Freuds Early Therapeutic Technique

Prior to his use of the rather passive psychotherapeutic technique of free association, Freud had relied on a much more active approach. In Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895/1955), Freud described his technique of extracting repressed childhood memories:

I placed my hand on the patient's forehead or took her head between my hands and said: "You will think of it under the pressure of my hand. At the moment at which I relax my pressure you will see something in front of you or something will come into your head. Catch hold of it. It will be what we are looking for.— Well, what have you seen or what has occurred to you?"

On the first occasions on which I made use of this procedure ... I myself was surprised to find that it yielded me the precise results that I needed, (pp. 110-111)

Indeed, such a highly suggestive procedure was very likely to yield the precise results Freud needed, namely, the confession of a childhood seduction. Moreover, while using both dream interpretation and hypnosis, Freud told his patients to expect that scenes of childhood sexual experiences would come forth (Freud, 1896/1962).

In his autobiography written nearly 30 years after he abandoned his seduction theory, Freud (1925/1959) stated that under the pressure technique, a majority of his patients reproduced childhood scenes in which they were sexually seduced by some adult. When he was obliged to recognize that "these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only phantasies which my patients had made up or which I myself had perhaps forced upon them [italics added], I was for some time completely at a loss" (p. 34). He was at a loss, however, for a very short time. Within days after his September 21, 1897, letter to Fliess, he concluded that "the neurotic symptoms were not related directly to actual events but to phantasies. ... I had in fact stumbled for the first time upon the Oedipus complex" (Freud, 1925/1959, p. 34).

Freud's consulting room.

In time, Freud came to realize that his highly suggestive and even coercive tactics may have elicited memories of seduction from his patients and that he lacked clear evidence that these memories were real. Freud became increasingly convinced that neurotic symptoms were related to childhood fantasies rather than to material reality, and he gradually adopted a more passive psychotherapeutic technique.

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