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What does a Psychoanalyst do?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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What a psychoanalyst may do is highly dependent on training, though there are a few basic elements in psychoanalysis that are likely to be similar or the same. It is first important to note that in many places, anyone who practices therapy could claim they practice psychoanalysis because the term is not legally protected. Those who want analysts with real training must investigate if they have undergone the extensive post-graduate work involved in this discipline, which is usually available in each country in only a few places.

It’s also valuable to understand that psychoanalyst and therapist are not exactly the same terms. Psychoanalysis derives from the tradition begun by Sigmund Freud and carried on in different directions by practitioners like Carl Jung. Freudian or Jungian orientation are two completely separate things and people seeing an analyst specializing in one or the other could expect very distinct approaches to the process. What makes them similar is that both use a related format when working with patients.

Essentially, in psychoanalysis the goal is to meet with the patient often, sometimes almost daily, for hour long stretches so that patient can use things such as free association to reveal the unconscious self. The analyst, who could ask questions or ask for clarification, may occasionally direct this, but also listens intently to each client. The patient might lie on a couch not facing the analyst, or sometimes face-to-face work with both people sitting is used. The goal of the analyst is to help the patient, or analysand, process unconscious material, creating a deeper knowledge of self and an end to some problems. This can take several years to accomplish.

The psychoanalyst typically sees many patients a week, but given the time commitment required for each patient, patient load could be much lower than that of therapists who meet once weekly with many of their clients. It is felt that numerous meetings forms a deeper relationship with each analysand, though not all patients complete treatment. At the same time the analyst forms this relationship, he/she must be wary of projecting his/her feelings onto patients and must work to keep his/her countertransferences, wishes, and desires from influencing the emergence of each client’s unconscious thoughts. Generally psychoanalysis depends on creating the transference relationship and the psychoanalyst tries not to impede that process.

Another thing that a psychoanalyst may do is prescribe medications. Many people who come to professional training are doctors or psychiatrists, and as such, they can use prescribing as a method for clearing away those disorders that are biologically based. This leaves the client free to work on those issues simmering in the unconscious that are not based in faulty neurotransmitter action or other medical conditions.

Some psychoanalysts manage their own offices and are responsible for setting all appointments, billing insurance companies or collecting money directly from clients. Others may employ an office manager for this work. In addition to practicing analysis, many could be involved in the field in other ways. They might conduct research, write books or articles, and train or supervise beginning analysts. A few analysts teach or lecture also and are associated with institutions that train in specific psychoanalytic methods.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By fBoyle — On Jul 23, 2014

@bluedolphin-- I disagree with you. Although the methods used by psychoanalysts may vary, many psychoanalysts do analyze dreams.

Psychoanalysis itself is about understanding the subconscious. The goal is to understand how certain subconscious beliefs or inclinations are causing issues for a patient. Psychoanalysis tries to find a link between visible symptoms and subconscious causes. So I cannot imagine psychoanalysts not considering a patient's dreams in this process.

By bluedolphin — On Jul 23, 2014

I think that dreams and dream analysis are the most interesting aspect of a pschoanalyst's work. I came across a Sigmund Freud book at the library and read the section about dreams and their meanings.

I think that modern psychoanalysts do not place as much emphasis on dreams as they ought to. I'm sure psychoanalysts who use Freud's methods do but I think even others should. I think that dreams can reveal much more about a person's subconscious than many other methods.

By SarahGen — On Jul 23, 2014

I think it's easy for people to confuse the terms psychoanalyst and therapist. It may partly have to do with how psychoanalysts and therapists are portrayed in popular culture, such as TV shows and films. A scene about a character visiting a therapist is a very common scene on TV. But the therapist is usually shown like a psychoanalyst. The patient lies down on a leather couch, talks and talks. The "therapist" just sits there and constantly jots things down onto paper, never talking or saying just a word or two there.

Another popular scene of therapist is when the therapist is showing various images to the patient and asks the patient what the images look like. As far as I know, this also a method of psychoanalysis and is done by a psychoanalyst.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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