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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Thoughts on Teaching Students About Psychoanalysis

By Michael Shulman, Ph.D.

Can the prejudices and pre-judgments about psychoanalysis (some of them acquired in their previous education) be overcome by graduate students of the mental health disciplines?

Since 1990, first in running an internship training program and then in several university teaching commitments, this question has often been on my mind as I have hoped to find ways to bring the riches of psychoanalytic thinking to new groups of students within changing environments. In the course of this time, in several states and in vastly different cultural, as well as meteorologic, climates, I’ve taught clinical psychology, social work, and marriage and family therapy graduate students, as well as psychiatric residents, and even, at one point, a nursing grad student. I’d like to describe certain barriers I think we all encounter in trying to teach about analytic ideas at the start of the 21st century, and how I think they can best be engaged to make it possible for students to become interested in analysis.

I believe that a cultural “sea-change” in methods of learning is a primary barrier to getting people interested in psychoanalysis. Younger students currently beginning graduate studies, in any mental health field, are very apt to have a certain approach to the acquisition of knowledge and information which creates a particular hurdle. A principal barrier is that students often think of their own minds as blank canvases and of their teachers as having knowledge in the form of facts which can be readily written on those canvases. This model of acquiring knowledge is fomented in part by common mass teaching strategies, in which lecturing without dialogue dominates, and in which prepared study guides and checklists of items to be regurgitated by students on exams are provided by instructors. But this model of how to learn is perhaps even more powerfully propelled by the growth of the internet, which gives the appearance of being an enormous free encyclopedia of “current” (read true) knowledge where answers to all life’s questions can be located in milliseconds via Google searches.

Such an approach to knowledge often seems to reduce the task of learning to reporting “the latest” findings. Ideas seem to succumb to planned obsolescence at alarming rates. A certain siege mentality and “crisis” around knowledge develops. This siege is somewhat less intense in medical graduate and doctoral-level psychology students, whose work ability supports a somewhat less impatient pursuit of wisdom and more patient skill at working with ideas (sometimes), than it is in master’s level students, but all are subject to some extent to more impatient learning styles and to diminished practice in reasoning, vis-à-vis earlier generations.

In this “crisis” of knowledge certain opportunities reside, however. Though perhaps reluctantly at first, many graduate-level students are able to recognize that the “candy store” of knowledge at one’s finger tips in Googling provides many “answers” which actually aren’t. The general cultural proposition does not die easily that information about the latest “breakthrough” discoveries is always immediately at hand for “consumers.” However, the very availability of so-called answers to profound questions does help provide a germ of suspicion of easy answers, especially in regard to questions of human suffering which drive many students toward mental health-related careers. Teachers can help cultivate this germ of suspicion as the beginning of a more critical approach to thinking and acquiring knowledge.

Students in our times are skeptical because they face such a high level of selling around themselves continually. In the marketplace of ideas, this continual selling means that any given idea is threatened with a short shelf-life. In my teaching, I often refer to the selling going on all around us as a form of telling lies, using it as a metaphor for the lies we (not only individually but also collectively) like to tell our-selves. In the classroom, I usually begin to help students think about what I regard as the central psychoanalytic discovery--the power of the unconscious--by helping them relate to the way the unconscious operates in close relationships, in particular, in their own dating and love relationships.

Smiles of recognition appear quickly as students see what they already know: how complexly, but also transparently, they and others communicate their feelings and conflicts via behavior in such situations. How often they, or others to whom they are trying to be close, are trying to unconsciously “sell” either themselves or both of the parties involved on certain fantasied kinds of relationship. (To help them along in their recognition, I point out how it is always easier to see how their friends’ unconsciouses are operating in their romantic relationships, which usually turns smiles into laughter and really gets the recognition process going). So, discussing self-deceptions in everyday life seems to me to work as one of our better keys to open the door to the world of psychoanalysis.

It is not so difficult to help people appreciate the wonders of the unconscious, the infinite cleverness of its operations, when they can consider their own (and friends’ and partners’) actions in the context of human beings’ wishes and fears in intimate, and in family, relationships. In fact, I think it is only a few steps (though it usually takes a semester to get there) from this starting-out point to helping students realize a modern definition of what psychoanalytic clinical process is--a means of unfolding and sorting out the issues of difficulty with intimacy (and other matters of “intimate” personal importance) in the life of a suffering person via a special relationship with a very interested and involved companion to that person, the therapist or analyst, in the course of whose relationship these issues of difficulty, in all their individualized and unique complexity, are surfaced for understanding and reworking together by the clinician and the sufferer.

There are definitely ways, I believe, not to teach psychoanalytic ideas to students in our current cultural environment, including ways which were not uncommon in the past. These are also approaches commonly taken in textbooks, ones which almost always have deadening influences. Two such ways are: talking about analysis by starting out discussing human development through the psychosexual stages; and describing the ego, id and superego and talking about what compromise formations are. Such approaches trade on the idea that the listener-student is going to be interested (in the first case) in believing that adult motivations can be meaningfully translated in terms of “gross” things from childhood, and (in the second) that she or he will be interested in believing that real, personal behaviors can be helpfully described in terms of the mysterious compromises of abstractions. More broadly, approaches like this trade on a notion of authority: that the analytic teacher’s words, sans a scrutiny which allows them to be meaningfully related to the student’s own consciously accessible and tolerable-to-recognize experience, are to be readily trusted. In a culture of selling, no one’s words are to be readily trusted; “trust me,” of course, becomes the last statement to be trusted.

I believe that the approach I outline above, suggesting ways in which students can recognize for themselves places where we are all self-deceptive, helps the student feel he or she has something interesting to figure out about both self and others, but also knows something very important which makes him or her a psychologist of sorts already. And it makes psychoanalysis something suddenly sensible instead of nonsense to be taken on authority: once the complexity of wishes and fears occuring continually in daily intimate interactions such as dating, or in other close and emotionally-loaded relationships like family relationships, can be recognized in oneself as a basis for deceiving oneself at times, it is easier to accept that an approach to psychology which starts out by noticing such complexity might have many additional interesting things to say about such matters as:

  • how costly such self-deceptions can be;
  • what life-historical issues might make some persons’ self-deceptions even more far-reaching or costly than others;
  • how and why these self-deceptions are difficult to overcome on one’s own (even with lots of will power);
  • and how they could be overcome, with patience and time, in the special relationship we call psychoanalytic therapy or analysis.

Here are some further notes, somewhat at random, about what I think tends to work best with students in our times:

1. Frank speaking and awareness of the alternatives in the minds of one’s students. I find it is extremely helpful to lay my cards on the table--to speak about my own deep interest and commitments to analytic thinking, as different from other approaches, and then to seek to open up directly students’ existing conceptions about what analytic clinical work is. Given the circulation of misconceptions of analysis and analytic therapy so routinely promulgated in undergraduate psychology (such as those common to psychology textbooks, like those Jim Hansell is seeking to correct in his recent textbook with Lisa Damour, described last year in these pages), assuming that students at this point, even graduate students, know anything beyond rudimentary, outdated, and/or caricatured notions of analytic work, is usually an error.

If the psychoanalytic teacher fails to engage the empirically-claimed superiority of cognitive-behavioral and medications-based treatments, or if s/he presents as if psychodynamic treatments are still “the norm” as therapeutic modalities in the larger world these days, s/he will come off as naive for many students as a teacher. These dominant alternative strategies of treatment need to be vigorously engaged by teachers, who I believe should be prepared to underline the different commitments and worldviews of psychoanalytic, pharmacologic and cognitive-behavioral therapists. The capacity to vigorously, clearly and forthrightly speak to psychoanalytic values relating to complexity and helping people tolerate difficult feelings, and (in particular) our extended and intensive time-commitment to our patients, makes sense to students in a world where parties with interests in selling “revolutionary” fixes which require little time or work are continually out hawking their wares.

2. Popular film, television and music are endlessly useful sources for psychoanalytic teaching. The world of literary classics known to the European analysts and earlier generations of American analysts are all but unknown to most current students. However, we live in a cultural world teeming more, not less, with images from the unconscious, if not actually overrun by such images. Any adult viewer who encounters “South Park” on television knows how comical and how disturbing this world can be, as myriad representations of sexual longing, revenge, sadomasochism, splitting, paranoia, phobic panic, developmental failure, and rage, not to speak of ubiquitous self-deception, parade quickly past in each half hour’s episode. Popular songs are similarly filled with news from the unconscious and any teacher who is also a student of current popular music, television and film will always have useful material for teaching.

3. There is no place for analytic detachment or lack of feeling in teaching. Neither dispassion nor distance is useful in approaching a generation with little tolerance for authority or formality, and which always (at least initially) suspects that received wisdom is an unwelcome hand-me-down or a sign of intellectual laziness or lack of preparation in the giver. Psychoanalytic wisdom is always (if still wise!) provocative wisdom, and I think that teaching which is fully aware of the problems around us in real-time--in politics, in students’ lives, in family life and in the world of work, achievement, and business--refinds our most precious discoveries, the gift we hope to give to our students, in the details of the day. Thoreau, our greatest analyst of America (if not our greatest American analyst), and a great student of each day, wrote “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.” For the psychoanalytic vessel to prove a useful one for new voyagers, we have got to keep showing students how it continues to have a special capability for getting us places now. How to teach about analysis in 2016 will be quite different than in 2006, which is different than in 1996.

Let’s get sailing.