Psychoanalytic therapy is a form of psychotherapy rooted in the idea that all people are motivated by unconscious desires, thoughts, emotions, and memories. Also known as psychodynamic psychotherapy, psychoanalytic therapy is based on the theory of psychoanalysis.
The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis in the late 19th century.2
Today, psychoanalytic therapists help people uncover their unconscious feelings and memories, identify negative patterns of thinking and behavior, and overcome past traumas.3
In this article, learn about psychoanalytic therapy, including history, techniques, and benefits.
What Is Psychoanalytic Theory?
Psychoanalytic therapy evolved out of the theory of psychoanalysis, which Freud developed in the 1890s. Some of the core beliefs within psychoanalysis include:
- All people are influenced in their thinking and behavior by their “dynamic unconscious,” or the collection of thoughts, memories, and feelings of which they are not aware.
- People develop defense mechanisms in response to unconscious thoughts, desires, or emotions that would make them feel anxiety or shame if they came to the surface. Defense mechanisms could include denial, destructive thinking patterns, repression, and more.
- Mental health conditions result from a conflict between the subconscious mind and a person’s conscious beliefs. The mind often seeks to develop a “compromise” for these competing desires and goals.
Many of Freud’s ideas about mental health have since been widely debated, disputed, and refuted. However, the core tenets of psychoanalysis remain highly influential in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.
How It Works
According to the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA), the goal of psychoanalytic therapy is to identify patterns of thinking and behavior that cause emotional distress.3
Usually, this involves working with a therapist one on one multiple times per week to make unconscious drives and defenses conscious and to reconcile these.
Through in-depth conversations and other therapeutic techniques, psychodynamic psychotherapists help their patients to analyze, confront, and heal from the past in order to achieve greater well-being in the future.
What It Can Help With
Psychoanalytic therapy can help with anything in your life that causes emotional distress or impairs your daily functioning. It can also be used to treat certain mental health conditions, such as depression and some anxiety disorders.
By gaining a greater understanding of your underlying motivations and fears, you may be able to address conflicts in your relationships and resolve problems at work or school. Confronting the thoughts and emotions you normally avoid under the guidance of a psychotherapist may help you to address your issues head-on.
Psychoanalytic therapy usually involves free-flowing, in-depth conversations in one-on-one sessions with a trained therapist. Psychoanalytic therapists also use techniques like transference analysis, dream analysis, interpretation, and free association to help patients identify self-defeating patterns.
The therapist-patient relationship is highly important in psychoanalytic therapy.
Transference refers to the idea that the patient’s feelings and behaviors toward their therapist can provide insight into their childhood experiences with caregivers and authority figures. In turn, countertransference refers to the therapist’s unconscious feelings and thoughts about the patient.
Psychoanalytic therapists analyze these patterns to gain insight into their patient’s past experiences and unconscious mind.
Psychoanalytic theory holds that many thoughts, memories, drives, and emotions that remain outside of conscious awareness show up in dreams and fantasies.5 Psychoanalytic therapists often analyze recurring symbols and imagery from their patients’ dreams to discover key themes and patterns that may emerge.7
Interpretation refers to the process through which a psychoanalytic therapist pieces various observations about their patient’s conscious and unconscious behavior into a cohesive narrative. This may include interpretations of body language, emotional expressions, and other forms of verbal and nonverbal communication.
While other forms of psychotherapy often involve controlled, targeted discussions with clear goals in mind, psychoanalytic therapy is deliberately more free flowing.
Developed by Freud, free association is a psychoanalytic technique that involves encouraging the patient to talk openly about whatever is on their mind in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. This open-ended approach is believed to help unconscious thoughts, fears, shame, and motivations come to light.
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