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Free association is an interesting technique used to solve inner conflicts and contradictions. Learn what free association is and how it works, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is Free Association?

Free association is a technique used in psychoanalytic therapy to help patients learn more about what they are thinking and feeling. It is most commonly associated with Sigmund Freud, who was the founder of psychoanalytic therapy. Freud used free association to help his patients discover unconscious thoughts and feelings that had been repressed or ignored. When his patients became aware of these unconscious thoughts or feelings, they were better able to manage them or change problematic behaviors.The goal of free association is not primarily to uncover hidden memories but to identify genuine thoughts and feelings about life situations that might be problematic, yet not be self-evident. For example, a woman might tell herself and others that she ‘loves the people she works with’ but ends up avoiding her colleagues most of the time.

Free association would be a helpful technique to explore the conflict or tension between these two competing attitudes.

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How Does Free Association Work?

Free association is typically performed in a therapy setting by first having the patient get into a relaxed position (sitting or lying down). It can be done with the eyes open or closed; although, most people find closing their eyes helpful to avoid surrounding distractions. The person then begins to talk, saying the first things that come to mind. There is no effort made to tell a linear story or shape the ideas that come to mind.

The person spontaneously says his or her first thoughts without any concern for how painful, silly or illogical it might sound to the therapist.The therapist is listening to the patient’s free association and trying to identify what, if any, thoughts or feelings might be repressed. Bringing these repressed feelings or thoughts to the surface might help the patient better understand the conflict they are experiencing. For example, the woman who ‘loves’ her colleagues but rarely engages with them may say things when free associating that she would never consciously admit to herself. She may say things such as, ‘I have anxiety about my performance,’ ‘I encounter unrealistic expectation at the workplace’ or ‘I feel different from others.

‘ The therapist takes note of these potentially repressed feelings and discusses them with the patient once the free association exercise is completed.The previously unconscious thoughts and feelings become conscious as they are discussed. This new awareness can be used to make deliberate changes in behavior. For example, once the woman is aware that she is feeling anxious about her performance, she could approach her boss and ask for feedback. This not only provides a reality check for her performance, which could lower her anxiety, but also increases her relational contact with colleagues, which was part of the original tension she was feeling.

Examples of Free Association

Free association can be done in a loose manner, where the person is allowed to talk uninhibited, or can be done in a more controlled way that is paced by the therapist.

In a loose approach, the therapist might simply ask the client to close his or her eyes and begin talking about the first thing that comes to mind. The patient might say something like this:’I am thinking of the mountains and the fluffy clouds that are around them. I see the snow on the mountain tops. It’s hard to tell the snow from the clouds. I try to reach out and touch the cloud but it is too far. The clouds keep changing their shapes, and I want to touch them.

‘When taking a loose approach to free association, patients are free to go in any direction with their thoughts. This might prove helpful, but it also might yield little insight because the thoughts can be very random.The more common form of free association is a controlled approach, where the therapist will suggest a broad topic, such as ‘family,’ and let the patient talk freely. Here is an example of what a patient might spontaneously say about family: ‘So stiff, unpredictable, smart like a lion, yelling, frustration, hidden, invisible, dangerous.’Although these words don’t immediately reveal much initial insight, the therapist can discuss them further with the patient once the free association exercise is over and see what, if any, additional meaning is attached to them.

Another form of free association is when the therapist mentions a single word and the patient spontaneously responds with the first word that comes to mind. For example, the therapist says, ‘mother’ and the client immediately responds with ‘witch.’ The therapist may follow-up with a series of other related words, such as ‘father,’ ‘authority,’ ‘punishment,’ or others to explore the possible thoughts or feelings that may exist around these words.Free association can be a very effective way to bring the unconscious thoughts and feelings into the conscious mind so that attitudinal and behavioral changes can be made.

Lesson Summary

Free association is a technique used in psychoanalytic therapy to help patients learn more about what they are thinking and feeling. It is most commonly associated with Sigmund Freud, who was the founder of psychoanalytic therapy.

Freud used free association to help his patients discover unconscious thoughts and feelings that had been repressed or ignored. When his patients became aware of these unconscious thoughts or feelings, they were better able to manage them or change problematic behaviors. The goal of free association is not primarily to uncover hidden memories but to identify genuine thoughts and feelings about life situations that might be problematic, yet not be self-evident.

Learning Outcomes

After you are done, you should be able to:

  • Describe what free association is and its purpose
  • Explain how free association exercises are used in a therapy setting
  • Recall some ways to practice free association
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