Study Guide

Psychoanalysis Buzzwords

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You know when you both really, really love something and really, really hate it, all at the same time? Or maybe you feel that way about a special someone? Well, that's ambivalence for you: strongly conflicting feelings.

Freud thought that ambivalence characterized all human relationships, even those that seemed to be most loving. Which is a pretty scary idea, if you stop to think about it.


You know the deal: "to want and not to have—to want and want." That's, at least, how Virginia Woolf's Lily Briscoe defines desire, and her definition comes close to the psychoanalytic definition of this word.

For Freud and Friends, desire is what keeps us wanting and not having. This notion is especially associated with the work of Lacan and his followers, who believed we are forever destined to desire not only what we can never obtain, but also what we think we did once have: perfect love and safety.

When did that ever happen, you ask? Oh, you know, when you were "one" with you mother, chilling out in that cozy, warm place we like to call the womb. Weird, we know… but worth pondering.

Free Association

This is the procedure that the psychoanalyst uses to get inside his patient's noggin. The deal is this: the patient is supposed to say whatever comes to mind—however odd, embarrassing, or scary it may be. And however much the patient may be tempted to censor it for the analyst's sake.

So free association is something like freestyle rap, except there's no beat to accompany the association. Only the analyst's famous silence. Cue the crickets.


Freud said every analysis could be interminable, at least in theory. What he meant was that an analysis can go on and on—kind of like that song that never ends. The only boundaries, really, are the patient's time and will to keep talking. Well, not to mention the money.

Anywho, the point is that you never really get to the bottom of the unconscious; it's always possible to keep peeling back new layers of that mind stuff. Nice work if you can get it, right?


This word has a special meaning in psychoanalysis that's different from your everyday, old-fashioned "interpretation." In psychoanalysis, the analyst's response to the patient's free-wheelin' associations is what's called an interpretation.

Obviously, these interpretations seek to make sense of what the suffering patient has said—to spin some poor ole human's mess of symptoms and reminiscences into a coherent story. But psychoanalytic interpretations were not meant to be definitive or final. (They're interminable, remember?)


Usually, a cause and its effect happen one right after the other: you get a splinter in your foot on the boardwalk and you yelp, "ouch." But that's not always how it happens, is it?

Say you had a bad bike accident six months ago. You got right back on the bike then, and have been fine to ride ever since. Only now, just after waking up this morning, you're breaking down in tears at the mere thought of biking again.

That's latency: a delay that separates an event from its felt effects. And this notion of latency has major implications for how we read lit, because it suggests that texts can come alive long after their authors have died. That is, books can speak to and even help readers anytime, anywhere.



Picture the famously neurotic Woody Allen, and you'll already have a pretty clear idea of what it means to be in the grips of neurosis. Oh, and psychoanalysis defines neurosis as the result of repression or other processes that block access to unconscious forces. Huh?

We'll break it down for you. Neurotics are straight-up unbearable to be around. They obsess over every little thing, and wracked with doubt and guilt. So they have trouble doing anything at all. They have trouble just being, really. Doesn't sound like too much fun, does it?

Supposedly, neurotics are the way they are because they're unable to get in touch with their own desires. They don't know what they want or how to get it. But maybe, just maybe, if they spend a bunch of hours (and dollars) on therapy, they'll figure it all out.


Freud believed that desires deemed by society to be too dark or too deviant were repressed. Because it's pretty dangerous to walk around saying things like, "I'm really sexually aroused by balloons." So, we get it.

Dr. F also thought that we repress our most painful memories to save our conscious selves from them. Hm. Tricky subconscious.

In case it's not clear, by "repressed," Freud meant that these desires or memories were shut inside of the unconscious. And those desires sure can wreak havoc in there. If they're not worked through on a therapist's couch, that is.

(All of Freud's ideas kind of revolved around getting him more business, didn't they? Smart guy.)


This is the single most important word—and idea—in psychoanalysis. So, if you think of nothing else when someone pages Dr. Freud, think of this, Shmoopers.

The unconscious is a realm of the psyche (again, the soul or mind) that cannot be accessed directly. So what normally zips through your brain on your bike ride to work is your conscious talking, not your unconscious. And the psychoanalyst gets called in to help you figure out what's going on in that there unconscious mind.

The idea is, once you get in better touch with your unconscious mind—and the repressed desires and memories that populate it—your regular life will be less messed up. You'll do less damage to yourself, and you'll be more successful. Not that you'll ever totally stop doing damage to yourself, because the unconscious is, at least in theory, interminable.

Aw, look, mom: a happy ending. Sort of.

Working Through

We here at Shmoop are really working through a lot of things. We just might have to break up with you. You know, to have time to work on ourselves.

Just kidding. In psychoanalysis, to "work through" something is to bring repressed or unacknowledged psychic materials—especially traumatic memories and censored wishes—to light. Freud thought that this process had the power to cure what ails ya.

The more you acknowledge the dark forces in your head, Freud taught, the less you'll fall prey to these forces. And the freer you'll be. And the freer you'll be to date great people, rather than spending all of your time working through things.

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