Sigmund Freud pioneered the development of a method for investigating and treating the mind, for which he coined the term ‘psychoanalysis’. Using this investigative approach also allowed him to formulate a coherent body of theory about the function of the mind, and its development out of the child’s relationships within the family, in particular with the parents, and the social context.
Like any body of scientific theory, psychoanalytic theory has evolved over time according to the emerging evidence, and has been contributed to by many clinicians and thinkers. Many of Freud’s specific theories remain relevant, but contemporary theory has nevertheless become something quite different from ‘Freudian’ theory.
Freud’s method has however remained central. He realized that the very process of patient and analyst coming to a greater understanding about the patient’s experience, problems, anxieties, or symptoms was, in itself, therapeutic. He slowly came to realize that deeper understanding cannot be achieved by the analyst attempting to impose a meaning, a point of view, or a theory upon the patient. A psychoanalyst does not set out to advise a patient how to live their life, nor to try to ‘fix’ a patient. The psychoanalyst’s aim is to understand his or her patient.
In practice the psychoanalyst attempts to wait with an open mind and to listen carefully to the patient’s communications, verbal and non-verbal. The psychoanalyst attempts to think with the patient, in order to understand the patient’s experience, and to work towards deeper understanding of the emotional meaning of what is said and experienced in the session. The psychoanalyst’s ‘interpretations’ are developing understandings, usually offered as ‘food for thought’, rather than definitive statements. Ideally, an experience of psychoanalysis develops into a co-operative process of exploration of the patient’s inner world and the relationship between patient and analyst; an intimate partnership.
Growth and development within the mind or the ‘self’ depends upon a capacity for emotional learning through the experience of life. Psychoanalytic treatment aims to foster the capacity to learn from life’s experience, and the process can usually be observed to have considerable effect in relieving psychological symptoms and emotional suffering, especially in the longer term. A sustained and successful experience of psychoanalysis can greatly contribute to a person’s having a ‘mind of one’s own’.