How Does Freudian Therapy Work?

By: Jon Jaehnig

Updated March 08, 2020

You've probably heard of psychotherapy, also called "psychoanalysis" and "Freudian therapy." Some people talk about Freud in tones of the deepest respect and admiration. Others believe he and his theories deserve a little less respect. Whatever you may have heard, Freud is most popularly considered to be the father of psychoanalysis, and many of his methods are still used today.In this article, we'll take a look at who Freud was, what he accomplished, and what Freudian therapy is and how it works.


Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud wasn't the first psychologist by any means, but he may have been considered to be one of the first modern therapists. In fact, by trade, he was a neurologist. Coming into his own in the late nineteenth century, at Freud's time, most psychologists were interested in understanding the mind more than in curing it. Freud was revolutionary in actually trying to help his patients, but he is also very much a product of his time. That's one explanation for why his approach to therapy is fairly cold and detached by later, modern standards.Freud approached psychology with a more pathological view than most psychologists today, but he also helped to make psychology into the "soft science" that is today.

The Ego, The Superego, and the Id

Freud is largely known for his personality theory that the personality is composed of three different parts - the superego, the ego, and the id. The id is an animalistic instinct that controls all of our most primal urges. The superego is the source of all of our moral ideals - the ego compromises, or mediates, between the two.

Perhaps more significant than the theory itself was the concept of splitting the personality. The same idea would come into play in the later identity theory of Carl Rogers. It would also be influential to later Freudian Psychologists like Carl Jung, who we will discuss a little later.

The id isn't bad or wrong; it's just filled with childlike impulses that do not consider consequences or planning. As a result, we need to learn to control the id to live in society appropriately.


The Subconscious Mind

Freud's greatest contribution to psychology is the idea of the subconscious mind. According to Freud, there is the conscious mind, which is what we use to do things like make decisions. There is also the subconscious mind, which we are not aware of but which influences the conscious mind. The conscious mind grows and changes with us, but the subconscious mind is formed primarily during early childhood.

The subconscious mind was Freud's most influential contribution to psychology and would later play a role in the development of cognitive and developmental psychology. The subconscious has also been linked to what is called the "monkey mind" in mindfulness therapy. However, the subconscious was also one of Freud's most inflammatorily ideas. The generation that followed Freud would see the idea of that all of our thoughts and actions are determined by an almost-inaccessible inner mind formed during childhood as too deterministic for their liking. These thinkers would found what is called "humanistic psychology" largely in response to Freud.

If Freud believed that the subconscious was entirely inaccessible, however, we wouldn't have Freudian Psychology.Freud believed that understanding and completely controlling the conscious mind required understanding the subconscious mind. Accessing the subconscious mind is difficult, according to Freud, but not impossible. Helping the patient to understand the subconscious mind was largely the goal of Freudian Psychology. This could largely be done by interpreting how the individual interpreted the world both waking and sleeping.


Early on, Freud used hypnosis to try to access the subconscious of his patients.This may sound laughable now, largely because hypnosis is heavily dramatized and parodied in media. However, the basic biological idea of hypnosis is widely accepted. Basically, it simply means that individuals can lose track of their surroundings if their surroundings are overly monotonous. This can even happen while you are doing a boring job, or driving along an empty stretch of road.

Freud and early psychologists - as well as some psychologists today - would utilize this kind of hypnosis to put their patients into an altered state of consciousness. When the patient was in this altered state of consciousness, they were more in touch with their subconscious mind. When the patient returned to their regular state of conscious, the patient and the therapist would discuss responses that the patient gave to the therapist's questions while hypnotized.Freud would largely replace hypnotism in his practice in his lifetime.


Free Association

When Freud replaced hypnotism in his practice, he replaced it largely with what he called "free association" - another practice still sometimes used by psychotherapists.

The simplest form of free association is word association. In fact, it's so simple; you may have done it as a party game. In word association, the therapist gives the word, and the client is asked to state the first word that they come up with. The idea is that if the two words aren't obviously connected, they may be connected using a relationship on the subconscious rather than the conscious level. Trying to determine this relationship can then help the therapist and the patient to understand the patient's subconscious.

Another common form of free association is the Rorschach test. Developed by Hermann Rorschach, a contemporary of Freud, this is like a word association test but using a series of ten images. The therapist shows the slides, the patient says what they see, and they go from there. Again, the underlying idea is that if a connection is not obvious on the conscious level, it must be obvious on the subconscious level.

The Freudians and Dreams

Freud was also the first modern psychologist to take a serious interest in dreams. Freud believed that dreams were another window into the subconscious but that they had a language of their own. Learning about what the subconscious has to say through dreams requires learning to speak that language.

Much of that language was deciphered not by Freud but by his student, colleague, future rival, and later successor Carl Jung. Jung studied dreams and broke them down into recurring themes and symbols. He didn't believe that dreams can predict the future, but he did believe that they could be used to understand and guide our actions.

Jung noticed that many of the dream themes and elements that he identified had the same meaning and significance to people regardless of what culture they were raised in. Jung called these themes and elements "archetypes."

This lead to his theory of the "collective unconscious." Even deeper than Freud's idea of the subconscious but similar to Freud's idea of the id, Jung's idea of the collective unconscious is even less accessible and impossible to change. Where the subconscious is unique to the individual and forms during childhood, the collective unconscious is the same for all of us and is genetically inherited.

While the unconscious can't be changed, it can be learned from through psychotherapy practices like dream interpretation.


As a result of Freud and Jung's work, dream interpretation has since become largely mainstream. There are all kinds of "dream dictionaries" online and in print to help the layman interpret dreams. Definitions may vary very slightly from source to source, but most of them are largely the same because of their common roots in Jung's work.

For More Information and Treatment

A lot of Freud's ideas are widely accessible cheaply or for free online. Freudian therapy, however, requires a therapist. Sometimes, talking to a therapist near you isn't an option, or isn't the best option. If you think that this is the case for you, you may want to consider meeting with a therapist or counselor online.

One option for meeting with qualified and licensed professional therapists and counselors online is right here on BetterHelp. In addition to providing educational articles like this one, BetterHelp improves access to therapy by connecting users to hundreds of qualified, licensed professional therapists and counselors over the internet. If you think that you could benefit from talking to a therapist or counselor online, visit

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