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Psychoanalysis as Emotional Education

Powerful aspects of the analytic relationship.

Key points

  • Psychoanalysis helps one understand how one's mind works.
  • Psychoanalysis mitigates shame.
  • Talking about feelings helps understand and integrate them.
  • Self-reflection is vital to emotional health and creativity.
Modern Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy/used with permission
Source: Modern Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy/used with permission

​Nancy McWilliams says psychoanalysis is, among other things, a form of education, “an intense, deeply personal, emotionally powerful, intimate kind of education.”

Making the Unconscious Conscious

Psychoanalysis begins with the assertion of unconscious mental life in all humans. The unconscious is the part of the psyche that contains emotional conflicts, memories, and uncomfortable wishes. It also contains great creative power.

The unconscious's hidden or “repressed” contents are rooted in childhood and not directly accessible to conscious awareness. The unconscious has a major influence on our lives. It moves us around in the world and our relationships with a dynamic force on our thoughts and behavior.

These emotional dynamics are illuminated in the therapeutic relationship through the golden key of "transference." In psychoanalysis or psychodynamic therapy, old feelings arise and are transferred to the analyst. These psychic experiences become objects of contemplation for the analytic couple. While it may be difficult for the patient to express feelings toward the analyst, this is the crux of transference and healing. Such feelings are important to verbalize, even those that may be thought of as “negative,” such as anger, frustration, criticism, or distrust.

An old dictum, but still a cornerstone: a main task of therapy is to make the unconscious conscious. Patients come to realize things they had known only unconsciously or are altogether new, having never even had unconscious (repressed) representation.

Mitigation of Shame

Shame is an unpleasant, debilitating emotion. As McWilliams says, it’s the experience of there being something immodest, dishonorable, or indecorous in one’s circumstances or conduct. One has been seen in a scornful way and exposed, magnified as if through a contemptuous microscope. Shame is the feeling of being defenseless to the point of indignity. It causes a collapse of self-esteem.

According to McWilliams, shame is

typically characterized by withdrawal from social intercourse, which can have a profound effect on psychological adjustment and interpersonal relationships. Shame may motivate not only avoidant behavior but also defensive, retaliative anger.

Shame is a “self-conscious” emotion: produced when an event reflects on the value or worth of the self in one’s own eyes or those of another. It is a self-evaluative affect as are emotions of embarrassment, pride, revulsion, and guilt.

Shame has been called the underbelly of narcissism, the underside of a healthy vital self. It is associated with inadequacy, inferiority, a sense of defect, failure, and the perception of scorn by others. So painful are these feelings that we hide them from ourselves, yet they have a profound impact. Psychological research verifies a relationship between vulnerability to shame and many psychological symptoms, including anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. Shame can also be tied to the desire for perfection - the total negation of all shameful qualities in the self and the sense of “badness” that goes with it.

Shame also can play “a more positive adaptive function,” claims McWilliams, “by regulating experiences of excessive and inappropriate interest and excitement and by diffusing potentially threatening social behavior.”

Psychoanalysis loosens the grip of shame on our lives. It provides containment for intolerable feelings of humiliation and ways of understanding it differently through the lens of personal history. If, as a patient, I learn that on some (unconscious) level, I want to marry my mother or wish a parent dead, that recognition is likely to shame unless my analyst conveys this is an unsurprising wish.

Managing Trauma

Shame is an emotion that often results from the experience of trauma, in addition to the feeling of helplessness that is at the center of such an injury. Trauma comes from the Greek word “wound.” Psychoanalysis helps the patient understand how one’s sense of self and relation to others can be encumbered by the experience of trauma.

By definition, trauma is an event that was not experienced as it occurred because it overwhelmed sense perception. Freud described it as an excitation that breaks through the protective stimulus barrier in the psyche. Although an elusive experience that, by nature, exceeds words, there is extensive theoretical elaboration of trauma.

Trauma stops thought. The only way for the mind to survive is to shut down and cut off, to dissociate from the historical event. Associative links that characterize usual memories are obliterated. A piece of history is then “cut out” of personal experience.

Trauma is characterized by an unusual temporal structure. A traumatic event is never fully experienced at the time of its occurrence, producing a belated effect. As Cathy Caruth puts it, trauma is the repeated suffering of an injurious event but also the continual departure from the fact of its occurrence. It is not fully integrated into the personality, so it is repeated through symptoms such as intense anxiety, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or night terrors. This dynamic is well illustrated in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

The analyst is a kind of weaver alongside the patient, both together rediscovering threads of personal history in the material of a session and integrating them into the fabric of personality.

Don Carveth speaks of integration through a three-step process. As he describes it, there is an initial monism, the experience of reality as one unitary whole. This “initial monism gives way to a dualistic clash of opposites, which is then transcended… in a higher-order synthesis.” This higher synthesis is the integration into one's personality of a painfully traumatic experience through new thought connections. Robert Krell sees a post-traumatic repair through psychoanalysis, a “growth borne of trauma.”

Enhanced Capacity for Self-Reflection

Psychoanalysis provides a crucially needed space for self-reflection. It facilitates thinking about one’s own feelings, thoughts, and memories–where they come from and how they work. This occurs through empathy and what D. W. Winnicott described as an emotional “holding environment.” Thus, the patient is able to more fully realize how the past impinges on the present, often distorting one’s self-experience and view of others.

Narcissus looked alone into a pool of water. In psychoanalysis, both analyst and analysand look together at the image of self and strengthen the “leading edge” of emotional growth, what Marian Tolpin calls the “struggling tendrils of health.”


Caruth, C. (1996). Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History. Johns Hopkins U P.

Carveth, D. (2018). Psychoanalytic Thinking: A Dialectical Critique of Contemporary Theory and Practice. Routledge.

Hagman, G., Paul, H., & Zimmermann, P. (2019). Intersubjective Self-Psychology: A Primer. Routledge.

McWilliams, N. (2003). The Educative Aspects of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Psychology (20) (2).

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