Saturday, May 4, 2013

Essentials of Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice

For many years, I have taught “Introduction to Psychoanalysis” from the vantage point of Descriptive Psychology. The policy I try to follow is to use ordinary language and to avoid concepts and theory that does not actually inform my day-to-day practice. Each semester, given input from my students, this is revised.  Early in my training, I was strongly influenced by George Klein’s effort to separate clinically useful theory from Freud's metaphysics. Accordingly, I present theory in non-deterministic language.  What follows reflects my adaptation of his project and a liberal stealing from his work.

Below you will find 15 statements that I take to be basic beliefs and choice principles that are commonly shared within the psychoanalytic community. When the statement is in the form of theory or belief, the essential  questions the reader should ask are empirical: is the development of personality or the understanding of behavior accurately or usefully articulated? Does it actually happen this way? When the statement is in the form of a maxim, the essential questions are conceptual:  is the statement well formed, logically correct, and where should it be applied?  Following most statements is a brief note describing how the belief, theory or maxim is put into clinical practice.

As a work in progress, frequently updated for clarity and inclusion, your thoughts, comments and recommendations are welcome and valued.

           The Pragmatic Essentials of Clinical Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice

1.  A person's character or personality develops through natural maturation and creative improvisation. Development or maturation is a creation, reaction, and response to the experiences, opportunities, limitations, and demands of the person's social and natural world. 

(The therapist's job is to facilitate fortuitous growth though the empathic provision of tolerable opportunity, interpretation, support, and caring non-interference. The therapist welcomes appropriate spontaneity. This requires what is classically called analytic neutrality: empathy, safety, and careful attention to the consequences of giving advice, taking sides, and passing judgment.)

 2.  The formation of personality or character, whether healthy, normal, or pathological develops, in part, from attempts to resolve incompatible intentions and dispositions. This starts very early in the family. Character or personality is to a significant extent a compromise formed from competing motivations and interests.  Since people have hedonic, prudent, ethical, and aesthetic reasons for action, intra-personal and social conflict is inevitable. At times, we cannot help but to be at odds with ourselves and others. Not all conflicts are resolvable. Conflict and crisis are expected and provide conditions for ordinary maturation. Neuroses and personality disorders are ways this process can go wrong. Maturation involves, in part, the incompatibility of old and new demands precipitating crisis, impasse, and possible resolution.  

(The therapist recognizes that resolution and recovery from personal and social conflict, including conflicts between therapist and client, are central to the process of individuation and maturation. The therapeutic session allows practice and experience in identifying, tolerating, and resolving conflict. Therapists recognize that some conflicts are not resolvable and require toleration.  The development of toleration is a significant therapeutic and maturational goal. For conflict to be managed, the therapeutic session must be safe enough for this to happen.)

3. Pleasure, pain, anxiety, and the experience of satisfaction are central in the development of a person's self-concept and motivations. Pleasure, pain, anxiety, and satisfaction are generated in encounters with people, events, and objects, and guide the acquisition of knowledge, competence, and the development of ambition and talent. 

Pleasure, pain, and anxiety are visceral sensations (primary affects), that may accompany an action.  Satisfaction is a psychological state dependent on the personal significance of an action. States of satisfaction are produced during competent participation in intrinsically valued practices. 

Commonly, pain denotes dangerous or damaging contact; anxiety, the expectation of incompetence, failure, or danger, often without a clear object. Pain and anxiety provide reasons for avoidance. In contrast, pleasure is ordinarily informative of accord and wellbeing, motivating contact and continuation.  Pleasure, however, is not always satisfying, nor is anxiety and pain always a source of avoidance and dissatisfaction.  

Coerced and compulsive behaviors that elicit pleasure might temporally relieve tension, but seldom is that relief satisfying. Pleasure connected to forced, devalued or degrading practices elicits anger, fear, resentment, demoralization, shame, and/or guilt. Similarly, pain and anxiety connected to challenging but intrinsically valued practices and goals, when the goal is achieved or is within one's grasp, might be followed by rewarding satisfaction. 

(Therapeutic engagement can elicit pleasure, pain, anxiety, and satisfaction. With this may come opportunities for observing and interpreting characteristic patterns of approach and avoidance. Therapists attempt to stay empathically attuned to their client's feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, pain, and anxiety in helping them develop self-understanding and appropriate toleration.)

4.  Conflict provides a motive for resolution, clarity, compromise, and self-integration.  Behavior requires a coherent-enough sense of one's self and one's world.  People generally want their abilities and dispositions to result in self-understandable behavior (and this may result in defensive self-deception in acknowledging complex, conflicting, and inconsistent values). Although the "self" is a referent for the experience of coherence, continuity, and integrity at every stage of life, the integration and compromise that is serviceable at one stage of life may prove problematic at later stages.

(A goal of psychoanalytic interpretation is to provide clarity and understanding of how past compromises and integrations, for better or worse, are manifested in current actions and patterns of life. The interpretations constructed in the negotiated dialog between therapist and client provides a map in the service of increasing mastery and as an indication of the therapist's empathic understanding. When appropriate, the therapist attributes to the client some degree of intentionality or agency in bringing about an analyzed or problematic state of affairs. The therapist is aware that badly timed or worded interpretations of agency can result in the client feeling blamed or degraded. Empathic interpretations and confrontations require an appreciation of what the client can tolerate. The therapist is interested in helping the client examine self-deception and other problematic unconscious, under-socialized, or poorly understood behavior with the goal of enhancing the potential for deliberation, negotiation, and more serviceable choice.)

 5.   Four maxims regarding non-cognizant and defensive action: 

People take it that things are as they seem, unless they have reason enough to think otherwise.

What people take to be real are what they are prepared to act on.

A person acts to maintain or enhance their status given their appraisal of their options. 

It is also a maxim that if a situation calls for people to do something they can’t do, they will do something they can do instead, i.e., something that their values, knowledge, and competence allows. Faced with something a person can’t do, their resulting action follows from their appraisal of what is real and what helps them maintain or improve their position.  This may involve self-deception or defensive distortion from the perspective of the observer. The various manners of distortion correspond to the ego defense mechanisms.

(The therapist must supply from the client’s history, memory, and associations reasons that things might not be as they appear to the client. The therapist attempts to build a case for alternative points of view fully recognizing the uncertainty of their own understanding. The therapist recognizes that what appears from their vantage point to be the client’s defensive distortion is from the client’s perspective the way things are. The therapist carefully acknowledges the client’s perspective by interpreting or re-describing tactfully and close to the client’s current awareness and toleration. Baby stepsso to speak.)

6.  Two major components of a person's life are the assertion of personal autonomy and the need for being an integrated and desired member of a more encompassing social unit. People require autonomy, family, and community and this inevitably creates conflict.

(The therapist recognizes the client’s struggles for autonomy and dependency and accepts, fosters, and analyzes both given the interdependent nature of the therapeutic relationship.)

7.   During any developmental period, a person’s abilities to bear the incoherence and anxiety of conflict, deprivation, trauma, urge, fantasy, and memory are limited. Overwhelming deprivation and trauma may result in dissociation:  This is not happening to me.  Overwhelming fantasy, urge, and conflict may result in projection or repression:  This is not coming from me. Unmanageable memory may result in avoidance and reluctance to self-examine: I won’t think about this.

(The therapist attempts to foster a sense of safety in which fantasy, memory, and urge are tolerable and can be examined in the service of breaking free from a compulsion to avoid, constantly revisit and repeat.  Since defensive activity occurs when an immediate circumstance is recognized as unmanageable, the therapeutic session provides a safe place to develop skill in working with the problematic circumstance with the goal of developing emotional competency. Emotional competency facilitates effective action in circumstances that otherwise would be defensively distorted, restricted or avoided.)

8.  The mastery of passively endured traumatic circumstances (the experience of being a victim) are, at times,  attempted through active reversals, i.e., engaging in behaviors that resemble those perpetrated on the victim:  What I have experienced as being done to me, I make happen compulsively and repeatedly to myself or others. Active reversal, along with repression, dissociation, and avoidance are basic modes of confronting and resolving conflict, impasse, and crisis, for better or for worse.

(The therapist recognizes the power of the repetition compulsion, in some cases, to motivate a return to a traumatic issue in an attempt to resolve it. Unconscious attempts to develop mastery, e.g., the repetition compulsion, and conscious attempts to achieve competence both involve repeated practice and experience.  Cognizant attempts to develop mastery have the advantage of deliberation and the reality testing of effective alternatives. Unconscious or unacknowledged attempts to develop mastery lack the corrective feedback that comes from self-awareness and social negotiation. The therapist tends to value self-awareness and cognizance as providing options that unconscious reactions lack, e.g., navigating circumstances that call for renunciation, ethical judgment or informed choice. Enhancing this awareness is a central goal of therapeutic interpretation.)

9.  When in crisis, people tend toward regressive repetition. Crises are often the occasion for the enactment of earlier patterns of expectation, conflict, anxiety, satisfaction, pleasure, and resolution. Both growth and pathology may involve repetition. When a person’s current context sufficiently resembles earlier states of affairs, e.g., those that involve the person’s family, it is unsurprising that past themes are reenacted consciously or unconsciously as transference.

(Therapists recognize they evoke both old and new ways of relating that include maternal, paternal, and sibling themes along with opportunities to act in ways not constrained by the past.The therapist expects and welcomes the client’s in-session transference as part of the client's response to the comfort and ordeal of treatment.  The therapist approaches the transference as an opportunity to work through earlier fixations, symptoms, and character formations.  The therapeutic relationship establishes forms of intimacy specific to the therapeutic dyad colored by the transference. When treated in ways that resemble the client’s father, mother, sister or brother, the therapist is mindful not to respond automatically in kind.)

10.  Another maxim: A person acquires a given personal characteristic by virtue of having the prior capacity and the relevant intervening history.  Some intervening experiences may lead to active reversal, dissociation, repression, or avoidance.   Repression and dissociation create introjects, i.e., unassimilated, uncomfortable or anomalous personal characteristics with confusions of agency:  Is this me, or is this something that is happening to me? Where is this intrusive thought coming from?  Avoidance may result in phobia:  Keep that away from me!  In contrast, active reversals may establish identifications, resulting in behaviors recognized as one’s own:  This is who I am, this is what I do, for better or for worse.

(The therapeutic policy of attempted neutrality and abstinence, along with acts of empathic confrontation, re-description, and interpretation, promote and model self-observation and toleration as object-lessons available to the client.  As a therapeutic goal, unconscious and problematically enacted repetitions are made conscious in the service of the actor developing more appropriate competencies through self-aware practice.  Under-examined problematic repetitions are tactfully confronted.)

11.  The foundations of a person's emotional competence  to manage, tolerate or enjoy sexuality, conflict, competition, hostility, intimacy, separation, solitude, and loss develop during infancy and childhood, largely from having parent-caretakers willing and able to provide a secure holding environment.  The key parameters of the holding environment are the good-enough parent’s qualities of authenticity, spontaneity and self-reflection and their attunement to their child:  their empathy, availability, reliability, and containment or firmness. Good-enough parents help their child recognize appropriate boundaries and provide support, when needed, to tolerate and express emotion. The good-enough parent celebrates and supports their child's appropriate spontaneity while mindful of the effects of parental intrusion (Donald Winnicott, John Bolby, Heinz Kohut, and Peter Fonagy).

Emotional Competence and Related Themes

Good enough parental attunement, empathy, holding, mirroring, reflexive function, containment.
Deprivation and trauma.

Tolerable anxiety.

Toleration of conflict, uncertainty, and ambivalence.

Poor toleration of affect, conflict, uncertainty and ambivalence defended through repression, dissociative splitting, and projection
Secure attachments. Toleration of being alone.

Insecure attachments, abandonment fears
Accurate empathic appreciation of others. Capacity for I-Thou relations.

I-It relations and indifference.


Provocation evokes anger
More than
Rage or inhibition
Danger evokes fear 

Loss evokes loneliness and sadness 

Aloneness, emptiness, and depression. 
One’s wrongdoing and transgression evoke guilt and reparation

Debilitating shame, humiliation or attacks on the critical witness (self or other). 
Others’ success evokes competition, assertion, or admiration

Envy or jealously.
Others’ loss evokes sympathy

Schadenfreude or gloating.

(The good-enough therapist creates a safe place and attempts to remain nonjudgmental, empathic, reliable, and available while allowing tolerable frustration and disappointment. Therapists are open to surprise and affirmative engagement with their client's appropriate spontaneity and assertion.)

12.  Fixations or insistent manners of relating may occur when a fundamental need has been overly gratified or meets unpredictable or rarely gratifying response. Fixation and the compulsion to repeat indicate problems in mastery.

(Therapists are sensitive to the manner in which their response to their clients may be overly gratifying or unmanageably frustrating.  While generous with their in-session attention, tolerable frustration is maintained in the service of the client practicing the skills needed to achieve appropriate satisfaction. Accomplishment and competence require working through periods of frustration.)

13.  Autonomy grows out of successful dependency at its own rate.   Unsuccessful dependency may yield a defensive isolation and clinging neediness, along with a sense of inherent personal badness and a dangerous world. Unsuccessful dependency sets a stage for envy, rage, panic, and depression. It can foster a tendency to self-blame while rigidly idealizing or devaluing others; to repetitively seek those who resemble the bad objects of infancy and childhood in an attempt to satisfy a frustrated needy-love (Ronald Fairbairn's "moral defense").  Autonomy is mature interdependency.

(Therapists allow and foster an interdependent relationship and recognize that therapy takes as long as it takes, often a long time. Ideally, psychotherapy begins as an open-ended process.  Therapists also recognize that real world constraints will likely interfere with the open-ended process. Knowing that therapy might end too soon, therapists do not promise what is not likely to be accomplished, and try to cultivate the potential for future progress with or without treatment. Therapists are mindful of their own reactions to being idealized and devalued and can competently manage being treated as such. The manner in which the therapist deals with idealization and devaluation provide an object-lesson for the client.)

14.  Maturation and the development of personal characteristics often involve relationships beginning in a dyad and then moving to the triangular in the fashion classically described as Oedipal. Identifications start with a significant dyadic attachment followed by an appreciation of the Other’s key values and relationships. The social triangle consists of Self, Other, and the Other’s Other: I begin by identifying first with you and then identify with or take into significant consideration your other defining relationships that are not about me. Especially significant in the development of personal characteristics are repeated dyadic and triangular experiences that occur during periods of developmental growth and vulnerability.

15. The development of a child’s ambitions and talents are facilitated when the child is empathically admired by parents who are available for appropriate idealization along with a community of peers who value the child’s ambitions and facilitate the practice of his or her talents (Heinz Kohut).

(The therapist may be experienced in a manner that resembles parent and peer. Therapists are aware that their self-presentation and the various communities, values, and choice principles they represent are attributes their client will encounter. Knowingly or not, the therapist might affirm or degrade the client. Therapy is quintessentially a period of growth, change, and vulnerability.)

Akin to the job of a parent, the psychotherapist's job is to help their clients become better versions of themselves, freer to make effective and revisable choices that facilitate satisfaction with the course of life. 

(Adapted from George Klein’s, Psychoanalytic Theory: an exploration of essentials, 1976, and Peter Ossorio’s, Place,
George S. Klein
1998/2012. The maxims are found in Ossorio's writings. The theory is taken largely from George Klein and others as noted.)

Background information on Descriptive Psychology and the work of Peter Ossorio can be found in A Short Course in Descriptive Psychology and The Person Concept.


  1. As a Descriptive Psychologist, I would say that the initial statement unnecessarily roots the human experience in conflict. Statement 9 is a much better starting point: a person's personality is the sum of their personal characteristics, and characteristics are acquired via a history, which sometimes (though not always and not by necessity) involve resolving incompatible desires and reasons.

    1. Joe, starting with conflict was a choice but perhaps a problematic one. Some classical psychoanalysts, such as Charles Brenner, in the tradition of "ego psychology" have called psychoanalysis "the science of conflict". Conflict is dead center in their formulations. Still, one of the founders of ego psychology, Heinz Hartmann, recognized that personality usually forms in an "average expected environment" and has a significant and necessary "conflict free sphere". I used the phrase, "to a significant extent" to allow for the "more or less" presence of conflict but with the recognition that conflict is a significant concern to most psychoanalysts. But, your point is part of the reason psychoanalytic writers such as Heinz Kohut moved their narrative away from a preoccupation with conflict to other equally vital issues in personality development. Thanks for your valuable reminder.

    2. Joe's comment reflects a style of reminder typical of Descriptive Psychology. Descriptive Psychology provides formulations that allow for the representation of all formal possibilities without foreclosing or excluding. In this manner, conflict would not be privileged over other reasonable alternatives. This is reflected in Joe's phrase "though not always and not by necessity". He reminds us that it is an empirical matter how often and how significant conflict actually is in the lives of persons.

    3. Love this, Wynn. Descriptively, "conflict free sphere" seems a double negative? Perhaps best to anchor on Identity?

  2. Speaking Descriptively, I also feel like the initial statement is too constrained. I would take pleasure and satisfaction as successes; and I might take anxiety to be a failure. (If anxiety is a kind of fear, and fear has a reality basis, it might be success. I'm reasonably afraid of a lion; soldiers in a foxhole are reasonably anxious.) If so, then your statement becomes "Character or personality is...the result of success and failure." That seems reasonable to me. I would want psychoanalysts to then state something like, "The success we think most important is X; the failure we think most important is Y." Such a statement lets psychoanalysis become a "stratified sampling" of the full parametric formula for Behavior.

  3. You've done a very nice job here, Wynn, of articulating psychoanalysis "from the vantage point of Descriptive Psychology." Reading through these 14 statements, the I am struck by the historically individual and biological roots of psychoanalysis. The focus is almost exclusively on the individual and person-specific issues, along with issues related to relationships with another, ofter the therapist. Descriptive Psychology also offers a great amount of useful insight through examining the significance of a person's behavior as participation in the social practices of their communities. Ossorio's book Place, which you referenced, contains literally scores of maxims addressing such matters. (BTW, Place was originally published in 1982, and republished as a currently available stand-alone volume in 2012. The 1997 version you cite is Vol.III of The Collected Works of Peter G. Ossorio.)

  4. As one of your students, I absolutely appreciate your technique of using ordinary language and layman's terms. I can at least speak for myself when I say this since psychodynamic theory is a topic that is new to me and one that I am learning to appreciate more and more each day.

    Your 14 statements above which you consider to be the basic beliefs and choice principles of the psychoanalytic community bring much insight to me. I particularly appreciate numbers 3 and 6. Even as a young clinician, I see the third statement come alive in many of my sessions with adult clients. I strive to attribute a degree of agency to my client, however that proves to be somewhat difficult. Often times my clients want me to "give them an answer" or to "fix" their problems. However, as much as I would like to do that, do I really want to do that? My goal is to have them really see how their past patterns of behaviors are manifested in their current patterns of life. As you state, "the therapist is interested in helping the client examine problematic unconscious, under-socialized or poorly understand behavior," not solve it. I wish I had an answer to all of their questions but what good would that cause? Clients need to search for the answers themselves, and I am simply the tool that will help bounce back their same ideas with different perspectives.

    I also really appreciate statement 6. Peter Ossorio's quote is particularly fitting: "What a person takes to be real is what he is prepared to act on”. When someone is asked to do something they do not feel prepared to do, they'll do something else that they can do. This is a concept you have stressed often in class lecture. You mention that "The therapist recognizes that what appears from their vantage point to be the client’s defensive distortion is from the client’s perspective the way things are". It is our job to ultimately analyze and interpret our clients' response. They do what they do for a reason and it is out task to figure out why in order to gain a better understanding of the world around them according to their point of view.
    ~ G. Cruz

  5. RE #8: "You're a victim the first time. After that, you're a volunteer." (one of my favorite aphorisms in certain recovery circles)

  6. Thank you for your thorough essentials of psychoanalytic theory and practice article.

    I would like to add that in practice it is crucial that assumptions are not made on the part of the practitioner and an understanding that we often are driven by the unconscious and act out of awareness.

    Issues around projection, introjection and certainty are to be considered.

    An acknowledgement of there being no truth but perspective.

    1. Regarding truth and objectivity, you might find the 1/18/14 posting, "Objectivity, Subjectivity and the Gospel Truth", of interest. On certainty, you might enjoy, the 1/3/14 short entry, "Mindful Uncertainty: What is Psychotherapy?" And there's even one on projection, on 7/12/15 posted "Demystifying Projective Identification".

      Clair, it's made me really happy to read your comments with their clear responsiveness to the spirit of what I am struggling to make sense of.