What is Psychoanalysis?
(adapted from the American Psychoanalytic Association)
Psychoanalysis began more than a century ago when Sigmund Freud, the first Psychoanalyst, introduced his insights into the human mind to the world. These ideas, which seemed so revolutionary at the turn of the 19th century, are now widely accepted by most schools of psychological thought. Although others before and during his time had begun to recognize the role of unconscious mental activity, Freud was the preeminent pioneer in understanding its importance. Through his extensive work with patients and through his theory building, he showed that factors which influence thought and action exist outside of awareness, that unconscious conflict plays a part in determining both normal and abnormal behavior, and that the past shapes the present. Although his ideas met with antagonism and resistance, Freud believed deeply in the value of his discoveries and rarely simplified or exaggerated them for the sake of popular acceptance. He saw that those who sought to change themselves or others must face realistic difficulties. But he also showed us that, while the dark and blind forces in human nature sometimes seem overwhelming, psychological understanding, by enlarging the realm of reason and responsibility, can make a substantial difference to troubled individuals and even to civilization as a whole.
Like any other field of inquiry, the ideas of psychoanalysis did not “freeze” with the work of the field’s founder a century ago. Building on the foundational ideas and ideals of Freud and his contemporaries, psychoanalysis has continued to grow and develop as a general theory of human mental functioning, while always maintaining a profound respect for the uniqueness of each individual life. Ferment, change, and new ideas have enriched the field, and psychoanalytic practice has adapted and expanded. But psychoanalysts today still appreciate the persistent power of the irrational in shaping or limiting human lives, and they therefore remain skeptical of the quick cure, the deceptively easy answer, the trendy or sensationalistic.
There are currently diverse approaches to treatment within psychoanalysis, yet these approaches all share the aim of helping patients bring to their consciousness what is unconscious or difficult to acknowledge. Unconscious occurrences may include, for example, an individual’s vulnerabilities, motives, tensions, impulses, guilt, fantasies, or urges. One of the goals of psychoanalysis is to help the patient develop insight into his/her unconscious processes. Psychoanalysis encourages us to search for personal truthfulness and focuses specifically on the irrational dimensions of our mental life, as it applies rational procedures to achieve its goals.
Although psychoanalysis began as a tool for ameliorating emotional suffering, it is not only a therapy. It is, in addition, a method for learning about the mind, and also a theory, a way of understanding the processes of normal everyday mental functioning and the stages of normal development from infancy to old age. Furthermore, since psychoanalysis seeks to explain how the human mind works, it contributes insight into whatever the human mind produces. In so doing, it has had a profound influence on many aspects of 21st century culture. While always acknowledging the uniqueness of the individual, and the infinite variation of human experience, psychoanalysis has, over the decades, developed a set of useful understandings about common human psychological experiences.
As a general theory of individual human behavior and experience, psychoanalytic ideas enrich and are enriched by the study of the biological and social sciences, group behavior, history, philosophy, art, and literature. As a developmental theory, psychoanalysis contributes to child psychology, education, law, and family studies. Through its examination of the complex relationship between body and mind, psychoanalysis also furthers our understanding of the role of emotions in health as well as in medical illness.
In addition, psychoanalytic knowledge is the basis of all other dynamic approaches to therapy. Whatever the modifications, the insights of psychoanalysis form the underpinnings of much of the psychotherapy employed in most other individual, family, and group therapies.