At the outset I want to just exclaim how much joy it gave me to chance upon this particular part of Freud’s writings, and how excited I am to share this! It’s a slightly long post, so if you’re in a rush, just skip to the bit by Freud.
I was reading Five Lectures on Psych-Analysis by Sigmund Freud. I’ll mention briefly what he talks about and then explain why:
He was talking in great detail about our urges, very often sexual in nature, which get repressed to spare us from the trauma of living consciously with the knowledge of such urges. What also get repressed are impulses and instincts, and fears. As I see it, the idea of conscious-unconscious that he proposes is this –
We repress all that we can’t handle at the moment that it originates. But as events unfold in the daily goings-on of life, some of these impulses find reason and energy to surface. They want to express themselves, while the conscious part of our minds tries to use more energy to repress them further.
When we don’t allow ourselves a way of facing and resolving these complexes, by devising a path for these repressed ideas to come to surface, we suffer all kinds of mental troubles.
For this, Freud proposes psycho-analysis as –
that modality through which each one of us can work back towards these urges, using our dreams and associations, to gently relive what it was that bothered us in the first place. The aim is to relieve the repressing energy from its job, and instead substitute it with conscious “condemning judgment”. This means that instead of banishing it from our minds, we instead face it. Our moral values are what cause us to repress. Keeping in mind that these can change, and supposing that we are more mature than we were when the idea got repressed, we are in a better position to simply judge the idea, and remove it as a thought that we subscribe to. If correctly identified and sufficiently cathected (discharged), this will help us alleviate physical and mental symptoms that are plaguing us as a result of the repression.
So this is what Freud proposed happens to unwanted ideas, emotions, instincts and urges that leads them to become causes of mild to severe mental trauma.
Assuming for now that we subscribe to Freud’s ideas, let’s now turn to how he describes the reception of the idea of mental illness back in 1900, when no one believed in it.
“People are afraid of doing harm by psycho-analysis; they are afraid of bringing the patient’s repressed sexual instincts into the patient’s consciousness, as though that involved a danger of their overwhelming his higher ethical trends and of their robbing him of his cultural acquisitions. People notice that the patient has sore spots in his mind, but shrink from touching them for fear of increasing his sufferings. We can accept this analogy. It is no doubt kinder not to touch diseased spots if it can do nothing but cause pain. But, as we know,
a surgeon does not refrain from examining and handling a focus of disease, if he is intending to take active measures which he believes will lead to a permanent cure. No one thinks of blaming him for the inevitable suffering caused by the examination or for the reactions to the operation, if only it gains its end and the patient achieves a lasting recovery as a result of the temporary worsening of his state.
The case is similar with psycho-analysis. It may make the same claims as surgery: the increase in suffering which it causes the patient during treatment is incomparably less than what a surgeon causes, and is quite negligible in proportion to the severity of the underlying ailment. On the other hand, the final outcome that is so much dreaded – the destruction of the patient’s cultural character by the instincts which have been set free from repression – is totally impossible… a wishful impulse, when once its repression has failed, is far stronger if it is unconscious than if it is conscious; so that to make it conscious can only be to weaken it. An unconscious wish cannot be influenced and it is independent of any contrary tendencies, whereas a conscious one is inhibited by whatever else is conscious and opposed to it. Thus the work of psycho-analysis puts itself at the orders of precisely the highest and most valuable cultural trends, as a better substitute for the unsuccessful repression.”
In the midst of explaining to us how psycho-analysis works, Freud also used an analogy to explain what some of the reservations to accepting psycho-analysis as a viable mode of treatment might be. In reading this, I had only one thought –
nothing much has changed since the early 1900s when he wrote this.
Our science has told us so much more about the role of genetics in mental illness; therapies have branched off from psycho-analysis to produce various forms of intervention that have proven to be supremely affective. And yet, here we are. Still singing the same song – accept mental illness as any other physical illness, it is nothing to fear, and whether you want them to be or not, emotional traumas are a part of everyone’s life.
It’s a bit sad. I would have hoped for a different outcome for us. Perhaps one in which we all accepted mental health and illness as a normal part of life. Well, I suppose it’s never too late to start.