Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on May 6, 1856. And then he changed western civilization as we knew it. Not to mention that, because of Sigmund Freud, I have a job.
Sigmund Freud was a social savant. He’s somewhere in the top three of “change agents” of the last 150 years. Because of his ideas, our culture is quintessentially “psychologized.” It is through the lens of Freud’s ideas that we fundamentally see ourselves and the world around us.
Freudian slips. Questions of motive. The Unconscious. Sexuality. Today, Freud’s ideas are relentlessly reflected in the way think and the way we talk. It shapes our humor. It shapes our ideas about suffering and healing. It shapes the way we ask questions, the way we apprehend human dilemmas and proceed in our attempts to ameliorate those dilemmas.
Even severe critics of Freud find themselves thinking in Freudian terms as a resource for their criticism. There is no way to escape his emblazoned “cultural fingerprint” on the modern way of life.
The truth is, nearly one hundred years since the emergence of his genius, the bulk of Freud’s ideas still hold up as undeniable. (See? Freud lives in my own language choice! If you resist what Freud is saying, that is evidence that you are “in denial.”)
Here’s a primer of Freudian theory that seems to me self-evident and unassailable:
There exists a human unconscious and a human ego. These two are not natural friends. On a good day, each is deeply suspicious of the other. The unconscious is relentless in its desire to communicate authenticity and wholeness to the ego. And the ego is relentless to ignore, dodge, deny, and defend itself from those communications. In short, every human life is a story of a war within oneself.
The ego is genius in its ability to defend itself. The chief defense mechanism is repression, or, “splitting.” The ego simply chops off uncomfortable aspects of the self, and tosses them summarily into the unconscious. But these denied energies don’t rest quietly within us. They emerge as neuroses, and drive myriad, often problematic behavior – compulsions, habits, somatic symptoms, depression, and in some cases even human evil. Ironically, these same repressed and denied energies often drive brilliance, creativity, art, leadership, and authentic human holiness.
Sexual desire is a fundamental, driving force in the human being. (Freud would say the driving force, though I disagree.) Acknowledging and embracing (integrating!) these energies is a crucial work of being a whole human being. When these energies are denied, interpersonal chaos is the invariable result.
One way the unconscious attempts to communicate with the ego is through “projection.” Projection is a universal human phenomenon. We (unconsciously) attach our own feelings, emotions or motivations on to another person, not realizing our reaction to this person is actually a reaction to ourselves. We “transfer” our emotional past and especially our historically unmet needs on to our therapist, our doctor, our spouse, our children, our favorite rock star, sports team, etc.
The goal of Talk Therapy is to identify, release and integrate powerful emotional energy that has been banished from consciousness. Freedom to live authentically and consciously is the reward.
Having said all that … very few traditional Freudian psychoanalysts remain. Why? Because traditional psychotherapy presupposes things that, in practice, just aren’t true. To wit:
That the average patient has the several months or years that it takes to evoke the therapeutic transference and then hopefully insight that traditional psychotherapy presupposes. Nope. Many patients need to make changes now, before divorce, jail, getting fired, or other negative social consequences overwhelm them.
That the average patient can afford several months of psychotherapy. Nope. Modern insurance plans don’t cover this kind of treatment. The average American doesn’t have $250 per week (or more) of discretionary income to spend over two or more years. Traditional psychotherapy is more and more the privilege of the rich.
That insight necessarily equals change. This above all is the one presupposition Freud postulated that is not in every case true. Just because you’ve figured out why you behave destructively in no way guarantees you’ll find the wherewithal to stop. Some researchers suggest that “insight” can, in some cases, cement the behavior.
So, most modern therapists, while sitting squarely on the bulk of Freudian theory, find themselves becoming more systemic interventionists instead of classical psychoanalysts. This is a good thing. Because, in the end, therapy practiced as academic elitism is hardly useful. We have to deliver what patients need.
And they need to make changes to live well, whole, and freely.
(Steven Kalas is an Episcopal priest, a therapist and the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.” You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)