Panel on What is Psychoanalysis?

Merle Molofsky: “Know Thyself”, The Delphic Oracle

Today, fittingly, I encountered what Jung called synchronicity. I received an email from Arnold Richards, in which he offered a quotation from Simon Sinek, “Leadership is not about the next election, it is about the next generation”, followed by his own observation, “Our obligation is to the next generation of psychoanalysts. What is needed is respect, unfettered communication, tolerance of dissent, and non-hierarchical organizational and training structures —- a science not a cult or a religion.” I wrote back that I fully agreed with him except in one respect – I added one word, the word “art” — “an art and a science, not a cult or a religion”. And I told him, “I emphasize the personal journey, essentially a narrative, because I love stories”. I offer a line from a poem I wrote that may be a way of defining what psychoanalysis is: “Two question marks facing each other create a heart.”

I will try to answer the question, “What is psychoanalysis?”, as directly as possible, without emphasizing any of the many “favorite flavors”, without focusing on any particular theoretical orientation.

Psychoanalysis is a theory of the mind, a method of understanding an individual mind, and a professional discipline.

The word defines itself. The English word “psyche” means mind, derived from the ancient Greek word “psukhē”, which generally is translated as “breath, life, soul”, and from the later Latin “psyche”, which generally is translated as “soul, mind, spirit, breath, life”. The English word “analysis” is derived from the ancient Greek word “análusis”, which means “unravel, investigate”, and the later Medieval Latin word “analysis”, meaning “loosening, setting free”, and in English means “resolution of anything complex into simple elements”. Thus “psychoanalysis” considers the rich complexity of the human mind, and seeks to understand its components, and the relationship of those components.

Psychoanalysis as a discipline, a theory, and a method of understanding an individual mind, was first developed by Sigmund Freud. His vast writings created the foundation for an elaborate theory, which rests on the assumption that the human mind has both conscious and unconscious elements. The conscious elements are generally accessible, and the unconscious elements have to be discovered. The actual practice of psychoanalysis thus involves bringing the unconscious elements to awareness, making the unconscious conscious.

The method of making the unconscious conscious, of bringing the contents of the mind to consciousness, involves interaction between the analysand, the person seeking psychoanalysis, and the professional psychoanalyst. The analysand is invited to speak as freely as possible, the psychoanalyst listens, and addresses what the psychoanalyst hears and understands. A psychoanalyst’s understanding is formed through intuition, the ability to identify with, and empathize with, another’s experience and feelings, the ability to use self-knowledge acquired through personal psychoanalysis and ongoing introspection, an openness to listening with an open mind, what has been called reverie and free-floating attention, and the process of psychoanalytic education that involves reading psychoanalytic literature and class discussion.

Many people emphasize psychoanalysis as a treatment for mental and emotional disorders, using techniques that uncover the cause of the disorder, thus promoting new ways for the analysand to understand underlying behaviors, thought processes, and feelings. I don’t think of psychoanalysis as a “treatment” for a disorder or a disease. I think of psychoanalysis as a personal journey undertaken by an analysand, with the psychoanalyst as companion and guide, toward fuller knowledge of the self, including making the unconscious conscious, achieving integration of split-off aspects of the self, and the ability to live authentically. In the process, old habitual narratives are identified, and understood as sometimes interfering with integration, authenticity, freedom, and fulfillment.