Free Association

Rorschach test

Free association is a practice in psychoanalytic therapy in which a client is asked to freely share thoughts, random words, and anything else that comes to mind, regardless of how coherent or appropriate the thoughts are. The process was originally developed by Sigmund Freud, who claimed that it gave clients complete freedom to examine their thoughts without prompting or intervention by the therapist. Freud claimed that 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, the client 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, or may jump randomly from one memory or emotion to another. The idea is that free association reveals associations and connections that might otherwise go uncovered and that clients may uncover repressed memories and emotions.

Contemporary Free Association
Freudian free association is fairly uncommon in therapy these days, even among neo-Freudians. Contemporary mental health practitioners might us a modified version of free association whereby they ask a client to recall all the memories associated with a particular event, share the first word that comes to mind after seeing a picture, or encourage a client to write down all of the thoughts she has during a particular time.

Criticism of Free Association
The primary criticism of free association has been that clients may overproduce associations. Under pressure from a therapist, a client may struggle to say as many random words and thoughts as possible, even if the client is not actually thinking about these topics. Associations can also be random and unrelated to a client’s psyche. For example, a person may begin by recalling a memory of her mother, then remember song lyrics associated with the memory, then begin naming musical artists. This could create the appearance of associations and memories that do not actually exist.


  1. Free association. (n.d.). Free Association. Retrieved from
  2. Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Last Updated: 08-7-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • Greg


    September 18th, 2014 at 2:43 PM


  • Malcolm


    July 15th, 2015 at 3:38 AM

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  • Vangelis


    April 7th, 2017 at 11:56 PM

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

  • Leena


    May 12th, 2017 at 3:05 PM

    Very nicely explained… Thanks

  • rasha


    February 6th, 2018 at 9:16 PM


  • 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


    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.

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