On Becoming a Psychoanalytic Psychologist Part I

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I wanted to possibly stretch over the next three of four post reasons why I chose to study at a graduate program that emphasized a psychoanalytic perspective on psychotherapy. Whenever I talked to people about my choice most people react with curiosity or bafflement as to why someone in this day and age would still be wanting to study Freud and all of those who have followed in his massive footsteps.

Given all of the caricatures out there regarding Freud and psychoanalysis, I thought it might be helpful to defend some of his insights and their importance for modern life.

Let me start this first post with something of a refutation of Foucault’s popular thesis in History of Sex that psychoanalysis is a secularization of the Catholic confession. I believe this is a commonly held perception that analysis is a place someone comes to confess all of his perverse thoughts and desires without feeling judged. For one, Bollas makes a strong case in the Freudian moment that Freud’s true breakthrough rested not with his theory of infant sexuality (while important) but with his importance of following the links of associations that the unconscious strings together. Bollas does not believe that the technique of psychoanalysis is getting someone to confess his Oedipal unconscious desires for his mother. Rather, all analysis requires is that someone talk about his day and both analyst and analysand trust the unconscious to make the appropriate associations. While Oedipal material might manifest itself in these linkages by no means is this the hallmark of psychoanalysis. It was called the talking cure for a reason, that is to say because it created a space where someone could speak honestly and openly trusting that true dynamics would shine forth in everyday conversation. I don’t mean to present the patient-therapist dyad as buddies talking at Starbucks, but I am attempting to attack this notion that one lies back on a couch and divulges all of his perverse longings. Certainly Foucault’s critique does carry some weight, but I believe appropriate analysis guards against this rather moralizing approach to therapy.

Why the obsession with sex and aggression? For one, I think part of the blame rests on Freud. I believe that he partially used sex as a catch-all term for intimacy and love to make his technique all the more scandalous. Unfortunately, this trickles down in undergraduate psychology class as a four-year-old wanting to fuck his mom, which is a pathetic attempt to denigrate psychoanalysis (I don’t mean to sound paranoid here. But, America’s aversion to psychoanalysis is hysterical at best, dishonest at worst). Another reason Freud believed in the importance of sex and aggression was his attempt to stay true to his Darwinian convictions. Evolution rests on the importance of preserving one’s genes through one’s offspring. Hence, Freud felt it was entirely appropriate to stress the pervasive influence of sex. Let me offer a clarification of Freudian sexual development to offer a more ‘object-relations’ interpretation.

To properly explore the connections, it’s imperative that I briefly outline Freud’s psychosexual development and supplement his stage model with Erikson’s view of the developmental tasks that the child must accomplish to progress healthfully. Freud conceived of the infant as maturing through five different stages of psychosexual growth. Initially, the infant explores the world primarily with his mouth, which usually focuses on excitation derived from the mother’s breast. Erikson believed that if the parents consistently supplied the infant with the appropriate amount of attention and affection then ideally the child would develop a sense of trust in his caretakers. The importance is that the child internalize healthy objects that can be trusted, which will built upon for later relationships. However, if the infant experiences an unpredictable environment then the infant might mistrust the people and world around him. Next, the child enters the anal stage where he encounters his first struggle with rules and authority handed down from his parents. Suddenly, the child is forced to follow specific injunctions with regards to how to properly dispose of waste. Hopefully, the child will develop a sense of autonomy and independence with respect to his agency. But, if the parents are unrealistic with their expectations of the child’s abilities then the child might develop shame or doubt in his faculties.

The phallic stage is undoubtedly Freud’s most controversial stage in his model of psychosexual development. Freud theorized that a boy, during this stage, would have unconscious sexual attraction towards his mother. By sexual attraction, it’s important to clarify that this has much more to do with issues of closeness and intimacy than some sort of genital contact, which a child at this age has no way of comprehending. The child wants to be the important person in his caregiver’s life, but his beloved love-object has been unfaithful. The boy simultaneously recognizes that his father also has a claim on his mother. Because of this impediment to the child’s love object, the young boy will harbor murderous thoughts towards his father and lustful thoughts about having his mother all to himself. The boy will realize that these desires are prohibited and thus fear his father’s retaliation. This could lead to castration anxiety in the young boy. If the child renounces these wishes, then the child will healthfully resolve his Oedipal complex and being identifying with his father. Erikson believed that the child would achieve a sense of identity or potentially a sense of guilt. After this stage, the child experiences a latency period from roughly age six to pre-puberty, which is characterized by an absence of sexual development. Finally, the child will begin puberty and hopefully develop a sense of true sexual identity. This also marks the beginning of the end of sexual development, and after puberty, according to Freud, psychosexual development is complete.

I’ll talk more about object relations, the unconscious, defenses, the structural model, and the importance of psychodynamic therapy compared to the current hot trend in American psychology: cognitive-behavioral therapy.

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