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What Is Psychoanalysis?

Laura D’Angelo: The Irrepressible Spirit of Psychoanalysis

I am a pretty impressive, freshly-minted psychoanalyst, or so I think, when I take my seat in one of the folding chairs ringing a massive room. Balancing a cup of coffee and a white binder, I am gung-ho to start training in a new model of trauma therapy to compliment my psychoanalytic know how. Some 40 psychotherapists – social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists – introduce themselves to the group. I note that I am the only psychoanalyst in the room, which I imagine makes me kind of a big deal. But when it’s my turn, my declaration that I have just graduated from an institute and am now a bonafide psychoanalyst is received not with wonderment and awe, but dead air, slow-nodding and some throat-clearing. Reality checks me later that afternoon when I find myself dodging bullets in a small process group of trainees.

“Unlike psychoanalysis,” the group leader sneers, “in this model, the therapist isn’t the expert who knows better than the client. We don’t make the client dependent on us by undermining their innate wisdom.” Her eyes dart at me, the slave-making know-it-all. I am the unsuspecting stand-in for psychoanalytic crimes against humanity. Her charges elicit some sniggers and a “penis envy” wisecrack.

I’m still reeling at lunch when a kind psychologist from Boston sits down next to me. She has either taken a liking to me or has taken pity on me. “You don’t seem like a psychoanalyst,” she says smiling. This is a compliment. “Thank you,” I say. My defense – snootiness – is now in tatters. She tells me about her friend who went to pieces before finally freeing herself from a sexual relationship with her psychoanalyst. This terrible transgression – that shatters too many kinds of sacred spaces – seems to confirm her belief that psychoanalysis is not only a scam but a perpetrator of evil.

A couple months later, the universe confronts me again. My son, Matthew, and I are standing in front of a bronze statue of Freud on the campus of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. A bubbly tour guide has led our throng of parents and rising high school seniors to the “Sit By Me” statue. I know that on Freud’s first and only trip to the United States, he lectured here, with his then pal, Carl Jung. When they pulled into New York Harbor, the story goes, Freud whispered to Jung, “They don’t realize we are bringing the plague.” It is a chilly day and through her fingerless glove our guide gestures to the supersized Freud. He’s sitting on a wall, with one hand on a cane and the other holding open a book of dreams. I’m hoping she’ll drop some inside gossip about the legendary couple that would have a nasty break up four years later. Were they already getting on each other’s nerves? Traveling with someone can do that. “This is Freud,” she says brightly. “He lectured at Clark in 1909. His ideas are really outdated but he embodies the Clark Spirit! And now let’s head over to the dining hall.” Perhaps with a tad too much volume I whisper to Matthew. “The Clark spirit? He was bringing the plague!” Keeping his eyes fixed ahead, Matthew moves away from me into the crowd, signaling that my power to embarrass him is still intact.

I guess I’m a little sensitive to the ways people dismiss psychoanalysis as harmful, irrelevant or even silly. This wretched image feels unbridgeable to the psychoanalysis that transformed my life. My own analyst, a loving and engaged woman, embodied the spirit of psychoanalysis. She joined me in making sense of my past so that I could fulfill my destiny. She gave me space to be with whatever arose inside. Even when I rattled on about a boss who was messing with me or used the better part of a session to insist on my rightness and blame my husband for our latest fight, I had her full attention. My analyst didn’t pathologize my emotional needs, she responded to them. She participated in my psychic drama, playing sordid roles like the neglectful caregiver. Her interpretations were sometimes brilliant and spot on, but those formulations didn’t change my life. What transformed me was the abiding relationship that allowed for the inbreaking of the “new.” My experience is not unique. Those of us lucky enough to come fully alive with our analysts, understand the healing power of that bond.

So how did psychoanalysis get such a foul-smelling reputation, and how do we fight back?

We like to blame our decline on insurance companies, CBT and big pharma. But it’s harder to acknowledge the inside job – the ways psychoanalysis dragged its own reputation through the mud. Lew Aron and Karen Starr, in their book “Psychotherapy for the People” describe how at its peak, psychoanalysis looked down its nose at its own theoretical breakthroughs, damning them as “not psychoanalytic.” In its haughtiness, psychoanalysis dismissed large segments of suffering people as “unanalyzable.” “What went wrong,” Aron and Starr say “is that psychoanalysis in America became arrogant, self-protective, self-serving and increasingly narrow and limited. Its strategy was to define itself in idealistic terms, as pure and classic.” Behind this, they continue, “was the need to protect the higher income and status of the psychoanalytic profession. We believe this narrowing definition – and along with it, of practice, flexibility and identity – led to the decline of interest in psychoanalysis” (12). Psychoanalysis in America blamed mothers for their children’s schizophrenia, autism, learning disabilities. Behind every ailment lurked a psychological smoking gun. Psychoanalysis pathologized and hurt women, people of faith and gays. Mark Blechner in his book “Sex Changes” says “Psychoanalysis has blood on its hands.”

The first step in rehabilitating our image is to acknowledge those injuries. Let’s face it, it got ugly and people were hurt. As psychoanalysts we need to be humble and careful not act out in those same self-defeating ways. On the other hand, I take pride in the vitality of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is the oldest and most richly diverse form of therapy. Psychoanalysis is constantly changing; it reseeds itself. Among us are Jungians, Kleinians, Lacanians, Self-Psychologists, Relationalists, all green plants that emerged from the same soil. New shoots continue to poke through, even when they announce themselves as decidedly, in no way, Freudian. Like Psychoanalyst Jonathan Shedler says, all psychotherapy is Freudian. Freud’s contributions aren’t outdated, they are just hard to see because they are embedded in our collective bone marrow. The idea that childhood trauma shapes our adult lives is Freudian. The recognition that the psyche is made up of multiple parts is Freudian. The awareness that forces inside of us operate outside our awareness? Freudian. Freud even gets credit for establishing regular meeting times. Freud taught us that when we connect the past to the present, we change troubling patterns. When we tell and retell our stories, we liberate ourselves from the past. And when we don’t find a way to tell our stories, we get told by them.

The psychoanalysis that I devote my life to explores the power of the unconscious and how it shapes the relationship between patient and analyst. Yes, we are interested in what happened in childhood. But like midwives, we tend to what is growing inside our patients and ourselves. Carl Jung calls this future incarnation the “telos” of the psyche. Self-Psychologist Marion Tolpin urged us pay attention to the “tendrils of hope” that in the psyche that point the way toward healing and growth.

My first day of training with non-analysts was an eye opener. Despite it, I grew to love the model and for the next three years advanced in the program. The training helped me to become a better psychoanalyst. It gave me tools to guide patients to the deepest realms of their psyches where we can bear witness to and heal young parts that carry trauma. Other psychotherapists may try to stamp out psychoanalysis once and for all, by denying and rejecting it. But Freud, Jung, Klein, Kohut and others are a tough and woody root system. They grow outward and downward and can’t easily be yanked out. What is psychoanalysis? Its spirit is free, open, innovative, loving, radical, plague-bearing and life-giving. Psychoanalysis goes to the deepest layers of the psyche to guide us to our highest potential. It holds us close to set us free. As psychoanalysts, we work in the faith that healing radiates outward from ourselves, to our patients, into our families, communities and the wider world.