It's good to talk, a problem shared is a problem halved, and other truisms. Freud's invention – psychoanalysis – is just talk. So what is special about it?
Well, what comes to mind when you say “psychoanalysis”? The Oedipus complex, dream interpretation, repression... and "the fundamental rule", which is, precisely: Say what comes to mind.
More exactly, the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis is: Say whatever comes to mind. Freud called this “free association” and insisted that his patients stick to it if they wanted results, even when an association seemed “too unimportant, too senseless or too distressing to be reported”.1 In fact, especially when it seemed like that.
What comes to mind might be what troubles you. But it could also be last night’s dream, a memory from childhood, or what happened yesterday. Freud’s discovery is that whatever you say in the analytical session leads somewhere. It leads towards a place, where you can deal better with the problem or puzzle that brought you to analysis.
But how on earth can haphazard talk to a stranger (the psychoanalyst) help you to solve vexing personal problems? It can help because, really, there is no such thing as haphazard talk.
Take an example from Freud. The parliament speaker in Vienna, facing a debate which promised to be fraught and unpleasant, opened the session by saying: “Gentlemen, I take notice that a full quorum of members is present and herewith declare the sitting closed,” and went on with his opening speech, unaware of the mistake until laughter stopped him.2
Did he make the mistake haphazardly, for no reason? Of course not. He wanted the session closed because it promised to be unpleasant. But he certainly didn’t mean to say “closed”.
So there is a part of our mind, the unconscious, which knows what it wants and occasionally butts in on our conscious thought and speech. Wanting the parliament session closed probably wasn’t far from the consciousness of the speaker. But the deeper wishes (often from childhood) that come out in the analytic session may be quite unknown, alien and surprising to you – as surprising as the solution to a crossword, which you find by puzzling over clues. Except that the clues, which lead to the unconscious wish, are your own free associations.
OK, you may say, but how will the discovery of an “unconscious wish” help me to overcome chronic anxiety, a phobia, depression, an eating disorder, compulsive behaviour, sexual problems, inability to decide, or whatever else?
It will help because, strange thing, these painful and frustrating problems are actually satisfying the unconscious wish. This sounds implausible, but isn’t really. After all, no one else is making you feel terrible or behave in some way that makes life hard. Friends and family, if they know about it, are probably wracking their brains for a solution. So, on some level you must want to be lumbered with this problem.
But, then, what exactly are you supposed to do? Find the unconscious wish and “stop it”? Here is the next strange thing: you are already “stopping it”. That is why the wish fulfilment isn’t enjoyable, but, on the contrary, painful—why it doesn't feel or look like a wish fulfilment at all. The symptom (compulsion, phobia, chronic anxiety, etc.) is a compromise between the wish and suppression of the wish.
Consider a patient of Freud, a “highly educated and soft hearted man" (Freud wrote), who could not leave his house due to an apparently irrational fear that he would attack strangers on the street. What emerged in the analysis was a strong childhood resentment against his father. The logic of his symptom, as a compromise between wish and its suppression, was: someone who wished violence against his own father might easily kill a stranger, so he had better stay home.3
What you say in analysis will often surprise and enlighten you, and the analyst too. But sometimes only the analyst, when you are prevented from realising the significance of what you say by what Freud called “resistance”.
Resistance is the symptom fighting against being understood. Most of the time it is unconscious – you don’t know you are resisting. Helping you to overcome resistance is most of the analyst’s job. Only you can decipher the symptom, because only you have the knowledge to do so. But the analyst can get an idea of where you need to look, and he/she can form an even better idea of the resistance, which makes the search so difficult.
So, a system of wishes and their suppression, which is unconscious, and resistance to its discovery, which is also unconscious. Where, in all this, are you? You are the desire to make sense of it, with the analyst as your ally. Be brave, be curious and say what comes to mind.
1. Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, p. 115
2. Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, p. 59
3. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 457