Free Association: What Is It, And How Does It Work?
By Jon Jaehnig
Updated March 24, 2020
Reviewer Kristen Hardin
Telling people the random thoughts that pass through your mind isn't the best way to make friends. It might be boring, embarrassing, or too revealing to make for good dinner conversation. Yet, those thoughts can be useful in the right situation. In therapy, free association is one way to get to the heart of your problems.
What Is Free Association?
Free association in psychology refers to a process of discovering your genuine thoughts, memories, and feelings by freely sharing all the seemingly random thoughts that pass through your mind. Usually, you are given a prompt like a word or image without context and you say what it makes you think of. The person leading the exercise tries to create links between the prompt and your response to learn about how your brain makes connections between ideas.
Sigmund Freud was the first 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 psychoanalysis therapy. Freud based free association on the theory of psychic determinism that informed all his work.
Theory of Psychic Determinism
The theory of psychic determinism was an important concept in psychoanalysis theory in Freud's day and continues to be important to psychoanalysts and psychodynamic therapists as well. 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 to access 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. To Freud, a simple slip of the tongue was significant. In his view, misstatements were revelatory. A deeper interpretation would lead to the heart of your basic problem.
Analysis of Free Associations
After listening to his patient's random thoughts, Freud would analyze the information to find the hidden meaning. The goal of psychoanalysis was to find the source of your problem and reveal it to you. Freud's thinking was that once you understood what was causing you to think or behave in ill-adaptive ways, the problem would naturally resolve for you.
How Free Association Works
The concept of free association may be easy to understand, but its application is often difficult. The psychologist must use their expertise to go beyond the words spoken to discover the unconscious meaning. Free association starts with instructions from the psychoanalyst or therapist.
Lie Down (or Not) and Relax
First, you get comfortable. In Freud's day, you would lie down on a couch. Now you might simply sit up in a comfortable chair instead. The therapist instructs you to share your thoughts freely, without embarrassment. They tell you not to censor yourself, but to say any words that come to you.
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 that 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.
Listen to Interpretations
Freud typically said very little if anything 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 you 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 Free Association Works in Other Therapies
Free association is used most often in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy. However, 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. They may be viewed as simple mistakes or unimportant details.
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 you questions about what certain words mean to you, and explain how your thoughts reveal certain things about you. Some therapists may use a different free association technique by giving you more instructions. They might tell you to think of a certain situation and share the thoughts that arise from that suggestion.
Free association is central to the process of psychoanalysis and certainly important in psychodynamic therapy as well as other treatment methods. Therapists do still use free association, although the technique has changed to some extent.
Differences in Use Today
In modern therapy, the patient 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 did with his patients.
Modern Responses to Free Association
Because psychotherapy is more readily available, more people are familiar with it. People tend to be more open to different therapeutic techniques. Free association has also been depicted in everything from books to movies to animated TV series. So, once you begin to engage in the method, it may seem more familiar to you than it was to people in the late 1800s. This familiarity may make you feel more comfortable with it, and you may relax more as you're doing it.
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
Whether your therapist is a psychoanalyst or an eclectic therapist, 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, having spoken to many other people with similar mental health issues.
Uncover Hidden Thoughts
Sometimes, we file away painful thoughts so deeply in our unconscious that even we don't realize they're there. If those thoughts are important to us, 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 reasonably decide what to do.
Express Repressed Feelings
People tend to repress feelings that are too painful or confusing to deal with at the moment. You may feel numb about something you think should be upsetting you deeply.
For example, if a mother 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 know you have a problem. It's often more difficult to know what's behind your symptoms. Free association psychology sessions can help you find where the problem began. Free association is central to the process of getting to the root of serious mental health issues, so you can work with your psychologist to create a plan for overcoming them.
Will Free Association Help Me?
Free association can help nearly everyone. 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 Issue. The issue you're dealing with is an important consideration. If your issue is that 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 any important memories, thoughts, and feelings.
Urgency of Problem. Free association is typically not used for people who are in crisis. For those who are having suicidal or homicidal thoughts and plans, the problem needs to be dealt with much more quickly and directly.
Your Beliefs. Before you decide to embark on a course of psychoanalysis, you need to think about your core beliefs. Do you believe some mistakes are just random? If so, you might not appreciate someone suggesting that an embarrassing thought you spoke aloud says something about your problems or who you are as a person.
You may believe that everything does have to mean something. You might wonder about the meaning of your thoughts yourself. If so, free association might be very helpful for you. If you aren't sure but are open to trying free association, you might find that you can learn more about yourself and your problems than you ever knew before.
Your Preferences. You might fare best in therapy if 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.
Choosing a Therapist
Once you understand free association, you might decide you want your therapist to use it, or you might prefer other methods. In either case, you can talk to any prospective therapist first to find out if they use this technique.
Of course, even once you choose a therapist, you always have the option to keep searching until you someone who meets your needs. BetterHelp makes that easy by allowing you to quickly and easily change from one therapist to another. You can overcome your problems and mental health issues with the right help from a licensed therapist who understands the importance of getting treatment that suits you. Consider the following reviews of real BetterHelp counselors.
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Free association isn't for everyone, but it's a good start for people who don't know where to begin. Often the solution to our problems lies not in understanding the problem but in understanding ourselves. You can move forward to a fulfilling life-all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.