Psychoanalytic approach to Counseling (key concepts, role of counselor, techniques, evaluation)

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Psychoanalytic theories are one of the most influential theories in psychology and have significance both historically as well as in the present time. Sigmund Freud is the primary inaugurator of psychoanalysis as he created the original concepts. His daughter Anna Freud further elaborated his ideas especially concerning children and defense mechanisms.

Key Concepts of Psychoanalysis

Before we discuss the therapeutic techniques used in psychoanalysis it is crucial to have a basic idea of psychoanalytic theory. The theory states that people have a conscious mind, an unconscious mind, and a preconscious mind. According to Freud, the human personality has three parts:

  • The Id, which comprises amoral instincts and functions according to the pleasure principle
  • The Ego, which contains conscious decision-making and operates according to the reality principle
  • The Superego, which comprises the conscience of the mind and operates according to the moral principle

Psychoanalysis also gives emphasis to the developmental stages and explains the idea of a zone of pleasure at each stage that is dominant at a particular time. According to Freud, there are primarily five stages of psychosexual development, which are:

1. The Oral Stage is, the first year of life, where the zone of pleasure is the mouth and basic gratification is from oral sucking and biting.

2. The Anal stage covers ages 1-3 years, where the pleasure is driven by either withholding or eliminating feces.

3. The Phallic Stage, where the zone of pleasure is the sex organs spanning the age of 3-6 years.

4. The latency stage encompasses ages 6-11 years, where the focus is on peer activity and mastery of cognitive learning and skills.

5. The Genital Stage, onsets on puberty, where if everything has gone well previously, each gender takes interest in the opposite gender and shows a heterosexual pattern of interaction.

Excessive frustration or overindulgence in any of the given stages leads to fixation on that particular stage.

Role of The Counsellor in Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysts function as experts and engage in very little self-disclosure and maintain a sense of neutrality to foster a transference relationship. They encourage their clients to speak freely about whatever comes to their minds, especially childhood experiences. They help the client to gain insight into their unresolved past experiences. Unlike other approaches, psychoanalysis encourages the counselor to interpret for the client.

Therapeutic Goals

The primary goal of psychoanalysis is to help the client become more aware of the unconscious aspects of his personality and strengthen the ego so that behavior is more realistic. It helps the client to increase adaptive functioning and self-awareness and gain control over irrational or impulsive behavior.

Another goal is to help the client resolve the conflicts of a developmental stage that were not previously resolved. It also helps the client to deal with the demands of the society in which they live.

Techniques used in Psychoanalysis

The basic techniques that are prominently used in psychoanalytic therapy are free association, dream analysis, analysis of transference, analysis of resistance, and interpretation.

Free Association

Free association is a central technique in psychoanalysis, where the client is encouraged to say whatever comes to the mind, even if the thought is painful, silly, trivial, illogical, or irrelevant, instead of consciously repressing them. In this way, the id is allowed to speak and the ego remains silent (Freud, 1963). It opens the door to the unconscious and the counselor interprets it.

Dream Analysis

Freud referred to dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious”. According to him, dreams were an attempt to fulfill childhood wishes or express unacknowledged sexual desires, they may serve as a pathway to repressed material and provide an understanding of the client’s current functioning. Dreams have two levels of content: latent content and manifest content. The latent content consists of hidden, symbolic, and unconscious motives, wishes, and fears. The manifest content is the dream that appears to the dreamer which has an obvious meaning. The therapist uncover disguised meaning by studying the symbols in the manifest content of the dream.

Analysis of Transference

Transference is the client’s response to the counselor as if they were some significant figure from the client’s past, usually a parent figure. Transference is encouraged in session so that the counselor can interpret positive or negative experiences. This release of feelings is therapeutic in nature known as emotional catharsis. The counselor analyses this transference and helps clients achieve insight into their past and present experiences and increase self-knowledge.

Analysis of Resistance

Sometimes while undergoing psychoanalysis the client initially shows progress but later slows down or stops. This is called resistance. A counselor analyses this resistance and helps the client gain insight into it as well as other behaviors. The counselor respects clients' resistance and assists them to work therapeutically through their defenses. Exploring resistance is important to understand a client and if it is not dealt with, the therapeutic process will come to a halt.


Interpretation consists of counselors pointing out, explaining, and even teaching the client the meanings of their dreams, free association, and resistance. The counselor helps the client to understand the meaning of their past or present experiences by explaining and analyzing the client's thoughts, feelings, and actions. Interpretation must be timed carefully. If it comes too early in the relationship it may drive away the client and if it’s too late then the client might fail to develop insight. Lastly, Interpretation must start from the surface and go only as deep as the client can go.

Strengths of Psychoanalysis

This approach emphasizes the importance of the unconscious and sexuality in human behavior and stresses the importance of developmental growth stages. Freud’s proposal has generated tremendous research and it provides a theoretical base for several diagnostic instruments such as the Thematic Apperception Test or Rorschach Inkblot test.

Limitations of the Psychoanalytic approach

The classical process of psychoanalysis is expensive and time-consuming. The approach is deterministic and is based on many concepts that are not easily understood such as id, ego, and superego. Psychoanalysis does not apply to people looking for professional counseling, it mainly deals with major adjustment issues or the exploration of the unconscious. Many researchers have criticized Freud’s idea because of his over-emphasis on sexuality and aggression.


Sayani Banerjee
Author: Sayani Banerjee

Hey there, curious minds! I'm Sayani Banerjee, and I'm thrilled to be your companion on the fascinating journey through the realm of psychology. As a dedicated student pursuing my master's in Clinical Psychology at Calcutta University, I'm constantly driven by the desire to unravel the mysteries of the human mind and share my insights with you. My passion for teaching and my love for research come together on my blog,, where we explore the world of psychology in the simplest and most engaging way possible.

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