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Psychoanalytic Therapy: Definition, Techniques, and Benefits

learn about psychoanalytic therapy, also known as psychodynamic therapy

In the world of mental health, there are many different modalities of talk therapies. Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, utilizes a licensed therapist to address mental health issues, learn coping mechanisms, build self-awareness, and heal and recover from mental health disorders. Most psychotherapies are concerned with how five areas of our psyche interact: cognition (thoughts), emotions, behaviors, relationships, and past experiences. 

Some popular psychotherapy modalities are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Therapy. Psychoanalytic therapy is one such modality. Unlike most modalities, this therapeutic method is largely focused on our unconscious thoughts, emotions, and memories, and on how those unconscious aspects of our self influence our conscious self. 

Psychoanalytic therapy, called Psychodynamic Therapy in modern times, has been around for a long time; it was first developed in the late 19th century by Sigmund Freud. However, many other scholars and therapists have contributed to the field. The modern-day version of psychoanalytic therapy we use today is based on evidence and a combination of many unique theories, all under the psychodynamic therapy umbrella.  

So, what is psychoanalytic therapy, and might it be good for you? Let’s find out.

What is Psychoanalytic Therapy?

Researchers have found that around 95% of our brain’s activity is unconscious. That means that we are only conscious of 5% of our thoughts, emotions, and decisions. 

Most therapy treatments are concerned with the 5%. They ask us to become aware of our thoughts and emotions to better understand our behavior. When they do address the unconscious, they do so in a roundabout way that emphasizes conscious choice. 

Psychoanalytic therapy dives head-first into the 95% of unconscious brain activity and seeks to understand it. The core tenets of psychoanalytic therapy are: 

  1. We are influenced by our unconscious thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and memories. 
  2. We develop defense mechanisms to save ourselves the discomfort of acknowledging distressing unconscious thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and memories. 
  3. Mental health disorders arise from this tension between the unconscious and the conscious. 

The goal of psychoanalytic therapy, then, is to understand the unconscious by bringing it to the conscious front of the brain, where it can be addressed.

Goals of psychoanalytic therapy

The goals of psychoanalysis therapy will be much the same as most psychotherapy treatment’s goals. These include: 

  • Reduce distressing symptoms
  • Change limiting and self-destructive behavior 
  • Heal from past traumas 
  • Understand patterns of thought and emotion 

In addition to these, Psychoanalytic Therapy has a goal unique to it: to make the unconscious conscious.

Strengths of psychoanalysis

Psychoanalytic therapy has been studied and proven helpful in addressing mental health concerns such as: 

Psychoanalytic therapy is a great option for those who are already self-aware of their conscious thoughts and behaviors, actively seeking treatment for themselves, and curious about why they are feeling the way they are. 

It might not a great option for people who want to see quick, immediate results. In general, psychoanalytic therapy tends to involve less practical solutions (i.e. meditation, journaling, increased social skills, encouraging of coping skills) and more exploration of the cause behind suffering. Once the cause has been identified, a more specific treatment can be applied. However, this process can take many sessions and is best suited for clients who are patient and willing to put in the work necessary to undergo analysis of their unconsciousness by both them and their therapist. 

How long does traditional psychoanalysis typically take?

Unlike other treatment modalities, true psychoanalysis is a long-term counseling approach. It can take years to apply and finish. Some therapists have modified the techniques used in psychoanalysis to fit a short-term model, and may use short-term psychoanalysis in conjunction with other methods. Short-term psychoanalysis usually lasts between 3 months to 2 years.

Does psychoanalysis work?

Yes! Although psychoanalysis can be intimidating and a commitment, it has been proven effective in treating many mental health disorders.

Who developed psychoanalytic therapy?

Psychoanalytic therapy stems from the work of Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century. Although much of his theories have been proven false, psychoanalysis has built off of his techniques in the last hundred years to adapt his teachings to a more robust treatment modality. Modern-day psychoanalysis can still trace its roots back to Sigmund Freud, but also owes its longevity to countless other psychoanalytic therapists throughout history.

Theories of Psychoanalysis

Although psychoanalysis is a unified field, it comprises many different theories. Each psychoanalytic practitioner may prefer one theory over another. Six of the main theories are:

  1. Drive Therapy: This stems from one of Frued’s most fundamental theories. In essence, Drive Theory postulates that humans are always acting on a need, whether conscious or unconscious. So part of psychoanalysis is to uncover the need driving unwanted behavior. 
  2. Ego Psychology: This theory divides the mind into three parts—the id, ego, and superego. The Id is our base, primal instincts, and it keeps us alive. The ego is our sense of “self”, it’s our conscious emotions, thoughts, and behavior. The superego is our higher self, our values, beliefs, and doctrines that influence our behavior. 
  3. Object Relations Theory: This was one of the first big deviations from traditional Freudian psychology. It theorizes that much of human development is a direct result of an infant’s relationship and experiences with the people around them. It placed the emphasis of human development on external social interactions rather than internal needs. 
  4. Attachment Theory: The most prolific of the psychoanalysis theories, attachment theory is an offshoot of Object Relations Theory, only a little more specific. It theorizes that our relationships with our parents inform how we form relationships as adults and include four types of attachments: Secure Attachment, Anxious-Avoidant Insecure Attachment, Anxious-Resistant Insecure Attachment, and Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment.
  5. Interpersonal Psychoanalysis: This theory was revolutionary in that it combined social science with psychiatry by seeking to understand a person’s internal self through their interactions with others. And, by changing interpersonal relationships, one could positively affect one’s self. 
  6. Self Psychology: Self Psychology is one of the most modern theories of psychoanalysis. It includes the importance of empathy in a client-therapist relationship. It theorized that we all evaluate ourselves and form our own opinions about our worth and identity. This can be both positive and negative, with different effects on our health.

Techniques of Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis is all about bringing the unconscious to the conscious mind, where it can be analyzed and addressed. It teaches that the tension between our unconscious thoughts, emotions, memories, and desires and our conscious ones is the root cause of many mental health disorders. 

In order to explore the unconscious, psychoanalysis utilizes many different techniques. These include: 

  1. Transference: This is when we project our unconscious emotions onto someone else. For example, if you have unconscious rage, you might blow up at your therapist for no good reason. A psychoanalysis approach would take this opportunity to explore the impact of rage on your unconscious self. 
  2. Technical neutrality: This is the approach most pure psychoanalysts prefer to take when interacting with their client. They believe in being 100% neutral towards their client as to not imprint upon them their own beliefs, thoughts, or emotions. In this way, the analyst is considered a “blank slate" onto which a patient can decipher their unconscious mind.
  3. Free Association: This is the spontaneous connection of two or more seemingly unrelated concepts. The connection between them can be used to analyze one’s unconscious. For example, if a therapist was using free association and said “home”, the client would respond with the first word or phrase that came to their mind. This automatic connection, free from conscious thought, is a glimpse into the unconscious mind. 
  4. Dream Analysis: Many psychoanalysis, especially more traditional ones, believe that dreams are the gateway to the unconscious. In many ways, this has been proven by science. For example, it’s been documented that 39% of people will have a dream about their teeth falling out, and that it is usually a sign of stress. By writing down or talking about your dreams as soon as you wake up, and then analyzing them, you can get a glimpse into your unconscious mind. 

Depending on the psychoanalysis, they might use other techniques or bring in techniques from other treatment modalities. If you ever have a question about what a therapist is doing, feel free to ask them. They will be happy to explain their techniques and why it works.


Psychoanalytic therapy is a treatment modality with a long history. Although not for everyone, it can be useful in addressing depression, anxiety, relationship issues, trauma, and self-destructive behavior. We recommend this approach if you are curious about the cause behind your actions and are willing to be patient and put in the work to understand. 

If you are curious about psychoanalytic therapy, check out our therapist finder. All therapists will include a list of treatment methods on the left of their bio. If you are already in therapy, ask your therapist if they are familiar with psychoanalytic theories and if they would be willing to try the techniques in therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

 Psychoanalytic theory is a psychological approach that delves into the unconscious mind as a way to understand human behavior. It is based on the belief that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by unconscious processes and early childhood experiences. Psychoanalytic theory aims to bring these unconscious conflicts and desires into conscious awareness, leading to a deeper understanding of oneself and the ability to make positive changes.

 The goals of psychoanalytic theory are to explore the unconscious mind, gain insight into internal conflicts and unresolved issues, and promote personal growth and self-empowerment. By uncovering and resolving unconscious conflicts, individuals can develop healthier coping mechanisms, improve relationships, and enhance overall well-being. It encourages individuals to explore their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a non-judgmental and supportive environment, leading to increased self-awareness and improved mental health.

 Psychoanalytic theory was developed by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and the founding father of psychoanalysis. His groundbreaking work revolutionized the field of psychology and continues to have a lasting impact. Freud believed that unconscious desires and conflicts shape human behavior and that understanding and resolving these conflicts can have transformative effects on mental and emotional well-being.

 Psychoanalytic theory can help with a wide range of mental and emotional issues, including anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, unresolved childhood traumas, and identity struggles. It provides a framework for understanding the underlying causes of these challenges and offers tools for self-reflection, introspection, and personal growth. By exploring the unconscious mind and its influence on thoughts and behaviors, psychoanalytic theory can help individuals develop greater self-awareness, gain insight into their inner world, and make positive changes in their lives.

 The duration of psychoanalytic therapy varies depending on individual needs and circumstances. While some people may experience benefits from shorter-term therapy, psychoanalytic theory often involves longer-term treatment. It recognizes that uncovering deep-seated unconscious conflicts and promoting lasting change takes time and commitment. The therapeutic process is unique to each individual, and therapy sessions are typically held on a regular basis over an extended period, allowing for a deep exploration of emotions, thoughts, and experiences.

 Psychoanalytic theory has shown effectiveness in helping individuals gain insight, make positive changes, and improve their overall well-being. The success of psychoanalytic therapy depends on various factors, including the client's willingness to engage in the therapeutic process, the quality of the therapeutic relationship, and the expertise of the therapist. Lifebulb's highly educated, experienced, and passionate therapists are dedicated to providing effective therapy based on psychoanalytic principles. While results may vary for each individual, many people find psychoanalytic theory to be a transformative and enriching experience that leads to long-lasting personal growth and emotional healing.

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