A rambling commentary on the current lack of interest in psychotherapy


Freud's Couch


A dear friend of mine, while training to be a psychotherapist in New York, worked with children in a well-known clinic. Toys decorated the consultation room including a large and well-appointed dollhouse. One day a six year-old girl she was seeing removed the mommy doll from the bed where it had been ‘sleeping’ next to the daddy doll and replaced it with a little girl doll who had a bed of her own in another room. All of this happened while my friend and the little girl were talking about something else entirely. My friend then asked the little girl why she had made the substitution. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, she received the following answer – ‘I don’t want to be his daughter, I want to be his wife.’


When my own mother died, just two months before my sixth birthday, I was deeply in love with her. Her demise had dramatic effects on my personality and thus on the course my life has taken. I was not in love with her because she was seductive or amazingly pretty, I was in love with her because I am a human being, a human animal and that is a phase we normally go through. It is hard-wired, as are certain features of our personality. What makes all of this a bit more complicated than it looks when one studies ducks or monkeys, is that humans, as mammalian as we are, also have the additional feature of self-consciousness that winds itself about our animal impulses and instincts in another sort of double helix that defines us as a species.


Sigmund Freud’s work on child sexuality and his formulation of the Oedipal complex were accepted by large sectors of a well educated and open-minded, largely Western international community for quite some time. Other psychotherapeutic researchers had their problems over time and modifications and sub-clauses got nailed on as time went by. People like John Bowlby who in the 1970’s at the Tavistock Institute studied attachment behavior in small children and in monkeys enriched the concept weaving in some psychobiology.


The Wikipedia entry for the Oedipus Complex begins like this:


In psychoanalytic theory, the term Oedipus complex denotes the emotions and ideas that the mind keeps in the unconscious, via dynamic repression, that concentrate upon a boy’s desire to sexually possess his mother, and kill his father. In the course of his psychosexual development, the complex is the boy’s phallic stage formation of a discrete sexual identity; a girl’s analogous experience is the Electra complex. In classical, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the child’s identification with the same-sex parent is the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex and of the Electra complex; his and her key psychological experience to developing a mature sexual role and identity.


Freud formulated this theory,based on keen observation of his bourgeois Viennese patients, listening to their dreams and then riffing it through his own extraordinary brain. This in an age before the shape and functions of DNA had been discovered. Despite all of the genuine advances that have been made (including the important realization that in 95% of cases sexual orientation is not a neurotic disorder but a biological reality) it remains an astonishing formulation. With the explosive growth of psychopharmacology since the 1970’s and its attendant decline in patients opting to engage in psychotherapy, Freudian thought has been generally disparaged and set out to a distant pasture. All of the fuss, outrage and denial it originally caused back in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s was replaced by drugs. Once upon a time a psychiatrist used to be a psychotherapist with an MD, now a psychiatrist is someone who prescribes meds, usually in a hospital and the ‘talking cure’ has been relegated to other professionals, many of them extraordinarily good, some of them quite awful, with other kinds of degrees.


My general impression is that, among people with good educations and who have a progressive slant, the important insights that began with Freud and that were part of the public discourse for some important decades have now gone back under. The whale surfaced and, thanks to Freud initially, revealed itself in all its beauty with all of its scars and barnacles, only to disappear again. Things have even reached the point where people generally do not admit the existence of the unconscious or only do so in a clichéd, very dumbed-down manner.


In a market where a mode of therapy (traditional psychotherapy) merely promises as its best case scenario the possibility to its clients – who must expend significant emotional effort and hard earned money each week – of becoming ‘normally’ miserable as opposed remaining neurotically and especially miserable, such an approach quickly loses appeal amongst a time-conscious, harried and in many ways ignorant population being offered alternative therapies promising, in exchange for minimal effort, happiness, spiritual fulfillment, sexual success and career advancement.


No one discusses the unconscious or the importance and fascination of dreams at dinner parties anymore. People talk about money, real estate and work. Even admitting to being engaged with any form of quasi serious psychotherapy is still rare in many spheres for fear of being considered too vulnerable or unstable, when in fact, it is a process, as a rule, even if one’s therapist is not optimal, that provides the mind and spirit with significant strength. A metaphor I often use is that, going to therapy, if one can afford it or figure out a way for one’s insurance to cover most of it, is like keeping one’s treasured car well tuned. Insurance companies, not unsurprisingly, want a well-defined problem and an efficient solution with a time cap. The process of psychotherapy is largely open-ended and its concepts of progress and resolution are vague. All of this makes it inconvenient and basically unfit for today’s strange, hyperactive world. But that has nothing to do with the veracity of its underlying assumptions. These being:



Human behavior is determined by irrational drives;


Those drives are largely not conscious;


Attempts to bring those drives into awareness meets defense (resistance) in many different forms;


Besides the inherited constitution of personality, one’s development is determined by events in early childhood;


Conflicts between conscious view of reality and unconscious (repressed) material can result in mental disturbances such as neurosis, neurotic traits, anxiety, depression etc.;


The liberation from the effects of the unconscious material is achieved through bringing this material into consciousness (via e.g. skilled guidance).




The three greatest contributors to our view of the universe and of ourselves have been Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. Only the assertion of Copernicus, that it is the Earth that revolves around the sun and not the other way around, has escaped criticism in our contemporary intellectually regressive world. Darwin, bizarrely, is still controversial and very much in the news in many countries and Freud is now considered to be more of a literary figure than someone who revealed that most of what controls our actions goes on without our being aware of it.



I am not sure about what this all means – but it can’t be good.


  1. Interesting stuff, John.
    Interesting stuff, John. Thanks. I agree that the promise of a pill is much more attractive to most nowadays than the prospect of «working» on yourself over the course of months or years. I think that the migration of Freud from departments of psychology to departments of literature and cultural studies is a complicated (and not necessarily bad) phenomenon. And that part of the critique of Freud stems from the fact that he was (as I understand it) trying to draw conclusions about natural impulses and universal drives based on evidence derived from one of the most hyper-civilized and rarefied moments of human history. The nuclear mommy daddy baby family was such a new (and strange) invention in Freud’s time; to make it into the privileged scenario in which timeless, primeval forces inexorably play themselves out just seems a bit weird to some. None of this impugns, it seems to me the underlying assumptions you outline here. Thanks again for the stimulation.

Comments are closed.