What is psychoanalysis, and what is its value today?

What is psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis is a particular way of thinking about ourselves, our lives and the world around us.

Psychoanalytic thinking places the study of the unconscious aspects of the mind as being central to our behaviour, thinking and our emotional experience. We might say that the role of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is to help reveal those unconscious aspects that are holding us back from fulfilling our potential. It also helps us to understand why we keep recreating the same patterns in our lives, and why we can sabotage or deprive ourselves of sustaining good moments in our lives.

One analogy that might help us make sense of the role of the unconscious is the individual who is kayaking down a river: The individual is paddling in a known direction, but unbeknownst is being pulled in a different direction by the underwater current of the river. This pull in a different direction from beneath may be sudden and violent, or conversely subtle, gradual and imperceptive.

As psychoanalytic thinkers and psychotherapists, we believe that the unconscious part of our mind holds more sway over our decision making and our everyday lives than we will ever truly come to realise. However, having some aspects of the unconscious revealed to us will mean we have a greater sense of agency, of choice, in our lives.

In terms of understanding what psychoanalysis is, we can view it in three separate contexts:

  1. As a theory of how the mind works, which helps us to make sense of how things are seen clinically.
  2. As a ‘Talking Therapy’ – helping us to gain an in-depth understanding based on experience.
  3. As a specific form of research via a process of discovery and hypothesis formulation. For example, close study of the individual (a single case study) as a helpful means of gaining insight into the general (the larger group).

Freud himself wrote of the fact that his work was just the beginning and that his ideas were there to be built upon and developed. We shall now look briefly at how contemporary psychoanalytic thinkers have developed and applied his initial, pioneering idea of the unconscious.

What is its value today?

Psychoanalysis and its founder Sigmund Freud have long been criticised as being outdated, culturally biased and misogynistic. There is certainly some grounds for this criticism, but modern day psychoanalytic thinking can be of huge value in helping us to understand key societal and global issues that affect each and every one of us.

A group of young people sitting on the ground.

A number of psychoanalytic thinkers, such as Frank Lowe and Fahkry Davids, use psychoanalytic thinking to help us understand what creates a ‘racist state of mind’, the role and formation of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and what obstructs individuals, groups and societies from thinking in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion around gender, sexuality and disability. These psychoanalytic authors talk of primitive, unconscious states of mind ruled by fear and anxiety, especially involving the topic of difference. It is difference that is a threat and needs to be attacked and nullified. Such authors also comment on the impact on development of being a minority group, and how identification with the majority can impede and impinge upon the development of a true self aligned with one’s own culture, gender, sexuality.

Similarly, the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas writes about the ‘Fascist State of Mind’, as opposed to the ‘Democratic State of Mind’. In a fascinating essay, Bollas – like Freud and Bion before him – argues that we all have an internal “dictatorship” aspect of our mind that we can get in touch with, and which at times can over-rule a more democratic state of mind. The latter can allow for different opinions, thinks beyond self-interest and can show remorse for its actions and take responsibility, allowing for a more creative form of repair. The oligarchical state of mind, by contrast, is self-serving, demanding attention and respect while making others responsible for all of the ills of the world. It creates a convenient reality which it demands all follow and adhere to. It rules on the basis of denial and disavowal of reality.

Bollas and Bion emphasise that we can all move in and out of such states of mind, but we can see the value to society of this psychoanalytic way of thinking. It helps us to make sense of key issues in the world today by uncovering the very unconscious processes that drive and fuel them. We recognise that psychoanalytic thinking is only one way of viewing the world of the individual and the world as a whole, but in discounting this way of thinking we may miss out on some important understanding – for example as to why it has taken so long to recognise that we are in a global climate crisis. Psychoanalytic thinking can help us understand how as individuals and as societies we have all used primitive, unconscious defence mechanisms to disavow responsibility and the reality that we are damaging, almost beyond repair, the very planet we rely on for our survival.

Psychoanalytic thinking is a unique but challenging way of understanding aspects of the mind in the individual and in the mind of groups, communities, societies. To choose to undertake a psychoanalytic course and/or a psychoanalytic training is to choose a different way of life for oneself and for those one works with.

Intrigued? Learn more.

Our Master’s degree, Psychoanalytic studies (M16), is the UK’s first psychoanalytic studies course with strong links in the British School of Psychoanalysis and the Tavistock model of infant and young child observation. 

Accredited by the British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC), The Tavistock adult psychoanalytic psychotherapy training (M1) course offers advanced psychoanalytic psychotherapy training within a specialist Mental Health Trust, preparing graduates for work in a wide variety of settings.

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