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.

Basic Tenets 

  • The way that people behave is largely influenced by their unconscious drives.
  • The development of personality is mostly 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 in the 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 

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 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.

Key Dates 

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

Major Thinkers in Psychoanalysis

Key Terminology

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

A 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


American Psychoanalytic Association. (n.d.). About psychoanalysis. Retrieved from http://www.apsa.org/content/about-psychoanalysis.

Freud, S. (1916-1917). Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22, 1-182.

Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense. London: Karnac Books.

Schwartz, C. (2015). When Freud meeds fMRI. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/08/neuroscience-psychoanalysis-casey-schwartz-mind-fields/401999/.