The Question of Freud

How are we to account for Freud the thinker alongside Freud the human being?

The place of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in relation to contemporary psychotherapy is, to say the least, interesting.

Freud and Josef Breuer (1842-1925) trained in medicine and became interested in the phenomena of the human mind. Together they developed psychoanalysis as a method for treating mental illness based on their studies of human behaviour. Though Breuer’s interest waned, others joined Freud in developing a psychological model of mental illness. In this way the psychological, as opposed to the medical, means of treating mental illness came to be called ‘psychotherapy’.

For Freud the events of our childhood continue to influence our behaviours as adults. For example, traumatic childhood experiences cause and may be used to understand anxiety in our adult lives. Though we may no longer be aware of these childhood events they may nevertheless be causing difficulties in our adult life. In such cases the role of the psychotherapist is to bring these events to our awareness. This will allow us to resolve the trauma and be released from the anxiety it is causing.

In this way Freud may be viewed as a practical-minded scientist who used all he had available to explore the operations of the human mind. To do this he collaborated with others to develop new theories and to improve contemporary practice. This ‘Good Freud’ shared his findings among the research community, while practicing his latest methods in order to help resolve the anxieties of his patients.

However, Freud’s behaviour has been described at various times and by various people as secretive, possessive, dishonest, sexist, patronising, and abusive. This ‘Bad Freud’ hid important developments from those he regarded as competitors. He withheld and ignored results that contradicted his own thinking. He took the ideas of others for himself. Worse still he regarded women as objects for his own use and he abused those who dared to disagree with him.

This leaves us both with a Freud who is a genius of modern science and a Freud who is a despicable cheat.

All of which may be so but is this any more than a historical debate? Well, certain aspects and techniques developed by Freud are still considered to be important and are still in use. Elements such as a client talking confidentially one-to-one to a therapist who listens attentively come directly from Freud. The idea that there are things about our lives of which we are unaware and which influence our present thoughts, feelings and behaviours is something explained and developed by Freud. The belief that these things may be brought to our awareness and in this way our issues may be resolved comes to us (at least in the West) from Freud.

Indeed Freud’s ideas have spread and grown, though not without much debate and disagreement.

Some analysts such as Melanie Klein (1882-1960) adopted Freud’s approach and developed his ideas, making them their own. Whereas others have rejected Freud’s ideas as false, misleading and damaging. So, in the time since Freud first set out his ideas there have been several schools of psychotherapy directly related to his thought and some significantly different. And importantly Freud’s ideas continue to be discussed and debated often using Freud’s own frames of reference.

For myself I find that Freud is neither all good nor all bad. Uncomfortable it may be but while I acknowledge Freud’s remarkable contribution to psychological understanding and therapeutic method, I cannot – indeed must not – excuse his inexcusable behaviours.

Claude Steiner

How to live free from script

Claude Steiner (1935 – 2017) developed Transactional Analysis (TA) to include more of the social aspects of our experience and the ways in which how our life history affects the way we interact with others.

In “A Warm Fuzzy Tale” (1969) he used a fairytale format to explore the impact of different human interactions. When people give each other “warm fuzzies” (Berne’s positive strokes) they flourish. When fuzzies are withheld, rationed, or replaced with plastic fuzzies (e.g. giving a child sweets instead of attention) or “cold pricklies” (negative interactions) people, and the societies they live in, are damaged.

In “Scripts People Live” (1974) Steiner explored how the messages we give ourselves (or are given by others) in childhood (such as “I am boring” or “I am more intelligent than other people”) can be carried through the years and become part of their “life script” forming important parts of their self-image and affecting their personality.

These script messages may no longer be true – if they ever were – yet people may go on believing them and behaving in accordance with them. This can damage relationships. For example, the message that “strangers are dangerous” may help keep you safe when you are young but can be unhelpful when you are an adult forming mature relationships.

Recognising when we are following a script and learning how to stop following the outdated messages enables us to move into the present. In this way Steiner’s approach helps us understand how we may have become anchored to the past, how we can learn to move into the present, and how we can make a future for ourselves that is happy and fulfilling.

Steiner’s last words were “Love is the answer”.

Eric Berne

An introduction to the founder of Transactional Analysis (TA)

Eric Berne (1910 – 1970) trained as a psychiatrist. He became interested in the Freudian tradition and went on to train as a psychoanalyst. Berne had psychotherapy with Paul Federn. Though Federn was a close colleague of Sigmund Freud he had a different understanding of the ego and believed that people could consciously engage with it.

Berne developed these ideas and ended up rejecting Freud’s notion of unconscious processes. He believed that people could learn to recognise what was happening and change the way they responded. He wrote a series of articles on this topic which led to the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute refusing him full membership.

Berne decided to pursue his own path in psychotherapy, focusing on the importance of social interactions in nurturing or damaging our mental health. Berne referred to this way of working as ‘Transactional Analysis’ or ‘TA’.

With Transactional Analysis Berne replaced Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego with Child, Parent and Adult ego states. The Child ego state expresses our feelings and emotions. The Parent ego state represents the orders and rules we have been given or have given ourselves. The Adult ego state represents how we are and what we are learning.

When we are in the Adult ego state we can modify our feelings and question our desires. In this way we may come to feel differently about ourselves and behave in a more psychologically healthy way.

In my work as a psychotherapist I find Transactional Analysis to have certain limitations such as the sometimes confusing use of the terms ‘child’, ‘parent’ and ‘adult’. Nevertheless, I find Transactional Analysis to be a very useful way to understand and to explore our psychological lives.