While the exchange between the client and therapist occurs through verbal and nonverbal communications, it is fundamentally a relationship conducted through words. It is still “the talking cure” (Freud, 1910, p. 13), though I don’t think so much about “cure” as I do about “change” or “development.” [Interestingly, it was Freud’s patient who coined the term.] Typically a client comes into therapy because of some distressing issues which he wants to change. And we set about talking to figure out what those issues are and what is needed to make for change. The process of talking, which involves the expression of feelings, thoughts, needs, as well as listening closely to other, is a fundamental part of the process that promotes change.
I tend to pay particular attention to words, mostly the ones that my clients use, sometimes the ones that I use as well. I think about the meaning of particular words; I notice when clients use certain key words and phrases. And, of course, I talk about these words and their meanings. The attention to words reveals when they are mistakenly used as well. These are slips of the tongue, parapraxis, words that a client didn’t mean (at least consciously) to say. I tend to get excited when these happen.
Freud (1901) asserted that seemingly trivial, bizarre, or nonsensical errors and slips are material that could be interpreted as meaningful. Often I find that when I point out a slip and we investigate its possible meaning, we get a glimpse into the unconscious. A client, instead of saying “every situation is different,” as he had intended, said “every situation is the same.” That was the point that I had been making, as we were discussing how aspects of his past seemed to be replicated in the present. Another client, talking about his fear of disappointing others, instead of saying “they’ll be disappointed by me,” said “they’ll disappoint me.” This slip allowed us to examine his disappointment, something that was usually obscured behind his focus on disappointing others.
I get excited when these slips of the tongue occur because I suspect that something out of the unconscious has just entered the room and made its presence known. While it may be that we can never know what is unconscious, we can get glimpses and intimations, and from that knowledge gain more of a sense of control over one’s life and have a greater range of choice. Improving one’s sense of control and having choices are at the core of therapeutic ambition. A slip of the tongue just might be an important moment in that work.
Freud, S. (1901). Psychopathology of Everyday Life; Trans. by A. A. Brill. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1914.
Freud, S. (1910). Five Lectures on Psycho-analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI (1910): Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works, 1-56.