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An Examined Life

Nancy McWilliams continues to discuss the power of psychoanalytic relationships.

Key points

  • Talking helps understand one's internal world.
  • Feelings are different from actions.
  • Talking about feelings often replaces action.
  • Psychoanalysis helps one develop mature values and ideals.
Modern Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy/used with permission
Modern Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy/used with permission

Freud called psychic healing "talk therapy"—his treatment for working through developmental arrests and the emotional snares of trauma.

This is Part 2 of “Psychoanalysis as Emotional Education,” based on what McWilliams outlines as some of the educative aspects of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

She also notes that over time, in addition to affecting changes in one’s life, psychoanalysis also changes brain chemistry. These are some of the reasons why:

Putting It Into Words

Giving voice to emotion sometimes occurs for the first time in therapy. As McWilliams puts it, “diffuse and problematic emotional states can be named and mastered.” The journey is one of discovering the words to say it.

The goal: finding a way to verbalize emotions, some of which have been “cut off” due to the experience of trauma or intense fear and anxiety. But also, psychoanalysis aims to discover the “leading edge” of psychic growth, the potential for new forms of vitality and joy in relationships, and moments of aloneness. This occurs through the unique reflective space created by the psychoanalytic pair.

Sometimes, McWilliams says, when the analyst restates what the patient is feeling and expresses “an unformulated perception has now been given shape,” the experience is “being organized via the power of to give form to chaos, feelings have names that can be spoken aloud and shared with another person.”

Saying it to an empathetic witness gives representation to something that never had it and, in doing so, stimulates new ways of understanding one’s life. A patient learns to take his or her feelings seriously and to trust them. There is often much truth in what one feels and how they come by them honestly. An analyst helps the patient discover how his or her mind works.

Feeling vs. Action

Another important takeaway from the reflective space of psychoanalysis: feelings and behavior are two different things. For example, a therapist may say, “You are fearful your angry feelings will hurt me, as you were afraid they would hurt your mother.” Implicit in the message is: “despite your assumption, to feel or speak about your hostile feelings here is not dangerous.” To speak feelings does not make them real, hurtful, or perilous to you or others.

To say something is often a replacement for doing it or acting it out. With enhanced expression and reflective functioning, one can listen better to others and more often make thoughtful choices daily and when needed at important crossroads in one’s life rather than being compelled to act.

Many people “convict themselves of thought crimes,” notes McWilliams, seeing their unwanted or difficult emotions as evidence of their moral corruption or depravity. Feeling something is also not the same as being indulgent, feeling sorry for oneself, or being weak. On the contrary, it is courageous to look inside oneself. It’s easier to repress, deny, disavow, or split and project—some of the main psychological defenses against knowing.

Developing Values and Ideals

The development of mature values and ideals is another form of emotional learning through psychoanalysis. Analysts “hold certain things sacred,” McWilliams says, and this is conveyed through the analytic relationship. She highlights some of the values:

We prize sincerity, the examined life, concern for others. We distrust undiluted idealizations and devaluations and regard splitting as a distortion of a very complex reality, We prize the ideal of intimacy. We cherish sexuality and celebrate its multiplicity of function and expression.

Don Carveth has his slant on psychoanalysis. He argues that at its core, it is “an ethical enterprise, valuing life over death, love over hate, kindness over cruelty, gratitude over envy, and consciousness over unconsciousness.”

Insights are always conveyed always in an atmosphere of empathy and authenticity. The objective is always to remain curious and consult rather than authoritative. As McWilliams puts it, “mutual discovery rather than the imparting of information by the analyst is the heart of treatment.” This is a discovery through emotional experience; intellectualizing can be another defense against feeling.

Psychoanalysis is irreducible to science, poetry, or technical craft but more closely approximates the collaborative journey toward deeper self-knowledge and objective truth. Heinz Kohut argued that empathetic understanding alone has curative properties.

In highlighting the implicit educational aspects of psychoanalytic therapy, McWilliams admits her take on the topic is rooted in her personal experience:

"My second analysis, which was deeply transformative, contained moments when I felt that the information I picked up in the process was more healing than all the painstaking work my analyst and I were doing... These moments fascinated me, and left me with an enduring interest in the therapeutic benefits of information that comes through a relationship of unparalleled emotional power."

Finally, a few last kernels of wisdom: important experiences are overdetermined. In other words, they mean more than one thing and are determined by multiple causes. Freud discovered through his interpretation of dream imagery, which holds more than one meaning and is often caused by multiple factors in the life of the dreamer.

McWilliams also says certain things are unavoidable in human life. “Ambivalence is ubiquitous.” Separation anxiety from family is inevitable.

Finally, one of my favorites: a person’s limitations are intimately tied to his or her strengths.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Carveth, D. (2018). Psychoanalytic Thinking: A Dialectical Critique of Contemporary Theory and Practice. Routledge.

Hagman, G., Paul, H., & Zimmermann, P. (2019). Intersubjective Self-Psychology: A Primer. Routledge.

McWilliams, N. (2003). The Educative Aspects of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Psychology (20) (2).

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