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Abreaction is a psychoanalytic term referring to a discharge of emotion that is attached to a repressed experience. In contemporary psychoanalysis, the analysand tries to not only feel but also intellectually understand the emotion—that is, the why and how of its repression. According to contemporary abreaction theories, the emotional experience coupled with an intellectual understanding bring about a therapeutic result.

In the early days of psychoanalysis, however, the intellectual component wasn’t deemed important for successful therapeutic progress. One just had to feel, it was thought. In fact, Freud, who introduced the concept in 1893, often tried get his patients to abreact under hypnosis.

Freud’s star pupil Carl Jung showed some interest in abreaction but also in its limitations. Jung believed that abreaction could bring about a positive, cathartic experience. But also he believed that abreaction of personal trauma wasn’t the only way to bring the psyche to health. Also, Jung argued that some patients fantasized or actively made up their early traumatic experiences.

Related Posts » Catharsis, Cathexis

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Civilization and its Discontents

Civilization and its Discontents via Tumblr (click on image for quotes from the book)

Civilization and its Discontents is an important work written in 1929 (after WWI) by Sigmund Freud in which he proposes a “death instinct” (thanatos) said to exist on both personal and cultural levels.

Freud says tensions arise between personal, instinctual desires their cultural repression. And realizing that mankind is capable of mass destruction, Freud suggests that not only individuals but subcultures and even entire societies can be neurotic.

This might all seem pretty obvious today but in his time, Freud was groundbreaking.

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Sigmund Freud diskutiert am 18. Juli 1929 mit ...

Sigmund Freud on 18 July 1929 by Gustav Klimt at Café Landtmann – The opposition between Eros and death instinct, cultural and instinctual impulse | Oil on canvas, 2000 (Photo credit: Christiaan Tonnis)

In Freudian psychoanalysis displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism where an idea, object (Freudian term that includes other people) or behavior is substituted for another.

Like sublimation, this involves a redirection of mental energy but with displacement the original impulse may be socially acceptable, whereas with sublimation the original impulse is socially unacceptable.

Displacement may occur in dreams when one image stands for another. Or it may occur in a simple substitution of one activity or person for another. When it’s linked with sublimation, displacement might result in humor where the unspeakable is spoken, if in a veiled manner.

Although displacement is usually described as a primary process (the primitive, unconscious part of the psyche that doesn’t follow strict rules about space and time), when it merges with conscious activity it also becomes a secondary process (the newer part of the mind concerned with logic, order and daytime reality). Examples of displacement as a primary and secondary process would be daydreaming, creative acts, and emotional thoughts.¹

¹ Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Penguin, 1972, pp. 35, 124-125. It should be noted that not everyone accepts Freud’s view of primary and secondary processes and, moreover, that the two are essentially at odds with one another.


Defense Mechanism

English: Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud N...

English: Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands: Foto van Sigmund en Anna Freud, op vakantie in de Italiaanse Dolomieten (1913) Česky: Sigmund Freud se svou dcerou Annou (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1922 the pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote that the defense mechanism is “a general designation for all the techniques which the ego makes use of in conflicts which may lead to neurosis.”¹

The defense mechanism may be useful and adaptive but when inappropriate or out of balance it is regarded as neurotic and potentially destructive.

A defense mechanism arises from anxiety that poses a threat to the psyche. Anxiety may be generated by instinctual tensions, guilt (threats of bad conscience from the superego) or by actual danger.

Freud was close to his daughter, Anna, who became a psychoanalyst in her own right. Anna Freud lists the defense mechanisms as

  1. regression
  2. repression
  3. reaction formation
  4. isolation
  5. undoing
  6. projection
  7. introjection
  8. turning against the self
  9. reversal
  10. sublimation

Of the ten, sublimation always refers to positive, so-called normal behavior and is never deemed neurotic or negative. Additionally, the psychological processes of splitting and denial are usually regarded as defense mechanisms.

It’s interesting to note that the idea of the defense mechanism is worded in such a way so as to make the world seem like a hostile, attacking place. While it’s true that much of human life is about psychological assault and being assaulted, children with a good, loving upbringing have parents (or primary caregivers), family and friends who shield them from many of life’s attacks. Good parenting also knows how to guide the child toward a healthy kind of mastery that includes genuine consideration for the rights of others. From this, kids and adults can experience all the joy and satisfaction that accompanies a mature balance of mastery and considerateness.

Having said this, one might wonder why Freud didn’t take a more positive approach and call these psychological dynamics coping or, perhaps, living mechanisms instead of defense mechanisms. Perhaps Freud’s choice was partly due to the fact that he developed his theories from working with neurotic patients. Also, Freud had a pessimistic, atheistic vision in which his patients, at best, progressed from neurotic anxiety to an apparently normal state of human unhappiness.

By forwarding a psychology which omitted God’s love from the healing process, one could say that, for all his smarts, Freud missed the main point.

¹ Cited in Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 28.

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Electra Complex

Electra and Orestes, from an 1897 Stories from...

Electra and Orestes, from an 1897 Stories from the Greek Tragedians, by Alfred Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Freudian theory, the Electra complex is the group of feelings arising within a young girl, aged three to five, who wishes to possess her father and eliminate her mother.

For Melanie Klein, these feelings begin as early as the first year of life.

The Electra complex is outlined less clearly than the Oedipus complex, the counterpart complex for young boys. With the Electra complex the girl apparently envies her father’s penis, desiring it for herself to the extent of fantasizing about bearing his children—the origin of the term “penis-envy.” Her unrealistic, unattainable desire causes her to resent her mother. And the young child’s mind translates her extreme psychological discomfort into the fantastic belief that she’s been castrated by her mother.

A feminist response to this is expressed as follows:

The idea that the Electra complex is referred to most of the time as “penis-envy” shows where Freud was in his thought process. He simply thinks the male psyche is the dominant entity in human relations, and that female influence is secondary. This may be due in part to his belief that girls have weaker superegos, where morality is developed and values internalized. We develop this judicial component of our personality during the phallic stage.¹

¹ Amy Simokaitis, “Freud: Let’s Talk about Sex,” October 13, 1999.

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Sigmund Freud

Entrance to Freuds consulting room

Entrance to Freuds consulting room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a Jew of Austrian parentage and the founder of psychoanalysis. He studied medicine in Vienna and then neurology and psychopathology. He was marginalized by the medical community for his interest in the idea of infant sexuality. Today he, perhaps ironically, is often frowned on as a reductionist.

Freud remains one of the great innovators of the modern age. He attempted to scientifically outline the idea of the unconscious which formerly had been represented in literature, philosophy and nineteenth-century occultism.

His psychoanalytic techniques of free association and abreaction were influenced by several other contemporaneous “doctors of the mind,” most notably Jean-Martin Charcot, but Freud made them uniquely his own.

His works were almost entirely destroyed by the occupying Nazis. In 1938 he reluctantly withdrew from Vienna to London, leaving behind several sisters, all of whom died in concentration camps.

A habitual cigar-smoker, his relationship with his daughter Anna became extremely close; she acted as secretary, friend and confidant. Freud eventually contracted jaw cancer but refused pain-killers because they dulled his mind and interfered with his work.

After Freud’s death Anna further elaborated on the idea of defense mechanisms, distinguishing herself as an important thinker in her own right.

Related Posts » Catharsis, Cathexis, Censor, Civilization and its DiscontentsEgo, Electra Complex, Eros, Fromm (Erich), Icebox effect, Id, Jung (Carl Gustav), Klein (Melanie), Moses and Monotheism, Neurosis, Object, Oedipus Complex, Parapraxes, Pleasure Principle, Psychopath, Psychosis, Reality Principle, Repression, Sadism, Masochism, Secondary Revision, Stages of Psychosexual Development, Superego, Thanatos, The Future of an Illusion, Unconscious

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Anna Freud

Anna Freud (1895-1982) was the daughter of Sigmund Freud and an important psychoanalytic thinker particularly in the area of child psychoanalysis. Her The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936) elaborated on her father’s idea of defense mechanisms.

Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands...

Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands: Foto van Sigmund en Anna Freud, op vakantie in de Italiaanse Dolomieten (1913) Česky: Sigmund Freud se svou dcerou Annou (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Français : Théorie de Freud English: Diagram o...

Français : Théorie de Freud English: Diagram of Freud's psyche theory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fixation is a a psychoanalytic term that describes an individual becoming stuck on an object (a Freudian term that includes people) associated with a given phase of libidinal development.

Fixation is often marked by infantile attitudes and behavior, the compulsive choosing of objects and a general decrease of energy since available energy is diverted into an object of the past.

Freud’s theories have been criticized for not being able to explain genuine religious or paranormal experiences. But these types of experiences – or, at least, the personal interpretation of them – arguably can be colored by our psychological underpinnings.

So New Age and religious enthusiasts who dismiss all that Freud has to say often seem to have unresolved personal issues that can hinder their spiritual development. By the same token, reductive Freudians who can’t see that there’s more to life than what goes through the senses and the nervous system could be equally as stuck.

Related Posts » Freud (Sigmund), Regression, Stages of Psychosexual Development


  • Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 52.

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Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud

Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud via Wikipedia

In psychoanalysis, isolation is a defense mechanism developed by Sigmund Freud (and later by Anna Freud) in which a painful or traumatic memory and its associations are separated from the rest of conscious experience.

With isolation, memory is not repressed but the emotive content and associated feeling tones are severed or weakened almost to the point of non-existence. Related thinking, feeling and outward activity are essentially blocked for a period after having recalled the painful event.

This artificial stripping of the affective component from memory could occur, for instance, with victims of sexual abuse, rape or natural catastrophes.

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Freud & Friends

Group photo in front of Clark University Sigmund Freud, Stanley Hall, C.G.Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi. Photo taken for Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts publication - uploaded by Psychology Pictures via Flickr

Introjection is a Freudian defense mechanism in which one relates to an external object in terms of its imagined instead of actual functioning.

The imaginary content is called an introject and can take negative or positive forms—e.g. the punitive mother, the kindly grandfather, the distant father, and so on.

According to Freud, introjection plays a role in the development of the superego and in diminishing separation anxiety. And it’s considered a normal aspect of psychological development leading toward ego independence.¹

There are a couple of issues here to be considered.

First, it should be stressed that introjection is part of a developmental process and as such, involves a series of ‘necessary mistakes’ in understanding—mistakes that must be overcome for true maturity to arise. However, we never really stop distorting our world, so it’s problematic trying to determine exactly where healthy imagining starts and unhealthy imagining stops. As in most scientific assessments, not a little bit of human bias is involved.

Another problem, one not really looked at by Freud or his hardcore followers, is that a person may be intuiting the unexpressed impulses and thoughts (aggressive or benevolent) of another which rarely (or possibly never) come to the surface, socially speaking. So if, for example, an aggressor is clever enough to mask his or her aggression in front of others, he or she may seem benevolent when, in fact, harboring aggressive tendencies. If a person picks this up at the intuitive level, he or she may be concerned, but a supposedly dispassionate psychoanalyst may dismiss that concern as a mere introject, when, in fact, it’s quite an accurate perception of aggression.

Freud’s at one time student C. G. Jung talked about the importance of intuitive knowledge to a greater degree than did Freud. Jung even incorporated intuition into his model of the self. But even Jung doesn’t really offer much more than an introductory analysis regarding the importance of non-localized, non-discursive knowing—at least, this is the perspective which most bona fide mystics would hold.

¹ Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, pp. 77-78.


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