While Psychotherapy has had a relatively short history of a hundred years or so, the role of the psychotherapist reaches back through the murky mists of time to the earliest days of human existence, where we picture early man engaged in that age old endeavour of attempting to make whole the soul or inner being. Villagers who felt confused or worried about something would make the short journey through the mud and smoke to visit the wise-woman of the village to seek counsel and be helped to make a sensible decision based on the personal knowledge and life experience of the elder.
This situation remained largely unchained through the centuries until Sigmund Freud (1856 -1939) arrived on the scene. Freud was born into a Jewish family, firstly becoming a medical doctor but then quickly moving into Psychology. For most of his life he lived and worked in Vienna, Austria where he founded a system of Psychology which he called Psychoanalysis in 1896.
Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis words all share the same link to the Greek word Psyche which means breath, soul or life. However Psychoanalysis was not yet for the masses and Freud’s patients were mostly from Viennese bourgeois society, which was very middle class, conservative and materialistic in it’s attitudes. Freud’s work largely centered on a person’s unconscious and he decided that there are three states of Consciousness. These being the `Conscious`– our awareness of all that is happening around us at any one time. The `Pre-conscious` – things like telephone numbers, addresses and car numbers, which are not present in our thoughts all the time but can be easily recalled when required. And lastly the `Unconscious`– information that is repressed and cannot easily be accessed.
Included here could be memories so terrible that they are pushed down and buried. Freud believed that the unconscious reveals itself in other ways and so he used therapy methods such as Dream Interpretation, Hypnosis, Free Association and the study of Parapraxes (Freudian slips) & jokes to unlock his patient’s innermost thoughts. His work remains the basis of various approaches used today by modern therapists and much of it has permeated into everyday language such as Freudian slip, Ego, Anal retentive & Oedipus complex amongst many others. Much of Freud’s early work was treating the ladies of Viennese society for `Hysteria` by way of hypnosis.
In modern times we think of hysteria as huge emotional trauma. Back in Freud’s time it meant a medical condition where a specific part of the body was targeted by very strong emotions. This could result in sleepwalking, paralysis, fits, memory loss, hallucinations, fainting and numbness in different parts of the body. His view was that neurotic symptoms were caused by repressed sexual experiences. Freud found Hysteria most interesting because the symptoms were so varied but oddly these symptoms would sometimes disappear altogether for no reason only then to return later. It was thought in those days that only women suffered from Hysteria, in fact in 1886 when Freud gave a lecture on Male Hysteria to the Vienna Society of Physicians he caused uproar. His lecture contained examples of Male Hysteria and this caused one surgeon to remark that because the word Hysteria referred to the uterus, it was not possible for a man to suffer in this way.
Unlike today’s modern counselling rooms which tend towards being rather neutral and bland, Freud’s room was said to be more like belonging to an archaeologist. There were ancient artifacts everywhere and the walls were covered with stone plaques showing scenes from ancient history. It makes perfect sense when we hear that Freud likened his love of archaeology with his work as a psychoanalyst. It’s easy to understand how he saw the uncovering of a person’s psyche, layer upon layer with the uncovering of ancient treasure. Today, most counsellors will use the onion analogy (stripping away layers of the psyche like layers of an onion) or a Russian Doll to demonstrate a person’s personality. As well as ancient artifacts in his room, Freud had fitted heavy curtains and thick warm carpets complemented by a number of large potted plants, maybe aspidistras in ornate jardinières. French windows led out to a small private courtyard.
It’s been said that Freud’s room was like a sanctuary for some people, where one could retreat from the hustle and bustle of modern life – a place where one could shelter from day to day problems, if only for a short time. This view of the counselling room can still apply today with the therapist who has taken the trouble to think out the interior of their therapy room. Today we see counsellors facing their clients; Freud on the other hand preferred to sit behind his patients, out of sight, to be less of a distraction. No doubt the patients sat or lay on a couch or chaise longue and it’s easy to picture the stereotypical view of a Victorian psychiatrist and patient.
Freud’s work included his study of a child’s development through biologically determined stages and their links to sexual pleasure. He described the Oral stage which focuses on the mother’s breast and the Anal stage which centers on the anus and defecation. The Phallic stage is all about the genitals and the Oedipus Complex develops when the child falls in love with the opposite sex parent. At the Latency stage, the sexual drive becomes dormant until puberty. The sex drive finally becomes focused on sexual intercourse with an opposite sex partner at the Genital stage.
Freud believed that these theories regarding how a child’s sexuality developed is indicative of the way a person’s whole personality develops but it’s worth remembering that Freud’s definition of `sexual` was much wider than just sex itself.
In January 1933, the Nazis took control of Germany and Freud’s books were high on the list of those being burnt and destroyed. Undaunted, Freud quipped “What progress we are making. In the middle ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books.” All through this time Freud continued to underestimate the Nazi threat and stayed determined to remain in Vienna, even after Austria was annexed.
However as events unfolded it became clear that he and his family had to leave and so on 4 June 1938 Freud caught the Orient Express from his beloved Vienna, fleeing the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust for the comparative safety of London. Sigmund Freud died on 23 September 1939 after a long battle with cancer. Although Freud’s work has evolved and has been adapted by present day Psychodynamic and Integrative therapists, it still remains the basis of Counselling and Psychotherapy in the modern day and its value cannot be overstated. Freud remains the Father of Psychotherapy and the reason you are reading this piece today.
David Trott Copyright 2012