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Psychoanalysis: Core Principles

In outlining the basic Psychoanalytic premises, I shall build on explanations presented by Otto Fenichel.(1)

Emotions are determined by how well we satisfy our underlying needs

In terms of mental stimulation, central to Psychoanalytic theory are what I shall term 'needs' or 'drives'.  Sometimes when we experience something, we feel compelled to respond with a physical action, and a state of tension is induced.  For example, if we are hungry, and someone places food in front of us, we are likely to feel ‘compelled’ to eat.  It is as though an internal force drives us to respond to the stimulus (food).  Certain 'needs' appear to seek out a lowering of the tension created by a physical stimulus.  In the case of our food example, we are driven to eat, and the act of eating reduces the level of tension induced by the presentation of food. 

Certain inner forces try to stop us from fulfilling our needs

Also central to Psychoanalytic theory, is the concept of counterforce.  Stimulation would normally induce response, but counterforce blocks this response. 

If a 'need' presses for a specific action, (let us again draw on the example of an individual feeling compelled to eat food) but a counterforce presses for withholding of action (let us for example imagine that the individual is on a diet and so has determined not to eat as much as she usually would) and both forces exert equal strength, then no action will follow.  Visibly, there may be no sign of any event occurring.  However, psychoanalytic theory proposes that in such an instance, despite no physical action being evident, energy is exerted whilst suppressing the 'need'.  This, it is proposed, is why some people experience physical exhaustion even after engaging in no physical activity.  This principle is central in terms of understanding the way in which anxiety manifests itself in physical phenomena.  We shall now discuss this central tenet further.

If we do not fulfill our inner needs, energy is consumed

Let us take a classic example of the above forces at work.  Imagine a situation in which someone (let us call this someone Jack) is angered at work by a colleague who has regularly been playing computer games on his computer whilst Jack has been diligently working hard.  On this occasion the boss leaves work early and Andy (our lazy friend), since his boss is not around to see, also leaves work early, leaving John to work alone.  John has never had the courage to tell Andy that he is annoyed with him, but on this occasion he is livid.  Jack returns home and his loyal cat, Jeremy, runs to meet him and press himself against Jack's leg. An hour or so later Jeremy accidentally knocks Jack’s drink over.  Jack bursts into momentary rage: “You stupid cat!!!!”  and immediately is embarrassed that he was so horrid to poor Jeremy who had made a legitimate mistake.  Jack doesn’t usually treat Jeremy like this.  Jack realises that the anger he was feeling towards Andy, his work colleague, momentarily ‘burst out’ in his reaction to his faithful cat Jeremy. 

In this instance, Jack’s 'need' (or perhaps better here understood as a 'drive' that sought expression) was to express anger.  He had not expressed this anger and was attempting to suppress the instinctual feelings.  One can see in this example that it takes considerable effort to withhold strong drives that are pressing for expression.  This is not to suggest that withholding the drive to express anger is a bad thing: I simply give this example to demonstrate the principle that withholding of drive expression consumes energy.  The sudden burst of expression of this drive demonstrates its repressed or hidden existence. 

Psychological problems are caused by not attending to our inner needs

People with neurotic or psychological problems often find that their problems manifest themselves at around the onset of puberty, and Fenichel suggests that this is due to the fact that prior to puberty, the individual has been able to withhold the expression of certain 'needs' or 'drives', but that at puberty, drives become far more powerful.  In the face of such increased press for expression, the individual who is withholding or repressing many of her impulses is often no longer able to withstand the increased pressure of her drives that accompanies the onset of puberty, and hence neurotic symptoms (manifestations of psychological problems) begin to occur. 

1)  Fenichel, O. (1982).  The Psychoanalytic thoery of neurosis.  Great Britain: St Edmundsbury Press.