The problem with psychoanalysis is that it defies easy definition. We start with Freud who privileged a segmented mind at war with itself, and move through more than 100 years of theory and practice to arrive at the present.
Today, psychoanalysis is a very broadly practiced treatment modality. At its most cutting edge, Freud’s main paradigm of inquiry, in which the clinician investigates the unconscious of the patient, has been replaced with an emphasis on mutual recognition in the clinical setting. The emphasis is on how two minds interact, and inquiry is into the nature of the relating. Questions pertaining to longing, to states of mind, to what one mind “knows” about the other mind . . . these inform and shape the process of psychoanalytic treatment today. The idea is that we live in a world in which we are constantly relating with ourselves and with others—sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worst—but our relating style follows us into the clinical setting and becomes the starting point for understanding self and other.
Psychoanalysis uses a particular term to encompass “relating.” The term is transference. In broadest terms, transference refers to the entire frame of our relating style—from the assumptions that contribute to our emotional stance, to our hopes for the outcome, to our views of self and other. These assumptions, hopes, and views of self and other—these are the frequently obscured, often mysterious parts of our mental life that exert enormous influence on who we are, how we feel about ourselves, and how we behave. Quite frankly, these are the building blocks the self and lie a the core of our relating and relationships.
And so, psychoanalysis is, today, an endeavor that privileges the self in context by recognizing that everything we feel, wonder about, do, and want to do—everything—takes place within a context of others and is meaningful in revealing and understanding the whole of mental life and its extensive influence on living and relating.
What’s the connection between suffering or being in psychic pain, and the work of psychoanalysis? How does the endeavor of psychoanalytic inquiry help heal and resolve dysfunction? Some have written that the fact alone of being deeply understood is, in itself, curative. I do believe this is part of the picture. Indeed, the experience of being understood is central to sustaining a consolidated self. When we feel understood, we feel right. We feel capable and empowered. We feel connected to our authentic selves. We feel healthy and able to function.
And conversely, when we don’t feel understood, we feel depleted and undermined. Failures in understanding cause relational ruptures and conflict. They promote dysfunction in thinking and in behaving.
But let’s be clear. Understanding and being understood is complex. Psychoanalytic understanding seeks to get at the silent longings and vague pressures from parts of the self that lie hidden in the wings. Psychoanalytic understanding seeks to give voice to the unspoken, possibly unknown parts of the self that have remained out of view, dismissed, silenced or felt to be unwelcomed.
The work of psychoanalysis is to embracing this broadest view of self in the ongoing work of understanding and relating. In doing so, the relationship with the analyst itself becomes central because it is where all the necessary relating takes place—the relating that comes alive in order to be understood and affirmed. And, indeed, the analytic relationship is complex. If you’ve even been in therapy you may have been aware of a host of feelings for your analyst. At times, you may have felt positive; at other, negative. In my view, the best work takes place at this juncture, where feelings, self-states, longings and defensive positions—these are all legitimized, welcomed, and ultimately, understood.