Sabina Spielrein And Her Role In Psychology

Updated March 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

This article discusses sexual abuse and child abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), and the National Sexual assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) can all be reached 24/7.

Having A Difficult Time Working Through Mental Health Concerns?

A somewhat forgotten pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein played a pivotal role in the early history of psychoanalytic psychology as one of the world’s most prominent Russian psychologists and female psychoanalysts. For those not familiar with her life and work, knowing more can allow for a re-examination and new consideration of the work of other prominent psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, and Jean Piaget, whom Spielrein significantly influenced. 

Sabina Spielrein - Childhood And Early Education

Sabina Nikolayevna Spielrein was born in Russia on October 25, 1885. She was part of a wealthy Jewish family. Her father, Nikolai, was trained as an agronomist and worked as a merchant. Sabina Spielrein’s mother, Eva, had been trained as a dentist but did not practice in the field.

Spielrein’s childhood was somewhat turbulent as her parents' marriage was not healthy. Both of her parents physically abused her, and many believed that Spielrein may have also been sexually abused as a child, although that suspicion is not conclusive. Perhaps because of the stress, Spielrein experienced mental health conditions, including somatic symptoms and obsessions.

Despite her struggles, Sabina Spielrein managed to excel in her life. She attained her education at a Froebel school and then at the Ekaterininskaya Gymnasium in Rostov. She was good at science and music and learned to speak German, French, English, and Russian fluently. But throughout her time in school, she struggled with her emotions and mental health. She continued to aspire to be something greater. She decided to go abroad and study to be a doctor.

More Struggles And Continued Education

Even as she aspired to improve, Spielrein's mental health seemed to get in the way initially. In 1904, her sister died quite suddenly from typhoid. The event caused Spielrein to deteriorate quickly, and she experienced a mental breakdown. She had symptoms of tics, grimaces, laughing, and crying that were seemingly out of her control. It was considered a case of hysteria.

Sabina Spielrein entered a Swiss sanitarium, an early mental hospital, to recover. However, the stay was not successful in her recovery. She was then admitted to a mental hospital in Zurich. There, she was assigned to work with Carl Jung as her therapist. In her therapy work, Spielrein told Jung about her difficult childhood, including that her father had frequently beaten her. Spielrein was apparently the reason Carl Jung first wrote to Sigmund Freud, interested in his psychoanalytic techniques that could potentially cure the challenging case of Spielrein.

To aid her recovery, Jung also wrote to Spielrein's father and brothers, asking that they no longer have contact with her. He tried Freud’s “talking cure” on Spielrein. This treatment involves tapping into one's unconscious through dream interpretation and free association. Within ten months, Spielrein recovered. She then began working as a research assistant for Jung and applied to medical school. As a patient of and assistant to Jung, Spielrein fell in love with him. She decided to stay at the hospital longer as an intern rather than leave right away for medical school.

After some time, Spielrein did attend medical school. She attended the University of Zurich starting in June 1905. She excelled there and studied a broad range of subjects. She became interested in the new field of psychoanalysis while in medical school and decided to become a psychiatrist. She studied with Sigmund Freud. Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung supervised her dissertation.

Spielrein's dissertation research was a case study of a patient with schizophrenia and focused on the language this individual tended to use. Jung edited the paper, which was published in a journal of analytical psychology. Spielrein had made psychoanalytic history as it was the first such doctoral-level study to be published in a psychoanalytic journal. It was one of the very first psychoanalytic case studies on schizophrenia. It was also the first study written by a woman that was psychoanalytically oriented. Her work helped other psychiatrists to understand the condition of schizophrenia better, leading to more research and support for those patients who experienced this mental illness.

Spielrein's Relationship With Carl Jung And Early Career

Throughout medical school, Sabina Spielrein worked with Carl Jung on his laboratory research in the hospital. Although she was once his patient, she never again received treatment from Jung. She also studied and researched with him. The two also had a social relationship, and records from her diary and letters suggest the relationship also eventually became physically intimate, although there is debate among historians over the extent of this.

Having A Difficult Time Working Through Mental Health Concerns?

Nonetheless, the relationship was problematic, given Jung was married and Spielrein had been both a patient and a student studying with him. He eventually left his medical position, in part because of the controversy. Records indicate that, at times, Spielrein wanted even more from their relationship; however, she recognized that doing so would negatively affect her professional goals. Today, the interactions between Spielrein and Jung are perceived as a likely breach of professional ethics.

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was aware of the relationship between Jung and Spielrein. At first, he just viewed it as a case of countertransference. However, he later felt that it was not good. It changed his view of the psychoanalytic relationship. The situation also likely contributed to a falling out between Jung and Freud, after which Jung started to develop his psychoanalytic theories.

Records suggest that Spielrein did not see the relationship with Jung as detrimental to her. However, she eventually decided to end it. When she graduated from medical school in 1911, she decided to leave Zurich and moved to Munich. There, she studied art history. She also worked on a paper regarding a connection between sex and death, which aligned with some of the psychoanalytic theories at the time.

Later that year, she moved to Vienna. She delivered a paper, "Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being." In this, she argued humans are torn between wanting to stay as they are and wanting to reproduce. In this way, the reproductive instinct can be both creative and destructive.

This paper aligned more with Freud's views and then influenced his work. He credited it as leading him to consider the concept of a "death drive." Spielrein and Freud met several times and corresponded. She also tried to help reconcile Freud and Jung's relationship but was unsuccessful.

Personal And Professional Developments

Sabrina married a Russian Jewish physician named Pavel Nahumovitch Sheftel in 1912. Together they moved to Berlin, where they had their first child, a daughter. Later, they had to relocate, and eventually, Pavel was a part of the war efforts. Spielrein and Pavel were separated for ten years as a result. When Pavel left for war, Spielrein also had to engage in other work, working as a surgeon and at an eye clinic. Her parents provided some financial help as well.

During that same time, Spielrein continued to engage in research, producing two more short papers. She studied her own daughter's development. Through continued correspondence with Freud and Jung, she continued developing her ideas and viewpoints. She developed a focus on studying attachment in children. Even throughout her psychological inquiry, she composed music and considered becoming a composer. She even started writing a French novel.

Continued Career And Significant Accomplishments For Spielrein

Starting in 1920, Spielrein was able to refocus on her psychoanalytic work, eventually taking a job at the Rousseau Institute. When Jean Piaget joined the staff at the Rousseau Institute, he and Spielrein started collaborating closely and went on an extensive analysis together. Spielrein and Piaget delivered papers at the next session of the International Psychoanalytic Association in Berlin.

The work that Spielrein did in Geneva from 1920 to 1923 is believed to have heavily influenced Jean Piaget and Melanie Klein (another psychoanalytic psychologist interested in child development). However, despite her productivity in research, she had yet to develop a non-public practice successfully. She decided to relocate to Moscow.

End Of Spielrein's Career And Her Legacy

Upon arriving in Russia, Spielrein was the most experienced psychoanalyst in the region. She was appointed Chair of Child Psychology for First Moscow University. She continued studying child development and started a project with the Psychoanalytic Orphanage laboratory. Spielrein supervised the teachers there. Some did not approve of the school's methods, and it was forced to close in 1924.

Spielrein worked with Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky during her time in Moscow. They both studied under her, and each went on to have a prominent career in psychology. Her approach to research with objective observation of children can be seen as influencing their work.

Around 1924, Spielrein left Moscow to reunite with her husband. The relationship produced another child. For the next ten years, Spielrein worked as a pediatrician and continued her work with psychoanalysis. She continued to speak in support of Freud's views even when he fell out of favor with many other researchers.

Spielrein's career started to be affected by the political climate. Spielrein and her children managed to survive for a time. However, during July 1942, the three of them were killed by an SS death squad, alongside 27,000 other Jewish victims. Her death was a result of the early stages of the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, despite her prolific career, Sabina Spielrein’s impact on the world of psychoanalysis was nearly forgotten. However, when Spielrein had left Geneva for Moscow, she left all her papers in the basement of the Rousseau Institute. Much later, these were discovered, and some of them were published. These documents, which included her diaries, revived interest in her work and gave a better understanding of her life, career, and role in the growing psychology field.

While Spielrein was a forgotten pioneer of psychoanalysis for some time, people now recognize that she had a significant influence on psychology. Her ideas, which drew heavily from Jungian psychology, influenced many great minds that gained more prominence than her. Although she has been treated as a footnote to the events happening, she played a significant role and should be fully recognized for the ideas and work she put forth during her lifetime as one of the most prominent female psychoanalysts.

Spielrein And Modern Therapy

Today's therapy approaches grew out of the psychoanalytic work over which Spielrein’s work had significant influence. However, therapists must complete more formal training and maintain professional boundaries with their clients.

When you seek out your therapy, including online therapy, use a platform that checks its providers' credentials to ensure that you receive professional and quality services to get you the best support to suit your needs.

Online therapy has many benefits for people seeking treatment for various conditions. It’s convenient, and you can attend sessions from the comfort of your own home. At BetterHelp, you can reach a range of licensed, trained specialists, from psychologists to clinical social workers and board-licensed professional counselors, all of whom are vetted through a rigorous screening process.

Studies show that online therapy is effective, too, with one review concluding that online treatment can significantly decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety, PTSD, panic disorder, and specific phobias and is just as effective as in-person treatment for treating panic disorder. If you want to learn more, contact a BetterHelp therapist for more information. 


Sabina Spielrein contributed to or inspired many aspects of the psychoanalytic movement, and her work is still relevant today. If you’re looking for a vetted, qualified therapist, reach out to BetterHelp to get started.

For additional help & support with your concerns

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