Wholesale rejection of Freudian theory is a commonly accepted stance for many American psychotherapists. Folks in and outside the field comfortably mock elements of theory they ascribe to Freud. Often their understanding of the theory is sketchy at best. Other times they are accurate about the theory, but it is reflective of something Freud postulated early in his writing, which he then modified, redacted or out-right rejected later in his career. Sometimes folks rail against a particularly problematic aspect of theory that Freud never rejected, but which even most of his devoted followers long since abandoned.
Freud's Theories Frame Contemporary Understanding of the Self
Regardless of what aspects of theory people choose to reject or accept, no one suggests we abandon terms like conscious and unconscious, denial, suppression, sublimation, displacement, regression, reaction formation, repetition compulsion, ego, super-ego, and id, projection, transference, cathectsis, etc etc etc. It seems some forget these concepts all originated with Freud. While most clinicians do not practice classic techniques such as free-association exercises in sessions with clients, few folks even in the peripheral fields of evidence-based treatments and the like would suggest there is literally no such thing as meaningful associations worth following in sessions, or that they have not heard Freudian-slips that gave them access to key unconscious information.
Theories Mired in Sexuallly Repressed Clutural Mileu
One of the reasons for eagerness to reject Freud and other classic analytic theorists is that their theories are mired with the misogyny of the time, pathologizing views of homosexuality, racist colonizing euro-centric assumptions, and essentialist gender frameworks. The saturation of these perspectives through-out Freud’s theories is beyond reasonable dispute. What should also be beyond reasonable dispute it that his theories are a treasure trove of rich theory that is unparalleled.
Unparalleled Treasure Trove
Studying Freud is not important because of his place as a founder in our field. The issue is not the principle of the thing or some dogma that we need to follow the lineage of thought. The reason to study his theories is because they are awesomely and uniquely useful in sessions with clients. Similar to concepts like displacement or transference, once you understand them and how they operate, the richness in understanding they offer will be evident in the room. They suddenly give us access and understanding to a whole set of complex themes that were previously hidden to both us and the client. Whole new venues for how to learn about our client, and how to understand their suffering, are suddenly laid at our feet in a way we were previously blind to.
For many, concepts like castration anxiety seems thoroughly mis-construed and even trite, it is hard to imagine that it might be a frequent theme in the suffering of our many of our clients; male, female, non-binary and gender non-conforming. What is not always fully understood, even perhaps sometimes by Freud, is that whenever we are discussing analytic theory we are squarely in the realm of the symbolic. It is not a physical penis, but what the penis represents for our client that may be at risk for violent removal in their family dynamic. In the absence of understanding some of the rich complexity of the concept of castration anxiety, we could never suspect how that one concept could led us down a path into an entirely new realm of our client’s internal world, arenas of unconscious fears and anxieties, and unresolved dynamics with primary objects in their childhood homes and their internal object family relations.
For sure the task is daunting to free some of the most culturally problematic yet seminal contructs of Freudian theory from the cultural frame in which they were developed hindering their applicability to our work. But there is simply no re-inventing this wheel. It was formulated by one of the greatest minds of documented history. Much of what Freud had to offer already informs the entire landscape of how we understand human functioning. My 12 year old knows when one of his friends is “totally in denial”. Yet many of the theories that Freud worked and re worked through his life, that his contemporaries and their prodigies worked and re-worked, have been left unexplored by the average American psychotherapist.
The oedipal complex, drive theory, pleasure principle, psychosexual stages of development, castration anxiety, and penis envy, to name a few, are treated by many as a joke. There are frequently presumed to be the product of a perversely disturbed, overly sexualized mind, without remembering they are products of the man who brought us the “talking cure”. Most assuredly this list in particular reflects theories mired in the exceedingly gendered, sexually repressed, hetero-assumptive perspectives of his time, but each and everyone of them is worth our close inspection from this master of thought and analysis. While they each require serious re-working given what we now understand about gender and sexuality, no-one before or since Freud has offered us some many compelling points on a map inside the self worth our close inspection.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.
Here are some other posts about similar topics:
Psychotherapists are like Dance Archeologists
Attending to the Unconscious in a Psychotherapy Session
Myths about Psychotherapy (a video blog)