What Psychoanalysis Is And How It Started

By Nadia Khan|Updated August 4, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Psychoanalysis has been around for over a century. Students still study psychoanalytic theory, and psychoanalysts currently practice a modern version of it. Many people who could benefit from this type of therapy have only a foggy notion of what it is. Exploring what psychoanalysis is and how it started may lead you to discover a helpful way of dealing with your problems and conflicts.

What Is Psychoanalysis?

The word "psychoanalysis" brings up several associations for most people. We picture someone lying on a couch, talking to a bearded doctor. We might imagine talking about our dreams. We might think of the infamous Freudian slip. These images and words from novels, movies, and TV do little to explain what psychoanalysis is.

Definition of Psychoanalysis

To define psychoanalysis, we can begin with a brief description. Psychoanalysis is a type of talk therapy for people with mild to moderate chronic emotional and mental issues. It is based on psychoanalytic therapy and theory. It's only properly used for individual therapy.

Psychoanalysis Allows A Person The Chance to Delve Into Their Childhood.

A complete psychoanalysis definition comprises both a complex therapy and a style of therapy for mental disorders. To properly define psychoanalysis theory, we must cover topics as diverse as personality, conscious and unconscious thought, childhood events, and repression of memories, to name a few.

A psychoanalysis psychology definition includes common techniques and examples of psychoanalysis, both as they were at the start and as they are in the 21st century. It's best to go beyond the brief, one-paragraph psychoanalysis definition psychology dictionaries might list if you want to truly understand the complete psychoanalysis meaning.

Psychoanalysis vs. Psychodynamic Therapy

Freudian psychoanalysis is the basis of psychodynamic therapy. The difference is that Freud's theory of psychoanalysis was the starting point, and psychodynamic therapy includes theories and techniques from all the psychoanalysts who followed in his footsteps. Psychodynamic therapy is briefer than 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 are 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.
  • Dealing with procedural difficulties, such as resolving transference neurosis, and uncovering and resolving basic emotional conflicts.

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

Types of Issues Addressed

Most common emotional/mental problems can be addressed with psychoanalysis. Issues treated in psychoanalysis therapy include:

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

Who Is the Father of Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis refers to the personality theory and therapeutic practices developed by Sigmund Freud beginning in the 1890s. For this reason, Freud has been called both the founder of psychoanalysis and the father of psychoanalysis.

The Freudian theory of psychoanalysis grew throughout Freud's lifetime and continued to develop over the years as new psychoanalysts built on or from his work. Traditional psychoanalysis has diminished in popularity to some extent. However, some psychoanalysts still practice it, and many more practice therapies based on it.

Freudian Psychoanalysis Theory

For Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis theory started within 1885 as Freud was trying to put together a method for patients who suffered from neurosis or hysteria disorder. The field existed before Freud, but it was not well-known or widely used. Freud's work is 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.

Freud received a grant to study with Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist who introduced hypnotism for hysteria and several other disorders. From this beginning, Freud developed his vast system of theories, which he named 'psychoanalysis' in 1896.

Components of Psychoanalysis Theory

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


The topographical system recognizes the conscious, unconscious, and preconscious parts of the mental process. Modern psychoanalysis notes the historical significance of the topographical system, but it's rarely used now except to explain how the mind works.


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


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


Structural psychoanalysis theory is the part of psychoanalysis that deals with Freud's threefold personality theory of id, ego, and superego.


Freud considered genetic factors; however, these were not his focus. He was more concerned with childhood events.


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


The adaptive view is concerned with the way the person interacts with the outside world.

Conscious vs. Unconscious vs. Preconscious

Freud began developing the psychoanalysis theory with ideas about consciousness. He identified three states of awareness:


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

Psychoanalysis Allows A Person The Chance to Delve Into Their Childhood.

Psychoanalysis Allows A Person The Chance to Delve Into Their Childhood


The unconscious mind is the part of your mind where thoughts are completely hidden from you. You aren't aware of them at the moment, and you can't call those memories up easily. One of the most important goals of psychoanalysis is to bring those buried thoughts and emotions out into the light of the conscious mind.


In the preconscious level of thought, you aren't aware of thoughts at the current moment. However preconscious thoughts are easy to access through a simple suggestion, question, or reminder. Much of therapy happens as you bring preconscious thoughts to consciousness. However, accessing unconscious thoughts is more difficult but can also be more beneficial in overcoming a mental problem.


Freud's theory of personality identifies three facets of the psyche. The id, ego, and superego are 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 is confusion and mental disorder.


The id is the part of the personality that's based on instinctual drives. The id seeks pleasure in all things. Sometimes, the things the id desires can be destructive, such as drugs or promiscuous sex. Other times, the desires of the id are beneficial since they prompt us to reach for the basic pleasures in life that we can enjoy in the here and now. A person who leans toward the id most often may have problems with impulse control.


The superego is the part 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 most often may be a very moral person. They may be lacking in the enjoyment of pleasures.


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

The Significance of Childhood Events

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

Repression vs. Expression

In psychoanalysis, when you're repressing memories, it means you are holding them hidden from your conscious mind. You may need help accessing these memories and bringing them into consciousness. Then, when you express your thoughts and feelings about those memories, they may lose power over your current well-being.

Resistance and Defense Mechanisms

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

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

What Is Transference Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis transference is a specific defense mechanism that comes into play during therapy. The patient directs 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 an unconscious mental process and can have either negative or positive effects.

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 were symbolic of hidden desires and inner conflicts.

Most people have heard of the 'Freudian slip.' This happens when you 'accidentally' say something you didn't intend to say, such as substituting one word for another. According to Freud, all behavior is relevant, whether you intended to do it or not.

Resolving Conflicts Between Conscious and Unconscious

Psychoanalytic therapy is designed to resolve internal conflicts once they've been brought to light. Because conflict is confusing, resolving it allows 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.

Who Developed Psychoanalysis After Freud?

After Freud, psychoanalysis has continued to develop, even in current times. Several therapists contributed to post-Freudian psychoanalysis theory, and devised new treatments to help people through psychoanalysis. The following psychoanalysts added to or altered the directions of psychoanalysis.


Jung worked closely with Sigmund Freud for many years. Later, he split from Freud as he became more interested in universal themes. One of these themes is the collective unconscious, which Jung identified as the part of the unconscious mind that is shared by all humans and comes from ancestral memories. Jungian psychoanalysis focuses on understanding these universal sources of conflict.

Anna Freud

Anna Freud, the youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud, followed in her father's footsteps, first becoming a psychoanalyst, then a theorist, and finally, the Honorary President of the International Psychoanalytical Association. She worked extensively with children.

Ego Psychology: Hartmann, Loewenstein, and Kris

Hartmann, Loewenstein and Kris wrote several papers discussing what they called 'ego psychology.' This type of psychology comes from Freud's structural theory. It deals with how the id, ego, and superego manage internal conflicts as well as conflicts with the external world.

Object Constancy: Frosch

Frosch contributed to psychoanalysis in several ways. One of his theories is that of object constancy. Frosch saw this as the child's developing ability to visualize absent people, especially an absent mother when they were away. Frosch believed it was this mental image that allowed the child to feel safe and secure even when the person the child trusted to take care of them and tell them what to do was gone.

Conflict Theory: Brenner

Brenner expanded conflict theory beyond Freud's early conception of it. Brenner's theory used Freud's structural theory of conscious, unconscious, and preconscious, as well as his topographical theory of id, ego, and superego. The conflict was between the drive for pleasure from the id, which was largely unconscious, and avoidance of the unpleasant punishments of the superego. To resolve this conflict, Brenner devised psychoanalysis treatments that took this conflict into account.

Object Relations: Volkan

Volkan was also a psychoanalyst/theorist. His primary contribution was the field of object relations, a part of which was Frosch's theory of object permanence. Object relations theory states that we are driven to form relationships with those close to us when we are children. It also says that if we don't, we will suffer later in life.

Theory of Self: Kohut

Kohut's Self Psychology theory addressed a quality Kohut thought was lacking in psychoanalytic theory. That missing ingredient, he thought, was empathy within the therapeutic relationship. Empathy has become vital of modern psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Kohut also stated that narcissism is healthy to a certain point.

Psychoanalysis Allows A Person The Chance to Delve Into Their Childhood.

Mirrors: Lacan

Lacan contributed several psychoanalysis concepts. Lacanian psychoanalysis started with this psychoanalyst's description of 'mirroring' as a method of therapy. Lacan psychoanalysis includes reference to three orders of mental processes: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real.

Relational Psychoanalysis: Mitchell

Mitchell contributed her relational psychoanalysis concepts. She sought to meld psychoanalysis theory with feminism. She built on the work of Lacan and re-envisioned Freud's theories on sexuality.

Interpersonal Psychoanalysis: Sullivan

Sullivan combined psychoanalysis theory with social psychology theory to create a new school of psychoanalysis called interpersonal psychoanalysis. Sullivan worked more with schizophrenic patients than most other psychoanalysts did before him and developed new treatments for them.

Modern Psychoanalysis: Spotnitz

Spotnitz pioneered psychotherapy with people with schizophrenia based on the model of psychoanalysis. He called his new school 'Modern Psychoanalysis.' Spotnitz focused his work on the treatment of narcissistic disorders. The goal of modern psychoanalysis is to direct anger and hostility outwards, but in a productive, harmless way.

Psychoanalysis Techniques

With all the contributors to psychoanalytic theory, most psychoanalysts use many of the same therapy techniques. The following are some of the most widely used.

Why Do Patients Lie on a Couch?

Most people are familiar with the image of a patient lying on a couch in psychoanalysis psychology settings. This started with Freud, who contended that memories came to the conscious mind more easily when the patient was reclined. Not all psychoanalysts work this way, however. Many work face-to-face, and may even communicate with their patient through online platforms or written messages.

Role of the Psychoanalyst

Sigmund Freud psychoanalysis techniques required the psychoanalyst to say as little as possible. Their role at that time was simply to provide instructions, ask questions, and provide occasional interpretations.

The psychoanalysis technique of transference has been another part of the therapeutic process. Freud talked about transference, too, but about its power to help the patient deal with their problems. In more recent times, the psychoanalyst has also encouraged transference to help the patient not only discover their inner conflicts and desires but also to deal with their feelings about them.

What Is the Therapeutic Alliance?

The therapeutic alliance is a kind of partnership formed between the psychoanalyst and the patient. Within this relationship, both psychoanalyst and patient work together to recognize and understand sources of conflict. The therapist contributes their expertise, while the patient does the hard work of facing difficult thoughts, emotions, and realities.

Free Association

A central therapeutic technique of psychoanalysis is free association. Freud used free association often. This is a technique that employs the mental process that happens when we associate one word or image with another. One way therapists use this technique is by saying a word and asking the patient what they think of when they hear it.

Instructions, Exploration, and Clarification

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

Analyzing Dreams, Fantasies, and Unconscious Thoughts

An important component of psychoanalysis is the interpretation of dreams. Freud spent a lot of time talking to patients about their dreams. He 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 discovered sources of the patient's current problems.

Fantasies come from the id, that pleasure-seeking part of the personality. Freud was particularly interested in sexual fantasies.

Current psychoanalysis therapists may still ask about dreams, and help you find the meaning of them for 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 won't typically pursue its meaning unless it seems to be part of a larger pattern.

Psychoanalysis Tests

Several different types of psychoanalysis test instruments have been devised and can be found online. One is a Freudian personality test to find out if you're fixated on one of Freud's stages of development. Jung's theory of personality can be tested using the Myers-Briggs personality test.

Objections to Psychoanalysis Theory and Therapy

Psychoanalysis criticism often comes from psychologists outside of the psychoanalysis school of thought. They often complain that psychoanalysis is 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 just doesn't back up many of Freud's assertions. However, psychoanalysis has changed considerably since it began. More recently, many of these perhaps false assertions have been corrected.

Why do many sociologists object to psychoanalysis as a valid explanation of human behavior? A part of the reason is the concept that knowledge can't know itself. In other words, you can't look within yourself to find all the answers to the ways you relate to the world. Some of that knowledge must come from the outside. Another related reason is that humans tend to define concepts and relationships based on their social interactions.

Is Psychoanalysis Right for You?

Psychoanalysis is an interesting topic in the history of psychology. It may be beneficial for you if you are a person who struggles with chronic life problems. How do you know if it's right for you? Here are two important aspects to consider.

Do You Have the Abilities Needed for Psychoanalysis Therapy?

Psychoanalysis is extremely helpful for some people. Others prefer other types of therapy. The first thing you need to figure out is whether you have the abilities you need to engage in psychoanalysis. Ask yourself the following questions before you decide.

  • Can you engage in therapy with your psychoanalyst?
  • Do you have at least average intelligence?
  • Do you have a basic understanding of psychology?
  • Can you tolerate frustration and painful emotions?
  • Can you tell the difference between fantasy and reality?

If you answered yes to these questions, psychoanalysis might be a good choice for you. Now ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you struggling with addictions?
  • Do you tend to be aggressive?
  • Do you have problems with impulse control?
  • Are you in an acute crisis?

If you answered these questions with a yes, you might be better served to choose a different type of therapy.

Will Psychoanalysis Meet Your Needs?

Of course, the most important thing to know is whether psychoanalysis will do what you need it to do for you. The best way to find out is to spend a short amount of time sharing your goals for treatment with a psychoanalyst. Then, ask them how they would help you. With that information in mind, you can decide whether to continue, or find a therapist with a different specialty.

Exploring Psychotherapy With BetterHelp

Research shows that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy in forming a positive relationship between a therapist and patient. In a study published in BMC Psychiatry, researchers found that internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was successful in treating symptoms related to trauma in patients, and also helped foster a strong therapeutic alliance. Specifically, participants reported feeling strong feelings of trust between their therapists and themselves. This type of solid therapeutic alliance is a major predictor of the efficacy of treatment, pointing to online therapy as a useful alternative to face-to-face therapy. 

If you are uncomfortable seeking therapy, you may want to consider online therapy. With BetterHelp’s online therapy platform, you will have the option of remaining completely anonymous. The idea of exploring your psyche can often be intimidating, but the qualified experts at BetterHelp know how to guide you through the process, so you can start to understand more about yourself. Read below for reviews of counselors, from those who have worked with BetterHelp’s licensed therapists.

Counselor Reviews

“My experience with Tiara and BetterHelp has been so beneficial for me. Tiara is a great listener, and great at remembering details. She asks questions that get me to think about things in a different way, helps me learn and understand new skills I can practice, and encourages me find solutions to my problems. I feel that I have grown so much with her help and guidance.”


“I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate Tim. He has helped guide me through the most traumatic time of my life. Every session gives me something new to chew on or some sort of new peace of mind. I often recommend BetterHelp when folks ask me about therapy. Tim, thank you.”


Psychoanalytic therapy continues to evolve as a field, and is still a widely used way of helping people manage a wide range of emotions. If you are interested in further exploring your psyche, take the first step today.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
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.