Freudian psychoanalysis

Freudian Psychoanalysis: A View From the Inside

Fear, Folly and Freud, a book by Nicola Mendenhall

Psychotherapy saved my life. I’ve been in therapy four times with notable results. (A few other times I abandoned after two or three weeks because I didn’t like the analyst or the style of analysis.)

My first successful therapy, when I still lived in Barcelona, was with a Jungian analyst and lasted two years. Dream analysis and weekly sessions ended a pattern of failed loves (and lovers) and too much alcohol.

My second therapy, already in the US, was with a woman trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, although she didn’t practice it strictly (no couch!). It lasted about a year and a half. It got me out of a deep depression, opened my eyes to the imperfection of all relationships, and helped me enter my marriage with more confidence.

My third therapy was with a specialist in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). In this type of treatment, the patient discusses traumatic memories while focusing on an external stimulus. A typical stimulus is the therapist moving a finger from side to side and the patient following it with their eyes as they talk. EMDR helped me reconnect with my desire to be a mother and gave me the courage to try to get pregnant again after many miscarriages. I credit it with the birth of my son, even though I had to stop the treatment after four months to go on bed rest. (Coincidentally—or better said, through an unconscious but meaningful choice—we named our son Adrian, and the therapist’s name was Adrienne.)

My fourth, and most recent therapy, focused on my fears about writing. It reaffirmed my commitment to finishing and publishing my memoir.

In every case, I had to cut the therapy short for various reasons—a move to another continent, health, finances. It doesn’t escape me that very possibly one of the reasons that I didn’t continue was fear. Fear of going too deep into the pain, and of the effort it requires to change set patterns of behavior.

That’s why I was so curious to read Nicola Mendenhall’s new book, Fear, Folly, and Freud, where she tells the story of her ten years of Freudian psychoanalysis.

In her book, Nicola describes Freudian psychoanalysis as follows: “Freudian analysis…is like having someone pull you or push you backwards, deep into your childhood, to find the places where you moved off your life’s path and begun using defenses that protected you from whatever you saw as problematic or dangerous or painful in your ordinary daily life. Erecting defenses is normal. They only become problematic if, when you are grown and no longer need to protect yourself in that way, you continue to use them, not realizing they will never move you toward mature, loving adult relationships.”

One of the key features of Freudian psychoanalysis is free association. The patient is supposed to speak about anything that comes to mind without any filters. This allows her to access her repressed painful memories and emotions and start to understand the defenses she has built around herself that keep her stuck in regressive patterns of behavior.

A classical Freudian psychoanalysis requires several weekly sessions, so the patient doesn’t have time to rebuild their defenses between one session and the next. (Nicola had four sessions per week.) Furthermore, the analyst remains a cypher, never talking about herself, and keeping a strict emotional distance from the patient.

All these traits became a huge challenge for Nicola. As a (non-Freudian) therapist herself for several decades, she had a very different approach to her clients: kind, supportive, warm. She kept expecting her analyst to see her as a colleague and show her some deference or empathy—to acknowledge she was special. “I didn’t realize that Freudian psychoanalysts worked to unsettle rather than to calm,” she says in the book. The analyst’s coldness, and her provocative comments and questions, “brought out the worst in me, eventually shocking me into a more honest self-image …. Before analysis, I thought I was one of the nicest people you would ever meet …. But deep down, I knew she was right. I could be mean.”

Nicola’s courage in committing to such an enormous emotional and financial effort is matched by her bravery in bringing her experience to life in her memoir. In Fear, Folly, and Freud, she doesn’t hide her issues nor her worst traits and patterns, and she also reveals the enormous difficulty she had in surrendering to the process of Freudian psychoanalysis. For those of you who are curious about what it entails, this book gives you an inside look. (You can find Fear, Folly, and Freud in Amazon or request it in independent bookstores.)

I recently spoke with Nicola about her book and asked her to recommend some extra readings for people interested in learning more about Freudian psychoanalysis. Below is the interview, as well as Nicola’s reading recommendations.

Interview with Nicola Mendenhall

Isidra: You were not a professional writer before you started this memoir. What gave you the courage to write a book, and especially, such a personal book?

Nicola: The life-changing experiences in psychoanalysis were so powerful, I knew I had to share them with the world. I learned about my own shortcomings, and one of them was I felt above it all, and that I could do anything. Perhaps that’s why I was narcissistic enough to think I could write a book. I didn’t realize it was so hard!

Isidra: You felt “stuck” in some areas of your life before analysis, but outwardly everything seemed to be going well. You had a good job and income, a pretty home, three loving grown children, good health, and you were ready to find a new soulmate after several years divorced. In which way did you feel stuck?

Nicola: We do not know what our unconscious holds until we bring it to consciousness. Unconsciously, I was stuck in the way of thinking about my life that I always had had and while that was mostly satisfactory, part of me thought it was not enough. I am grateful for that part!

Isidra: Towards the beginning of your book, you say: “Before I found analysis, I rarely thought of the farm where I grew up.” Being a therapist yourself and having been in therapy for years (as is required of any therapist) I found this statement intriguing. Usually, the past comes up frequently in any kind of therapy, not just psychoanalysis. Why do you think it didn’t come up for you?

Nicola: I considered and judged my growing up years in other therapies, especially Bowen Family Systems theory where making a genogram or family diagram is required. However, my focus was always on relationships and not the setting, so to think about the gravel roads and sticky mud was new to me and happened because of the metaphor of being stuck unconsciously.

Isidra: But did you not examine the trauma that the birth of your sister had caused you, after being an only child for 6 years? 

Nicola: I knew that it had happened and that I had lost something, but I thought I could handle it. Nobody before had kept pounding on that and saying over and over, “You were traumatized” or “That was a hard thing.” I fought it. I didn’t get into my feelings about it. I thought wanting to be special was nothing unusual, but it does get in the way of enjoying other things, because you can’t always be the special one.

Freud talked about “repetition compulsion” and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. About how I fight my emotions, I try to keep their volume low. I want to repeat that over and over, even though I know that’s not in my best interest. But now I catch it sooner. I pay attention to what I am feeling more and am less likely to blame the other for my feelings. I work on it every day.

Isidra: You say that your analyst “made me feel defective, though, as a therapist, I know no one can make you feel anything.” What do you mean?

Nicola: As a mental health professional, I know that we always have a choice of how we respond to the external world. Our feelings are determined largely by our thoughts. We can learn to control our thoughts—that is one goal of meditation and is certainly a part of what happens in analysis.

Isidra: At one point you differentiate between the “oceanic feeling” of total merging with another human being (like in the womb with mother)—which is immature to keep searching for—and the feeling of oneness you had at the Jerusalem wall of prayers. Can you elaborate why this oneness you felt at the wall is not immature as opposed to the yearning for complete merge with another?

Nicola: I think the difference you point out may have to do with the ego. If we believe that we need another person in order to survive, another person to merge with, we will neglect our own development which means we likely will remain immature. Becoming a separate self is something we do by ourselves, of course with the help of others. The oneness I felt at the wailing wall came from surrendering my ego to something bigger. It is a paradox of sorts: To give up our egos, we have to develop them in order to have something to surrender.

Isidra: One of the main results from your decade of analysis was learning to feel your feelings instead of repressing them. This sounds quite similar from the practice of meditation, where you learn to observe and let pass thoughts and emotions and increase awareness of the present moment. Do you think a person could arrive at the benefits of psychoanalysis from practicing meditation? If not, what is/are the elements and/or results of psychoanalysis that you could never get from meditation?

Nicola: The goal in analysis is not to let the feelings pass as one is often instructed to do in meditation. The analyst develops interpretations that are geared to bringing the analysand’s repeated patterns into consciousness, so they can be known and changed. The analyst experiences your negative patterns in your interaction with her and she doesn’t let them go. She provokes them, or notices them, or confronts you on them. That’s the reason you (the analysand) can’t say, “I don’t do that,” because it happens right there between the two of you. The analyst is very patient and repeats her messages for years until they become clear to the analysand. My defenses needed to be challenged again and again, not ignored. In meditation, it was easy for me to ignore negative feelings.

Isidra: Have you finished your psychoanalytic treatment? How was the process of termination? Is it hard to live WITHOUT analysis now?

Nicola: My last session was on Halloween, October 31, 2020.  Many things arose from my unconscious during the year I used to end my treatment. My plan is to write about this process and perhaps include my spirituality.

When I first brought up termination, my analyst said, “We need to get clear that you want to terminate and how long is it going to take.” I went home and it came into my mind, “One year.” And it seemed so right I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so that’s what I said to her. That meant every month was the last month of that year: the last November, the last December. In the beginning, I felt relieved that it was decided, and I also wanted to make the best of this time, so I started going deeper. The month before the end it was really uncomfortable. I just wanted to be done, but my agreement was another month, and I always stick to my agreements. The very last few weeks it got a little easier and I started to feel a little panicky. I would cry and say, “I don’t want this to end.”

I heard an interview the other day where one psychoanalyst said about the termination process, “The feeling is that only one of us is going to survive.” And of course, the analysand (the patient) would be the one who wouldn’t survive, but maybe it’s hard for the analyst too.

The first couple of weeks after the termination I felt free, then I felt a little lost, but overall, I always felt like it was time.

It has been an adjustment to be without regular sessions, but I would say that it feels good to have four extra hours a week. The analyst’s voice is deeply ingrained in my mind. I have added Tai Chi Chih, a movement meditation, to my schedule and I love having the freedom to participate in the virtual classes. Writing the book also helped me feel closure.

Isidra: A decade of psychoanalysis with several sessions per week implies a tremendous financial investment (not to speak of time and energy!). Not many people have the means to undertake it. What would you recommend to someone who is stuck in negative patterns but cannot afford psychoanalysis or therapy?

Nicola: I feel very fortunate that once I started the process, I could continue. I realize that many people can’t or wouldn’t want to do this type of work. If a person knows they are stuck in negative patterns, they are already working on themselves and should feel good about knowing this about themselves and keep their ears and eyes open to what is offered in their community.

More Books about Freudian Psychoanalysis

Below is a list of books Nicola Mendenhall recommends, aside from her own, for those interested in reading more about Freudian psychoanalysis.

  • The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, by Katie Roiphe. This is a great book about writers when they are ready to die. There is a substantial chapter on Freud.
  • Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, by Adam Phillips. Kind of hard to read but interesting if you can stick with it.
  • The Analytic Attitude, by Roy Schafer. A great book to help clarify the intellectual and emotional attitudes used by psychoanalysts
  • Freud’s Requiem: Mourning, Memory and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk, by Matthew von Unwerth. This is a very interesting book about Freud—not totally factual but beautifully written and brilliantly conceived
  • Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story, a novel by Rebecca Coffey. I’m not sure how much is actual fact but it is a great read! I remember a lot I learned in this novel.

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