Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Gifford
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 5th October 2021 | Next update due 4th October 2024

Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic process focusing on an individual's unconscious and deep-rooted thoughts. Based on the assumption that we all have unconscious thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories, psychoanalysis works with the idea that our current behaviour, thoughts and feelings are directly influenced by our childhood and past experiences.

Over time, these can become repressed, and may manifest themselves as depression or other negative symptoms. It is only through having a cathartic (healing) experience that you can move forward.

What is psychoanalysis?

Defined as a set of therapeutic techniques and psychological theories, psychoanalysis was developed by leading psychotherapist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis therapy is widely used to help people recognise and understand how unconscious factors may affect their relationships and patterns of behaviour. Through techniques such as free association and dream analysis, individuals can learn how to interpret deeply buried, complex memories or experiences that may cause distress and prevent them from living life to the fullest.

Ultimately, psychoanalysis aims to foster deep-seated change and emotional development - particularly in those who experience limiting psychological disorders. Clients should see improvements in their mental and physical health, as well as their sense of well-being and their ability to manage their lives more effectively.

How does psychoanalysis work?

There are four basic tenets (key ideas) that guide psychoanalysis therapy. These are:

  • Psychological problems are rooted in the unconscious mind.
  • Symptoms that are showing are the result of hidden issues.
  • Unresolved issues or repressed trauma are typical causes of issues.
  • Treatment is designed to bring the repressed conflict into consciousness. This allows you to make the necessary changes to overcome them.

It is thought that by bringing your unconscious into conscious awareness, you can find relief from psychological distress.

Psychoanalysis relies heavily on other factors, including a strong relationship between you and your therapist. As with many talking therapies, a psychoanalyst must provide a private, confidential setting in which you can foster a trusting, authentic relationship together. Your therapist should convey both insight and emotional understanding. This helps to ensure that they offer a non-judgemental, supportive stance throughout the entire process.

The relationship you have with your therapist will help with one of the core processes of psychoanalysis, "transference". Transference takes place when you freely talk about your feelings and thoughts towards important people in your life. Through doing this, you are essentially living out your unconscious dynamics through the connection with your therapist.

As you begin to gradually uncover what difficulties you are experiencing and underlying issues, your therapist can help you to clarify these. This enables you to refine, correct, reject, or add further thoughts and feelings. Together with your therapist, you will analyse these insights, thereby creating a real-time sense of the client's unconscious dynamics. Eventually, you will be able to start changing negative patterns and removing any limiting behaviours. 

How long does psychoanalysis take?

Typically delivered long-term (over 12 sessions), psychoanalysis requires time and commitment to see lasting results. The longer time frame sets psychoanalysis apart from psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies. These two branches of counselling share similarities in approach but are generally delivered short-term. 

An intense form of therapy that requires commitment from everyone involved, individuals are typically required to attend regular sessions for years (though this will depend on your individual needs and personal circumstances). Through having regular sessions together, this should allow more in-depth exploration and interpretation of unconscious patterns. 

What methods are used in psychoanalysis? 

Many different techniques are used throughout psychoanalysis sessions. This enables you and your therapist to make sense of deeply buried memories and experiences that come up during therapy. Although free association (where you speak freely about any topic you feel comfortable with) tends to come first, all techniques used are an important part of fostering change and development.

Dream analysis 

Freud believed that all people learn through myths, jokes, fairytales, poems and linguistic languages - all of which feature symbols that are also present in our dreams. In psychoanalysis, dream analysis involves the interpretation of these symbols to help us understand the unconscious mind and indicate any areas of trouble that need to be investigated. For example, you may be asked to recall any recurring or traumatic dreams that you have, so your therapist can identify specific areas of concern.

Dream analysis is a technique based on Freud’s idea that our dreams are a disguised way of fulfilling a wish. This disguise is thought to be caused by repression, which is caused by our past experiences. Going beyond simply analysing the content of dreams, while Freud didn’t explore the cross-culture different significances of dreams, therapists using this method will often be flexible in their interpretation. 

Word association 

Typically used during the early stages of psychoanalysis therapy, word association (also known as free association) involves the therapist giving a stimulus word, which you reply with the first thing that comes to mind. This allows your unconscious thoughts to enter your conscious, which helps prepare for further investigation later on in therapy. 

Projective tests 

In some cases, psychoanalysts will present clients with a series of abstract images and will invite them to explain what they see, or create a story based on the images. Freud believed this technique allows the unconscious to become conscious - helping you to unlock your inner thoughts and desires. A common projective test used in psychoanalysis today is the blot test. Invented by Hermann Rorschach in 1928 this involves 10 specially-designed inkblot images. 

Freudian slips (para praxes)

Freud believed unconscious thoughts and feelings could transfer to the conscious mind through para praxes - minor slips of the tongue or pen. These 'Freudian slips' (as they are commonly known) can reveal your real thoughts and motivations - often those which are consciously suppressed as a result of past experiences and/or memories. Psychoanalysts take the view that every slip is significant and can reveal something important, so they keep a close watch for these during therapy. 

Should I try psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis is a highly individualised therapy. It can help to treat a range of psychological disorders and self-destructive patterns of behaviour that may be impacting your quality of life. It does, however, tend to be more beneficial for someone who - no matter how incapacitated at the time - is potentially a sturdy individual. This person may have already secured important life satisfactions such as a good career and healthy relationships, but is nonetheless greatly troubled by long-standing symptoms and problems. These may include depression, anxiety, sexual issues, personality disorders or physical symptoms that do not have any demonstrable underlying cause. 

This type of therapy can help those of all ages, and can even benefit those who are just curious to know a bit more about themselves and how their mind works. Essentially, it is for people who have concerns that interfere with the way they want to live their lives. Psychoanalysis allows them to address their internal conflicts and increase self-understanding and freedom from latent thoughts and patterns of behaviour that are limiting life satisfaction.

While psychoanalysis can help with a broad range of issues, it can be particularly helpful for those experiencing depression or some anxiety disorders. If you are looking for a quick solution, it may not be the right option for you.

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