What Psychoanalysis Is And How It Started

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated September 21, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychoanalysis is often viewed as a particular kind of talk therapy pioneered by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s. It generally focuses on the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind, as well as the id, ego, and superego as parts of the psyche. The significance of childhood events and dreams is often emphasized as well. If you’re interested in trying psychoanalysis for yourself, you could seek out a therapist in your local area who uses its principles or connect with a licensed mental health professional online.

What Is Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis can be defined as a type of talk therapy for people with mild to moderate chronic emotional and mental concerns. It is generally based on psychoanalytic therapy and can be properly used for individual therapy, rather than couples or family therapy.

Psychoanalysis Gives You A Chance To Explore Your Childhood.

Psychoanalysis And Its Basis In Psychodynamic Therapy

Freudian psychoanalysis is generally the basis of psychodynamic therapy. The difference may be that Freud's theory of psychoanalysis was the starting point, and psychodynamic therapy usually includes theories and techniques from all the psychoanalysts who followed in his footsteps. Psychodynamic therapy is typically briefer than the traditional psychoanalysis Freud used, usually lasting for about 15 weekly sessions.

Goals Of Psychoanalysis

Some psychoanalysts suggest that this therapy should have no set goals, other than analyzing the patient. However, there can be advantages to setting specific goals, such as knowing whether the therapy is working and when it is complete. Most of the goals of psychoanalysis therapy fall into one of the following four categories:

  • Reducing or eliminating symptoms of a disorder

  • Gaining better life adjustment and the ability to function better in life

  • Changing the structure of the personality, becoming more independent, and increasing self-esteem

  • Coping with procedural difficulties, such as resolving transference neurosis (when the client transfers their emotional reaction to others onto the psychoanalyst) and uncovering and resolving basic emotional conflicts

The main goal of psychoanalysis may be discovering and understanding the sources of your internal conflicts. By bringing them into your conscious mind, you may resolve those conflicts.

Types Of Concerns That Can Be Addressed With Psychoanalysis

Many common psychological concerns can be addressed with psychoanalysis, including the following:

  • Phobias

  • Psychosomatic disorders

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders

  • Sexual challenges

  • Depression

  • Generalized anxiety

  • Self-destructive behavior

  • Identity and self-esteem challenges

Who Is The Father Of Psychoanalysis?

Freud is often referred to as the father and founder of psychoanalysis. The Freudian theory of psychoanalysis grew throughout Freud's lifetime and continued to develop over the years as new psychoanalysts built on his work. Traditional psychoanalysis has generally diminished in popularity to some extent, mainly due to professionals in the academic and clinical environment considering it to be irrelevant. However, some psychoanalysts still practice it, and many more practice therapies based on its principles.

Freudian Psychoanalysis Theory 

For Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis theory generally started in 1885, as he was trying to put together a method for patients who experienced neurosis. The theory may have existed before Freud, but it was generally not well-known or widely used. Freud's work is often considered to be at the heart of the main foundations and components of psychoanalysis. Freud wrote many books expounding his theories, with example after example of psychoanalysis described in detail.

Components Of Psychoanalysis Theory

Freudian psychology normally views mental processes from several distinct perspectives: topographical, dynamic, economic, structural, genetic, developmental, and adaptational.


The topographical system may recognize the conscious, unconscious, and preconscious parts of the mental process. Modern psychoanalysis usually notes the historical significance of the topographical system, but it is rarely used now except to explain how the mind may work.


The dynamic theory can be considered the psychology of conflict. In psychoanalysis, the primary concern is usually a conflict between the unconscious and conscious mind. Freud also gave special attention to two instinctual drives: sex and aggression. Freud typically associated all human behavior as deriving from these two drives.


Freud’s psychoanalysis economic theory was a perspective that normally viewed mental processes as attempts to satisfy instinctual drives. Freud usually described this process as the quest for greater psychic energy. His idea was that people may invest energy in their quest for pleasure, and that energy could be used to suppress instinctual drives.


Structural psychoanalysis theory can be thought of as the part of psychoanalysis involving Freud's threefold personality theory of id, ego, and superego. 


Freud may have considered genetic factors, but they were generally not his focus. He was normally more concerned with childhood events.


The developmental psychoanalysis perspective mainly looks at problems with significant childhood events. A part of psychoanalysis therapy can be uncovering those memories to understand them and make decisions about them.


The adaptive view may be concerned with the way a person interacts with the outside world.

Freud’s Ideas About Consciousness And Personality

Freud began developing the psychoanalysis theory with ideas about consciousness. He identified three states of awareness: the conscious, unconscious, and preconscious.


The conscious mind can be thought of as the level of thought you are currently aware of without any prompting. When something happens to you, the effects may spring into your consciousness, where you can address them thoughtfully and rationally. The conscious mind is usually the level of awareness where decisions take place.


The unconscious mind can be seen as the part of your mind where thoughts may be completely hidden from you. You are generally not aware of them in the moment, and you cannot usually call those memories up easily. One of the most important goals of psychoanalysis can be to bring those buried thoughts and emotions out into the light of the conscious mind.


You normally aren’t aware of the preconscious level of thought. Much of therapy can happen as you bring preconscious thoughts to consciousness. 

Personality: Id, Ego, Superego

Freud's theory of personality typically identifies three facets of the psyche. The id, ego, and superego may be the three divisions that can work together to create long-term happiness if they are in adaptive balance. However, if the three parts of the personality work against each other, there can be confusion, and mental disorders can develop.


The id can be defined as the part of the personality based on instinctual drives. The id may seek pleasure in all things. Sometimes, the things the id desires can be destructive. Other times, the desires of the id can be beneficial, since they often prompt us to reach for the basic pleasures in life. A person who leans toward the id may experience challenges with impulse control.


The ego may be the part of the psyche that intervenes between the id and the superego. It can be seen as the conscious, reasoning part of the personality. Through psychoanalysis, you can work with your ego to create a more balanced personality.


The superego may be the part of the psyche that leans toward doing what we think is morally right and beneficial in the long term. A person who tends to follow the demands of the superego may live strictly according to their values.

The Significance Of Childhood Events

Childhood events that have been repressed can represent significant hurdles to current happiness, according to psychoanalytic theory. Memories of painful, traumatic, and confusing events are often uncovered in therapy, potentially allowing you to understand the source of current mental health challenges. Once you recognize and understand these events and their influence on your life, you may make conscious decisions about how to cope with them.

Repression Vs. Expression

In psychoanalysis, repressing memories generally means they are hidden from your conscious mind. When you express your thoughts and feelings about those memories, they may lose power over your current well-being.

Resistance And Defense Mechanisms

Resistance can be thought of as the mental process you may use to hold back unwelcome thoughts and memories. You may resist such thoughts because they are painful or threaten your current view of reality. The way you avoid such memories coming into consciousness may be by using defense mechanisms.

Defense mechanisms can be reactions to questions or reminders that inhibit your recall or realization. Examples of defense mechanisms may include denial, repression, sublimation, and intellectualizing. When these ill-adaptive thought processes hold you back from consciously coping with your problems, you may not be able to reason out what happened, what you are hiding from yourself, or what to do about it.


Psychoanalysis transference can be a specific defense mechanism that comes into play during therapy. The patient may direct their thoughts, emotions, and memories of early childhood relationships toward the therapist as if the therapist were the one who was originally involved. This is generally an unconscious mental process.

Dreams And Unintentional Behaviors

Freud believed that the most important keys to unlocking the unconscious could be found in dreams and unintentional behaviors. Freud identified specific dream elements that could be symbolic of hidden desires and inner conflicts.

Many people have heard of the “Freudian slip.” This may happen when you accidentally say something you did not intend to say, such as substituting one word for another. According to Freud, all behavior can be relevant, whether intentional or unintentional.

Resolving Conflicts Between The Conscious And Unconscious

Psychoanalytic therapy is generally designed to resolve internal conflicts once they have been brought to light. Because conflict can be confusing, resolving it may allow you to gain perspective and feel more peaceful. Since conflict can stifle your ability to make a positive decision, resolving it can help you respond more effectively to current situations.

Psychoanalysis Gives You A Chance To Explore Your Childhood.

Psychoanalysis Techniques

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis techniques normally required the psychoanalyst to say as little as possible. Their role at that time was primarily to offer instruction, ask questions, and provide occasional interpretations.

Most psychoanalysts use many of the same therapy techniques. The following may be some of the most widely used.

Therapeutic Alliance

The therapeutic alliance can be defined as a kind of partnership formed between the psychoanalyst and the client. Within this relationship, both psychoanalyst and client may work together to recognize and understand sources of conflict. The therapist generally contributes their expertise, while the client usually does the hard work of facing difficult thoughts, emotions, and realities.

The psychoanalyst, according to Freud, normally must start by offering instruction. Once the client knows how to proceed, the two may work together to explore significant thoughts, memories, and emotions. Then, the psychoanalyst can help the client find clarity about what they've learned in this process.

Free Association

A central therapeutic technique of psychoanalysis can be free association. This is a technique that typically employs the mental process of associating one word or image with another. One way therapists may use this technique is by saying a word and asking the patient what they think of when they hear it.

Analyzing Dreams, Fantasies, And Unconscious Thoughts

An important component of psychoanalysis can be the interpretation of dreams. Freud generally spent a lot of time talking to patients about their dreams. He often analyzed these dreams according to the images they contained and the symbolic meanings of those images. By applying psychoanalytic theory to these symbolic meanings, Freud may have discovered the sources of the patient's current challenges.

Fantasies may come from the id, the pleasure-seeking part of the personality. Freud was often particularly interested in sexual fantasies. Current psychoanalysis therapists may still ask about dreams and help you find the meaning of them in your life. They may talk about sexual fantasies as well, but only as they are important in your life.

While Freud assumed that every word and every behavior had a meaning, most modern psychoanalysis therapists believe this is only true part of the time. If you have a simple slip of the tongue, your therapist will not typically pursue its meaning unless it seems to be part of a larger pattern.

Objections To Psychoanalysis Theory And Therapy

Psychoanalysis can be criticized because some believe it puts too much emphasis on the unconscious mind. Countless clinical observations suggest that conscious feelings, desires, thoughts, and experiences can affect a person’s beliefs and behaviors as well. So far, there has been little empirical evidence to support theories otherwise because the human mind tends to be far too ambiguous and complex to define with such simple techniques as free association, dream analysis, and slips of the tongue.

One case study, in particular, pointed out another potential problem with Freud’s theory and approach. According to research, psychoanalysis can focus too heavily on childhood events and the psychological effects thereof. Furthermore, the practice seldom follows standard scientific protocol and rarely accounts for factors such as familial bonds, inborn impairments, autonomous functions, or post-oedipal development.

Psychoanalysis criticism often comes from psychologists outside of the psychoanalysis school of thought. They often complain that psychoanalysis can be too rigid and focuses too strongly on sex. Further, its sexual theories can be considered quite sexist in their definitions, as well as their proposed treatments. Others suggest that science may not back up many of Freud's assertions. However, psychoanalysis has generally changed considerably since it began. 

Benefits Of Online Therapy

If you are uncomfortable seeking therapy, you may want to consider online therapy. The idea of exploring your psyche can often be intimidating, but the qualified experts at BetterHelp may guide you through the process, so you can start to understand more about yourself. You can match with a licensed therapist who incorporates principles of psychoanalysis into their approach and switch professionals as needed until you find one who meets your needs and preferences.

Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

According to a 2022 study, an online psychodynamic therapy intervention was typically just as effective as its face-to-face counterpart. In general, both online therapy and in-person therapy can be valid options for those interested in seeking professional help with their mental health.

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Sigmund Freud is typically viewed as the father and founder of psychoanalysis, which can be defined as a particular type of talk therapy that may have started in the late 1800s. It usually places emphasis on dreams, childhood experiences, and the unconscious mind. Psychoanalysis can be used to address a variety of mental health concerns, and you may try it for yourself by connecting with a licensed mental health professional online or in person.

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