“…analysis does not set out to make pathological reactions impossible, but to give the patient’s ego freedom to decide one way or the other.”
— Sigmund Freud, “The Ego and the Id”
I recently came upon this quotation and I was very drawn to it. Here Freud, writing nearly a century ago, is defining what remains one of the essential ambitions of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy: the goal of freedom.
In this quotation, Freud is speaking about the ego, that part of the person that decides, adjudicates, thinks, and can make choices. And he is emphasizing choice, latitude, freedom in being able to decide (which intrinsically implies choice). Of course, an essential aim of therapy, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, is to help clients change patterns, thoughts and behaviors that get in the way and contribute to suffering. A person may be caught in some pattern (perhaps an addiction or a repeating pattern that leads to failed relationships and lingering loneliness) that continues to negatively affect his or her life. Our endeavor in therapy is to first understand this pattern, what maintains it, and then how to help change. As Freud stipulates, no strategy exists to prevent those sorts of patterns, what he refers to as “pathological reactions,” from ever occurring. We are imperfect beings; we will react, we will falter, we will make mistakes. The aim is not to be perfect.
The aim, from the perspective of psychotherapy, is to have a greater sense of choice. In analysis or psychotherapy, we endeavor to understand the ways in which a person has become stuck, rigid, or inflexible. Often this condition has to do with the ways a person has tried to protect him or herself over many years. A person who describes himself as picky, for example, often finding faults in others and remaining alone, may have unconsciously devised this strategy as a protection against rejection (perhaps having experienced painful earlier rejections). That person is caught in a rigid defensive system, one intended to help and protect but that actually causes more harm and pain.
Psychotherapy can be viewed as yoga for the mind and body. The overall principle behind this practice, as in yoga, is that flexibility is a coveted state of existence. With such flexibility, there comes the ability to make more choices, hopefully those that are better for the person. In our example above, with the knowledge that this man has that he is trying to protect himself and greater insight into how he can do that without sabotaging relationships, he has more choice. He is freer, more flexible and there are enhanced possibilities, particularly for relationship, in his life. With such flexibility, there also comes a greater sense of who one is. One’s horizons, about oneself, the world, the future, open up. One can truly stretch out into the world.