Freud, Explained

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Of all the figures in shrinkdom, Freud is the most revered and reviled, the most quoted and misquoted, and the most influential and ignored. It used to be that every shrink wanted to be like him, now we want to challenge him and be as different as we can. Perhaps this is what he gets from being first in the field. More than anyone, he broke the ground for what has become modern psychotherapy, turning over centuries of assumptions about human nature. We should not be blamed for wanting to see what we can grow on this plot. However, it pays to sometimes go back to first principles and relearn the basics.

It is said that the great golfer, Arnold Palmer, used to start off every golf season by stopping at a country club, asking to see the golf pro, and taking a lesson. Most pros must have been intimidated to have Arnold Palmer as a student, for he was already a better golfer than all of them. Nonetheless, he would insist on a lesson, going back to basics: the grip, the stance, the swing, before going on with his season. He needed to remind himself of the fundamentals.

In that spirit, let’s return to Freud and re-examine the first principles of psychotherapy, many of which have since been distorted.

Talk Therapy
Freud famously was a user of cocaine. Now only that, he advocated it as a cure. These facts are often used to mock Freud, but they’re not the whole story. Cocaine was not yet known to be the destructive drug we know now. He tried it like many others. In his first major scientific publication he stated that cocaine was an effective remedy for depression, indigestion, morphine, and alcohol abuse. Soon thereafter, cocaine’s dark side was revealed, and, at that point, Freud put it in reverse. No longer would he advocate any pharmacological treatment. His experience with cocaine taught him not to trust the promises of chemistry. It was far safer to pursue a talking cure. That’s when, and why, he invented talk therapy.

A hundred years later, and it seems that we have not learned anything. We, as a society, are still swept off our feet by the promises of chemistry only to later learn its dark side. Maybe we should see what talking can do before putting our trust in pharmacology.

The Couch
I don’t even have a couch in my office that’s long enough for clients to stretch out on, but it’s still the symbol of my profession because Freud had his patents lie down while he sat behind them. He admitted he did this because he found it tiring to have people’s eyes upon him all day, but discovered the method worked in helping people relax and let their minds go freely. The important thing about the couch is that it places your attention away from the therapist, onto your own thoughts. It helps you pretend the therapist is not there; it doesn’t matter what he thinks, it matters that you think, and it crucially matters that you think about what you think. That is the core of therapy as practiced by Freud. You learn to observe your own thoughts.

On a few occasions, I’ve tried to use my love seat as a couch, suggesting that clients lie down and free associate while I sit behind them. I found we both felt so self-conscious we couldn’t do the work; it was like we were playacting Freud and his patient. Maybe if I had a decent length couch and stuck with it, it would go better. Meanwhile, I’ll just go on reminding people that the objective of therapy is not what I think, but to get them better at observing their own thoughts.

Dreams
Freud asked people about their dreams. I rarely ask, but I like to hear about them. I’m more likely to ask you how you feel. In either case, the important thing is to acknowledge that the rational, sensible, coherent part of you is not the only thing going on inside your head. There is an irrational, senseless, incoherent side of you, too; and sometimes that side has something important to say. Sometimes it will make its presence known until you listen.

What shrinks are looking for when we ask you about your dreams or feelings, is the unconscious. What is the unconscious? It’s those mental processes that go on without your awareness. The goal of therapy as practiced by Freud is to become more aware the unconscious. Today we call this mindfulness. When you’re mindful, you can be better informed of your choices in life and the rationale behind making them.

Infant Sexuality, otherwise known as Polymorphus Perversity
According to Freud, babies experience the world with the same level of intensity that you, as an adult, experience sex. This is what Freud meant by Infant Sexuality, otherwise known by the equally misunderstood phrase, Polymorphous Perversity. Freud didn’t mean that babies are sexual in the same way that adults are sexual or perverse as they are perverse; only that any sensual stimulation that is not pain is pleasure, everything from sucking your thumb to taking a good dump. In addition, it’s easy to take pleasure when you’re a baby because you can suck your thumb and take a dump anytime you want.

This state of affairs made you, as a baby, the observant, engageable creature you were. The whole world, including yourself, was your plaything. You learned fast, because you were so open to experience and able to experiment. Furthermore, because your parents sheltered you from many of the realities of the world, childhood was a prolonged period of privileged freedom.

All this had to change.

It began to change the moment your caretaker didn’t come when you called. 

Penis Envy and Castration Anxiety
Penis Envy is not about penises and Castration Anxiety is not about castration; they’re about how you felt when your caretaker didn’t come when you called. At some point, you discovered your caretaker was paying attention to someone else, like your father, when you wanted her. That thing your rival had that made her fail to pay attention to you was the “penis”. You wanted it, too. When you felt powerless to get her attention, you felt, in Freud’s terms, “castrated”.

When you were a baby, if you didn’t have your caretaker’s attention, you would die; but you’re not a baby anymore. Therefore, it’s time you got past your penis envy and castration anxiety. There are two ways of doing this. The first is to take care of yourself. Grow a penis, in other words. The second is to accept the ways you remain powerless; in other words, your castration. A failure to do these is the start of all your problems.

The Oedipus Complex
The public knows the Oedipus Complex as the desire every son has to marry his mother and kill his father. There is a comparable one for daughters called the Electra Complex. But, there’s more to it than that. A child starts with penis envy and castration anxiety. If you stay stuck there, you’re screwed. But the moment you accept your powerlessness, you learn to share. Instead of simply having a rivalry against those more powerful than you, you form an alliance with them, and get what you want that way. In other words, when you learn Mom loves Dad, you could decide to be like Dad so Mom would love you, too. In the process, you also learn to love Dad, and Dad learns to love you. When Dad loves you, he shows you how to do things. Next thing you know, you have a penis and two people looking out for you. What could be better than that?

It’s important to remember that, just as penis envy is about a figurative penis and castration envy is about figurative castration, the Oedipus Complex is about a figurative Mom and Dad. Otherwise, you might get confused if your mother was a single mother. The Oedipus Complex is all about making peace with adversaries, and what a mess you can make of things when you don’t.

Repression
According to the popular view, bottling things up makes you crazy; so, it’s better to let it all hang out. People say that idea came from Freud, and they are correct, sort of.

What did you do when your caretaker did not come when you called? You repressed your desires, especially your desire that your caretaker come immediately, so that you were not made miserable by it. Instead of playing for you, you did the things that brought your caretaker to your side. You performed, not for your own pleasure, but for hers. Your play become work. So that you are not driven mad with pleasure and pain, you deadened your ability to sense. You eventually concentrated sensation to a single, small, hidden part of your body, your genitals. The pleasure you used to feel wherever and whenever, you now confine to the relatively rare act of sex, in a darkened room, with the blinds shut.

According to this view, you repress yourself to please others. Your energy is turned to the production of objects, character structures, and political organizations that yield little pleasure. You alone, of all the animals, deny your true desires, live in continual conflict and guilt, and construct for yourself a corporate neurosis you call civilization.

This seems like a good argument to stop being so repressed, except for one thing. When you made peace with your adversary, you repressed the desire to murder your rival for attention. Sometimes you repress for yourself, so you can achieve greater things than you would if you let it all hang out. For instance, your mother was very pleased when you learned to repress your desire to take a dump whenever you wanted. She celebrated when you were toilet trained. But guess what, it’s better for you, too. It’s better than sitting around in shitty pants.

Repression is a tool that can be used for both good and bad. The key is to discern those things that are better being repressed, like shitting your pants, from other things that you needlessly limit. I don’t have an answer for you as to which is which; it’s one of those things you’ll just have to work out.

By the way, bottling things up, by itself, does not make you crazy. In order to go crazy, several additional operations are needed, as well as a genetic predisposition. What’s really crazy is doing whatever feels good and ignoring the consequences.

The Psychoanalytic Cure
To Freud, the goal of therapy is to make the unconscious conscious. It isn’t to manage symptoms of depression, control anxiety, stop drinking, save a marriage, stop beating your wife, parent effectively, or any one of many other goals for which people go to see a shrink. Indeed, he would say that just as soon as you succeeded in doing any of the above, another problem will emerge. I have found this to be the case, but sometimes people are made so unhappy by their symptoms that symptom relief is still a worthwhile goal. Then, I usually recommend we dig deeper.

But what do you get once you dig deeper and make the unconscious conscious? You don’t arrive at the Big Rock Candy Mountain. The best outcome you can expect from Freud’s insight-oriented approach is that you will become sadder, but wiser. Wise because you’ll know yourself better, sad because you won’t like what you know.

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