What is Psychoanalysis

What is Psychoanalysis
Written By: Counselling Psychologist
M.Sc. Psychology - Swansea University, UK.
Reviewed By: Counselling Psychologist
MA Psychology Pennsylvania State University, USA
Last Updated: 31-03-2023

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Psychoanalysis is one of the most widely known psychotherapeutic approaches. It is based on the conceptual framework provided by Sigmund Freud. Freud, originally a trained neurologist, developed the psychoanalytical theory for personality development. According to the psychoanalytical perspective, innate urges (like sexual drives) dictate one’s behavior, which is largely unconscious processes. These unconscious processes are, therefore, important enough to be explored in therapy to resolve distress. Thus, psychoanalysis has a three-pronged approach; relieve a client from psychological issues and problem states, provide a comprehensive theoretical framework about the structure of the human mind, and lay the foundation for in-depth psychological investigation. The entire mechanism of psychoanalysis, therefore, aims at a deeper evaluation of a client’s psyche that can continue well beyond the issues they came into therapy for.

Conceptual Framework of Psychoanalysis:

Drive and Instincts: Freud suggested two drive theories. His first theory suggested that every individual has self-preservative drives (like breathing, eating, and drinking, for example) and species-preservative drives (sexuality). The psychic energy from sexual drives is called libido. According to Freud, libido is associated with all life instincts and purposely seeks pleasure and avoids pain He later added another set of drives to this framework with life (eros) and death drives (Thanatos). These two instincts often work in tandem. For example, playing sports provides an acceptable expression of physical aggression in order to win a prize.

Levels of consciousness: Freud described three levels of consciousness: the conscious (sensations a person is aware of), pre-conscious (memories of events that can be easily retrieved from memory), and unconscious (Memories posing a threat to the conscious and therefore, have been suppressed. Bringing the unconscious in contact with the conscious is an imperative part of psychoanalysis as Freud believed that this awareness can help clients gain better insight into their needs and desires. For example, slips of the tongue represented the veiled wishes of an individual that could be the cause of conflicts being experienced. So, a man who calls out this former girlfriend’s name while actually trying to address his wife is perhaps going through some conflict in his personal life that is causing distress.

Theory of Personality: This theory suggests that personality has three parts; id, ego, and superego. The Id represents the physiological urges, needs, and drives of an individual that demand instant gratification. Superego is the moral compass of an individual’s personality directing on what to do and what not to do. Both the id and superego pose significant demands on the ego (the reality-oriented structure of personality). These forces are dynamic in their work and influence individual personalities. Conflicts between them can result in three types of anxiety to arise:

Reality anxiety: Experiencing a mugging incident is an example of suffering through anxiety that is based on reality. 
Neurotic anxiety: This form of anxiety occurs when an individual feels unsure about their ability to control their instinct (id) and fears doing something deserving of punishment or criticism.
Moral anxiety: Moral anxiety occurs when a person feels they have violated certain standards (superego) set in society or by authority figures. 

Defense Mechanisms: When dealing with anxiety or duress, the ego devises strategies to cope. These strategies are called defense mechanisms.

A psychoanalyst analyses the healthy and unhealthy defense mechanisms used by a client and brings them to awareness to help the client to develop adaptive strategies.

Psychoanalysis allows individuals to bring about effective change in personality structures. A general framework of goals in psychoanalysis focuses on:

  • Helping an individual understand the mechanism of their unconscious and the way it is influencing their conscious processing.
  • Providing a supportive framework for the functioning of the ego
  • Promoting better self-understanding
  • Promoting healthier and positive relationships

Modern Psychoanalysis

Traditional methodologies related to psychoanalysis as envisioned by Freud, have gone through gradual changes. Many of these variations were ushered by the students of Freud. Jungian Therapy given by Carl Jung is one such example. Jungian therapy focuses on making people aware of their strengths and integrating the conscious & unconscious to achieve individuation.  

Alfred Adler was also influenced by his early association with Freud and later went on to give an independent form of therapy with Adlerian therapy. This therapy is based on Adler’s view of considering people as unified organisms and the importance of societal interaction in their lives. The goals of this therapy include helping change self-defeating behaviors and increase social interest.

Thus, psychoanalytical concepts have found their way into different kinds of therapies. For example, In their modern adaptation, psychoanalytical modalities have been applied to various clinical disorders such as childhood anxiety, depression, and personality issues. With strong evidence base on its side, psychoanalysis is a strong and well-established school of thought and psychotherapy. Get in touch with HopeQure and get online counseling




1.Sharf, R. (2012). Theories of psychotherapy and counselling-Concepts and cases. Belmont, CA:Brooks/Cole

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