Free Association

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated July 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Free association is a therapeutic technique to facilitate emotional discovery in therapy. Free association work may involve discovering unconscious thoughts or feelings by saying out loud all the thoughts that pass through your mind. The professional leading the exercise may work to understand the connections between your thoughts and ideas. 

Getty/AnnaStills
Are you curious about free association?

History, concept, and analysis of free association

Perhaps the most famous figure in the history of psychology, Sigmund Freud was the pioneer of the psychoanalysis technique of free association. According to Freud, free association was part of the fundamental rule (or the fundamental technical rule) of psychoanalysis. Applying this rule, Freud prompted participants to freely discuss thoughts and emotions that arose during sessions, urging them to say whatever associations came into their head without inhibition. Freud developed free association between 1892 and 1898, and it became a cornerstone of psychoanalytic therapy. Freud based free associations on the principles of the theory of psychic determinism, a significant part of his work. 

The theory of psychic determinism is a 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 the associations or not.

According to Freud, the freedom to free associate was critical and many thoughts and actions are determined by our subconscious or unconscious processes, which may form during early childhood. Freud used the saying "all roads lead to Rome" to suggest that anything you freely say or do may lead back to the source of your problems. 

After listening to his patient's seemingly random thoughts, Freud would analyze and examine the information to find any hidden meaning. Early psychoanalysis or the freudian therapy aimed to find the source of a person's problem and reveal it to them. Freud thought that once you understood what was causing you to think or behave in maladaptive ways, the problem, for most people, would naturally resolve.

How to freely associate

Free association often starts with instructions and prompts from the therapist, in some cases the therapist asks guiding questions or gives cues to prompt more free thinking. Often getting started and speaking the first word is the most challenging part. The therapist may then use their expertise to go beyond the words spoken to discover the unconscious meaning and help the patient to make sense of their world. 

Lie down and relax

To start a free association session, you might lie down and get comfortable. In Freud's day, you would lie down on a couch. Now you might sit in a comfortable chair instead. The therapist instructs you to speak your thoughts and their associations freely, without embarrassment. They may tell you not to censor yourself but to freely say the first words that come to mind.

Talk about anything

The fundamental rule of free association is to say every thought that enters your brain. Saying every thought that comes to mind may feel awkward when you first try it. You may talk about your past, your mother or father, bring up repressed memories, or freely explore other areas of your life. Freud likened the process to a traveler sitting on a railway carriage and detailing the unfolding landscape as it passes by.  

You may feel your string of thoughts is nonsensical, as one idea leads to a seemingly dissimilar thought. Freud often told clients that their stream of consciousness would make perfect sense once they discovered the underlying problems with their associations. 

While trying free association, not every word, idea, or thought may make sense. You may discover a hidden meaning or lesson from not censoring what you say. Rather than creating your story, as people often do, you might discover it via free association. The method of free association is designed to help you uncover how you feel.

Listen to association interpretations

Freud typically said little while his patients were free-associating. His goal was to listen closely, interpret the free thoughts and associations, and offer his analysis. Today, therapists may include you in the free association process, asking if anything surprised you and seeking your opinion on what something means. 

This process may provide you and your therapist another avenue into your psyche via your conscious mind. It could also prevent a therapist from adding too many personal anecdotes into their interpretation of your free association.

How it may work in other therapies

Free association is often used in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy. Free association can also be used in other types of therapy. If so, it may be a prelude to an active discussion or analytic session where you discuss what you said during the free association period. In other types of therapy, subconscious or free thoughts may not be given as much weight.  

Some other therapy techniques use the same type of stream-of-consciousness methods. Free association writing may involve writing thoughts down as they come to you. You could do this in a therapy session or as a homework assignment between sessions. The therapist may or may not read what you've written in the free association session. If they do, they might offer their thoughts, ask questions about what certain words mean to you, and explain how your thoughts could reveal underlying concerns. Additionally, journaling or utilizing express writing in this way has been proven to benefit your mental health.

Getty/AnnaStills

Modern responses

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

In Freud's day, free association was only used in psychoanalysis and rarely in any other situation. Now, it can be a valuable tool for therapists practicing psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapies, and other forms of therapy. Saying what comes to mind could also feel familiar to anyone involved in a brainstorming session to create something new or solve problems in a business. 

Potential benefits of free association

Free association therapy may provide several benefits, including the following. 

You may discover essential lessons 

In free association, almost everything that you think or say may be important and you may not discard thoughts even if you think they're irrelevant. Because your therapist hears all of the free associations you voice during the session, they might learn about areas of your psyche that neither of you previously noted. While you might not see the significance of a thought or feeling, a therapist often has a broader perspective and understanding of unconscious motives.

You may uncover hidden thoughts

At times, we may file painful thoughts away so deeply in our unconscious that we don't realize they're there. We choose to make them part of our history instead of dealing with them in the present. However, the stream of consciousness that is free associations may reveal them. When this happens, the knowledge of what you've been hiding from yourself can bring you a sense of relief and closure. Once you know about a thought, you may deal with it consciously and decide what to do.

You might express repressed feelings

People may repress feelings that feel too painful or confusing to deal with. However, studies show that repressing emotions can be harmful. Recent research suggests that, by decreasing repression, free association may allow free energy to be released from this defense mechanism. Free association can allow you to open up about these feelings or memories. 

For example, if someone has gone through a stressful event and is holding emotions inside, they may experience physical symptoms. During free association, they may tap into their deeper feelings about these issues, experience them safely, and eventually work to move on.

You could get to the root of the problem

Understanding the root of a problem can be challenging. Free association sessions may 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?

There is no guarantee of progress from free association. Free association can help some more than others. However, as a sole method of therapy, it may have limitations. If you're considering free association, consider discussing the practice with your therapist and ask how it could help or harm you. 

Consider your mental health needs 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), might be more appropriate for you if you're trying to change your behavior quickly. Family therapy may be most beneficial if you’re trying to improve your relationships. 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 the conversation.

However, this doesn't mean free association is only for severe mental health diagnoses. It may uncover memories, thoughts, and feelings in any situation, including daily life events. 

Consider your beliefs 

Before you embark on a course in psychoanalysis, it may help to consider your core beliefs. Do you believe some thoughts or mistakes are 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 might believe that everything has meaning. If so, free association could be valuable for you. If you're unsure but open to trying free association, you might find that you can learn more about yourself than you knew before.

Remember your preferences 

Therapy may be most effective when you choose a therapy you feel comfortable with. You might hate to feel embarrassed and feel you would say things you didn't want anyone, including your therapist, to know. Or you might deal with your problems more directly and actively. In that case, free association may feel most comfortable.  

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Are you curious about free association?

Connecting with a counselor 

Once you understand free association, you might decide to try it with your therapist or opt for other methods. If you're looking to transform unconscious thoughts into conscious thoughts, you may benefit from free association. Additionally, the technique doesn't necessarily need to be performed from a psychoanalyst's couch. You may also try free association with a licensed therapist online. 

Recent studies indicate that online therapy is as effective as traditional in-person therapy for various mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression. This therapy method allows you to seek counseling from a comfortable location with an internet connection, whether in bed, on your couch, or sitting in your car. It's up to you. Research indicates that most individuals feel most comfortable at home, so this therapy modality may feel safe and beneficial. 

If you want to try free association or another type of therapy, an online platform such as BetterHelp could be beneficial. You'll get matched with a counselor who meets your preferences, and you can let them know about what you've read. 

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.”

Takeaway

Sigmund Freud developed free association because he found value in everything a person says or does. Freud believed that the freedom to free associate and say what’s on your mind was critical for a patient’s growth. With the support of a therapist, free association may help you uncover your unconscious thoughts and beliefs. Free association might not work for everyone, but it can be a valuable start for those who don't fully understand the root of their problems.
A solution to a problem may not lie in understanding the problem but in understanding ourselves. If you're ready to get started, consider reaching out to a counselor. 
Explore mental health options online
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started