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The Understanding of Psychoanalysis and Its Application in Contemporary Practice

The Understanding of Psychoanalysis and Its Application in Contemporary Practice

Psychoanalysis bases its views on the understanding that human beings are mostly unaware of the mental processes that determine their thoughts, feelings and behavior. The understanding of psychoanalysis can be used to assuage psychological suffering by making the individual aware of those processes. Psychologists have further improved Freud’s theory and psychoanalysis techniques to address contemporary practice issues.

Theory of Psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud)

According to Boeree, Freud believed that the human personality entails three states of mind: the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious. The conscious mind is aware of the affairs currently taking place. The preconscious mind has information from the conscious and the unconscious, while the unconscious mind hides information or forgotten memories.

Freud stated that the human personality entails the id, ego and superego. The id works in the unconscious mind and has basic human instincts. Its motivation is the pleasure principle which tends to guide it from painful experiences. The id does not have regard for right or wrong; in other words, it does not consider morality but is rather impulsive. This part is already present at birth. The ego develops after the id and works in conscious and preconscious minds. The pleasure principle guides the ego, and it works to satisfy an organism’s present needs realistically. Mostly, the superego fully develops at around 7 years of age. The superego works on the morality principle, guiding organisms to act according to societal ethics.

Application of Psychoanalysis

Experts apply psychoanalysis in a wide array of fields that involve mental processes. This is because of the possible avenues opened by understanding human differences concerning what brings them about and how psychoanalysis can alleviate the undesired factors and propagate the desired ones. Some of them include skills and techniques, communication, basic problem-solving, and ethnic diversity in order to establish and use the helping relationship.

Skills and Techniques

A good example of how this theory can be implemented in the helping process can be derived from the practice of psychoanalysis as a specialty of clinical social work. According to the American Board of Examiners, this practice involves providing patients with mental and emotional healthcare services. Skilled persons trained in psychoanalysis apply their knowledge in treating patients with disorders associated with disturbances in thought processes and behavior. The main objective of psychoanalysts is to bring elements of the unconscious mind into the awareness of the patient. This process is conducted to allow for the examination of a patient and obtain information to solve the problem.

There are various techniques for applying psychoanalysis in psychotherapy; one is behavior modification. The main aim of this technique is to eliminate undesired habits and replace them with desired ones through positive reinforcement. The psychoanalyst develops diverse ways of “rewarding” positive behavior while introducing “punishment” for negative behavior. At first, the patient learns to engage in positive behavior because of the rewards. After a while, the patient becomes accustomed to engaging in positive behavior; in other words, it becomes reinforced.

Another technique is systematic desensitization, where therapists expose patients to an object or event they fear to help them overcome it. For instance, a person whom dogs have attacked can be helped in overcoming his or her fears by gradually teaching them how to interact with a dog. At first, it may start with visualization; then, it moves to interact with a dummy and, eventually, introduce a real dog. Another technique is relaxation, which teaches patients to overcome fear and anxiety through deep breathing and muscle relaxation.

Free association as a technique refers to the practice in which the patient speaks out his or her thoughts freely without any censorship from the counselor. Dream analysis is when the patient tells the counselor of their dreams. The counselor then interprets and communicates the underlying meaning of dreams.

Therapists have successfully employed psychoanalytic psychotherapy to help individuals with mental and/or mental disorders in various circumstances. One example is its application to help war veterans overcome their traumatic experiences and lead normal life. Another application refers to the family setting, where couple therapy helps individuals resolve conflicts with personal differences affecting their marriage.


People can use psychoanalysis to provide an understanding of the communication process. Based on Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan developed the Lacanian psychoanalytical approach that provides an understanding of communicative activity. Lacan proposed that people go through three registers before they become part of society. They are the real register, the imaginary register and the symbolic register.

The real register is the basic structure in an individual’s psyche: a pure need, the object of anxiety. The imaginary register occurs through the mirror stage, where a child develops a sense of self or the ideal ego. The child perceives his or her mirror image as whole and organized instead of lacking coordination. This leads to a rivalry between the child and the mirror image. Eventually, the child identifies with the image leading to the formation of the ego. The symbolic register signifies learning culture using languages that use words to represent real objects.

Basic Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is the active process of finding a solution to some unknown phenomenon. Scientists have tried and proved that it is a strategy. At the beginning of a problem-solving session between a patient and his or her counselor, the counselor provides solutions to the patient’s problems. In therapy, the counselor provides the patient with ways of solving problems independently using prior experiences.

Regarding psychoanalysis, problem-solving is one of the aspects of information processing. According to Rychlak, it is the “search and selection of pathways from one state to another, e.g., moving from unknown to known’ unfamiliar to familiar, plan to goal, and so forth”. The working of the memory registers an event or experience during everyday information processing. The memory then interprets and stores the event’s interpretation in its working. In order to determine the nature and significance of the event or experience, psychotherapists compare it with earlier experiences stored in the working memory.

This process of interpreting occurrences based on past experiences stored in long-term memory is what constitutes problem-solving. This process largely takes place in the subconscious mind. This explains why an individual may need to be aware of how certain events (idiosyncratic constructs) influence their thoughts. The working of psychoanalysis bases its views on the ideology of bringing the idiosyncratic constructs to the patient’s awareness, thus, providing a platform for their examination and, if necessary, modification. Psychotherapists have successfully applied the understanding of the problem-solving mechanism through idiosyncratic constructs in treating various disorders like psychosis, schizophrenia and hysteria.

Ethnic Diversity

As compared to earlier decades, the demographic composition of many countries has significantly changed. Most nations, especially the industrialized ones, currently consist of people from diverse ethnicities. This can be attributed to less strict immigration rules and a reduction in cases of discrimination against immigrants. Immigrants have brought with them different cultural values, beliefs and practices. Consequently, cultural diversity has complicated the process of integration and the application of therapeutic treatment to racial minority groups.

Ethnic and cultural differences can make a patient resistant to psychotherapeutic treatment. This happens when therapists disregard the sensitive issues related to their patient’s cultural backgrounds. This can be attributed to the fear of stereotyping or generalization, which results in the fear that leads to disconnection between individuals. Principles of Freudian psychoanalysis help counselors discern behaviors arising from individual psycho-pathology and cultural influences.

Establishing and Using the Helping Relationship

Psychoanalysis aims to establish a healing relationship between a counselor and his or her patient. The counselor establishes the helping relationship by providing the patient with an environment of safety and acceptance. The client becomes free to explore the difficult past experiences, gains insight into them and works to solve the vague issues. The counselor acts as an expert who provides the patient with guidance and interprets issues that need to be clarified to him or her.

The counselor uses his or her expertise to help the patient bring forth what is in the unconscious state of mind to the conscious one. The counselor then helps the patient to identify the stage at which events started unfolding or the point at which he or she stagnated. After examining the idiosyncratic constructs and resolving the vague issues, the counselor then helps the patient adjust to the demands that led to the problem at hand. Some factors that can lead to mental disturbances include demanding work, intimacy issues or societal expectations.

Origin and Principles of the Theory

The origin of the psychoanalytic theory is credited to Freud’s mentor Dr. Joseph Breuer and his patient Anna O. Anna was taking care of her sick father when she started developing illnesses. It started with a cough, then went to speech difficulties that led to her becoming mute. After her father’s death, she developed further disorders such as refusing to eat, failing to feel her limbs and paralysis, among other ailments.

Anna later started experiencing hallucinations and mood swings, eventually leading her to severally attempt suicide. In the evenings, she descended into trancelike states where she would give details of her hallucinations and feel better after talking about the experiences. During these sessions, the therapist connected the emotional events she remembered to some symptoms.

Eleven years later, Sigmund Freud created a work on hysteria. Boeree states that Freud explained:

Every hysteria results from a traumatic experience that cannot be integrated into the person’s understanding of the world. The emotions appropriate to the trauma are not expressed in any direct fashion but do not simply evaporate: They express themselves in behaviors that are in a weak, vague way and offer a response to the trauma. These symptoms are, in other words, meaningful; when the client can be made aware of the meanings of his or her symptoms (through hypnosis, for example), then the unexpressed emotions are released and so no longer need to express themselves as symptoms. It is analogous to lancing a boil or draining an infection.

Anna was able to get rid of her symptoms with the help of Breuer. Thus, she was the patient, and Breuer was the counselor.

Assessment of Validity and Utility

Initially, the psychoanalytic theory needed better received, and Freud strived to prove its universal validity. Even though modern analysts have modified some of Freud’s ideas, his theory remains influential in clinical practice, humanities, and social sciences. Freud’s theory contributed to understanding the organization of the human mind and its processes.

Understanding the human mental processes led to his explanation of why humans behave differently in varying circumstances. How Freud dealt with human actions, dreams and the cultural aspects of humans as possessing implicit symbolic meaning have tremendously impacted various fields such as psychology and anthropology.

Factors that Influenced Freud’s Theory

Freud’s career in medicine, which began after his graduation from the University of Vienna, was his greatest influence. He undertook research in cerebral palsy and neurophysiology. His greatest influence was when he studied under Charcot, a renowned psychiatrist in Paris. Freud also had the opportunity to study with Charcot’s rival, Bernheim. Both of them were investigating the role of hypnosis in hysterics. Freud’s association with Breuer in Vienna is crucial since the latter, and his patient Anna laid the foundation for the psychoanalytic theory.


Even though Freud did not originally come up with the idea of the conscious and unconscious mind, his reasoning made it popular. Understanding the mental processes in the conscious and subconscious mind has provided invaluable insight into why humans behave differently in various circumstances. It has particularly had an invaluable impact on developing various techniques and skills essential in psychotherapeutic procedures. The psychoanalytic theory has also played a prominent part in explaining how people can employ basic problem-solving skills to unravel the causes of mental disturbances and ways to overcome them. The above facts about the theory justify its choice for implementing the helping process.

📎 References:

1. American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work. (2004). The Practice of Psychoanalysis: A Specialty of Clinical Social Work. Salem, MA: American Board of Examiners.
2. Boeree, G. C. (2006). Personality theories: Sigmund Freud. Retrieved 14 Nov., 2012 from https://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/freud.html.
3. Miller, J. (1986). Extimité. In M. Bracher, M. W. Alcorn Jnr, R. J. Corthell, & F. Massardier-Kenney (Eds.), Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure and Society (pp. 74-87). New York: NYU Press.
4. Parker, I. (1997). Psychoanalytic culture: Psychoanalytic discourse in Western society. London: Sage.
5. Rychlak, J. (1973). Introduction to personality and psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.