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Apr 2016 by PCI College

Why Psychoanalysis? Remembering the role of language in psychotherapy

Aisling Hearns explores the importance of remembering the role of language in psychotherapy.

Words were originally magic and to this day have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair, by words the teacher conveys knowledge to his pupils, by words the orator carries his audience with him and determines their judgments and decisions. Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. Thus we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy…” (Freud, 1916: 41-42).


Words are incredibly powerful and we tend to forget that when it comes to psychotherapy and the ‘talking cure’. We experience the power of words on a constant basis. Film uses it with great effect by inserting motivational scenes involving one of the characters offering a moving speech. We see it in literature, when it is nothing but words that have the ability to make us laugh, move us to tears, build up images of characters and make emotional attachments to them, even when fictional. We see it in music, when a certain song or lyric speaks to us with such meaning that it can be the benchmark of change in someone’s life. Language, words, speech: these are the things that separate humans out from the rest of the natural world. First words matter. Last words, even more so. People tend to hold favourite quotes close to their hearts, and with good reason. Language brings meaning.


Freudian theory believes that the unconscious is structured like a language. It is through language that we have the ability to analyse our thoughts, both conscious and unconscious. It is through this theory that we can start to make sense of the world. By using the Freudian approach to interpretation, we understand and find the meaning that we are often so incessantly searching for. We see it in the slip of the tongue, the telling of a dream, the laughing at a joke, or the temporary memory lapses we may have related to trivial details we are sure we know. It is not enough to ‘see it’ in our minds eye; it is not enough to have a sense of what we are trying to say; it is not meaningful until the symbolisation can take place through language.


Symbolism and meaning are closely intertwined.  And language is at the root. So I return to my original question: Why Psychoanalysis? Psychoanalysis is often seen as ‘dated’ in modern circles of the psychotherapy world these days. I feel this is an injustice to the legacy in which Freud presented to the world and to us, psychotherapists. Psychoanalysis has proven to be the basis, the solid foundation, on which all subsequent psychotherapeutic theory was built. Its theories relating to the unconscious have stood the test of time and will remain relevant because of the connection to language and the symbolic world in which we live. It has a flexibility in its approach seldom found in other psychotherapeutic theories. There are no tricks, no tools, and no homework. Because psychoanalysis focuses on what lies beneath it is not limited to what is presented above the surface. Symbolisation is the aim. Language is the key. So I will echo Freud in saying “we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy…” (Freud, 1916: 42) and, in turn, we shall not forget the importance of psychoanalysis in psychotherapy.



Author Bio (max Word Count 350): Aisling Hearns is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. She currently works full-time as the head of therapy and as the senior psychotherapist in Spirasi. Spirasi is the rehabilitation centre for survivors of torture in Ireland. She also works in private practice in both Bray and Dublin City Centre. Her background is in working with trauma-related disorders, such as addiction, depression, eating disorders and anxety. Aisling recently started lecturing with PCI College. 



References / Further Reading:


Freud, S. (1916) Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis


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