What Is Psychoanalysis? Understanding Psychoanalytic Theory And Its Use In Therapy

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychoanalysis is a type of talk therapy pioneered by Sigmund Freud that focuses on the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind, It emphasizes the significance of childhood events and dreams as well as the role of defense mechanisms and repressed feelings in influencing current behavior and psychological issues.

Here, we will cover the basic tenets of Freudian theory and explore how those theories tie into modern talk therapy approaches. With a firm understanding of these concepts, you can better grasp the rationale behind psychoanalytic therapy and appreciate how it seeks to resolve deeply rooted psychological issues.

What is psychoanalytic therapy?

Psychoanalytic therapy, sometimes referred to simply as psychoanalysis, is a type of talk therapy based on the principles of psychoanalytic theory. This therapy delves into how unconscious thoughts and feelings rooted in early life experiences influence current behavior and relationships.

Developed in the late 19th century, psychoanalytic therapy was one of the first systematic approaches to treating mental illness. The goal of psychoanalysis is to understand the unconscious processes and conflicts that may be influencing one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Freud suggested that our early experiences, such as parental relationships, childhood trauma, and early sexual development, may shape our personalities and contribute to psychological difficulties in adulthood.

Often, the painful emotions that may have occurred as a result of these experiences may exist beyond conscious awareness. As such, the goal of psychoanalytic therapy is to uncover these repressed memories and resolve the conflicts that may be influencing current behavior and mental health.

Though researchers and clinicians have since developed numerous other therapeutic techniques and clinical approaches, psychoanalytic principles are still commonly used by mental health professionals.

Psychoanalysis can be used to address a variety of common psychological problems, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Psychosomatic disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • Sexual challenges
  • Depression
  • Generalized anxiety
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Identity and self-esteem challenges

Freud's psychoanalytic theory: The basis of psychodynamic therapy

Freudian psychoanalysis is the basis of psychodynamic therapy. It can be helpful to think of Freud's theories as the starting point, while psychodynamic therapy usually includes theories and techniques from other psychologists who followed in his footsteps. These include Carl Jung, whose analytical psychology introduced concepts like the collective unconscious and archetypes; Alfred Adler, known for his emphasis on individual psychology and the importance of feelings of inferiority; and Melanie Klein, notable for her work in object relations theory.

Sigmund Freud began developing psychoanalytic theory as a framework for understanding the human mind and behavior. Freudian psychology views mental processes from several distinct perspectives: topographical, dynamic, economic, structural, genetic, developmental, and adaptational.

  • Topographical Model: The topographical system recognizes 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.
  • Dynamic Model: This refers to the interaction of forces within the psyche, especially between the id, ego, and superego. It emphasizes the role of internal conflicts and their impact on behavior and mental states.
  • Economic Model: This aspect of the theory deals with the distribution and flow of psychic energy, particularly libidinal energy, within the mind.
  • Structural: This is the well-known division of the psyche into the id, ego, and superego each with distinct functions and characteristics.
  • Developmental Model: This refers to Freud's stages of psychosexual development (oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages), which he thought to play a role in the formation of personality and psychological issues.
  • Adaptive: The adaptive view is concerned with the way a person interacts with the outside world and maintains equilibrium.

Psychoanalysis gives you a chance to explore your childhood.
Understanding Freud’s theories of consciousness

Freud’s ideas about consciousness serve as the basis of psychoanalytic theory. He identified three types of consciousness:

  • Conscious: The conscious mind can be understood as the part of your mind that you can access without any prompting. It remains at the front of your awareness, where you thoughtfully and rationally interact with the world around you and make decisions.
  • Unconscious: The unconscious mind refers to the mental processes that you are unaware of. 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.
  • Preconscious: Preconsciousness refers to the thoughts, feelings, and memories that are not currently in conscious awareness but can easily be accessed. It's like a mental waiting room, where information is available when needed.

Personality: Id, ego, superego

Freud's theory of personality typically identifies three facets of the psyche. The id, ego, and superego When they are in adaptive balance, you may find it easier to function effectively and maintain good mental health. If they are in conflict, however, mental disorders may be more likely to develop.

Id

The id is the part of the personality based on instinctual drives. The id seeks pleasure and immediate gratification of desires, needs, and impulses, often disregarding rules, social conventions, or the needs of others. It is the most primitive part of our personality, present from birth. A person who leans toward the id may experience challenges with impulse control.

Ego

The ego mediates between the desires of the id and the moral constraints of the superego. It is responsible for rational thinking and problem-solving. As the executive part of personality, psychodynamic therapy often focuses on empowering the ego to deal more effectively with life’s complexities.

Superego

The superego represents one’s moral conscience. It develops through the internalization of ideas of right and wrong that are instilled by family and culture. The superego strives to control the impulses of the id, particularly those that are socially unacceptable. Psychodynamic therapy can help reduce feelings of guilt or self-criticism that the superego might impose.

The significance of memories and childhood events

According to psychoanalytic theory, repressed childhood events can represent significant hurdles to mental well-being. Memories of painful, traumatic, and confusing events can be uncovered in therapy, potentially allowing you to understand the source of current mental health challenges and make conscious decisions about how to cope with them.

Repression vs. expression

Repressing memories hide them from consciousness while expressing them—such as through therapy—reduces their psychological impact.

Resistance and defense mechanisms

Psychological defense mechanisms, such as denial or transference, help protect against distressing thoughts. However, they can also hinder emotional growth and self-awareness. Psychodynamic therapy aims to gently dismantle these protective barriers, allowing for healthier coping strategies and greater insight into one's behavior and feelings.

Dreams and unintentional behaviors

Dreams and slips of the tongue (sometimes referred to as “Freudian slips”) can reveal hidden conflicts and desires, serving as valuable therapeutic tools in understanding the unconscious.

Psychoanalysis techniques

Psychoanalysis involves a number of techniques aimed at uncovering and interpreting hidden aspects of the psyche. Free association encourages clients to share thoughts and feelings without inhibition, while dream analysis interprets symbolic content, revealing hidden desires and conflicts. Psychoanalytic therapists may also explore transference dynamics and patterns of resistance to help clients bring repressed thoughts and feelings to conscious awareness.

Objections to psychoanalysis theory and therapy

Psychoanalysis is often criticized for its high degree of emphasis on the unconscious mind, which some argue lacks empirical support. Critics also point to its heavy focus on sexual and aggressive drives and early childhood experiences as overly deterministic. Furthermore, the subjective nature of its methods, like dream interpretation, makes it difficult to validate or replicate findings scientifically. These aspects have led to debates about its efficacy and relevance in modern psychology, with some viewing it as outdated compared to more evidence-based therapies.

Empirical support for psychodynamic therapy

Psychoanalytic therapy has evolved significantly since it was first developed by Freud, and current research has found it to be an effective form of psychotherapy. One meta-analysis found that participants showed significant improvements in symptoms and personality traits after psychoanalysis, both at the end of treatment and at follow-up.

While it may be challenging to find therapists who solely offer psychoanalysis, many incorporate psychoanalytic principles with other types of evidence-based therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. You can find psychodynamic therapists either in-person or online; research has found online psychodynamic interventions to be just as effective as its face-to-face counterparts.


Teletherapy may be preferential for those with busy schedules who may find it challenging to attend in-person appointments. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp offer a convenient way to attend therapy from home, as well as access to a diverse pool of therapists specializing in your preferred form of therapy, including psychodynamic therapy.

Psychoanalysis gives you a chance to explore your childhood.

Takeaway

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory emphasizes the role of childhood experiences and the unconscious mind on mental well-being. 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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