Sigmund Freud, 1926

The Unconscious

It was Breuer, the mentor of Feud, who first discovered that people cannot always put their thoughts and feelings into words, as if sometimes, they don’t know why they think and feel the way they do. With some help from Breuer, patients were able to put into words memories or ideas that were unconscious, and this seemed to help them.

Breuer and Freud believed that this was a major breakthrough to help people deal with their problems, and Freud explored this method himself with his patients in the early 1880-1890s.

The mechanism by which people put this sort of thing into the unconscious is the repression, which was also part of the way Freud made people aware of their actions.

Rather than repressing things, Freud encouraged his patients to acknowledge what they thought and felt and try to deal with these problems. Repression was maybe not very structured in those times and was often described by Freud as the way people managed to hide away thoughts rather than deal with them and acknowledge them.


After a while, some problems appeared. Patients seemed to develop all sorts of love-hate relationships with the therapist, and this was making progress difficult during therapy. “Anna O” for instance, one of Breuer’s patients, fell in love with him and this scared him off.

Afterward, she did the same with Freud. But Freud realized that it was not his good looking that caused Anna to fall in love with him, but a process later termed as transference.

Although Freud had believed for many years that the “royal road to unconsciousness” is the study of dreams, we now know that the process of transference is very, very important. Transference occurs not only in therapy but throughout daily life.

People have an internal frame for perceiving the world, and wherever they go, they use this frame to relate to others. It’s like if they saw the world through a special pair of glasses. This frame is often rooted in the early relationships with parents, and it is through this frame that people come to understand love, hate, other interactions, and even themselves.

For the therapist, this is important because he can use it in therapy. He can study the transferred relationship in “here and now” and thus have a first seat view in the patient’s reference frame and relationships with his parents.

Maybe many of us would have folded when seeing that therapy somehow turned against ourselves, and patients were feeling worse then they did before. But don’t have to give up and must-see trouble as an opportunity, turn it around and make it useful. This is a lesson for all of us, in all of our difficulties.

Id, Ego, and Superego

Angel protecting the child from the demon

After dealing with transference, things were going well for Freud and his patients, until problems appeared again around 1914s.

His patients managed to access various unconscious material, seemed better for a while, but afterward got much worse. Freud tried again to find out what happened and discovered the structure of the mind in terms of “Id”, “Ego” and “Superego”.

He discovered this very powerful force inside ourselves, that sometimes worked against what we wanted and made us feel worthless, depressed, or anxious. Freud discovered that when he helped patients understand the role and power of the Superego in regulating their actions and emotions, they were able to cope better with their emotions.

It is also important to realize that much of our personality is developmental: the clash between two forces, the intensity of our instincts, and how these instincts are dealt with (starting from the early childhood).

The instinctual forces vary from child to child, and there are babies that are more “relaxed” and tolerate frustration easier.

However, there are also babies that get terribly fussy about the smallest problem. How parents deal with this becomes important (according to Freud) later in life. If parents become angry with the child, then the child may have difficulties handling his own emotions and actions in society later.

He may become more aggressive, submissive, or depressed than others, and so on. Freud also studied the development of instincts and worked on the stages of development in life and sexuality, which are often ridiculed or trivialized (oral phase, anal phase, etc…).

Unfinished business

Sigmund and Anna Freud

The most basic idea of Freud’s psychoanalysis was the discovery of the unconscious content that may surface in unwanted ways (unexplained emotions or irrational actions) and how to help patients deal with it.

It is clear that dealing with unconscious content involves structuring this content as per Id/Ego/Superego, but it is not very clear how people are helped to deal with and get over it, rather than repress these parts.

Maybe this is why his daughter, Anna Freud, went further into the study of the defenses, which are actually the repression mechanisms discussed above (by the way, defenses are not all bad. Sometimes though, they work against ourselves, and maybe these are the mechanisms that help the patient deal with difficult matters in his life).

And maybe this is why Freud was followed by many therapists who developed his theories and changed them, increasingly making them more pragmatic and simple.

Freud’s theories are still used today in therapy, but not alone, and are often used to support thought and behavior change through an active effort by patients (rather than talk).

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