Reconsidering Freud

March 26, 2021
Anton Kris, MD

A winner of the 2020 Sigourney Award reflects on a lifetime of reading, promoting, and revising Freud’s theories.

Dr Kris passed away on March 11, 2021. In tribute to his work, Psychiatric TimesTM is pleased to share this piece he authored after receiving the 2020 Sigourney Award. Dr Kris regarded himself as a teacher, and is also remembered as an innovator. An obituary with more information about his life, and suggestions for honoring his memory, can be found here—Ed.

As the Sigmund Freud Archives’ Executive Director, my work included raising funds, establishing the freedom from copyright for Freud’s holographs, and bringing the Archives into the public domain, publishing them on the Library of Congress website. The digitization of the Archives has exponentially expanded the source material’s readership. In the first 6 months, the new pages received 165,000 visits. These efforts provided invaluable and unprecedented visibility to Freud and psychoanalysis, the importance of which will be apparent to future generations of analysts, scholars, historians, and the lay public around the world. I am very pleased and grateful that my work was honored in 2020 with The Sigourney Award.

This work has helped to sustain and grow Sigmund Freud’s theories in an age that has misunderstood and challenged his relevance, while providing leadership in a careful reconsideration of them. Where necessary, I criticized and corrected Freud without any trace of idealization or devaluation by conducting a careful study of Freud’s source material and method, free association.

For instance, my book, Free Association - Method and Process, published in 1982, provided analysts with a technical contribution and made way for later theoretical contributions As I came to understand it, the aim of psychoanalysis is to enable the patient to obtain greater freedom of association. This means freedom to think, feel, connect, know, and to attempt to abolish unconscious restrictions (resistances). I sought to retain Freud’s discoveries and innovations while acknowledging some changes in our views.

I came to recognize 2 distinct patterns of association, representing internal processes: convergent and divergent conflicts. Convergent conflicts are the ones recognized in psychoanalysis from its beginnings, in which 1 element attempts to exclude another from consciousness and from activation (repression). Divergent conflicts (conflicts of ambivalence) are those that represent 2 opposing, irreconcilable interests that seem to pull an individual apart, with an accompanying fear that 1 side will be expressed without the other. Where resolution of convergent conflicts requires bringing unconscious elements into consciousness, resolution of divergent conflicts requires a process akin to mourning to overcome their either-or quality.

The focus on free association permitted me to recognize the ubiquity of self-criticism. Stops and starts in free association and the use of “should” and “ought” are often the result of unconscious self-criticism and serve as points of resistance to change. I came to recognize that narcissistic reactions begin with powerful unconscious self-criticism, leading to unrecognized self-deprivation and to attitudes and actions of entitlement in a vicious cycle.

Correspondingly, I found it necessary to introduce the idea of functional neutrality to emphasize that the way the patient hears the analyst determines what is neutral. So often analysts have not noticed that their patients feel criticized, resulting in a surprising interruption in the free association process.

I introduced a modification to Freud’s understanding of the process of mourning. Reality does not require, as he thought, the withdrawal of all investment (cathexis) in the lost object. It requires the recognition that the lost object is not present and does not continue into the future with the mourner.

I am gratified to have sustained and expanded Freud’s theories in an age that has often misunderstood and challenged Freud’s relevance, while encouraging a careful reconsideration of them.

Dr Kris was a psychiatrist for 55 years, a psychoanalyst for more than 50 years, and a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute for 40 years. He also taught part time at Harvard Medical School as a professor of psychiatry. He served on several major psychoanalytic journals’ editorial boards. He also served on the board of trustees for The Anna Freud Centre and The Anna Freud Foundation, and served a term as the Executive Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives. Dr Kris received the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award.