Anal, neurotic, defensive, hysterical: We reference Freud everyday — often without even realizing it

Scientific American
He has such an ego. That’s probably a defense mechanism. I repressed that memory.

Whether you like it or not, every time you use terms like this you are giving a small nod of approval to the field of psychology known as psychoanalysis. These are terms originating right from Sigmund Freud’s couch, yet most of us only have limited appreciation of what they actually mean.

I’m not the most balanced when it comes to writing about Freud, or his highly problematic assumption of memory repression, so in order to introduce a bit more balance into my perspective I have partnered up with an expert on psychoanalysis. My co-author for this piece is Bianca Baker, a psychologist who is an expert on Freud and his therapeutic techniques.

Note that the following is a lesson on how these terms were originally intended, so keep in mind that the scientific support for every single one of these terms is highly questionable.

Here is what Bianca has to say about the original meaning of some of the most commonly used Freud-isms that populate your parlance.

1. You’re so egocentric

The term ego, comes from Sigmund Freud’s model of the mind where he defines three structures that work against one another; the id, ego and superego. The id is responsible for all instinctual impulses, the superego for the societal pressures, and the ego is responsible for maintaining a balance between the two. Originally, Freud used the term ego to refer to a sense of self, so being ego-centric meant being too focused on your sense of self.

2. Stop being defensive

Freud believed that if the ego allows the id to be more pronounced, then the superego will punish the ego with feelings of guilt, anxiety or fear. Simultaneously, the id will punish the ego for allowing the superego to come through. When this happens the ego will fight off these feelings withdefense mechanisms. Freudian defense mechanisms that you may be familiar with are denial, humor, projection, idealizing, intellectualizing, and passive aggression.

3. You must have repressed that

According to Freud, repression is a type of defense mechanism. It is said to occur when the ego protects the individual from harmful memories by making traumatic memories inaccessible. While we cannot directly access them, repressed memories of trauma are thought by people who practice psychoanalysis to be the underlying causes of many mental health problems. This assumption is highly problematic as trauma often doesnot underlie mental illness, and it is through the process of trying to uncover a repressed memory through regression therapy that therapists may inadvertently implant a false memory in their patients.

4. I’m so anal

When someone is categorized as being anal retentive it refers to Freud’s anal psychosexual stage. This is the second stage of a person’s sexual development that takes places between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. In Psychoanalysis, when something prevents development, it is said that the person becomes are stuck in that stage. The anal psychosexual stage is meant for potty training. The notion is that if parents are too harsh on their children during potty training, they may develop the need to overly control their surroundings in the future, thus making them ‘anal’.

4. He’s totally neurotic

Freud used the term Neuroses to refer to psychiatric disorders and are the ‘lesser’ of the disorders. They can include things such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression.

6. You’re being hysterical

Freud believed that Hysteria was a type of neurosis. In the late 1800’s Freud claimed that his clients who had hysteria were all at one point or another sexually abused during their childhood, which made them act in ahysterical – or overly emotional. We need to be very careful with this assumption, because like with assumptions of repression, assuming that sexual abuse must have happened to an individual can lead to the generation of false memories through leading or suggestive therapy in the attempt to uncover these memories of abuse. In today’s clinical settings hysteria has been largely replaced by Histrionic Personality Disorder, which is also a highly controversial diagnosis.

Next time you use these terms in conversation, realize what they actually mean and remember that scientists consider all of them highly problematic.

A note on Freudian therapies from a psychotherapist

The strength and quality of the client-therapist relationship, called rapport, is an important factor for effective therapy. An important part of rapport is providing an empathic environment, allowing the patient to feel comfortable enough to open up. A psychotherapist or a therapist should allow for a free and judgment-less environment.

The message to take away from this for psychotherapists is to continue offering an empathic environment that facilitates rapport, without using suggestible questions and/or comments. Equally, for those seeking treatment it is important to remember that memories are malleable and therefore to not let the therapist cloud your judgment.

Further, remember that it is the psychotherapist’s job to challenge you, yet also be empathic towards any of your thoughts allowing you an undiscriminating atmosphere that will enable you to work through your concerns.

A note on Freudian therapies from a memory scientist

If done right, even if some of their scientific foundations are shaky, many psychological therapies can help a person in need make positive changes in their life. This includes psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy.

Some researchers have even provided evidence that at least for short-term psychological treatment for it really doesn’t matter what kind of therapy you use (known as the Dodo bird verdict), as long as you have rapport with the therapist. That being said, if I were to recommend a particular type of therapy to you, I would send you to Cognitive Behavior Therapy because it has the strongest evidence base.

I encourage you to find the therapy that you like the most, but do always remember to be cautious when assumptions are made about your memories so you don’t get caught in a false memory trap.