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Psychoanalytic approaches provide both a psychological theory and a therapeutic method. There is a particular focus on the emotional conditions of early childhood, with many emotional problems in adult life seen as relating to unresolved developmental conflicts from this period. A key assumption is that much of our motivation is driven by unconscious forces, with their origins in this early childhood emotional development. Although there are many different psychoanalytic approaches, such as neoFreudians, Jungians, Kleinians, Object Relations etc., they all hold the above assumptions in common. A number of other therapeutic approaches also draw heavily on psychoanalytic ideas, such as Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, and many others. It is useful in getting an understanding of psychoanalytic approaches to study the key Freudian ideas, as his theories still provide the basis of much psychoanalytic thinking. Freud's developmental model focuses particularly on a series of psychosexual stages in the first five years or so of childhood. These stages relate to shifts in basic sources of pleasure and satisfaction, including the oral, anal and phallic stages. Too much frustration or over-gratification at any of these stages is seen as leading to fixation, and later neuroses.

Each of these stages must be successfully completed for the development of a healthy personality. A key stage occurs in the resolution of the phallic stage in the Oedipus complex, where a jealous desire to kill the same sex parent and possess the opposite sex parent leads to fear of being punished for this desire. This fear is dealt with by identification with the same-sex parent, seen as crucial for successful development of the super-ego and gender identity. It is probably fair to say that Freud's descriptions of female gender identity have often been viewed as rather less convincing than the male equivalent. It should also be noted that post-Freudian theorists have often proposed significant revisions to this developmental model (e.g. Melanie Klein's much greater emphasis on the importance of infancy, or the Object Relations school seeing motivational drive more as connecting with people rather than just focused on satisfying instincts).

Freud's basic model of the mind sees the instinctual driving forces of the id often battling against the internalised social demands (initially received via the parents) of the super-ego. The ego has the job of finding an acceptable compromise between the conflicting demands of the id and super-ego, and of the external world. The anxiety associated with these conflicts in early childhood can, if the ego is too weak to cope with them at that time, lead to repression, with 'defence mechanisms' shielding the conscious, rational mind from disturbing anxieties and urges towards forbidden impulses. This repressed material will then go into the unconscious (i.e. it will no longer be accessible by the rational conscious mind), potentially leading to neurotic behaviour patterns. Psychoanalytic therapy essentially tries to reverse this process, creating a hopefully safe environment where the skills of the therapist can help identify the defence mechanisms in operation and acknowledge and release the previously repressed material. The libido ('life energy') associated with these defence mechanisms is then redirected, so the ego can deal with the conflict in a way which is more in harmony with the different parts of the psyche, and with current reality.

The idea that the conscious mind is unable to be aware of the main emotional driving forces of the psyche mean the psychoanalytic approaches are much more pessimistic than humanistic approaches, for example, about possibilities for human agency (i.e. capacity to make genuine, conscious choices). However, although the theory is essentially deterministic, the therapy is less so, as genuine change is seen as possible with the help of therapeutic alliance with the psychoanalyst. Therapeutic techniques used include (among others): free association: clients are encouraged to say whatever comes into their heads, bypassing conscious editing. Silences or abrupt changes of topic can act as a signal to the analyst of resistances to this process, indicating a defence mechanism linked to the material being talked about at that point.

Dream interpretation: where the overt, or manifest content is seen as screening an underlying latent content relating to inner conflicts. Transference: the emotional feelings aroused in our early relationships can be unconsciously 'transferred' into relationships in adult life. In analysis, early childhood emotional conflicts (often with the parents) are relived through the analyst-client relationship, with the analyst helping the client bring them into conscious awareness. Psychoanalytic approaches in general have had very great influence on Western culture as a whole, and are particularly influential in the therapy world. However, their emphasis on qualitative, clinical data, and limited 'testability' have tended to limit their influence within academic psychology departments, which have generally emphasised more experimental approaches.

Psychoanalysts in clinical practice are, nevertheless, in a position to collect a great deal of data of different kinds (behavioural, inner experiences and symbolic) over long periods of time with the same patient. Patient's responses to psychoanalytic interpretations, whether immediate or in terms of the long term clinical effectiveness of treatment provide evidence for their ideas. It is problematic, however, that much of this evidence is essentially private and necessarily involves the subjective experience of both patient and analyst.