Free Association: What Is It, And How Does It Work?

Updated November 24, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In therapy, free association is one way to get to the heart of your problems. Free association is a process of discovering your genuine thoughts and feelings by saying all the thoughts that pass through your mind. The person leading the exercise then tries to understand the links between your thoughts and ideas. 

History And Concept Of Free Association

Are You Curious About Free Association?

Sigmund Freud was the pioneer of the psychoanalysis technique of free association. Freud worked on developing this technique further between 1892 and 1898. This new method became a cornerstone of psychoanalytic therapy. Freud based free association on the theory of psychic determinism that informed all his work.

The theory of psychic determinism is an important concept in psychoanalysis theory. The theory states that everything you say and do is significant because it’s based on your previous experiences and your instinctual drives, whether you’re consciously aware of them or not.

According to Freud, many of our thoughts and actions are determined by our subconscious, which largely forms during early childhood. This area of the mind is difficult for the individual on their own, so the role of the therapist is to help the patient understand themselves better through subconscious mind exercises like free association and even hypnotism. Freud used the saying “All roads lead to Rome” to refer to his idea that anything you say or do eventually leads back to the source of your problems. 

Analysis Of Free Association

After listening to his patient’s seemingly random thoughts, Freud would analyze the information to find the hidden meaning. The goal of psychoanalysis was to find the source of a person’s problem and reveal it to them. Freud’s thinking was that once you understood what was causing you to think or behave in maladaptive ways, the problem would naturally resolve.

How Free Association Works

The concept of free association may be easy to understand, but its application is often difficult. Free association starts with instructions and prompts from the therapist. The therapist then uses their expertise to go beyond the words spoken to discover the unconscious meaning. 

  1. Lie Down And Relax

First, you get comfortable. In Freud’s day, you would lie down on a couch. Now you might simply sit in a comfortable chair instead. The therapist instructs you to tell your thoughts freely, without embarrassment. They tell you not to censor yourself, but to say any words that come to mind.

  1. Talk About Anything

Saying every thought that comes to you can seem strange when you first try it. You may feel your string of thoughts is nonsensical. Freud would say that your stream of consciousness makes perfect sense once you discover the underlying problem. The important thing to remember is that even if not every word or thought seems to make sense, you are more likely to discover something you didn’t know before because you aren’t censoring what you say. Rather than creating your story, as people do all the time, you’re discovering it.

  1. Listen To Interpretations

Freud typically said very little while his patients were free associating. His goal was to listen closely, interpret the free thoughts, and offer his analysis. Today, therapists may include you in this process, asking if anything surprised you, and seeking your opinion on what something means. This provides you and the therapist with another avenue into your psyche via your conscious mind. It also helps to avoid the problem of the therapist putting too much of themselves into their interpretation of your free association.

How It Works In Other Therapies

Free association is used most often in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy. It can also be used in other forms of therapy. If so, it’s usually used only briefly and as a prelude to an active discussion. Also, in other types of therapy, the thoughts may not all be considered significant. 

Some other therapy techniques use the same type of stream of consciousness method. Free association writing involves writing down thoughts as they come to you. You may do this in a therapy session or as a homework assignment between sessions. The therapist reads what you’ve written. Then, they’ll offer you their thoughts, ask questions about what certain words mean to you, and explain how your thoughts reveal things about you. Some therapists may use a different free association technique by asking you to think of a certain situation and thoughts that arise from that suggestion.

Differences In Use Today

In modern therapy, the client usually takes a more active role in the process of unraveling the meaning of the apparently unrelated words, phrases, and descriptions. The therapist might also give more instructions and engage with you more than early psychologists like Freud.

Modern Responses To Free Association

In Freud’s day, free association was only used in psychoanalysis and rarely in any other situation. Now, it’s not only used in psychoanalysis therapy, but it’s also used in psychodynamic therapy and other forms of therapy. Saying what comes to mind is also familiar to anyone who’s been involved in a brainstorming session to create something new or work out problems in a business.

Benefits of Free Association

Free association therapy can provide you with many benefits:

  • Bring Up Things You Didn’t Think Were Important

In free association, you don’t discard thoughts even if you think they’re irrelevant. Because your therapist hears every thought, they can understand things neither of you might have realized before. While you might not see the significance of something that comes to your mind, the therapist has a broader perspective and understanding of unconscious motives.

  • Uncover Hidden Thoughts

Sometimes, we file painful thoughts away so deeply in our unconscious that we don’t realize they’re there. And sometimes all it takes is a free association session to reveal them. When this happens, the knowledge of what you’ve been hiding from yourself can bring you a sense of relief and closure. And, once you know about that thought, you can deal with it consciously and decide what to do.

  • Express Repressed Feelings

People tend to repress feelings that are too painful or confusing to deal with in the moment. 

For example, if a parent who has lost a child feels nothing about that loss, it can be vital to their mental health to confront those feelings of grief. During free association, you can tap into your deeper feelings about such issues, experience them in safety, and eventually move on.

  • Get to the Root of the Problem

It’s one thing to experience a problem. It’s often more difficult to understand the root of the problem. Free association sessions can help you identify the source of problems, so you can work with your psychologist to create a plan for overcoming them.

Will Free Association Help Me?

Free association can help some more than others. However, as a sole method of therapy, it has limitations. It’s important to assess its value to you in your situation.

Type of Mental Health Concerns.  If you’re trying to change behavior quickly, cognitive behavioral therapy might be more appropriate for you. On the other hand, if you want to delve into a long-standing and significant problem, free association might be an excellent way to open up the conversation.

That doesn’t mean free association is only for severe mental illness, though. It can be used to uncover important memories, thoughts, and feelings.

Your Beliefs. Before you decide to embark on a course of psychoanalysis, it can help to consider your core beliefs. Do you believe some thoughts or mistakes are just random? If so, you might not appreciate someone suggesting that an embarrassing thought says something about your problems or who you are as a person.

On the other hand, you may believe that everything has meaning. If so, free association might be very helpful for you. If you’re unsure but open to trying free association, you might find that you can learn more about yourself than you ever knew before.

Your Preferences. Therapy tends to be most effective when you choose a therapy you feel comfortable with. Maybe you hate to be embarrassed and feel you would say things you didn’t want anyone, even your therapist, to know. Or, you might like to deal with your problems more directly and actively. In that case, you might prefer a different type of therapy.

BetterHelp Can Help

Are You Curious About Free Association?

Once you understand free association, you might decide you want your therapist to use it, or you might prefer other methods. If you’re looking to transform unconscious thoughts into conscious thoughts, you may benefit from free association.  And the technique no longer has to be performed from a psychoanalyst’s couch – you can connect with a licensed therapist online. 

BetterHelp makes that easy by matching you with a licensed therapist in your state. Not only is online therapy more convenient and affordable, but it’s also been proven just as effective as in-person therapy. Get started today and match with a therapist experienced in free association techniques.  To learn more about BetterHelp’s services, consider the following reviews of real BetterHelp counselors.

Counselor Reviews

“I feel really listened to and respected and that I can be completely honest without being judged. I feel like each response I get from Terrence is really thought out and considered and that he really knows how to help me. Although Terrence has only been my therapist for a short time I already feel like I am on a path to better understanding and improving my mental health, something I struggled to gain from my previous face to face counsellor.”

“Stephaine has been my counselor for six months and I can say she has definitely been a great help in pulling me out of the abyss and helping me in the battle with my depression. She doesn’t give too much and never takes away too little. She is always listening and questioning and responding. That helps me think further and understand what I need to do to be the better person I want to be. Stephaine has been a great help for that and if I could I would send all my friends directly to her for their own therapy. Cause I always bring up how great she is in every social conversation about therapy that I can get.”


With the help of a therapist, free association may help you uncover your unconscious thoughts and beliefs. Free association isn’t for everyone, but it can be a good start for people who don’t fully understand the root of the problems they are facing. Sometimes, the solution to our problems lies not in understanding the problem but in understanding ourselves. Take the first step today.

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