Home FEATURED ARTICLE HOME PAGE Rehabilitating Freud’s Psychoanalysis as a Somatocentric Method

Rehabilitating Freud’s Psychoanalysis as a Somatocentric Method


Barnaby B. Barratt, PhD, DHS•

May I begin with personal history? Shortly after beginning my undergraduate studies in England, I became incapacitated with a moderately severe depression. I come from a working class background and could not afford therapy, but was fortunate enough to be taken into an experimental program run by the National Health Service and received a year of intensive psychoanalytic treatment. The results were profound. I gained so much insight into my relations with my parents, friends and lovers, that nothing has been the same subsequently. Merely a year of psychoanalytic treatment changed my life dramatically. I left the experience determined to seek further psychoanalysis and with the ambition to become a practitioner.

The treatment was entirely verbal, sitting face to face or on the couch, yet one of its most remarkably dramatic effects was how it changed me somatically. I had been chronically constipated as a child and adolescent. Since that year, my bowel movements have routinely been easy, smooth and enjoyable, and there were other effects notably around my breathing and my interest in my body’s emotional signals.

I have now practiced for several decades as a fully qualified psychoanalyst, in addition to training in several somatic modalities, and I have recently completed three books on my rather distinctive viewpoint on the radical manner in which psychoanalysis should be understood and conducted (Barratt, 2013b, 2016, 2019). In large measure, my methods might be described as “classical” (but this is perhaps a misleading categorization). The patient uses the couch and free associates for three or more sessions each week. It is imperative that I make every effort to me a consistently caring presence, diligently listening or tracking the patient while I am in a sort of equanimous reverie (which includes listening to my own embodied reactions). I speak little and mostly my comments are aimed to relieve the patient’s blocks (“resistances” to the freedom of free association). Only very rarely do I make substantive, synthesizing or integrative formulations (that is, clever “interpretations” of unconscious ideas and wishes). Given a relationship that is intimate, safe and freeing, patients themselves usually arrive at such mutative insights.

The point I wish to emphasize about this method is not only how it empowers the patient to listen to his or her embodied experiences, but also that I have come regularly to expect every psychoanalytic treatment to have somatic effects. To give just a few common examples: the relief of a variety of alimentary tract symptoms, the resolution of skin conditions such as hyerhidrosis or eczema, the cessation of bruxism, dramatic changes in menstrual experience, the termination of various pain conditions, and of course the intensification of orgasmicity, as well as an increased enjoyment in the sensuality of embodied experience and greater feelings of general aliveness! Of course, I am not suggesting that every treatment I have conducted has been uniformly positive in this regard; I have had a few patients who, at times when they became regressed, actually developed physical symptoms that required medical attention.

The problem with psychoanalysis lies, I believe, with Sigmund Freud’s heirs and with the followers of Jungian, Kleinian, and Sullivanian lineages, all of whom have in various ways made his discipline into theoretical models and clinical practices that are ideogenic and ideocentric. Freud has some responsibility for these developments in that, after about 1914, the emphasis of his writings and of his clinical work was less on a method that is distinctively somatogenic and somatocentric. That is, less on the praxis of free associative speaking and listening and opening (…and speaking and listening and opening). Once World War I was underway, as Freud approached his 60th birthday and contended with declining health, he began to focus on building grand theoretical edifices: the transformation of inner representations (for example in 1918), the so called life and death instincts in 1920, and the model of ego/id/superego (from 1923 to 1926). In many respects, he wanted to leave a legacy that would be considered ‘hard science.’

I have simplified Freud’s journey and made generalizations about the extent to which his successors have been over committed to thinking as the motor for change and to ideologies that ‘make good sense.’ However, I would defend strenuously the thesis that Freud, at least from 1895 to 1915, must be counted as the forefather of somatic psychology (cf, Barratt, 2010). There are at least three arguments here.

First, as he experimented with the method of free associative expression and noticed the effects of both suppression and repression, Freud was compelled to point to the existence of a force of energy mediating between psychology and biology. Although this cannot be explored fully in this short article, Freud thus inaugurated a threefold ontology of our humanity. There is our psychology, which concerns the representational formations of thoughts, feelings and wishes that are available or potentially available to self reflection. There is our biology, which involves all the ostensible functions and operations of physiology and anatomy. And then there are the incessant movements of an energy that he called Trieb (drive or desire). If one reads Freud carefully, it is clear that ‘drives’ libidinality are not the instinctual patterns described by ethologists, nor the behavior engendering systems of the subcortical regions of the mammalian brainstem as discussed by neuroscientists, nor are they equivalent to particular neuronal networks (even if they function through the activation of such networks). Moreover, ‘drives’ are not translatable into the formations of representationality, even while they compel the transformations of this domain.

Somatic psychologists readily recognize that Freud’s ‘drives’ operate much as prāna or ch’i are held to do, although with some differences as I have discussed elsewhere (Barratt, 2015). For Freud, ‘drives’ are a Hilfvorstellung, a helpful idea; that is, a notion for praxis necessary for the conduct of psychoanalysis. So, as might be expected, these energetics have been virtually expunged from the contemporary discourse of North American ‘psychoanalysis’ and are often retained in name only in other lineages that call themselves ‘psychoanalytic.’ Yet ‘drives’ make Freud’s early commitment to the priority of method understandable and the notion positions his vision of the human condition as a somatogenic and somatocentric one.

The second line of argument, which is crucial to grasping the significance of the first two decades of psychoanalysis as launching an inherently somatic discipline, concerns Freud’s notion of the conflicts and contradictions that we all hold within us. Although he is somewhat inconsistent, he uses the term suppression (Unterdrückung) for the way in which unwanted representations are impelled away from our self consciousness. This is an operation in which representations (thoughts, feelings and wishes) are transformed such that they are disguised; as such they can always be transformed back into conscious recognition. However, he uses the term repression (in the literal sense of eigentlich Verdrängung) to describe how very threatening representations may be deformed transmuted in the course of being expelled as if beyond a barrier that protects mental functioning (literally the ‘repression barrier’). The repressed loses representational form, but persists as traces of energy that is retained in our embodied experience. Thereafter, such traces impact our representational life, even if ways that are incomprehensible to the representationality of our self reflective consciousness (cf, Barratt, 2017).

Thus repression is not a transformation of thoughts, feelings and wishes. Rather, it is a transmutation from one mode of discourse (representationality) to an otherwise mode (the ‘economy’ of subtle energies that animate us). This is why Freud defined repression as a ‘failure in translation’ and it is why our embodied experiences are crucial to his method of liberation.

Finally, it can now be seen not only why Freud at least in my reading of his seminal ideas is very much at the forefront of somatic healing, but also why the de repressive method of free associative speaking and listening is so central to his vision of our humanity and of its potential for healing. It is relevant to note here that, even toward the end of his life, long after he had immersed himself in the complexities of grand and very cerebral theorizing, Freud continued to insist that the free associative method is the sine qua non of his discipline. Yet with some exceptions (cf, Barratt, 2018), most ‘psychoanalysts’ have long since lost the significance of this insistence … and thus, most regrettably, the field today so often appears very distant from the wisdom of somatics.

Barnaby B. Barratt, PhD, DHS, ABPP is: Director of Studies, Parkmore Institute; Supervising Analyst, Indian Psychoanalytic Association; Training Analyst, South Africa Psychoanalytic Association; Senior Research Associate, WITS Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Witwatersrand. You can email him at BBBarratt@Earthlink.net but users ofmweb.co.za and its affiliates are asked to please use DrBarnabyBBarratt@Yahoo.co.za. Please be advised that Johannesburg SA is 6 or 7 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time USA.

Barratt, B. B. (2010). The emergence of somatic psychology and bodymind therapy. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
—– (2013a). Free-associating with the bodymind. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 22:161-175. DOI:10.1080/0803706X.2012.729860.
—– (2013b). What is psychoanalysis? London, UK: Routledge.
—– (2015). On the mythematic reality of libidinality as a subtle energy system: Notes on vitalism, mechanism, and emergence in psychoanalytic thinking. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32: 626 644. DOI: 10.1037/a0034973.
—– (2016). Radical psychoanalysis: An essay on free associative praxis. London, UK: Routledge.
—– (2017). Opening to the otherwise: The discipline of listening and the necessity of free association for psychoanalytic praxis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 98:39-45.
—– (2018). On the unique power of free associative discourse: Notes on the contributions of Henry Lothane and Christopher Bollas. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 38: 478 -487.
—– (2019). Beyond psychotherapy: On becoming a (radical) psychoanalyst. London, UK:Routledge.