Free Association

Rorschach test

Free association is a practice in psychoanalytic therapy. In this practice, a therapist asks a person in therapy to freely share thoughts, words, and anything else that comes to mind. The thoughts need not be coherent. But it may help if they are authentic.

Who Developed Free Association?

Sigmund Freud was in the process of developing free association from 1892 to 1898. He planned on using it as a new method for exploring the unconscious. It would replace hypnosis in this respect. Freud claimed free association gave people in therapy complete freedom to examine their thoughts. This freedom would come, in part, from a lack of prompting or intervention by a therapist. Freud proposed the technique helped prevent three common issues in therapy:

  1. Transference. The process of transferring feelings one has for one person to a different person.
  2. Projection. The process of projecting one’s own qualities onto someone else.
  3. Resistance. The practice of blocking out certain feelings or memories.

How Does Free Association Work?

In traditional free association, a person in therapy is encouraged to verbalize or write all thoughts that come to mind. Free association is not a linear thought pattern. Rather, a person might produce an incoherent stream of words, such as dog, red, mother, and scoot. They may also jump randomly from one memory or emotion to another. The idea is that free association reveals associations and connections that might otherwise go uncovered. People in therapy may then reveal repressed memories and emotions.

Contemporary Free Association

Freudian free association is fairly uncommon in therapy these days. Even among neo-Freudians, the technique is not often used. But contemporary mental health practitioners might us a modified version of free association. They may ask someone in therapy to recall all the memories associated with a particular event. A person in therapy could be asked to share the first word that comes to mind after seeing a picture or write down all the thoughts they have at a certain time.

Criticism of Free Association

The main criticism of free association has been that people may overproduce associations. This can be caused by pressure from a therapist. Someone in therapy may struggle to say as many random words and thoughts as possible. Difficulty can occur even if the person is not actually thinking about these topics. Associations may also be random and unrelated to a person’s psyche. For example, someone may start by recalling a memory of their mother. They may remember song lyrics associated with the memory and then begin naming musical artists. This could create the appearance of associations and memories that do not actually exist.

References:

  1. Free association. (n.d.). Free Association. Retrieved from http://www.victorianweb.org/science/freud/fassociation.html
  2. Jones, J. (n.d.). About the free associations method. Retrieved from http://www.freudfile.org/psychoanalysis/free_associations.html
  3. Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Last Updated: 07-2-2019

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  • Greg

    Greg

    September 18th, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    thx

  • Malcolm

    Malcolm

    July 15th, 2015 at 3:38 AM

    My spouse and I stumbled over here coming from a different web address and thought I may
    as well check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you.
    Look forward to exploring your web page repeatedly.

  • Vangelis

    Vangelis

    April 7th, 2017 at 11:56 PM

    I looking to find an online master degree in psychoanalysis.
    Can anyone help me please

  • Godfrey

    Godfrey

    May 9th, 2018 at 4:28 AM

    I am also looking to continue education in psychology degree

  • Leena

    Leena

    May 12th, 2017 at 3:05 PM

    Very nicely explained… Thanks

  • rasha

    rasha

    February 6th, 2018 at 9:16 PM

    Bengali?

  • Turfa T

    Turfa T

    February 27th, 2018 at 11:47 PM

    My therapist is treating me using this technique and I thoughts I owe it to people to know what it’s like. Most people think that therapy is sitting across from your therapist and discussing your life and trying to find solutions. By doing free association I have discovered so many things which I never associated with my life.
    1. The small incidents that happened in my childhood and things my parents did that hurt my feelings without their knowledge were so detrimental to shaping my thoughts process.
    2. I had suicidal idealization from a very young age however, I didn’t even know that passive suicidal thoughts could be thoughts like, “I want to visit Allah or go to heaven.” Picturing myself dying from a dramatic death and my husband or imaginary boyfriend crying and saying how much they love me. Dramatizing visuals of what it would be like if I died and picturing the events that would unfold after. My earliest suicidal ideation was at the age of 9, so far that I know of.
    3. My feelings of worthlessness, valueless, not loved, feeling like a failure stems from incidents in childhood such as my grades never being good enough, always hearing how other children were so much better than me, getting scolded and humiliated by my parents over the simplest things but with profound meaning to me. Their thoughts and behavior shaped my thoughts and behavior and I kept associating current events to the past ones and constantly beating myself up.
    4. Expressing hidden thoughts and memories that we all suppress because they are inappropriate for us to do so in society was so enlightening and relieving that I feel like I’m rediscovering myself.
    The disadvantages are that this process is slow. For many sessions in the beginning, it will feel like you’re not going anywhere, what you’re talking about is not making sense and how is talking about random things really helping. Also in my case I started to regress into a child because some memories once exposed at therapy opened up deep wounds and without a way to cope with them, my personality started splitting into a childlike state. However, it is getting less and less frequent and now I am more knowledgeable about my triggers and what causes my regression. I would highly recommend people to try out this form of therapy.

  • Astrodeeb

    Astrodeeb

    April 9th, 2018 at 4:31 AM

    Thank you for sharing your very personal journey. I’m writing a case conceptualisation using psychoanalysis as the treatment and your comment has been very helpful.

  • Turfa

    Turfa

    May 11th, 2018 at 8:53 AM

    Hi Astrodeeb,
    If you have any more questions you can reach out to me. I’ve helped in research for my friend’s paper as well. I’m happy to share my experiences.

  • Hissah

    Hissah

    October 31st, 2018 at 5:10 AM

    Salam Turfa, I am glad that you finally got some answers. I am still lost with widely open childhood files looking for closure. I would really appreciate it if you could recommend your therapist hence a few is interested in free association and actually good at it.
    All the best

  • billy l

    billy l

    August 22nd, 2019 at 12:19 AM

    So how are you doing today. I can relate to almost everything you have to say, I realize that there is a excitement that comes up or even anxiety, where sometimes I cant sleep after working on myself. As of right now im off work with pay because a women said I was hinting around that I wanted sex with her, actually I was wondering if I should leave my wife for the unknown and work more on myself, I wonder what my life would be like if I really went after what I never had, a real meaniful relationship with myself n took more time dating different women n find a girl that is more compatable yet not too f****d up. after all can 2 people with f****d up past have a meaniful life together

  • Godfrey

    Godfrey

    May 9th, 2018 at 4:26 AM

    I have similar experiences..
    My relations with my parents affected me emotionally..

    I been seeing a psychotherapist also. And they seemed to not open up anything with me.. besides the basic things. I suffered greatly.. as I am a loving and caring person I am tend to be in need of sharing do be able to do something..
    I research this website on my own.. my doctor never told me to do. But I did.. one thing also she never mentioned a goal for me to have.. for a long long time I been seeing her. Which it really bothered me not having to do anything.. and thinking that people think less of me.. and that what I need is help. Before being able to do anything.. meanwhile I struggle and have started many things.. I always do.. since I am sharing these to people.. and I don’t seem to get support I need. Which is the attention and the response.

    One thing I want to do is study psychology.. I m 42 yrs old. Would psychology degree still be worth it

  • Turfa

    Turfa

    May 11th, 2018 at 9:17 AM

    Hi Godfrey,
    This time last year when it had been a month or two since I started going to therapy, I had the same thought, “I want to study psychology” because it was helping me understand myself. However, now I see that it was a sudden motivation I had which lasted temporarily. I’ve also learned something else from the past year of going to therapy. I have these sudden extreme motivational aspirations and goals, but I can never finish any of them. I wondered why. Then I noticed that I had the same difficulty as a child. I could never finish any projects the way I wanted. I was so meticulous and aimed for perfection, that I always missed deadlines. My mom would praise and appreciate how thorough and neat my work would be and I think that drove me to be neater. Later in my teenage years and university, I learned to manage my time and finish projects but the aim was the reward, that grade, that 91 out of 100.
    Now the rewards and aims have changed. I need validation, acceptance and appreciation from society. I need to feel I’m making a difference and who else can we get this from except society, and where does society live today? In our phones, in our social media. I’ve started a non profit initiative to raise awareness about mental health and I lose hope and get demotivated so quickly when I see that not many people are seeing my posts or are attending my workshops. Social Media gives us such quick feedback that it is something our minds can not cope with. Our bodies can not process information or produce work as fast as social media/society requires to keep up and our mind gives in to exhaustion and fatigue and gives up. Maybe I give up more quickly than others because of my insecurity and already pre-existing conditions of low self worth. But it is so painful everytime it hits.
    I still don’t know if my initiative is an infatuation or an actual goal for me. I guess only time will tell. But one thing I’m trying to do is not focus on the end result, that grade or applause. I’m trying to find enjoyment and fulfillment in the process, which trust me is not easy or fun. Because if I focus on the end result and it doesn’t end up being what I want, I know I’ll come crashing down. Rather if I learn to enjoy the journey, I won’t be disappointed at the destination.
    So the question you need to ask yourself is why do you want to study psychology? What intrinsic value will it give you? Is it the knowledge, is it simply to fulfill the need to have a goal, is it something else?
    I think counselors and career coaches, focus too much on having a goal. As if those without a goal are simply drifting through life and have no purpose. I had goals, they didn’t work out. I did everything that I was told to do, everything that was right, still it didn’t happen. And I was so focused on this goal that I didn’t stop to enjoy and look around what was happening around me. So I think instead of goal, choose a path and be flexible that it might change. Instead of aiming for that mountain, try to be like flowing water.
    Boy, my post sounds like I’ve got it all figured out, trust me I don’t. I’ve been having a veey low week and I was just crying before visiting this site and my husband was consoling me. I’m feeling a little on the upside now which is why I’m able to share my inner feelings.
    I hope they are able to help you get some perspective.

  • Valentino

    Valentino

    June 14th, 2018 at 1:23 PM

    Turfa thanks for your post I’m a 44 yr old man with 2 boys the youngest just graduated I have a girlfriend and things are great but I know what you mean by planning and trying to do the right thing. I grew up in an abusive home mostly my stepfather and I tried to do what society would see as a good idea I graduated high school joined the Marines got married and had 2 boys ……Then I started having seizures outta nowhere maybe stress. I was working full time and going to college part time well anyway after the seizures we moved my wife became unfaithful (I had suspected) I wasn’t allowed to work or drive so I used my GI Bill and went to college full time well then my wife left me and my boys and I was having a hard time keeping it together. fast forward and I am still struggling I had to get on Social Security and my only outlet was art but now I’m having trouble even getting motivation. I start projects and don’t finish just like you were saying I have to keep my head up just for the sake of my kids but I am so frustrated My stepfather and ex wife are both dead and with God I have forgiven them as much as I know how to but I still remember the pain is this normal? anyway sorry about the long post I just wanted to say thank you for your post and by sharing my story you know that I am sincere Take Care

  • Turfa T.

    Turfa T.

    June 14th, 2018 at 8:04 PM

    Hi Valentino,
    Thank you for sharing your story. As much as I don’t wish this on anyone, it feels a little less lonely to know someone else is going through similar feelings that I am. If you want to follow my journey and what I’m up to you can join my Facebook page My Mind My Health. I’m trying to stick to doing this like I mentioned in my last post even if it doesn’t pay and regardless of the backlash. I think I’m able to take one day at a time because of my supportive husband and family. My parents give me space and even though it’s hard for them, they have respected my desire to create distance. Sometimes that space is important. I really need it because I’m not able to control my thoughts. If some one says something or I see something in a party or group of people that triggers some painful memory, I’m unable to push the feeling and anxiety out of my head, even though I’m not able to correlate what the actual memory is. I start having feelings of self doubt, I get very consciousness and feel like everyone is judging me or feel like I’m worthless and not good enough depending on what the trigger is. This feeling of loss on control is very frustrating as I’ve always been in control of my life. I think I’m trying to accept the changes that are happening so that instead of fighting out, I can make peace with it. For me it’s not about forgiveness because even if I say it that yes I’ve forgiven my parents or whatever harm they caused unintentionally, I’ve actually probably not been able to forgive and forget. If I were then I wouldn’t be struggling today would I? I think at some level I might be able to forgive but never forget. And that would have to be good enough. I’ve accepted the fact that what was once my wish to work in a big bad a** job, have a challenging and aspiring career, be some big shot, is not going to happen the way I thought it was. And that’s ok. The last interview that I went to a few weeks ago and I didn’t get through, I was trying so hard not to fall apart because people kept telling me that hang in there, something even better might be around the corner. This last interview was for the transit commission, unionized job and secretly I kept thinking that this was the better thing that everyone is telling me to be patient about. When I didn’t get it, I couldn’t stop the tears streaming down my eyes. I knew I couldn’t go home because I could feel the breakdown coming. So I went to investigate two homeless shelters nearby and I took fresh fruits to one of them. I felt a tiny glow of fulfillment and satisfaction and that helped me boost my mood and remove the thought that I’m worthless. I actually didn’t know it would work, it was something that just came to my mind while I was driving home. I hope you find something that gives you that fulfillment and it’s only yours to keep. It’s ok if you can’t finish projects, it’s ok to be not ok. We’re humans not robots, we are soft not hard, no matter how hard we try to be otherwise.

  • TAMMY

    TAMMY

    June 29th, 2020 at 11:14 PM

    BS….SO NO ONE SEE’S THE DOG

  • Adrian

    Adrian

    February 21st, 2021 at 4:15 PM

    Turfa, thank you so much for sharing your story. It has helped me a lot. if you by little chance read this, could we maybe get in touch? I have a lot of similar problems like the ones you mentioned in your first comment. The reason i want to get in touch is because im still in the process of getting a therapist, because i cant even start doing basic tasks like writing an email to a therapist. I am 18 years old and i have taken a lot of drugs since i was about 14. Im very lucky that im not dependent of any substance right now. Since a couple of months, i take less drugs and i also dont enjoy them as much as i used to. Normally that should be a good thing but Im getting more and more depressed with few days or short moments where i get really happy. I also stopped playing video games about 2/3 years ago because I didnt expect too have fun from doing it anymore. I quit smoking cigarettes about 4 months ago and quit smoking weed 3 days ago. Because i have been smoking weed non-stop for about 4 years im also going through some major withdrawal. I might share my story of how i think i got where i am. But maybe in another post. I would also be very grateful if i could talk to someone who is older and went through similar experiences for advice. I know this is a bit of a long text without much info and im sorry for it. Its probably the weed withdrawal. I hope to anyone reading this that they or their loved one get better soon.

  • Billy

    Billy

    February 23rd, 2021 at 7:29 PM

    Dude you are a empty vessel. See as a design from birth our bodies will grow . And our mind starts to develop and we start to do things like crawl and such. It’s for our parents to have taught us self care and self esteem. You are stuck in the mind set for #1 it’s a loose loose message for you, yet if you want to get to know the inner self and the inner child that might be stuck on a persona from with you not knowing chose to avoid growing up. It’s when I learned how much I had been in a dysfunctional family relationship I had to learn that I was not responsible for my child abuse but I was wronged of my childhood by predators. I’m healthier today than I was 20 years ago and I’m talking mentally. Heal what ills you don’t drink or drug it away. For its been said that the person who can not reflect and see and learn from their own mistakes . Can never be able to feel or find true happiness and happiness is something that should just come easily for a life giving persona

  • Eric

    Eric

    April 28th, 2021 at 12:58 PM

    I was having a difficult time with my psychotherapist in December 2020. The covid time has brought up lots of things and the one thing I notice mostly are the contradictions. Contradictions from all areas of society. Fake news versus Real news. People are dying from covid and people are busy reacting and yet people are dying in other areas from hunger or wars for example and then our ideals are pushed and pulled in different ways. I found my self being faced with my deeper inner conflicts. Not being able to retreat to restaurants for example, has forced me home or out walking but no longer able to relax sitting, reading with a cup of coffee.

    I googled something about Free Association and was it good or bad?

    I am glad that your site mentions ‘criticism’.

    I was Free Associating, at least I thought I was but noticed that my therapist went to sleep one time during what I thought was a great connection between my behaviour as a retired man and being sexually abused as a young boy. I was shocked. It seemed that when I went off the track of Free Association then that was wrong.

    This is complicated and I certainly cannot/will not tell all in this writing.

    The outcome was a discussion with the therapist and me questioning their ‘view’ of me. I realised after reading this article that I needed to open up even more so and go deeper under my own initiative rather than being asked by the therapist.
    So this has started and needs even more ‘honesty’ to feel my painful emotions…
    Part of this Free Association for me was me telling a story that I have told many, many times before. It is a happy story of travelling and an experience I had. It occurred to me, ‘why am I entertaining this therapist with these stories?’. Of course I was avoiding and see some of that now.

    The other thing that has happened is, I realised that, maybe I have forgotten, that no therapist has really encouraged me with Free Association and given me a paper to read of its benefits… I find this hard to explain without sounding like a blaming old person because I didn’t get what I wanted. But shouldn’t psychotherapists have to produce a plan, which can be changed, how they will be with a patient and possible goals or problems and then that is reviewed at a later date rather than just going on and on!!

    But, is it so that a person in therapy, just Free Associates and how long does this last for?

    After forty plus years of therapy I wonder why some things have never been addressed! I get that maybe I was not ready but isn’t there some sort of plan?

    Personally I think psychotherapy needs to change. I can hear an ex therapist telling me that ‘you just want to be rescued’. But what if that is what a patient needs to happen? What if someone needs to be shown a few times with the goal that they become independent?

    I’ve had moments in my current therapy where Free Association has assisted greatly in ‘unravelling’ the bound up string/thoughts/ideas but is it really that a therapist can not intervene in a gentle way rather than waiting for the patient to Free Associate until ‘they get there’?

    Maybe I have not explained myself! There are cases with so called alternative therapies that something goes wrong and then the whole world is against these people for being unscientific, but is psychotherapy really that scientific? It is a new science in its current form. Previously we had priests and now we have Freudian trained (and others) carried on and on and yet what happens in the end.

    I remember once when I told a therapist about being sexually abused as a young boy and all I was asked was ‘why couldn’t you tell your mother?” And that was it… end of story. I never brought it up and they never chased it up.

    I now think this is so wrong.

    Hence… Free Association might be good but how good, how effective?

    I will continue therapy as I really need to and maybe in the end I will look back at this and think it was silly but right now I am questioning the practice of psychotherapy that just lets things continue for some time with out any consultation or encouragement and explanation about the method used by the therapists.

    At the end of the day I am questioning why someone never asked me something like “how many friends do you have?” or “I noticed you are getting frustrated about xyz and wonder what is going on?” – rather than suggesting “you are angry” – as if it is wrong…

    Thanks for the article.

  • Turfa T

    Turfa T

    June 21st, 2021 at 6:48 PM

    I am trying to reply to Adrian but the reply link is not working.
    I wanted to say that please feel free to reach out to me. I have a kid now so I’m super busy which is why I couldn’t reply earlier. I don’t have any experience using drugs, I never smoked or even drank alcohol. But I want to be helpful in any way I can be. If you read this, please email me.

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