Welcome to the home page of the Psychoanalytic Research Consortium (PRC). If you have made it this far, you are likely interested in exploring more about psychotherapy. Through this website, we intend to provide a wide range of information about psychotherapy, for therapists, educators, potential patients, researchers, and any others that may become curious about the psychotherapy process, the various ways therapists listen to and help patients, and the kinds of changes that come about via psychotherapy. Every patient has a story to tell, and as psychotherapists we listen in a particular way, and we respond in a way that we hope will somehow help the patient. Throughout this website, you may notice reference to distinct modalities or forms of psychotherapy, particular topics that come up for patients experiencing particular difficulties, and more abstract or theoretical terms developed by psychotherapists or researchers to describe what they encounter in their work and what they do. Nevertheless, we hope to provide an easy-to-understand, widely-applicable resource for anyone interested in the study of any type of psychotherapeutic treatment, the process of how therapists help people more generally, how best to teach people to become therapists, and how an in-depth understanding of the psychotherapy process can help therapists better help their patients.
Our hope is that this website provides a nexus, through which anyone can explore their interests in psychotherapy more deeply. Psychotherapy of any type involves a set of processes that can and have been studied using empirical research methods. Some of you may be curious about the evidence for whether and how these treatments work, for whom or for what kinds of problems, and to what extent or what types of change can be expected from them. Psychoanalytic research (external links) is an important way we answer such questions about the psychoanalytic process. Some of you may have found this site in an effort to understand how best to teach psychodynamic therapy or psychoanalysis. By understanding our shared fundamental principles more deeply and the nature of our controversial differences more specifically, we can help optimize learning how to become a better psychotherapist and how best to assist our patients with their difficulties (internal link).
A Psychoanalytic Approach
There are many kinds of psychotherapeutic treatments, each of which make particular assumptions and utilize a particular approach in helping patients. Because of the backgrounds of our members, the PRC is rooted in a psychoanalytic approach. However, we are committed to the idea that a psychoanalytic approach–along with an open mind and an effort to find common ground in how we think about the psychotherapeutic process–can help us understand what might be helpful in other kinds of treatment. Moreover, we remain open to the possibility that other, non-psychoanalytic treatments can offer a great deal in terms of our understanding of how we can best help people manage their various emotional difficulties.
Some definitions may be helpful. In our view, psychoanalysis is an orientation to how the mind works, with a variety of theoretical assumptions and conclusions, but it is also a specific method of treatment of mental illness and emotional difficulty and problems in living. Typically, psychoanalysis involves a more intensive commitment on the part of psychotherapist and patient alike, and is focused on some type of understanding of the patient’s mind and feelings. Psychodynamic psychotherapy is also a treatment, largely based on similar ideas and a similar approach, but with certain modifications from psychoanalysis and somewhat lesser intensity and usually lesser frequency of meetings. Psychodynamic therapy involves providing relief from suffering even when a more complete understanding of the inner workings of the mind may not be feasible or expedient. In a sense, then, there are many different kinds of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies–perhaps as many kinds as there are psychotherapists and patients. There is ongoing discussion about the extent to which psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy are similar or different, but most agree that, despite the differences, they are all also based on some shared principles. These shared principles concern a view of how the mind works (including aspects of mind that are not in a person’s immediate awareness), the emotional difficulties that sometimes arise in human beings, and the kinds of processes that help people achieve meaningful relief to certain types of suffering and understand themselves. These treatments often aim to both relieve suffering from painful symptoms, and also find meaning in life and create the possibility for deeper and longer-lasting change. Treatment often includes addressing problematic ways the person thinks about him/herself, frustrating or repetitive ways of relating to others, and patterns of difficulty managing feelings that the individual has experienced for a long time, and may even feel like a part of the individual’s personality.
Shared Principles: Consciousness and Unconsciousness
One basic principle common to various forms of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies involves a belief in the importance and power of the unconscious—in other words, that area of the mind that a person may not be fully aware of. There are a variety of theories about what the unconscious mind is made up of, how accessible or inaccessible it is to certain kinds of experience or intervention, whether its impact is largely destructive or largely generative or neither. For the most part, psychoanalysts agree that there is some part of the mind that is not conscious, and there is some purposeful mechanism via which thoughts, feelings, intentions, and other mental experiences become either conscious or unconscious. Sometimes, the intensity of a feeling makes it difficult enough to tolerate that it is made unconscious, along with a variety of associated thoughts. Some think about the unconscious as related to past events or relationships that have been taken in but cannot be fully experienced without disorientation or falling apart. Sometimes, it is the mixture of feelings, rather than the intensity, that becomes so troubling that it motivates a change in awareness. For example, sometimes we can feel driven to seek out a variety of specific types of experiences at a bodily level, but also feel frustrated in these pursuits, frightened or guilty about associated consequences, or ashamed about what such feelings might mean to others. Amidst such mixed and incommensurate feelings, a compromise can occur in which certain aspects of mental life are pushed out of awareness, in order to maintain some sort of equilibrium and go on with life.
Because of how complicated and variable these ways of managing thoughts and feelings can be, most psychoanalysts therefore recommend that their patients try not to hold back thoughts and feelings that arise in their mind as they attend the treatment sessions, in an effort to explore areas of the mind that might otherwise remain hidden. Of course, this is not always easy and not always possible for a patient. The psychoanalyst therefore attempts to understand what is not being spoken about and why, as much as what is being voiced in the session. It is also crucially important for the therapist to create a safe, confidential environment for the patient to explore these intimate thoughts and feelings.
Shared Principles: Past Experience Affects the Mind
Most psychotherapists would agree that the nature and functioning of the unconscious and the conscious mind, how the mind adapts to a changing world, and how different aspects of the mind coordinate with one another is related to both an individual’s genetic and biological predispositions, but also more idiosyncratic past experiences in the individual’s life history that take on some specific meaning. In effect, this means that as psychotherapists, we listen to patients talking about their feelings and their difficulties, and help them understand the meaning in these stories relative to their overall life history and current context. Often, we think about how a variety of internal and interpersonal experiences (with parents, significant others, etc.) affect the development of an individual’s mind and why it functions the way it does.
Therefore, another basic principle of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy is that meaningful relationships affect emotional functioning and affect the manner and extent to which an individual can manage or even think about certain kinds of troubling thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Sometimes, psychotherapists help patients re-contextualize their emotional experiences, based on the individual’s history and development with other important people in his/her life, so that their lives are less troubling. It may turn out that an individual is not aware of his/her unconscious efforts to protect him/herself from some dangerous or emotionally troubling feeling experienced long ago in a different context or with some significant other. By exploring an individual’s defenses—their benefits as well as their costs—sometimes this helps the individual adjust and adapt more effectively to a changing world. This can involve insights into protective mechanisms that also limit or even blind a person to certain useful (though also painful) thoughts, feelings, or intentions. The pattern of these repetitive ways of relating or managing certain feelings also can be a clue to understanding important hopes that the individual has not been aware of trying to achieve.
Shared Principles: Focus on the Present
This might lend some credence to the stereotype that psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy involves a focus on the past, but this is a huge misconception. By contrast to other forms of mental health treatment that focus more or entirely on the past, psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy are perhaps best distinguished as the only treatments that prioritize the present above all else. Other forms of psychotherapy privilege discussing what patients have experienced prior to arriving to their treatment session, in their lives apart from the therapist. Typically, the patient will describe a variety of symptoms and other emotional or interpersonal problems experienced in the time since he/she last saw the therapist. This happens in our psychoanalytic approach as well, of course, in the effort to clarify patterns of emotional functioning or relating, understand defenses, become more aware of aspects of a patient’s story that seemed inaccessible for some reason, and come to terms with mixed feelings. However, in contrast to many other kinds of treatment, a psychoanalytic approach places great importance on examining the here-and-now experience of therapist and patient relating to one another. Just as we noted above about other relationships in a patient’s past, this therapeutic relationship is considered another example of a significant other capable of affecting mental functioning.
Therefore, another basic principle of the psychoanalytic approach is that the patient’s patterns of difficulty will come to affect the relationship between patient and therapist. By looking at the relationship between patient and therapist over time, therapist and patient can come to understand first-hand the development of the patient’s emotional difficulties, the patient can feel increasingly recognized and understood, and he/she can feel more curious and free to explore different ways to overcome his/her emotional difficulties. Unlike in other forms of treatment, in which additional information becomes the key to change and relief from suffering, to a large extent psychoanalysis involves living out these difficulties with the therapist and, together, working through them to find solutions, free up one’s mind to become more curious, playful, and creative, and generate different meanings and different ways of relating.