Regression: what is according to psychoanalysis (and criticism)

The Freudian concept of regression is well known today, although it is in marked decline due to the theoretical and practical advances that have taken place in clinical psychology and psychoanalysis.

In this article we will analyze the concept of regression according to psychoanalysis and we’ll go over the different nuances of this term. Finally, we’ll review some of the most representative criticisms that have been made of regression.

    Definition of regression

    According to Sigmund Freud, considered the founder of psychoanalysis, regression is a defense mechanism that consists of a withdrawal of the ego at an earlier stage of development. This process would occur in response to unacceptable thoughts or impulses that the person cannot adaptively cope with and could be transient or chronic.

    Freud stated that, throughout psychosexual development, young people run the risk of being psychologically anchored in one of the stages, without being able to fully advance through it. This is called “fixation,” and the more intense it is, the greater the risk of reacting to psychosocial stress with regression.

    In the original psychoanalytic approaches, regression in adulthood is presented as intimately associated with neurosis. It was then proposed that this change is not always pathological or negative, but rather sometimes transient regressions can be beneficial in overcoming the discomfort or foster creativity.

    Michael Balint, a Hungarian psychoanalyst considered a relevant member of the school of object relations, has proposed the existence of two types of regression. One of them would be benign (like childhood or artistic), while the malignant or pathological variant would be linked to neurosis and more precisely to the Oedipus complex.

      Typical regression behaviors

      A very notable feature of this phenomenon is the appearance of typically childish behaviors and attitudes. However, depending on the psychosexual stages in which a fixation has occurred, regressive or other behaviors will appear; for example, Freud considered nail biting and smoking to be signs of fixation in the oral phase.

      Oral regression is also manifested in behaviors related to ingestion and speech. In contrast, fixation on the anal stage could lead to a compulsive tendency towards order or disorder, accumulation and extreme gasification, while conversion hysteria would be characteristic of regression towards the phallic period.

      Although it can occur in adulthood, regression is more common in childhood. These would be examples of regression for a girl who begins urinating in bed after the birth of her baby brother or for a preteen who cries every time his classmates make fun of him.

      It should be noted that, in theory, fixation can occur simultaneously at different stages of psychosexual development. In these cases, regressive type behaviors characteristic of each of the phases in question will appear, but not always at the same time.

      Regression as a therapeutic method

      Several followers of Freud’s proposals have explored the potential of his concept of regression as a therapeutic tool in various alterations associated with neurosis. sometimes hypnosis was used as a way of trying to achieve regression, While in other cases the process was more tangible.

      Sandor Ferenczi said regression could be a good method to improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy. In this sense, Ferenczi advocated the practice of pseudo-parental behaviors by the therapist, such as verbal reassurance and even hugging patients in order to help them overcome trauma or stressful situations.

      Besides Ferenczi, other authors such as Balint, Bowlby, Bettelheim, Winnicott and Laing have also proposed the use of regression as an instrument allowing a new “paternal re-education” more satisfying than the original. These theorists believed that regression could be sufficient for the maturation of individuals, even with autism.

      From this point of view, regression is associated with the famous cathartic method, which is to help patients deal with traumatic events of the past by re-experiencing through imagination or suggestion, including hypnosis. Techniques similar to this are currently being applied in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

        Criticisms of this Freudian concept

        According to Inderbitzin and Levy (2000), the popularization of the term “regression” has led to its use being extended to a large number of signifiers, which has decimated the clarity of the concept. These authors emphasize that the regression it is framed in an obsolete development model (Freud’s Theory of Steps) and that the concept itself can be detrimental.

        Rizzolo (2016) argues that the concept of regression should be abandoned and replaced by the study of the whole person, rather than focusing on abstract impulses or needs, and that this is not possible if one does not not understand it. given behavior and the circumstances that determine it in the present.

        In his analysis of the therapeutic use of regression, Spurling (2008) concludes that this method has been outdated even today in the field of psychoanalysis. however, the concept of regression as a defense mechanism is still used today from an explanatory point of view by many people close to this orientation.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Inderbitzin, LB and Levy, ST (2000). Regression and psychoanalytic technique: the concretion of a concept. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 69: 195-223.
        • Rizzolo, GS (2016). The criticism of regression: the person, the field, the useful life. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 64 (6): 1097-1131.
        • Spurling, LS (2008). Is there still room for the concept of therapeutic regression in psychoanalysis? The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 89 (3): 523-540.

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