What is Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy?

Psychoanalytic psychotherapy is a process that takes place in a relationship between psychotherapist and client, working in depth together to explore the client’s distress. It is based on the understanding that memories and feelings that were too painful for the person to bear in the past were repressed into the unconscious where they continue to exert a powerful but hidden influence on the person’s current life. One of the ways we become aware of this phenomenon in our lives is when, to our dismay, we discover that we have been repeating over and over again patterns of relationships or life choices that we belatedly recognize were destined to bring us pain. In therapy, the client is enabled to access and understand these hidden influences, and thus hopefully do something about this repetition.

In practice, psychoanalytic psychotherapy takes the form of the client talking, encouraged by the psychotherapist to say whatever comes to mind. As this happens, the client becomes more able to acknowledge and express feelings and ideas that have been deeply buried. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy enables the client to recover parts of him/herself and experiences that have become split-off from conscious awareness. As these split-off parts of the self are available for experiencing and reflection, they can be re-integrated. New levels of insight into one’s way of being and functioning in the world develop and over time a new structure or meaning can emerge out of the joint task that is the therapy.

The therapeutic environment leads to the development of a particular relationship with the psychotherapist. Feelings that have their origins in the closest relationships of the client’s past are reawakened and become vividly alive in the present. These feelings then become available for working through to a better resolution this time around.

Dreams are important in this form of therapy. It was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who spoke of dreams as the ‘royal road to the unconscious’. Dreams and what they bring to mind often reveal forgotten or disowned experiences in unexpected ways. Freud, his contemporary Jung, and many psychoanalytic writers since then have delved deep into the world of the dream and provided ways of understanding what might be happening in the ‘mysterious theatre of the mind’.