The Freud Museum


What Does the Analyst Do?

The Role of Interpretation

You could say that psychoanalysis is about 'getting to know yourself better', and becoming more tolerant of the bits that are not so 'nice', or 'clever', or 'good'. The task of the therapist is to help this along. It's claims are essentially modest. As one psychoanalyst put it: "Having a better knowledge of oneself and the world is no guarantee of happiness and success, but it leads to a fuller use of potentialities external and internal" (Hanna Segal).

Psychoanalysts believe that a lot of the things people do is an attempt to run away from bits of themselves they cannot face; often despised and humiliated aspects of the childhood self. By coming to terms with these childhood parts (wishes, intentions, and feelings that the conscious self - the 'me' bit - finds it difficult to acknowledge), the patient begins to change. Sometimes this involves sudden insights ('Ah ha!'), sometimes it is a more gradual process, akin to growing up. Things that were important before seem to lose their meaning, tasks which had seemed difficult appear easier, relationships become less conflictual, attitudes change, life gets more interesting. Kleinian analysts, like Hanna Segal above, believe that the frightening impulses, alien elements or 'bad' bits of the patient are projected outside and distort his picture of the world. The analytic task is to help him take back the projections, overcome anxiety, and reconcile the currents of love and hate in his life. In all cases the analyst tries to offer herself as an object that the patient can use for his own cure, as a good teacher offers herself for her students to learn.

The analyst listens to the patient's 'free associations' and attempts to interpret what they say. Interpretation is something that we all do. If we see someone running along the street, we might think that the person is running because they want to catch a bus. We interpret their behaviour according to something the person wants.

Sometimes we interpret other people's behaviour in order to get them to change. For instance, a tennis coach might say; "You are not following through with your forehand because you are worried about over-hitting the line". Or we might say: "The only reason you are kicking the cat is because you had a bad day at work. So why don't you kick your boss? It's not the cat's fault is it!" All human beings try to work out other people's behaviour and change it - usually for their own benefit.

There are many different sorts of interpretations that psychoanalysts use when seeing patients. Four of the most important kinds are:

(1) Interpretations that relate to the internal state of the patient ("perhaps you say THAT because you feel X, or have a phantasy that Y")

(2) Interpretations that relate to the patient's childhood ("you are saying THIS now, because you felt THAT about your parents when you were little");

(3) Interpretations that relate to other statements said by the patient ('you are saying THIS now, but yesterday/six months ago, you said THAT..."; and

(4) Interpretations that relate to the analyst ("perhaps you are saying THAT because you want me to feel THIS.").

Interpretations are used for a variety of reasons: To elicit more material and memories from the patient; to reveal a conflict, desire, or pattern of relating which is not conscious to the patient; to provide some relief for the patient by making him feel 'understood' and cared for (this happens automatically when the patient has the conviction that the interpretation is 'true'); to draw together various strands of therapeutic work that are being carried out ('perhaps what you are saying about your father today is connected to what you were saying about your mother yesterday'); to suggest the unconscious meaning of material or to provide reconstructions of the patientís past.

The difference between this and everyday interpretations is that the analyst tries to interpret for the benefit of the patient, rather than herself, and she makes her interpretations mindful of the relation to the past life of the patient. The therapeutic hope is that with the help of another person offering support, recognition, and analytic understanding, the patient will be able to work through his neurotic conflict and, as Freud once put it, "transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness".

adapted from the forthcoming book Introducing Psychoanalysis by Ivan Ward, illustrated by Oscar Zarate

Discussion topics:

Have you ever done something and not known the reason why? How would you now interpret your behaviour?

Take any everyday behaviour and interpret it according to its relation to (a) internal states, (b) parental or other influences from the past, and (c) the relationship to other people. (e.g. eating a burger at McDonalds)

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