What is the main or most often articulated criticism of psychoanalytic theory? (outside of academia, at least.) To put it simply: the strong emphasis on childhood, a lack of scientific fundament, and research that would clearly demonstrate its effectiveness today.
Lately, I have heard cynical perceptions about psychoanalytic treatment from too many people from all over the world, through media or personal interactions. Manly, these were the people without the education concretely in psychology or related subjects. Simply young professionals from various backgrounds and fields, needing therapy for themselves or their family members at some point in their lives. Preferring one type of therapy over the other is understandable, normal, and common. But what so many people are saying (or more likely - repeating a piece of circulating information) is not reasonable criticism but simply cynical claims that psychoanalysis is something outdated, kind of “out of fashion” old thing that has no place in modern, progressive people’s lives. What’s the point of endlessly digging into what happened 100 years ago, they say, or visiting psychoanalysis for years and years without clear and obvious results?! What’s the point in talking about my childhood, traumas, and parents when I can simply take medications? How is it even relevant to what I’m feeling now, at this moment? What I really need is to learn concrete techniques that will help me manage my condition or anxieties, preferably in a short period of time, and move on with my life. And most importantly, I need something scientifically proven, like CBT.
First of all, scientifically proving something when it comes to any type of psychotherapy is very complicated. And of course, there’s no denying that for some conditions, CBT, short-term therapy, or medications seems to be more effective than psychoanalysis. But the point is: there are no clear and concrete answers or results. Perceiving one type of therapy as outdated and another as progressive is simply irrelevant.
Bruce Fink, an American Lacanian psychoanalyst, mentioned, that “Just because certain of Freud’s more speculative theories have rightly been called into question and even sharply critiqued, that doesn’t mean that the more fundamental concepts and techniques he developed related to the unconscious, free association, and dream interpretation are useless. Studies in France have shown that people who go through analysis often say that their work with dreams was the most helpful part of their analyses. I think we should take what patients say was most helpful very seriously indeed!”
Jacques Lacan himself, (when speaking about Freud) completely denied the crisis of psychoanalysis of which we hear more and more last decades and said: “this so-called crisis. It does not exist, it could not. Psychoanalysis has not come close to finding its own limits, yet. There is still so much to discover in practice and in consciousness. In psychoanalysis, there are no immediate answers, but only the long and patient search for reasons. Secondly, Freud. How can it be said that he has been left behind when we have still not yet entirely understood him? What we do know for sure is that he made us aware of things that are entirely novel, that would not even have been imagined before him, from the problems of the unconscious to the importance of sexuality, from access to the symbolic sphere to subjection to the laws of language. His doctrine put truth itself in question, and this concerns everyone, each individual personally. It is hardly in crisis.”
Back in 2019, I had an interview with Martin Wieser, Assistant Professor of Theory & History of Psychology at Sigmund Freud University. We spoke about the influence and relevance of Sigmund Freud today, 80 years after his death. I asked him why psychoanalysis seems to be discredited, in crisis, and far from scientifically proven. He answered:
I do think that in a few circles within the psychoanalytic community, there is a big problem or a challenge to develop psychoanalysis further beyond Freud. He was and still is such a dominant figure in this whole movement, that it seems to be almost impossible or at least extremely hard to make a new beginning or at least to scratch on the foundations. I think that is a problem in scientific contexts: if a father figure is still so dominant that it is not allowed to step beyond him, then development is not possible anymore, and science becomes dogmatic. That is the death of science. I think that is a problem, but it doesn’t mean that the whole approach should be considered as unscientific.
I think we should accept that science has a lot of different methods, concepts and theories. The biggest problem for many psychologists is to acknowledge that it is justified, and in many cases necessary, to gather data that is not collected by measurement and experimentation. Let’s take the example of the theory of evolution: in scientific communities, you don’t really hear people criticizing Darwin’s theory of evolution as unscientific because of methodological reasons. You can hear criticism of some parts of it, but surely not his approach of observing as a whole. Evolutionary theory is a part of biology that has its own methods — it doesn’t really work as pure laboratory research. It’s just not possible to control the extinction of species in a controlled setting, for example, you can just collect signs and remnants of species that once existed, and try to come to conclusions from these signs. Darwin collected data by careful observation, by traveling to different locations and trying to find out how species developed over time in different environments. I can not remember reading any psychologists criticizing Darwin for being “unscientific”, although he did not base his findings on experimentation and quantification.
A much more interesting question regarding psychoanalysis, from my perspective, is what kind of science it is. And again, when we look at Freud’s academic education, we can easily see that he was not just a prolific writer, but also a very dedicated laboratorian.
I do not think that the people who criticize psychoanalysis for being unscientific would, in general, say that this whole approach is unscientific per se. So what do they mean when they say “unscientific”? Psychoanalysis is a theory, but it is also a method, and it is an organization of academics and practitioners. I think it is not very fruitful to engage into a general and vague discussion whether a body of knowledge, methods and experts is unscientific in general or not. I think it is necessary to make the criticism more precise to start a meaningful discussion.”
It is, of course, crucial to constructively criticize psychoanalysis as a method and theory. How else would it evolve and develop? But at the same time, for me personally, completely detaching your current anxiety or depression from your own past or even childhood and perceiving such an approach as progressive seems absurd and even illogical. You literally are the product of your past, childhood, present, and surroundings.
When I hear such cynical explanations about why people prefer CBT or short-term psychotherapy to psychoanalysis (progressive vs. outdated narrative), I can only think that the reason behind it either simple disinformation or denial. Fear of having to dive deeper into your past. Avoidance of confronting yourself.
I am not claiming that psychodynamic psychotherapy is the only solution or that diving deeper into your childhood and traumas is always beneficial, helpful, or a good idea. But I am saying, still, that detaching yourself at the moment from yourself in the past and, therefore, dismissing the very context of your life is not scientific or progressive. Your whole story is not really separable from your current stressors or triggers, simply because what concretely triggers or stresses you is the consequence of your context - including your past, childhood, upbringing, trauma, experiences, surroundings, and many other complicated factors.
At the same time, this is not to claim of course, that CBT, short-term therapy, medications, or any other type of treatment is less effective or inferior to psychodynamic psychotherapy. What bothers me is simply this progressive vs outdated narrative and discourse in the context of psychoanalysis.
Anyway, here are some great in-depth videos from “Berlin Psychoanalytic” about how and why psychoanalysis works: