Free association is one of the basic techniques of classical psychoanalysis, in which clients say everything that comes to mind without editing or censoring.
The use of free association was pioneered by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, after he became dissatisfied with the hypnosis-based treatment of hysterical symptoms used by his colleague Josef Breuer (1842–1925). Breuer claimed that his patients were able to recall traumatic experiences under hypnosis, and were then able to express the original emotions that had been repressed. Freud found the limitations of hypnosis unsatisfactory. By the late 1890s, when he developed a new theory of psychoanalysis, Freud included the use of free association as a method to render the unconscious conscious. His goal was to help patients identify repressed memories and the reasons for their repression. With their newfound insight, patients could know themselves more fully and act with more freedom. In traditional analysis, clients recline on a couch in an office and are directed to engage in a free association of ideas and to report, without self-censorship, whatever comes to mind. Freud seated himself behind his clients and would listen to and interpret these associations.
For free association to be effective, it is important for clients to share their thoughts freely and without regard to whether they are logical, consistent, or socially appropriate. Even thoughts that seem trivial, bizarre, or embarrassing should be reported without hesitation. Free association can be difficult for people who are accustomed to editing their thoughts, presenting them in a linear fashion, and leaving out embarrassing or socially inappropriate material. However, the technique becomes more fluid with practice and with encouragement by the analyst. The more closely clients can replicate their stream of consciousness, the more likely it is that defenses will be lowered and repressed material brought to light. Connections among the thoughts is as significant as the content of the thoughts themselves and both offer important information to the psychoanalyst.
See also Ego ; Freud, Sigmund; Id ; Superego .
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