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The Psychoanalytic Symptom: Making Space for the Unconscious

Hello there. I am exactly three and a half days away from going to Quebec City for the Annual Training in Lacanian Psychoanalysis. I am so excited! It’s almost always the same group of people, same place, same time. Five days of intense immersion in psychoanalytic text, concepts, thoughts, clinical material and case presentations, nicely framed with a welcoming cocktail at the beginning and a farewell dinner at the end. My dream come true!

This year, we are talking about the Clinic of the (psychoanalytic) Symptom. I have a reading list of articles that I need to read prior to the Training, all by Freud. I’ll spare you the titles. Bottom line is, as someone mentioned in one of the comments before, there is a lot of work involved in psychoanalytic work, most of it in the background.

In psychoanalysis, we think of people’s struggles and complaints in terms of their MEANING. When someone comes in to ask for help, they present with a number of complaints. Sometimes, it’s about difficulties in relationships, other times it’s about anxiety or depression, eating issues, suicidal thoughts, obsessive-compulsive rituals, cutting, acting out, etc. Every person has a main issue or a main SYMPTOM that organizes the rest of their psychic life and that is not necessarily the same as the complaints people report when they begin psychotherapy.

The psychoanalytic symptom is a message from the UNCONSCIOUS that we try to decipher. In classic Freudian terms and very simply put, if there is something that we unconsciously long for and that something is against the laws or morals of the society we live in, a symptom is created as the compromise between the two conflicting forces within us.

The symptom has a FUNCTION that serves a purpose, even if only partly satisfying. However, it comes a point in a person’s life when the symptom can no longer be sustained or the benefit from the symptom no longer outweighs its costs. This is usually when depression sets in and when people make a call to see a psychoanalyst or a therapist.

Because of this function, in psychoanalytic practice, we rarely attack the symptom head on; we usually let it be. Think of it as the person’s only way of speaking without words. It’s like crutches that help you walk – if we take them away, you won’t be able to. That could sometimes do more harm than good.

Instead, we try to listen to the SYMPTOM and its message. One of the readers of the blog nicely illustrated this point with an example from Annie Rogers’ book “The Unsayable” in the comments to Practical Psychoanalysis: A Year in Review. The symptom was a “headache” and the patient had a history of abuse, I believe sexual abuse. Here is what the reader wrote:

“The abuser’s name was Ed and so when the young girl kept mentioning she had been having a headache a lot, the therapist repeated her words back to her but said it as “”Ed ache.” If I recall correctly, the girl had been having great difficulty disclosing her abuse to her parents but was having problems with physical symptoms and being “accident prone.” (comment by Velveteen Rabbit)

This example illustrates how the symptom is formed (something from our psyche, usually traumatic, gets inscribed in our body in the form of a physical symptom) as well as the Lacanian idea that the unconscious is structured like a language.” It is the job of the analyst to listen to these “messages from the unconscious” and repeat them back to the patient in a form that they can hear.

I will try to find my copy of the book and look into this example again in more detail.

In the meantime, I am off to Quebec City for a week of PSYCHOANALYSIS, the UNCONSCIOUS and THE SYMPTOM.

Talk to you when I get back!


P.S. If you have thoughts or questions about the symptom, future topics or anything really, please, comment in the section below.


The Psychoanalytic Symptom: Making Space for the Unconscious

Mihaela Bernard, MA, LCPC

Mihaela Bernard, MA, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of Inside Family Counseling, LLC in Chicago. She is a Professional Member of the American Counseling Association and a member of Chicago Psychoanalytic Circle of the Freudian School of Quebec, Canada. She is the author of Mental Health Digest electronic magazine, your free, easy-to-read electronic resource on common mental health issues affecting you and your family, plus some suggestions on how to address them. She specializes in psychoanalytic psychotherapy for troubled children and adolescents, who face behavioral and emotional challenges at home and at school. Her mission is to empower, support and guide children, adolescents and their parents to a happy and healthy family. Mihaela also writes a Parenting Blog, where parents find helpful resources and practical tips on how to support their child and adolescent's behavioral and emotional development. You may find out more about her at

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APA Reference
, . (2017). The Psychoanalytic Symptom: Making Space for the Unconscious. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2018, from


Last updated: 31 May 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 May 2017
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