Psychoanalytic Therapy: Is it legit?

Sigmund Freud is one of the most popular names in the field of psychology today, and with good reason. He was the creator of the theory of psychoanalysis, which eventually led to the successful approach of psychoanalytic therapy—a therapy focusing on how factors of the unconscious mind influence thoughts and behavior. Psychoanalytic therapy helps us discover what lies beneath the surface of our conscious desires.  

Psychoanalytic Therapy: Is it legit?
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The History of Psychoanalytic Therapy

To understand psychoanalytic therapy, you must first learn its history. Sigmund Freud was a world renown neurologist and psychologist from Vienna, Austria. Working alongside his colleague, Dr. Josef Breuer, he was inspired by the fact that a patient’s physical symptoms improved after recovering her memories of past trauma. From this, Freud proposed the psychoanalytic theory of personality in 1836.

Freud determined that the mind consists of (3) regions: the Ego (conscious), the Id (preconscious), and the Superego (unconscious). The psychoanalytic theory is based on the premise that human behavior results from the interaction of the mind’s components.

What is Psychoanalytic Therapy?

Psychoanalytic therapy is a form of talk therapy which relies on psychoanalysis theories to determine both conscious and unconscious underlying experiences and how they contribute to emotional problems. Harvard medical school defines the practice as an attempt to gain insight into an individual’s inner world. Frequently, the childhood traumas and thinking patterns are explored in psychoanalytic therapy. It received its name because the patient talks about their experiences freely while the therapist actively listens.  

What is Psychoanalytic Therapy Used For?

Psychoanalytic therapy is used to treat a number of mental disorders and emotional difficulties. The therapy is a particularly effective modality to the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Panic
  • Phobic disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Low self-esteem
  • Personality disorders
  • Relationship problems
  • Sexual problems

Even previously assume “untreatable” disorders respond to psychoanalytic therapy. A study documented in the journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research (2000) treated two groups of patients with personality disorders like borderline personality. The group that received psychoanalytic therapy for two years demonstrated greater improvements than the group that had inconsistent psychotherapy.

Psychoanalytic Therapy Techniques: Dream Analysis

Dream analysis is one of the many psychoanalytic techniques. Interpreting dreams investigates the desires of the unconscious that lead to unwanted behavior and emotional problems. According to Freud, dreams are comprised of two components: the manifested content, which is what we remember of the dream upon waking, and the latent content, which are dreams we do not remember. We fulfill unconscious desires through dreams. Analyzing the latent content of dreams gives a glimpse into the unconscious and allows a better understanding of the individual.

Psychoanalytic Therapy: Is it legit?
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Psychoanalytic Therapy Techniques: Free Association

In psychoanalytic therapy, the client and therapist explore dreams, experiences, and emotions through a technique known as free association. Free association is integral to the psychoanalytic process, as it entails freely sharing thoughts aloud as they enter your mind.  This includes even irrelevant thoughts. The purpose of free association in psychoanalytic therapy is to uncover repressed emotions. Although seemingly unimportant, sharing all thought regardless of their relevancy may reveal unconfronted troubles buried below consciousness. Experts refer to free association as a stream of consciousness. Originally, the method of free association had little probing from the therapist, but modern in day psychoanalytic therapy, the therapist does offer instruction.

Psychoanalytic Therapy Techniques: Inkblot

The inkblot test is derived from the work of Hermann Rorschach in 1921. The tests entails viewing a series of ambiguous images that appear as ink or paint. Some of the inkblot images are gray, while others have color. None of the ten images have a specific meaning.

The inkblot test is a subjective experience, as answers vary depending on the unconscious connections of the viewer. Inkblots can be interpreted as an animal, people, or other forms. In psychoanalytic therapy, the interpretation of the inkblot is indicative  of mental or personality disorders related to unresolved and unconscious childhood traumas. Inkblot test scores also correlate with intelligence levels.

Psychoanalytic Therapy Techniques: Resistance Analysis

The concept of resistance refers to someone’s resistance towards change that manifests as cognitive or behavioral. It prevents implementation of the changes needed for psychological progress. According to Freud, resistance arises when the unconscious attempts to protect the ego from a threat.

Resistance analysis consists of analyzing the unconscious elements which impede free association during psychoanalytic therapy. Recognizing resistance to change is the first step in overcoming it. For example, it is important to confront resistance with a simple, nonjudgmental statement rather than fighting resistance with criticism. As reported in research studies, paradoxical intervention is the most effective at exploring resistance (Beutler, Moleiro & Talebi, 2002).. Through paradoxical intervention, the therapist supports the resistance—encouraging the client not to change—in order to correct their opposition.

Psychoanalytic Therapy Techniques: Transference

Transference is a type of resistance in psychoanalytic therapy in which the client projects their feelings for someone else onto their therapist. Transferrable emotions include love, anger and rage, or distrust. Transference may be positive, negative, and sexual. Regardless of the specific emotion, transference benefits the therapeutic outcome if the therapist utilizes the emotions to confront past traumas. Transference allows the client to express emotions they otherwise would not have.

  • Positive transference—The client projects positive (good) emotions onto their therapist. Positive transference benefits the therapy, as the client views the therapist as concerned, kind, and acting in their best interest.
  • Negative transference—The client projects negative (bad) emotions onto their therapist. This tends to temporarily hinder the therapeutic process until the therapist and client work through those emotions together.
  • Sexual transference—The client projects sexual, romantic and/or intimate feelings onto the therapist.

Psychoanalytic Therapy Techniques: Countertransference

Countertransference is the opposite of transference. Countertransference is when the psychologist projects their unconscious emotions onto their client. A psychoanalytic therapist who is engaging in countertransference shows signs of excessive self-disclosure  (i.e. sharing about their own life) or being overly involved in the issues of the client’s life that does not pertain to treatment.  

Unaddressed countertransference is harmful to the therapy. However, attending appropriately to countertransference does have positive effects. It provides the therapist with an opportunity to demonstrate empathy to relate to their clients’ experiences.

Psychoanalytic Therapy Techniques: Parapraxes

Parapraxes are Freudian slips or slips of the tongue. This is when someone mistakenly says the wrong word. For example, calling your significant other by the name of a previous partner. Freud believed that parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, reveal unconscious thoughts and desires. Psychoanalytic therapists pay close attention to supposed mistakes of their clients because these slips of the tongue have potential to lead to a productive therapy session. Aside from accidentally saying the wrong thing, mishearing a word, writing the incorrect word, and misreading a word are parapraxes too.

How Psychoanalytic Therapy Differs From Other Forms of Psychotherapy

Psychoanalytic therapy differs from other forms of psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Whereas psychoanalytic therapy focuses on the underlying causes for unwanted behaviors, other forms of psychotherapy place little emphasis on the unconscious motives. Instead, they are short term therapies and do not seek insight into the origin of the problem.


Beutler, L.E., Moleiro, C. & Talebi, H. (2002) Resistance in Psychotherapy: What Conclusions Are Supported by Research. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 207–217.

Gabbard G. O. (2000). Psychotherapy of personality disorders. The Journal of psychotherapy practice and research9(1), 1–6.

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