Freud’s Theory of the Unconscious

Sigmund Freud’s and Carl Jung’s relationship began while Jung was a young psychiatrist at a mental hospital in Switzerland.  (Freud’s medical practice was in Vienna.)  It is hard for us to imagine now, with our well-established culture of seeing therapists, or uttering the words, “you need to talk to a shrink!” (no one wants to hear that, right? J), but Freud was the first psychiatrist to engage in “talk therapy.”  This talk therapy mostly centered around dream analysis and a free-flow exploration of his patients’ fantasy life (free association) in order to access unconscious material.  

Freud believed the unconscious material expressed in dream and fantasy was rooted in the repression of instinctual drives (often pigeon-holed as sexual drives, which is not entirely the case).  The theory was that the desire for pleasure and self-gratification young children experience conflicted with the limitations imposed through family dynamics and societal norms.  Therefore, the unacceptable thoughts or behavior had to be repressed or converted into some other form.  Symptoms and mental illness arose when these repressed drives could no longer be adequately sublimated and would take hold of the patient in the form of compulsions and symptoms.  Dreams and free association allowed Freud’s patients to access the initial conflict between the biological drive and family and culture.  The conscious acknowledgment of such conflict allowed the symptoms involved in repressing it to diminish. 

 When Jung heard about this new talk therapy, he was inspired!  He sent Freud a letter hoping to meet him.  Jung looked at Freud as a psychological pioneer, and was eager to learn all he could.  The two would share intellectual and clinical commonalities for many years.  In fact, Freud used to say that Jung was the “heir apparent” in the field of psychoanalysis. 

 However, all that changed when Jung began to think, hmm, what if there is more at work in the unconscious than just this personal compromise between pleasure-seeking drives and its modification during childhood development?  Oh boy.  There’s a can of worms.  But for Jungians, it was the beginning of an era that continues to deepen our experience of what it means to be human.  More next week about that can of worms…

(P.S. No blog next week)