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What is psychoanalysis?

Updated: Jan 9, 2023

Psychoanalysis is foremost a "talking cure" where the patient is asked to simply put into words what ever comes to mind with minimal editing. Technically, psychoanalysis is a method of inquiry, which leads to observations that result in a body of theory, and the practical application of those theories that is the analytic treatment. In contrast to other approaches, psychoanalysis is non-directive; a psychoanalyst does not presume to know what a subject should be thinking or doing with their life. The analyst is trained to help people analyse themselves in the context of a longer term analytic relationship. Psychoanalysts eschew the prescription of generic strategies or homogeneous solutions to complex problems, nor do they view patients as problems that need to be managed. In short, psychoanalysis does not promise a ‘quick fix’ for problems.

Sigmund Freud described psychoanalysis as the name of:

[…] a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are almost inaccessible in any other way, of a method (based upon that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders and of a collection of psychological information obtained along those lines, which is gradually being accumulated into a new scientific discipline (p.235). Freud, S. (1923a). Two encyclopedia articles. In: J. Strachey (Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of SigmundFreud XVIII (1920–1922): Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works. London: Hogarth Press.

Freud explained psychoanalysis as a psychology of unconscious mental life. He ambitiously saw that the future would give birth to a scientific psychiatry, to which psychoanalysis would serve as an introduction. At first the early pioneers of psychoanalysis had no way of knowing just which patients were treatable with the analytic method and which ones would require special changes or parameters. Some analysts significantly modified their praxis so that more problematic psychopathology such as psychosis could be available to treatment; others treated them without much alteration to the method at all. Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis introduce students to his theories on the human psyche. In these lectures, Freud gave a concise description of his discovery of the unconscious and he put forth the role of sexuality in the development of the human being. The lectures gave the world a new perspective on dreams and unconscious acts that might seem random and unrelated but can be interpreted and understood. These lectures were the foundation on which modern psychoanalysis was built. Freud, S. (1917). Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVI (1916-1917).

Therapy based on psychoanalysis permeates most psychological approaches today. However, psychoanalysis is complicated by the fact that it has undergone numerous transformations at the hands of highly influential individual psychoanalysts over the one hundred plus years since Sigmund Freud first created it. It is therefore necessary, as with many of the theories currently influencing practice, scholarship and teaching, to differentiate between individual theorists and practitioners. Based on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, a Lacanian approach to the treatment is to first distinguish the symptom from the underlying structure by using language to explore how a subject’s enjoyment, desire and fantasy are linked to formations of the unconscious. Starting at the level of the symptom the treatment moves towards the unconscious, in a back and forth movement.

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