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Freud Deserves Respect

Natalia J. Garland

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Sigmund Freud did his major psychoanalytic work in the early 20th century. He was a pioneer in understanding the unconscious forces of the mind and the underlying motives for behavior. Few people today, however, accept all of Freud's ideas. Some psychotherapists reject him entirely. Moreover, some radical Christians narrowly focus on Freud with relentless harsh criticism, as though the study of psychology had never developed beyond those long-ago days in Vienna, Austria.

Many psychotherapists disagree with or would modify Freud's ideas on the psychosexual stages of development and the structural concept of the id, ego, and superego. At the same time, it would seem beyond argument that a fair number of psychotherapists rely daily on some of Freud's other contributions. Below is a partial list of Freud's ideas which are now accepted as common knowledge.


  • Mental disorders are caused by unconscious conflicts.
  • Childhood trauma is a precursor to adult neurosis.
  • Behavior must be interpreted.
  • Dreams offer a key to understanding the unconscious.
  • Defense mechanisms distort or deny reality in order to keep anxiety-producing feelings (thoughts, impulses, urges, desires, wishes, motives, memories) out of conscious awareness.
  • Therapy is a talking cure.
  • The purpose of therapy is to make the unconscious conscious.

Before moving on to a discussion of radical Christian objections, Freud's importance can be further reinforced by defining defense mechanisms. Different sources offer variations in definitions and examples. It would be wise to weigh my definitions against other sources. This is my own understanding of several of the classical defense mechanisms.

(To print this portion separately,
go to Basic Defense Mechanisms.)

  • Denial - A total refusal to face reality because it is regarded as unacceptable or too difficult to cope with. It is especially used by alcoholics, and by victims of abuse or trauma.

    I never drink before 4:00 p.m., so it's not a problem.

    In reality, he snorts cocaine at lunch and drinks a bottle of whiskey at 4:15 p.m. every day. He admits to drinking, but denies the real extent. He views cocaine as a separate issue--denying that it has any relationship to a drinking problem--so he does not even mention it.

    Mr. Olsen's doctors diagnosed him with brain cancer, and told him he would not live more than six months. Mr. Olsen decided to enroll in college and begin a new career. He will not listen to any suggestion that he create a will or trust fund to provide for his wife.

    Mr. Olsen is living as though nothing unusual is happening to him. Although going to college is a form of denial, it might actually help him to live the remainder of his life with meaning and purpose. Not providing for his wife, however, will bring her emotional distress and financial hardship.

  • Projection - Attributing one's thoughts, feelings, or urges to someone else, while in denial regarding one's own disposition. Projection can be either negative or benign, depending on one's experiences and perception. Negative projectors are not capable of compassion for others.

    My daughter is lazy and ungrateful. She shows me no respect. I deserve better.

    In reality, the mother is lazy and arrogant, does nothing around the house, and desires servitude and adoration from her daughter. The daughter deserves a mother who would nurture her.

    "I think Ronald was flirting with me today," Jonathan said with disgust.

    In reality, Jonathan is sexually attracted to Ronald, but his own impulses are felt as threatening to his masculinity. So, he looks upon Ronald as possessing these impulses.

    Amy thinks her co-workers are basically kind-hearted.

    In reality, Amy is kind-hearted and her co-workers are vicious gossips who slander her. But Amy is not prepared to take charge of her situation (i.e., acknowledge her hurt feelings and accept the stress of looking for another job).

  • Introjection - Attributing others' thoughts, feelings, or urges to oneself. It is the opposite of projection.

    Becky believes she is a bad girl.

    In reality, Becky has a bad mother. Becky is too young to face this terror. Her mother is her world because she is a dependent child. She absorbs ownership of badness into herself as a means of preserving an image of a loving and lovable mother.

  • Rationalization - A false but plausible explanation which hides the real motives or reasons for one's actions or feelings. It is similar to blaming, except that it is often used to repair wounded self-esteem after an experience of failure.

    I did not win any prizes in the pie-baking contest because the judges were unfair.

    In reality, my pies lacked seasoning and the crusts were falling apart. Since I take great pride in my baking, and my family assumed I would win, I cannot bear the humiliation of losing. I try to maintain my self-image by attributing my failure to the judges' unfairness.

    It didn't matter that Harvard rejected me. They're all a bunch of snobs there, anyway. I really wanted to go to State U. with my friends.

    In reality, the student is profoundly disappointed because it had been his lifelong dream to attend Harvard. However, his high school performance did not meet Harvard's standards.

  • Intellectualization - An explanation which emphasizes facts and abstract or technical jargon, and ignores any emotional content. It is not the same as objectivity because it involves an attitude of aloofness.

    Of course, when father was unfortunately diagnosed with brain cancer, which is medically terminal and of considerable physical discomfort to the human body, as well as mentally debilitating, it was my immediate objective to be of assistance to mother who was burdened with transportation problems to and from the hospital.

    Naturally, I ascertained that her automobile was in pristine condition, by perusing the operator's manual and cross-checking this data with her repair receipts. Then, I provided her with a weekly stipend for gasoline expenses.

    The son's reaction to his father's illness involves an analysis of the situation. The son is emotionally distanced.

  • Displacement - The transfer of one's feelings, particularly anger and frustration, from the original person to someone else who is regarded as an easy target.

    When Mr. Kramer came home from work, he berated his wife for leaving her diamond earrings on the kitchen table.

    In reality, Mr. Kramer is angry with his boss for making him work overtime. But he fears losing his job, and he will not say no to his boss' demands. He transfers his anger with his boss onto his wife. Normally, he would not get upset over his wife's earrings.

  • Regression - A retreat to childlike behaviors. It is an attempt to feel comfort and gratification.

    When Michael was studying for his bar exam, he was under a lot of stress. He seemed to sleep better if he took a teddy-bear to bed with him.

    Michael has regressed to an earlier developmental stage.

    Mr. Jenkins never learned how to cook, and refuses even to make a sandwich for himself when his wife is gone for the day.

    Mr. Jenkins forces his wife to care for him as though he were a little boy.

  • Repression - The forgetting or mental pushing aside of unpleasant memories. The repressed material, however, is not de-activated but continues to have an impact on behavior. Repression can be temporary or it can extend into amnesia.

    Yolanda does not remember having been assaulted in the city parking garage.

    Yet, she will drive blocks out of her way to avoid the garage and to search for an alternate parking space. Even though Yolanda does not remember the assault, she experiences a certain level of dysfunction.

    Mrs. May was absolutely shocked when her new television was stolen after she left her front door unlocked. How could anyone do such a thing?! When the police arrived, they thought the thief was the same man who stole her neighbor's car last month. Upon hearing this, Mrs. May vaguely recalled the incident.

    Mrs. May avoided anxiety by pushing aside unpleasant information, and then taking on an attitude of naivete about human nature.

  • Reaction Formation - Acting (reacting or over-reacting) in a way which is contrary to one's real feelings. It is a method of controlling unacceptable impulses or protecting oneself from criticism.

    Ken's ideas are always appreciated by his co-workers. "What wonderful ideas you have--I think you have a marvelous intellect," Debra said enthusiastically.

    In reality, Debra secretly disagrees but fears being criticized by the majority. She over-compensates with her remarks in order not to be suspected of disagreement.

    Barry feels that all wars are unjust and inflict untold misery on innocent civilians. He joins protest marches at every opportunity.

    In reality, Barry will not fight because he is a coward and runs from confrontation. He does not want to be disgraced on the battlefield. By joining protest marches he can feel superior to the military.

    When Mrs. Wong broke her leg, her neighbor did nothing to help her. Now she hates her neighbor. However, Mrs. Wong is a Christian and feels she should love everyone. She picks some roses from her garden and takes them to her neighbor.

    Mrs. Wong did not give the roses out of Christian charity, but to control her intense feelings and to maintain her neighbor's good opinion of her. Also, by showing thoughtfulness toward her neighbor, she expressed her own unfulfilled desire to have been treated better.

  • Sublimation - A constructive diverting of aggressive urges into socially or culturally acceptable forms of behavior. Artistic work and sports are often manifestations of sublimation. This is a mature defense mechanism.

    When Jennifer's sister was killed by a drunken driver, she felt rage and wanted to set fire to the driver's house.

    Jennifer created a memorial photo album on her sister's life and gave it to her nieces. Not only did this afford her greater closure over her sister's death, but it also brought her nieces closer to her.

    Ryan was physically abused by his older brothers when he was growing up. He always felt helpless and angry.

    Ryan trained in the martial arts and, as a young man, opened his own karate school for boys and girls. Not only has Ryan learned how to channel his anger, but he also obtains great satisfaction from teaching youngsters how to defend themselves.

Radical Christians seem to reject Freud because of his negative remarks about religion. Although his remarks could be regarded as supportive of atheism (Freud was a Jew by background), he wrote as a practicing psychoanalyst. Therefore, his remarks could also be regarded as an evaluation of symptomatic spirituality. That is to say, there are false Christians, Jews, and other types of believers for whom religious devotions, symbols, and aesthetics serve as defense mechanisms or as a concealment of mental illness. Below are some of Freud's remarks.


Devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.

---The Future of an Illusion, 1927.


Our knowledge of the historical worth of certain religious doctrines increases our respect for them, but does not invalidate our proposal that they should cease to be put forward as the reasons for the precepts of civilization. On the contrary! Those historical residues have helped us to view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.

---The Future of an Illusion, 1927.


One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation.'

---Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930.


Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

---New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1932.

Who are the people, professional or religious, that reject Freud? Who are they that accept him? Is there any neutrality or objectivity? At this point, let's reverse the question and also ask who they are that reject Christianity? People seem to have different levels of inclusion or exclusion of religion, especially regarding Christianity, in the practice of psychotherapy. Below is my own configuration of these levels. I have used an alphabetical arrangement for a specific reason.


  1. Anti-Christianity - They reject Christians (Baptists, Catholics, etc.). Just the mention of Jesus Christ seems to invite their anger and ridicule. But, they accept the meditative and philosophical components of Buddhism, Yoga, New Age, etc. Many private practitioners seem to fall into this category.

  2. Atheist - They do not believe in any deity figure. Some unbelievers are (1) strongly anti-religion, some are (2) tolerant of believers, and some (3) wish they could believe. Atheists are spread between categories A and C in terms of the workplace. Just as some therapists prefer to keep their religion private, atheists also do not always disclose this information about themselves.

  3. Secular - They are open to both religious and non-religious patients, and practice within a broad range of theory and specialties. Most mental health programs function in this mode, and some private practitioners.

  4. Faith-based - They include Scripture and prayer as part of the counselling process. Both professional and pastoral counsellors belong to this category. Psychological theories and approaches are used on a selective basis, with the Bible as the ultimate authority. A.A.'s Twelve Steps are accepted with emphasis on Jesus Christ as a Higher Power.

  5. Radical Evangelistic - They focus exclusively on religious conversion as the way to deliver people from addiction and mental illness. In their rejection of Freud and other theorists, they tend to focus on those who are anti-Christianity as representative of the whole. They are not cultists, but are firm in their belief that the grace of God is sufficient.

In the category of C-Secular, the term secular is used in a pro-active, generative manner rather than in a worldly, self-serving manner. Secular means, simply, non-religious (not anti-religious). Most of us interact within secular society, even if we are members of a church or ethnic sub-culture. The family doctor, the postman, the cashier at the supermarket, the waitress at our favorite restaurant, the police officer, the taxi driver, the car mechanic: we all encounter one another according to our functions within secular society. To be identified as religious, therefore, is to conduct oneself and to treat others in accordance with spiritual values. In other words, we do not live in a theocracy where everyone, supposedly, believes in the same things. Even if we accept that we are "one nation under God," our government does not attempt to tell us where to worship or how we should pray in our personal lives.

Now, what does the letter C mean? On the keys of a piano, there is a centrally located note designated as middle-C. All other notes fall to the left or right of middle-C. Bass notes fall to the left, and treble notes to the right. Most songs can be played with the notes clustered around middle-C. The very low and very high octaves get less attention. Likewise, C-Secular is designated as a category of counselling that can meet the needs of most patients: from the religious to the non-religious. Inasmuch as C-Secular rests on professional knowledge and ethics, therapists in this mode can create different kinds of music.

If some patients prefer the services provided by the A, B, D, and E categories, this can be managed without rejection or condemnation of C-Secular. The category of E-Radical Evangelistic is the most isolated because it prohibits any overlap with the larger counselling community. If a song were composed only on the E-Radical notes, it would be more like an exercise in skills-building or more suited for a solo on the piccolo. Most of us would not thrive on listening to high-pitched music all the time.

Radical Christians believe in spiritual deliverance from mental disorders, and that such deliverance can be obtained only through Jesus Christ. The Bible and the Bible only contains all the answers to life's problems. Radical Christians disapprove of pastoral counselling because it incorporates hypotheses and theories, such as the definitions of defense mechanisms, from secular psychology. Radical Christians view modern psychology as making excuses for sin.

Why this view that the Bible contains the solutions to all psychological problems? Even radical Christians would not claim that the Bible can cure all medical problems. Radical Christians wear eyeglasses, go to the dentist for a root-canal, and take an aspirin when they have a headache. They would consider it fanatic and cruel, for example, to deprive a child of surgery on the basis that either prayer should deliver him from his malady or it is the will of God that he die. Even radical Christians go the supermarket and buy food to eat, as opposed to waiting for manna to drop down from Heaven. Why the resistance to psychological help, and to seeking this help from a secular psychotherapist?

Do radical Christians view secular psychotherapists as competitors in the art of healing? Does this rattle the foundations of their faith? Is Freud's "talking cure" felt as a threat to prayer, meditation, or confession? Are radical Christians in denial? Have they invented and merged with a "universal neurosis" (a false god or false church) that spares them from having to acknowledge their unresolved conflicts and consequent dysfunction? Are they repressing childhood trauma under the guise of deliverance? Are they projecting their lack of real faith onto others, especially onto secular psychotherapists? Are they displacing their anger with God onto anyone who uses "the rational operation of the intellect?"

No doubt, some people are delivered from addiction and mental disorders (and medical conditions) through faith and prayer. Let me make it clear that I believe in miracles. But I am suspicious if miracles are built into a program. If defense mechanisms pass for a miracle, then the so-called miracle will eventually degenerate. True religion must withstand rational investigation, critique, and skepticism. For many believers, Christian living is a process, an ongoing challenge, and a mystery that contains varied interwoven strands of enlightenment. Certainly, the Bible shows us the way to holiness. Even so, various secondary resources can help us to appreciate and apply the teachings of the Bible with greater maturity.

It is no surprise that the categories of A-Anti-Christianity and E-Radical Evangelistic are at opposite ends. Yet, they are dependent on each other to reinforce the righteousness of their stance. This is sad and unnecessary. Neither category is pro-active. Both categories, if they were willing, could offer their services without the hostile connection to each other. If anti-Christians want to offer Asian meditative influences as an additional specialty to their psychotherapy skills, they have a legal right to do so in our democracy. If radical Christians want to share their faith and a path to total deliverance, they can fulfill their mission through correct interpretation of the Bible. Unfortunately, both categories seem to go beyond critique of each other. It is a battle for dominance between the piccolo and the bassoon.

If I were seeking psychotherapy today, I would consider categories C, D, B-3, and B-2, in that order. My main concerns would be to find a therapist who would understand me, who could be trusted with my innermost thoughts, and who would maintain appropriate interpersonal boundaries. I would not expect my therapist to give me spiritual advice, to be an expert in my religion's doctrine, or to be exactly like me. I would, however, expect my therapist to show sensitivity to my spiritual values and respect for my chosen lifestyle. And, if I were abusing these values to bury my unresolved conflicts: I would expect my therapist to have a working knowledge of defense mechanisms and to help me face reality. (Written 02/04/08: bibliography available.)

[NOTE: For other essays on similar topics, see Doers of the Word (written 02/07/05), Miracle or Rescue: They Were Saved (written 07/29/02).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland