Sigmund Freud is said to be the founder of psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalytic theory is a method of investigating and treating personality disorders and is used in psychotherapy. Included in this theory is the idea that things that happen to people during childhood can contribute to the way they later function as adults. Freud believed that the mind is made of two parts – the conscious mind and the unconscious mind – and that the unconscious mind often prompts people to make certain decisions even if they don’t recognize it on a conscious level.

Psychoanalytic Theory: Inner Forces Drive Behavior

Examples of psychoanalytic theory include:

  • April broke up with Adam, and three months later went on a date with Mark. While at the restaurant, April accidentally called Adam by Mark’s name. While this could have just been a simple accident, psychoanalytic theory says that there is a deeper reason for April’s slip – for example, she still has feelings for Mark and her mind is on him, and therefore she called her new date by her old boyfriend Mark’s name.
  • Mary’s therapist believes that Mary’s current relationship difficulties stem from the unstable relationship she had with her father while growing up.
  • Every time the vehicle she is riding in stops suddenly, Mrs. Smith panics. She thinks this is because she was in a car accident when she was a child, and in each new situation the fear of another accident crashes over her like a wave.
  • Jack’s mother left his family when he was a child. Ever since then, he has had a very difficult time trusting people because he is afraid they will abandon him.
  • Tom and Ashley were participating in pre-marital counseling. It came up during one session that Ashley may have difficulty really believing that Tom loves her because she never felt that her parents loved her.
  • The violent behavior of criminals is often traced to the violent ways they themselves were treated during their formative years.
  • Amber is 57 years old and is an accomplished professional, but she never feels like her work is good enough and is always afraid that people will be unhappy with her performance. She realizes that she might have this outlook because when she was growing up, her mother criticized everything she did. If she brought home a test with an A+ on it, her mother would comment that Amber must have cheated because she certainly wasn’t smart enough to do that well on her own.
  • Sylvia was planning her wedding, but her mother wanted to override every decision Sylvia made. In conversation one day, Sylvia’s mother admitted that she never got to have the wedding that she wanted, so she was trying to include what she had wanted for her own wedding into her daughter’s wedding.
  • Andrew lost his car keys and was late for work. A psychoanalytic theorist might say that he lost his keys because, somewhere in his subconscious, he did not want to go to work that day and actually wanted to quit his job.
  • Kathy was driving her daughter around in the van, trying to get the three-month-old to take a nap. She wasn’t paying much attention to where she was going, and realized that she had driven to the house of an old friend with whom she hadn’t spoken in years. She wondered if that was her subconscious telling her that it was time to reconcile with her friend.
  • Heather often tells white lies and is known for giving evasive answers to questions. Her husband thinks Heather does this because deep down she is afraid of facing the truth about difficult situations, so she avoids the truth in both major and minor circumstances.
  • Justin’s parents have always encouraged him to play baseball and think he is an excellent player; but, Justin would rather play tennis. His parents make him try out for the baseball team anyway. Justin does not make the team. He normally is a good player, but on the day of tryouts he did not do well. He probably was not able to play his best because, deep down, he did not want to make the team anyway.
  • Lexi is adamant that she does not want to get married. Her parents divorced when she was young, and deep down, she does not really think that any marriage can work.
  • Matt has asked Miranda several times to get together to study. Miranda keeps saying she wants to, but is never available when Matt asks. Matt finally concludes that Miranda probably really doesn’t want to meet with him, or else she would make it work.
  • When Kelly was seven, her brother died. Now that she is about to be married, her deepest fear comes out: she is terrified to have children, especially a son, because she is afraid that child will die at a young age.
  • When Melanie graduated from college, she almost couldn’t believe it. She never thought she’d do it because the words of her first grade teacher calling her a failure had always haunted her.
  • When Tim proposed to Emma, she didn’t accept, because she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that he wanted to be with her for a lifetime. Six years earlier her fiancé had called off their wedding after the rehearsal dinner, and Emma had never recovered.
  • Cheryl had grown up in an abusive home, and couldn’t wait to get to college to escape from her parents. She met some wonderful people at school, but it took her a long time to develop close friendships because of the trust issues she had developed as a child and teenager.
  • Laura reminded her co-worker Max of his mother, from whom he was estranged. Max found it harder and harder to separate his feelings towards Laura from his feelings towards his mother. Even though Laura was perfectly nice, her mannerisms and speech seemed like a mirror image of his mom. At the end of one particularly difficult day, Max blew up at Laura, letting loose with a string of comments he’d wanted for years to say to his mom but never did.
  • Sarah was adopted into a loving family when she was five.  However, for years she displayed aggressive behavior towards her adoptive parents and siblings, even though they were incredibly kind to her. The adoption specialists advised the family not to take Sarah’s behavior personally, explaining that her anger was really directed at her birth parents and former foster families for the way she had been treated.

These all help to illustrate how psychoanalytic theory works.

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