety are often rooted in conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind
  • A skilled analyst can help bring certain aspects of the unconscious into awareness by using a variety of psychoanalytic strategies such as dream analysis and free association

A Brief History of Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis and the psychodynamic approach to psychology. This school of thought emphasized the influence of the unconscious mind on behavior. Freud believed that the human mind was composed of three elements: the id, the ego, and the superego.

Freud's theories of psychosexual stages, the unconscious, and dream symbolism remain a popular topic among both psychologists and lay persons, despite the fact that his work is sometimes viewed with skepticism by many today.

Many of Freud's observations and theories were based on clinical cases and case studies, making his findings difficult to generalize to a larger population. Regardless, Freud's theories changed how we think about the human mind and behavior and left a lasting mark on psychology and culture.

Another theorist associated with psychoanalysis is Erik Erikson. Erikson expanded upon Freud's theories and stressed the importance of growth throughout the lifespan. Erikson's psychosocial stage theory of personality remains influential today in our understanding of human development.

According to the American Psychoanalytic Association, psychoanalysis helps people understand themselves by exploring the impulses they often do not recognize because they are hidden in the unconscious. Today, psychoanalysis encompasses not only psychoanalytic therapy but also applied psychoanalysis (which applies psychoanalytic principles to real-world settings and situations) as well as neuro-psychoanalysis (which applied neuroscience to psychoanalytic topics such as dreams and repression).

While traditional Freudian approaches may have fallen out of favor, modern approaches to psychoanalytic therapy emphasize a nonjudgmental and empathetic approach.

Clients are able to feel safe as they explore feelings, desires, memories and stressors that can lead to psychological difficulties. Research has also demonstrated that the self-examination utilized in the psychoanalytic process can help contribute to long-term emotional growth.

Important Dates in the History of Psychoanalysis 

  • 1856 – Sigmund Freud was born
  • 1886 – Freud first began providing therapy
  • 1892 – Josef Breuer described the case of Anna O to Freud
  • 1895 – Anna Freud was born
  • 1900 – Sigmund Freud published his book The Interpretation of Dreams
  • 1896 – Sigmund Freud first coined the term psychoanalysis
  • 1907 – The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society was formed
  • 1908 – The first international meeting of psychoanalysts was held
  • 1909 – Freud made his first and only trip to the United States
  • 1913 – Jung broke from Freud and psychoanalysis
  • 1936 – The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society was renamed and became the International Psychoanalytic Association
  • 1939 – Sigmund Freud died in London following a long battle with mouth cancer

Major Thinkers in Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, but other thinkers including his own daughter Anna Freud also left a significant mark of the field as it grew and evolved. Some of these important theorists included Erik EriksonErich Fromm, and Carl Jung. The names of some other key psychoanalysts included Karl Abraham, Otto Rank, John Bowlby, Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, and Sabina Spielrein.

Key Ideas In Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis also involves a number of different terms and ideas related to the mind, personality and treatment.

Case Studies

A case study is defined as an in-depth study of one person. Some of Freud's most famous case studies include Dora, Little Hans, and Anna O. and had a powerful influence on the development of his psychoanalytic theory.

In a case study, the researcher attempts to look very intensely at every aspect of an individual's life. By carefully studying the person so closely, the hope is that the researcher can gain insight into how that person's history contributes to their current behavior. While the hope is that the insights gained during a case study might apply to others, it is often difficult to generalize the results because case studies tend to be so subjective.

The Conscious and Unconscious Mind

The unconscious mind includes all of the things that are outside of our conscious awareness. These might include early childhood memories, secret desires and hidden drives. According to Freud, the unconscious contains things that may be unpleasant or even socially unacceptable. Because these things might create pain or conflict, they are buried in the unconscious. 

While these thoughts, memories, and urges might be outside of our awareness, they continue to influence the way that we think, act and behave. In some cases, the things outside of our awareness can influence behavior in negative ways and lead to psychological distress. 

The conscious mind includes everything that is inside of our awareness. The contents of the conscious mind are the things we are aware of or can easily bring into awareness.

The Id, Ego, and Superego

Id: Freud believed that personality was composed of three key elements. The first of these to emerge is known as the id. The id contains all of the unconscious, basic and primal urges.

Ego: The second aspect of personality to emerge is known as the ego. This is the part of the personality that must deal with the demands of reality. It helps control the urges of the id and makes us behave in ways that are both realistic and acceptable. Rather than engaging in behaviors designed to satisfy our desires and needs, the ego forces us to fulfill our needs in ways that are socially acceptable and realistic.  In addition to controlling the demands of the id, the ego also helps strike a balance between our basic urges, our ideals, and reality.

Superego: The superego is the final aspect of personality to emerge and it contains our ideals and values. The values and beliefs that our parents and society instill in us are the guiding force of the superego and it strives to make us behave according to these morals.

The Ego's Defense Mechanisms

defense mechanism is a strategy that the ego uses to protect itself from anxiety. These defensive tools act as a safeguard to keep the unpleasant or distressing aspects of the unconscious from entering awareness. When something seems too overwhelming or even inappropriate, defense mechanisms help keep the information from entering consciousness in order to minimize distress.

Some Weaknesses of Psychoanalysis 

Psychoanalysis grew in its influence over the course of the early twentieth-century, but it was not without its critics. 

  • Freud's theories overemphasized the unconscious mind, sex, aggression and childhood experiences.
  • Many of the concepts proposed by psychoanalytic theorists are difficult to measure and quantify.
  • Most of Freud's ideas were based on case studies and clinical observations rather than empirical, scientific research.

Strengths of Psychoanalysis

Despite its critics, psychoanalysis played an important role in the development of psychology. It influenced our approach to the treatment of mental health issues and continues to exert an influence in psychology to this day.

  • While most psychodynamic theories did not rely on experimental research, the methods and theories of psychoanalytic thinking contributed to the development of experimental psychology.
  • Many of the theories of personality developed by psychodynamic thinkers are still influential today, including Erikson's theory of psychosocial stages and Freud's psychosexual stage theory.
  • Psychoanalysis opened up a new view on mental illness, suggesting that talking about problems with a professional could help relieve symptoms of psychological distress.

Is Psychoanalysis Still Relevant Today?

When you ask people to list the things that spring to mind when they think about psychology, Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis pop up quite frequently. There is no question that psychoanalysis, both as a therapeutic approach and theoretical outlook, has certainly left its mark on psychology.

There are a few people still left who take a purely psychoanalytical point of view on human behavior. Most psychologists today employ a more eclectic approach to the field of psychology.

In fact, many contemporary psychologists view psychoanalysis with skepticism. Some even feel derision for Freud's school of thought. But is this fair? In a world of psychology where cognitive processes, neuroscience, and biopsychology dominates, is there still room for psychoanalysis?

Is Psychoanalysis Still Relevant in Today's World?

There have been a few recent reports on the general decline of traditional psychoanalysis:

  • A report published by the American Psychoanalytic Association found that psychology departments typically treat psychoanalysis purely as a historical artifact, while subjects such as art, literature, history, and other humanities subjects were more likely to teach psychoanalysis as an ongoing and relevant topic.
  • A 2007 article in The New York Times also noted the decline of psychoanalysis within psychology.

So why has psychoanalysis fallen by the wayside as an academic topic within psychology? Part of the problem, some suggest, stems from psychoanalysis's failure to test the validity of its therapeutic approach and earlier failures to ground the discipline in evidence-based practices.

Support and Criticism of Psychoanalysis

Criticisms aimed at psychoanalysis:

Some suggest that psychoanalysis is not as effective as other treatments. Part of the reason many are so skeptical of psychoanalysis today is that the body of evidence supporting its effectiveness has often been viewed as weak.

However, some of the research on the effectiveness of psychoanalysis has yielded support for this treatment modality. One meta-analysis found that psychoanalysis could be as effective as other therapy approaches. Others studies suggest that psychoanalysis may be effective in the treatment of depression, drug dependence, and panic disorder.

In one recent review looking at the effectiveness of psychoanalysis, researcher and psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy suggested that that psychodynamic therapy could be effective in the treatment of depression, eating disorders, somatic disorders, and some anxiety disorders.

Psychoanalysis often requires an investment of time, money, and effort. Another issue is that psychoanalysis is generally a long-term proposition. We live in a time when people seek fast-results and approaches that yield an effect in days, weeks or months - psychoanalytic therapy often involves a client and therapist exploring issues over a period of years.

"Using the criteria established for evidence-based treatment, traditional psychoanalysis alone does not, in fact, pass muster as a method of therapy for the large majority of psychological disorders," suggested psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne in an article for Psychology Today. "However, to dismiss Freud’s contributions as irrelevant to psychology, as [the New York Times article] implies, is an oversimplification."

Psychoanalysis Then and Now

Many of Freud's ideas have fallen out of favor in psychology, but that certainly does not mean that his work is without merit.

His approach to therapy - the suggestion that mental illness was treatable and that talking about problems could bring relief - was a revolutionary concept that left a lasting mark on how we approach the treatment of mental illness.

And research has supported at least some of Freud's original ideas. "Recent reviews of neuroscientific work confirm that many of Freud's original observations, not least the pervasive influence of non-conscious processes and the organizing function of emotions for thinking, have found confirmation in laboratory studies," explained Peter Fonagy in an article published in World Psychiatry.

It is also important to remember that Sigmund Freud was also very much a product of his time. While he was known for his oftentimes audacious theories (considered especially shocking during the Victorian period), his view of the world was colored by the time in which he lived. So what path would psychoanalysis take today if Freud were alive in our time?

"If Freud were alive today," writes Fonagy, "he would be keenly interested in new knowledge about brain functioning, such as how neural nets develop in relation to the quality of early relationships, the location of specific capacities with functional scans, the discoveries of molecular genetics and behavioral genomics and he would surely not have abandoned his cherished Project for a Scientific Psychology, the abortive work in which he attempted to develop a neural model of behavior."

One important thing to note, explains Whitbourne, is that while psychoanalysis might be on the decline, it does not mean that the psychodynamic perspective is dead. "Psychologists today talk about the psychodynamic, not the psychoanalytic perspective," she writes, "As such, this perspective refers to the dynamic forces within our personalities whose shifting movements underlie much of the basis for our observable behavior. Psychoanalysis is a much narrower term referring to the Freudian-based notion that to understand, and treat, abnormal behavior, our unconscious conflicts must be worked through."

Psychoanalysis as Freud conceived it might certainly be on the decline, but that doesn't mean that the psychodynamic perspective has disappeared or that it will be going anywhere soon.

The Future of Psychoanalysis

So what can psychoanalysis do to ensure its continued relevance in the world of psychology?

  • According to Fonagy, an emphasis on science is the key.
  • Empirical research and evidence-based treatments need to be explored in greater depth.
  • Fonagy also suggests that improved data-gathering methods, consideration of other possible explanations for behavior, and active collaboration with other mental health professionals can improve the legitimacy and relevance of psychoanalytic methods.
  • Some current efforts to revitalize psychoanalysis focus on psychoanalytic concepts that are more evidence-based (such as attachment theory) or on connecting Freud's idea of the unconscious to modern neuroscience.

Clearly, Freud's mark on psychology is still being felt today. Talk therapy may be best associated with psychoanalysis, but therapists often utilize this technique in a range of other treatment approaches including client-centered therapy and group therapy. Psychoanalysis might not be the force it was back in 1910, but Freud's theories have had a lasting influence on both popular culture and psychology.

View Article Sources
  • Fonagy, P. The effectiveness of psychodynamic psychotherapies: An update. World Psychiatry. 2015;14(2): 137-150. doi:  10.1002/wps.20235.
  • Paris, J. Is psychoanalysis still relevant to psychiatry? Can J Psychiatry. 2017;62(5):308-312. doi:10.1177/0706743717692306.
  • Whitbourne, SK. (2012). Freud's Not Dead; He's Just Really Hard to Find. Psychology Today.