Sabina Spielrein And Her Role In Psychology

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated October 10, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Despite being 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 one of the most well-known women to serve as a psychoanalyst.

Spielrein significantly influenced other prominent psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, and Jean Piaget.

Sabina Spielrein’s 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 experienced difficulty in their marriage, and both of them physically abused her. Spielrein experienced mental health challenges, including somatic symptoms and obsessions.

Despite her challenges, Sabina Spielrein managed to excel in life. She attained her education at a Froebel school and then at the Ekaterininskaya Gymnasium in Rostov. She was skilled at science and music and learned to speak German, French, English, and Russian fluently. However, throughout her time in school, she experienced challenges with her emotions and mental health. Nonetheless, she continued to aspire and decided to go abroad and study to become a doctor.

More Challenges 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. This event caused Spielrein’s mental health 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 at the time.

Spielrein entered a Swiss sanitarium, an early mental hospital, to recover. However, the stay was not successful for her recovery. She was then admitted to a mental hospital in Zurich, where 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 with interest 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 10 months, Spielrein recovered. She then began working as a research assistant for Jung and applied to medical school. As both a patient and assistant of 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 eventually attended medical school. She attended the University of Zurich starting in June 1905. She excelled there and studied a diverse array of subjects. She became interested in the new field of psychoanalysis and decided to become a psychiatrist. Spielrein studied with Sigmund Freud, and 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 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 and the first psychoanalytically oriented study written by a woman. Her work helped other psychiatrists to understand the condition of schizophrenia better, leading to more research and support for patients who experienced this mental illness.


Spielrein's Relationship With Carl Jung And Her 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 conducted research with him, and the two also had a social relationship. Records from her diary and letters suggest the relationship also eventually became intimate, although there is debate among historians over the extent of this.

Nonetheless, the relationship posed problems, given that 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.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, 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, and 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, where 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 titled "Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being" in which 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. 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 10 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. 

During that same time, Spielrein continued to engage in research, producing two more short papers and studying her own daughter's development. Through continued correspondence with Freud and Jung, she continued developing her ideas and viewpoints, and she developed a focus on attachment in children. 

Even throughout her psychological inquiry, Spielrein maintained diverse interests. She composed music and considered becoming a composer, and 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 psychoanalyst 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.

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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 at First Moscow University. She continued studying child development and started a project with the Psychoanalytic Orphanage laboratory, where she supervised teachers. Some did not approve of the school's methods, and it was forced to close in 1924.

During her time in Moscow, Spielrein worked with Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky. 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, and they had another child. For the next 10 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, and she 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 people. Her death was a result of the early stages of the Holocaust.

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

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 she did. 

Spielrein And Modern Therapy

Today's therapeutic approaches grew out of the psychoanalytic work that Spielrein’s research significantly influenced. If you seek therapy today, you’ll likely find that many therapists have studied some of the psychologists influenced by her work, such as Freud, Jung, and Piaget.

If you’re interested in therapy, whether for a mental health challenge or for personal development, you can search for a therapist in your community or try online therapy, which  numerous studies have demonstrated to be effective. With an online therapy at BetterHelp, you can attend sessions via audio or video chat from home or anywhere with an internet connection. You can also contact your therapist in between sessions via in-app messaging. BetterHelp has a network of more than 25,000 licensed therapists, all of whom are vetted through a rigorous screening process. 


Sabina Spielrein contributed to many aspects of the psychoanalytic movement and significantly influenced many well-known psychologists, many of whom are studied by therapists to this day. If you’re looking for a licensed therapist with knowledge of the famous psychoanalysts, you might consider online therapy. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist with knowledge of the psychoanalytic movement or whatever area of psychology you’re interested in. 

Whether you’re experiencing a mental health challenge or are just interested in self-improvement, you can connect with a licensed therapist online. Take the first step and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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