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The Fallacies of Freud: Thoughts about effective regression therapy – Jan Erik Sigdell (Is.21)

by Jan Erik Sigdell


There has been some criticism of Sigmund Freud’s work. A recently published “black book” shows that many of the cases he declared as cured were not cured at all. In the beginning he worked with hypnotic regression, not to past lives, but to traumatic situations earlier in the current life. The results were disappointing to him, wherefore he developed another approach, that of free association. Even then he failed to cure several of his patients. Why did that happen?

 In the author’s view this may well be because he avoided having the patients relive the emotions in the past trauma. However, reliving the emotions and dissolving them is an essential step to catharsis. This is just as important in regression therapy of any kind, including past-life therapy. A procedure for doing this is described, after which the released negative emotional energies are replaced with positive energy.

At the time of this writing, the 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s birthday is being celebrated. Since his days quite some amount of criticism against his work, his theories, and psychoanalysis in general have arisen. One of the most severe will be the historical review and analysis presented in a recent French book: Le Livre Noir de la Psychanalyse (“The Black Book of Psychoanalysis”)[1]. It has been found that in a number of cases, in which Freud claimed to have successfully cured the patient; in reality no cure at all was achieved. I will first give a brief review of some of these cases and then present a theory of why the cases failed. This has an important relation to regression therapy, and Freud was one of the first to practice hypnotic regression therapy before he turned to his form of psychoanalysis by means of free association.

The case of “Anna O.” (Bertha Pappenheim). This was actually a case of Freud’s friend and colleague Joseph Breuer, in which he himself also became involved. Breuer declared her as cured from a hysterical condition with sexual components. Freud seems to have agreed to the statement that she would have been cured, but later wrote that after the end of the treatment the patient would have developed an “amorous transfer” to Breuer. It has been found that “Anna O.” was in no way cured but continued suffering from the same hysterical symptoms as before. Only many years later did she slowly begin to recover after four periods in a sanatorium. The “talking cure,” the model of all analytic techniques, was a full fiasco.

The case of Emmy von N. (Fanny Moser). She attended a large number of physicians, one of which was Freud, without any positive result at all. Her daughter, in a letter to Freud, requested that the mother be placed under tutelage, to which he answered: “I also ask you to keep in mind that at that time I didn’t understand anything about the case of your mother…It actually was at the occasion of this case and its results that I recognized that the treatment by means of hypnosis is an insignificant procedure and without value, and that I was pushed to create the more reasonable psychoanalytic therapy.”

The case Cäcilie M. (Anna von Lieben). She was treated by Freud 1887-1893 but instead of improving, her condition worsened.

The case of Elisabeth von R. (Ilona Weiss). She suffered from chronic pains in her legs. Freud said that he had freed her from these symptoms, which would be caused by suppressed erotic desires for her brother-in-law. He wrote about a happy end: “During the spring of 1894…she went to a ball…where I saw my former patient involved in a rapid dance.” Her daughter, however, much later informed that her mother had continued suffering severely from the pains all her life, even though she was active and loved to take walks. The interview with the daughter was recorded in 1953 by Kurt Eissler for the Freud Archives but immediately locked away by him in the Washington Library of Congress.

18 cases of seduction. During a conference on April 21, 1896, Freud suggested to relate hysterical symptoms to early sexual seductions: “I have been able to recognize this correlation in around 18 cases of hysteria for each of the symptoms and, as far as the circumstances permitted, confirm this by therapeutic success.” Two weeks later in a private communication to Fliess, Freud confessed: “Even though [the treatments] are continuing, none is yet terminated.” It went on like this for months until, in a famous letter to his friend dated September 21, 1897, Freud declared that he had come to doubt his theory of seduction. None of the cases was in any way successfully cured.

The case of Little Hans (Herbert Graf), who had a phobia of horses. Freud saw this as derived from a castration complex. The boy himself declared, however, that it would come from being witness to a bus accident, in which two horses were thrown over and severely injured. This certainly makes more sense than Freud’s hypothesis…His symptoms disappeared spontaneously after some time.

The Wolf-Man (Sergius Pankejeff). This case was a spectacular failure of psychoanalysis. He was Freud’s patient 1910-1914 and for a short period five years later, after which he was declared to be cured. He was not and, after the 2nd world war, he became a patient of a number of psychoanalysts on and off for 60 years, up to his death in 1978. Freud declared that he had his problems, which included a passive homosexual attitude, as a result of having surprised his parents during their sexual act in his childhood. He dreamt about fearful white wolves and Freud interpreted these as the white underwear of the parents. He would have developed a fear of castration, discovering that the mother had no phallus. An Austrian journalist Karin Obholzer[2] succeeded in locating the Wolf-Man in Vienna in the beginning of the 1970s and interviewed him extensively. He declared Freud’s interpretation of his famous dream as being “terribly far-fetched” and that he felt betrayed by Freud, who had promised him that he would one day remember the real traumatic cause of having become sick.

In spite of several psychoanalytic treatments he was in no way cured from seeing everything in black in a compulsive manner and continuously having serious doubts about himself. He declared: “In reality the whole story is like a catastrophe. I am in the same state as when I went to see Freud the first time…The psycho-analysts are a problem, no doubt about it…Instead of doing good, the psychoanalysts did bad to me.”

It came out that the director Kurt Eissler of the Freud Archives supported him financially, paying for a person to care for him so that he would stay anonymous in Vienna, and in order to prevent his emigration to the USA, where his case could have become public under scandalous circumstances. Eissler was also tried to persuade him to not communicate with Karin Obholzer, but without success.

The interpretations of Freud may make the reader wonder if he possibly projected his own sexual problems to his patients…?

The book Le Livre Noir de la Psychanalyse spends 819 pages to prove that psychoanalysis is a useless but lucrative business. The same has been claimed by others. Ian Stevenson wrote an article A Case of the Psychotherapist’s Fallacy[3], in which he refers to investigations which show that psychotherapy is no better than any other treatment, no better than “being on a waiting list and given an ‘attention placebo.’”[4][5][6]

Why didn’t this therapy work?

It is interesting to note that Freud was one of the first to perform regression therapy! Not to past lives, but to earlier traumatic (but normally suppressed and, therefore, forgotten) incidents in the actual life of patients. He will probably have had the idea from his teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot, in Paris and from contacts with Pierre Janet and Hippolyte Bernheim. He gave it up (as indicated above) after some time, since it wasn’t very helpful. Under hypnosis the patients could remember the incident, but there was no real change in their conditions afterwards. Freud instead devoted himself to his own development: Psychoanalysis by means of free association. The great psychiatrist August Forel criticized Freud for having abandoned the cathartic method.

So why didn’t it work? Why didn’t the expected catharsis occur? Conventional Freudian psychoanalysis seems to avoid by any means the patient’s entrance into emotional experiences and conditions. The association process seems to be largely intellectual. During the time in which Freud worked with hypnosis, it is probable that he avoided letting the patients relive the emotions, mainly having them describe what happened.

In my 27 years of experience with past-life therapy, which I prefer to call regression therapy (since many a time we return not, or not only, to past lives, but to childhood incidents or to the time in the mother’s womb), I have realized that the essential part for catharsis in a regression therapy session is to relive the emotions in the past trauma. These emotions became the cause of the actual problem, and the goal is to dissolve these emotional energies. This was obviously not understood in the days of Freud and the others. There can be no “intellectual catharsis,” catharsis occurs on the emotional level. If the client only observes the past incident and describes it without reliving the emotions, he will mainly have an explanation for his problem, but he will hardly be free from it (at most only in part).

Ineffective regression therapy

The same mistake seems to sometimes occur in regression therapy. One example is the following: “I do not agree with certain therapists who insist that, unless an experience is relived with all the accompanying trauma, no benefit is gained. It is quite sufficient to know and understand what happened–there is absolutely no need to suffer, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. In fact, I would not be able to conduct sessions of regression therapy–whether present or past-life–if I thought that my patient was going to go through agonies while it was going on.”[7]

Another example is: “Reassure the individual often during the regression that ‘you are physically here and now and this is simply an exercise in remembering. There is no need for you to experience distress of any kind on any level.’ Encourage the person to dissociate himself from the situation and observe as if watching a movie or television.”[8]

If this is therapy, it is mainly symptomatic. It fails to release emotional energies from the past, which cause problems today, and thus misses an essential point in regression therapy. It stays largely on an intellectual level where there can be little catharsis. The regressionist must be able to deal with emotional experiences in the regression. I sometimes a bit jokingly say: “The worse it becomes, the better it is. Because then the liberation after the release is so much bigger.”

Dissolving negative emotions

But how do we dissolve negative emotional energies hidden in the unconscious self? In my approach, which I developed from Bryan Jameison’s “Time-Lapping Technique,” I do it as follows. I use a “guide” or “counsellor,” who has a very important role in the regression. Sometimes I even have the client meet his Higher Self for the same purpose. The “guide” is defined as a symbolic appearance of the unconscious self. It may appear in front of the client like a human being (male or female), often like a being of light (occasionally like an angel), sometimes as only light without much of a shape. I have the client ask the “guide” to make a fire at the meeting place. We then go back to the traumatic situation to “fetch” the negative emotional energy (fear, sadness, grief, anger, hatred, physical pain if applicable, or what have you) and bring its energy to the “guide” to burn in the fire. The fire is very suitable for the purpose since it (in various mythologies) is a symbol of transformation. The negative emotional energy is transformed in it. We then return to the traumatic situation to check if the emotion is still there. For example, maybe the fear is gone but there is still a rest of anger. In that case we bring that rest to the “guide” too, to symbolically burn it in the fire. We continue until there is no more negative emotional energy of any kind in the situation, but it is experienced as neutral (or, if any, only positive feelings remain, which, of course, are not dissolved). Often once is enough, but sometimes we have to repeat this procedure 2 or 3 times.

 Before we finish the regression, the dissolved emotional energies have to be replaced–by what? I prefer Light energy. I have the client ask the “guide” to envelop him completely in light: “Feel the love of the light and its healing energy. You can now absorb this energy to fill yourself completely with it. It replaces all the energies we gave to the fire; the fear, the anger…Tell me when you feel that this is done.” “Yes.” “Now keep the light energy you have absorbed in yourself, but step out of the light around.” The latter is a compromise. It feels very good to be in the light and we may be tempted to leave the client in it when we finish the regression. I have found that, in rare cases, the client still feels like being in the light hours later. Even though the sensation is nice, it could be disturbing. If he goes back to work and sits in front of the computer, he will not be able to concentrate well on his work. Still being in the light doesn’t, however, seem to interfere with driving a car; but who knows…That is one more reason for this compromise. If the client steps out of the light (but keeps the absorbed light) he will be back in the “here and now” soon after the regression.

Feelings of guilt

It is also important to dissolve feelings of guilt, if there are any. Such feelings can lead to an unconscious “self-punishment pattern.” For example, the person unconsciously thinks he shouldn’t have success or a happy partnership relation since he believes he wouldn’t deserve it. I have him ask the guide, if he really needs to keep the feeling of guilt. Normally, “No.” Then we give the energy of that feeling to the fire too. In very rare cases the answer is “Yes.” Why? Because there is still something the client has to do first, maybe better understand the lesson he had (or is having now), maybe reconcile with another soul, or maybe something else.

 A speculation

I cannot help adding a speculation about Breuer and “Anna O.” since it appears to be quite “closely fetched.” Breuer had a daughter, Dora, and claimed that she had been procreated during a journey with his wife to Venice. Ellenberger[9] has found in his research that Dora was born some 3 months before that journey. Breuer reported that “Anna O.”, among other things, went through a “phantom pregnancy,” being a hysterical condition. One may wonder—as a mere speculation—if Breuer had a sexual relationship with “Anna O.” (even if brief); if maybe the pregnancy was real and if Dora’s real mother wasn’t his wife, but “Anna O.”? Could it be that he invented the “phantom pregnancy” and then dropped “Anna O.” as a patient in order to avoid a scandal? It is interesting in this respect that Freud mentioned an “amorous transfer” from “Anna O.” to Breuer (see above).

[1] Catherine Meyer et al.: Le Livre Noir de la Psychanalyse. Vivre, Penser et aller mieux sans Freud (“The Black Book of Psychoanalysis. To live, think and feel better without Freud”), Les Arènes, Paris, 2005.

[2] Karin Obholzer: The Wolf-Man Sixty Years Later, Routledge and P. Kegan, London, 1982, and Continuum Publishing, New York, 1982.

[3] Ian Stevenson: A Case of the Psychotherapist’s Fallacy, Reincarnation International, London, Issue 2, April 1994, pp. 8-10.

[4] H.J. Eysenck: “The Effects of Psychotherapy: An Evaluation”, Journal of Consulting Psychology, No. 16, 1952, pp. 319-324.

[5] L. Luborsky, B. Singer and L. Luborsky: “Comparative Studies of Psychotherapies”, Archives of General Psychiatry, No. 32, 1975, pp. 995-1008.

[6] G.L. Paul: “Insight vs. Desensitization in Psychotherapy Two Years after Termination”, Journal of Consulting Psychology, No. 31, 1967, pp. 333-348.

[7] Ursula Markham: Regression Therapy using Hypnosis, Piatkus, London, 1991, p. 27.

[8] Florence Wagner McClain: A Practical Guide to Past Life Regression, Llewellyn, St. Paul (Minn.), 1987, p. 47.

[9] Henry F. Ellenberger: The Discovery of the Unconscious, Basic Books, New York. 1970.