Introduction to Psychoanalysis

The theory of unconscious behaviors that shape our psychology.

Jean-Martin Charcot
Eros and Thanatos

What is Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis is a theory and therapeutic technique aimed at better understanding the human mind. For over a century, it has been used to help people gain greater self-awareness and understanding of their inner lives.


At its core, psychoanalysis focuses on uncovering unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motivations that may influence our behavior. The basic concepts include the idea that our conscious mind is only aware of a small portion of what we experience – much remains hidden in our unconscious mind. This includes memories from childhood experiences that can unknowingly shape our current behaviors.

Psychoanalysis versus Psychotherapy

Psychoanalysis is considered the first and oldest form of psychotherapy, but it is just one of several options. While it was the dominant therapeutic technique in the early 20th century, its popularity has since decreased somewhat.


Psychotherapy is a more general term that can refer to a variety of different approaches, such as psychoanalysis, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), humanistic therapy, existential therapy, and so on. Whether you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue, there is likely a type of psychotherapy that can help.

Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is a specific approach to psychotherapy that delves deep into the unconscious mind and past experiences to help you gain insight into your current behaviors and emotions. The therapist typically meets with the client multiple times a week, and sessions can last several years. This requires a significant investment of time and effort on the client’s part.

The Genesis of Psychoanalysis

In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud pioneered psychoanalysis with his revolutionary ideas about the unconscious mind. He proposed that repressed memories and desires could manifest in various ways, such as through dreams, slips of the tongue, or even neurosis.

While Freud is considered the founding father of psychoanalysis, much of his thinking was inspired by the work of others.

In the early history of psychoanalysis, Jean-Martin Charcot played an important role in shaping his ideas. A renowned French neurologist, Charcot studied hysteria – a condition marked by unexplained physical symptoms like paralysis or convulsions. He discovered that hypnosis could alleviate these symptoms, suggesting psychological origins rather than purely neurological ones.


This revelation influenced Freud’s later work on unconscious processes and repressed memories. For instance, he collaborated with Joseph Breuer to develop the ‘talking cure,’ where patients shared their experiences under hypnosis. It was believed that this helped uncover hidden traumas causing hysterical symptoms.

Freud saw Breuer as a father figure and the two went on to collaborate for a long time. In 1895, they published the book, Studies on Hysteria, which is still considered a fundamental work of psychoanalysis.

Sigmund Freud's Life Story

Freud was born in 1856 to a Jewish family in Moravia, what is now the Czech Republic. Later, his family moved to Vienna where he excelled academically and pursued medicine at the University of Vienna. Fascinated by neurology, he went to study under famous neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, in Paris, delving into hypnosis and hysteria.


Freud’s personal life was marked by addiction; he smoked excessively and regularly used cocaine for self-medication. At first, he also recommended cocaine use as a therapeutic tool. But despite his initial enthusiasm, he later acknowledged its dangers after seeing the adverse effects on patients. As World War II loomed, Nazi persecution forced Freud and his family to flee Austria for London.

Over the years, Freud’s excessive smoking led to a painful oral cancer. Within months of having escaped the Nazis, his condition deteriorated sharply. And in September 1939, honoring an earlier agreement with friend and physician, Max Schur, he underwent assisted suicide via lethal doses of morphine – ending the life of one of psychology’s most influential figures.

Contributions of Sigmund Freud

As its founder, Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking work laid the foundation for modern psychoanalysis.

He proposed that our unconscious desires drive actions and shape personalities, and his development of the structural model of the mind, consisting of the Id, Ego, and Superego, revolutionized our understanding of human behavior.

He also introduced dream analysis as a window into the unconscious mind. He called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious,” and he believed that they revealed repressed memories and unresolved conflicts.


Another significant contribution was his theory on defense mechanisms – strategies we use to cope with anxiety or stress. Examples include repression, projection, and denial. These concepts remain influential in contemporary psychology.

Eros and Thanatos - Freud’s View on Human Nature

Freud’s psychoanalytic theories were heavily influenced by his views on human nature, which he saw as driven by two opposing instincts: Eros and Thanatos – the life drive and the death drive. The first is sexual whereas the second is destructive.

Eros seeks pleasure and gratification, and it encompasses not only sexual desires but also self-preservation and creativity. For example, we may seek pleasure through intimate relationships or artistic expression. In contrast, Thanatos represents our innate drive toward aggression, destruction, and ultimately death.

According to Freud, these two drives motivate all our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. He believed that it is in human nature to be more inclined toward aggression, and he even famously declared that “the aim of all life is death.”


Freud noted that this death drive often manifests as aggression toward others, but it can also be directed inward, which can lead to self-harm or suicide.

This theory was based on his clinical observations, where he noted that individuals who experience a traumatic event often recreate or revisit it, such as soldiers returning from war who have dreams repeatedly taking them back to the combat zone.

Freud believed that people have an unconscious desire to die, but our life instinct generally tempers this wish as it aims to survive, procreate, and satisfy desires.

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You might also like

Defense Mechanisms;

Our learned defensive behaviors that shape our responses to the world.

Case Studies;

Examples of psychoanalysis in practice.

Psychosexual Development;

Freud's theories of the different stages of psychological development, and their complex relationship to sexuality.

The Unconscious Mind;

How Freud's theory of mind laid the groundwork for the idea of the unconsious.

Psychoanalytic Critiques;

Some of the arguments made against Freud and psychoanalysis.

The Therapeutic Process;

How psychoanlaysis can be applied therapeutically.

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