Psychoanalytic therapy

Written by Ellen Lees
Ellen Lees
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 27th February 2024 | Next update due 26th February 2027

Psychoanalytic therapy is a form of talking therapy based on the theories of Sigmund Freud. Considered one of the forefathers of psychology, Freud is the founder of psychoanalysis. The approach explores how the unconscious mind influences thoughts and behaviours, with the aim of offering insight and resolution to the person seeking therapy.

What is psychoanalytic therapy?

Psychoanalytic therapy typically looks at the client’s experiences of early childhood, to see if any events have had a particular impact on their life, or contributed in some way to current concerns. This form of therapy is considered a long-term choice, and sessions can continue for weeks, months or even years, depending on the depth of the concern being explored.

Jeremy Sachs (BA Hons, Dip.Couns) integrative psychotherapist and counsellor, explains more about the approach and how to find the right therapist for you.

How does psychoanalytic therapy work? 

Psychoanalytic therapy is insight-driven and therefore looks to foster change by helping you understand your past and how events from your early life could be affecting you now. Sessions will vary according to why you are seeking therapy, and where you are in the therapy journey, but much of the time will be spent talking freely to your therapist in a safe, non-judgemental environment.

The therapist will listen to your concerns and look out for patterns or certain events that may hold significance. In this type of therapy, it is believed that our unconscious feelings and certain childhood events play a key role in mental distress.

As well as listening to you talk about your experiences and your concerns, the therapist may use other techniques to help you understand and identify potential causes for your concerns, such as free association, therapeutic transference and interpretation.

Free association

Free association involves talking about whatever comes into your mind without censoring or editing the flow of memories or ideas. Your therapist will encourage you to speak freely to help you return to an earlier emotional state, so they can better understand any recurrent patterns of conflict you may be experiencing.

Therapeutic transference

Transference relates to the way you may be transferring thoughts or feelings connected to influential figures in your life (for example your parents or siblings) onto your therapist. While this may not happen in every case, if it does, your therapist should discuss transference with you to help you gain further insight into the way you deal with people in your daily life.


A key element of psychoanalytic therapy is interpreting and 'reading between the lines'. While your therapist is likely to stay relatively quiet and allow you to talk freely, they may occasionally interject with thoughts or interpretations of the topics you discuss. They may also ask you about your dreams; Freud wrote a lot on the subject of dream analysis and believed that dreams were important resources for understanding the unconscious.

Freud created an 'archaeological' theory of the mind. Imagine it like layers in the earth. On the top sits the conscious, that which we can see and observe. Under this is the subconscious, which we can only partially see. At the bottom is the unconscious, which we cannot see. Psychoanalysis aims to uncover what is in the unconscious, using techniques like free association, where the client says whatever comes to mind, regardless of coherence or content.

- Psychotherapist - Mary-Claire Wilson (UKCP Reg, MBACP) in ‘How is psychodynamic counselling different to psychoanalysis?

Applications of psychoanalytic therapy

Psychoanalytic therapy can be used by those with a specific emotional concern, as well as those who simply want to explore themselves. Understanding why we are the way we are often brings with it a sense of well-being and a strong sense of self. As psychoanalytic therapy is considered one of the more long-term therapy types, it is perhaps less useful for those seeking quick, solution-focused therapies. Psychoanalytic therapy is a gradual process that takes time, yet the results are said to be life-changing.

Some believe that due to the nature of therapy, psychoanalytic work is better suited to more general concerns such as anxiety, relationship difficulties, sexual issues or low self-esteem. Phobias, social shyness and difficulties sleeping are further examples of areas that may be effectively managed with the help of psychoanalytic therapy.

Psychoanalytic therapy can also be applied in a group setting. This is called group analysis. This form of therapy brings together psychoanalytic techniques with interpersonal functions.

What type of counselling is right for me?

You may not know what type of therapy is best for you. It takes time and research, and what works for one person, may not work for someone else. You can learn more about the different types of therapy through reading, sharing experiences with others, or talking to your doctor or counsellor.

When searching for a counsellor, be sure to ask questions. If they work with a certain therapeutic technique, they can explain this to you, including the process behind the therapy and its benefits. You may have an initial consultation, where after you have discussed your concerns and why you are seeking therapy, the therapist may suggest a different approach.

Remember that it takes time. If one type of therapy doesn’t work for you, speak to your counsellor or therapist and together, you can come up with a solution.

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