Freud has been much criticized since the mid-1990s. His research methods have been attacked, his conclusions derided as illogical, his theories dismissed as flawed. He was clearly no scientist. But if we think of Freud as a philosopher rather than as a psychologist, we can be grateful for at least one enormous contribution to the behavioral sciences: he was perhaps the first to perceive and understand how people’s mental health can benefit when they are able to create a coherent narrative for their lives. Freud’s so-called analytic technique was actually a process of synthesis, of composition. He would sit down with individuals who were suffering from psychological distress and would listen to them with enormous patience, in an effort to discover the complexity and history of their mental state. And during the months or years of therapy, he would take the previously disconnected pieces of his patients’ lives—dreams, phobias, emotions, childhood memories—and weave them together into a story that made sense to them (or more importantly to him, as his critics would say), a story that persuasively explained to these patients the psychological distress they were experiencing.
Freud may well have been the first to discover that creating a theory or having an explanation for current problems or distress can be comforting for many: it’s a way to make sense of apparently random pain. It’s generally why people seek psychotherapy today—not just because they want to get rid of symptoms, whether panic attacks or compulsive behaviors or depression, but they want to know why they’re having these problems in the first place. Understanding the reasons for our emotions—and creating an explanatory narrative—is, for many of us, very important.
But are the explanations we come up with correct?