“There is no opposition between Psychoanalysis and Psychosynthesis if we refer to Freudian Psychoanalysis understood as the technique of exploration of the unconscious and not to the set of psychoanalytic doctrines, that is to ‘Freudian theology’.” Roberto Assagioli (1)
By Kenneth Sørensen
We know that psychosynthesis grew out of psychoanalysis, beginning with the work of Roberto Assagioli, who introduced Freud’s ideas to Italy when he wrote his doctoral thesis on psychoanalysis in 1910. However, we also know that, from the very start, Assagioli saw the limitations of psychoanalysis. So, the question is: How much of psychoanalytical theory is embedded in psychosynthesis?
This is what I am going to investigate in this brief paper, based on a selection of quotes from Assagioli (all of which you can find on my website (2)). From the quote with which I start this paper, we can see that Assagioli clearly differentiates between the techniques and the doctrines of psychoanalysis. This will come as no surprise as there are significant differences between psychosynthesis and psychoanalysis with respect to their understanding of the human being.
Let us first see how Assagioli describes the origin of psychosynthesis. He writes: “Psychosynthesis has evolved naturally, and I would say spontaneously, from the ground, or out of the main stem, of psychoanalysis, as a method of psychotherapy – or, more precisely, as a body of techniques and methods co-ordinated and directed towards the achievement of a complete and harmonious development of the human personality.” (3)
We see that Assagioli is commending the methods and techniques of psychoanalysis, not its theoretical understanding. Let’s now hear what Assagioli said in an interview with Sam Keen (published in Psychology Today, 1974):
“Keen: Did psychosynthesis develop from psychoanalysis?
“Assagioli: Yes. In 1910 Freud was unknown in Italy. My doctoral committee was reluctant, but they finally permitted me to do my doctoral thesis on psychoanalysis. I went to Zurich to study with Eugen Bleuler, the inventor of schizophrenia. When I returned, I practised psychoanalysis in Italy, but I soon discovered its limitations.” (4)
It is obvious that Assagioli honours the psychoanalytical roots of psychosynthesis. So, let us see what Assagioli understands to be the best aspects of psychoanalysis:
“We may say that [psychoanalysis’s] most fruitful contribution has been the demonstration that there can be no real health, no inner harmony and freedom, and no unimpaired efficiency without first a sincere, courageous and humble acknowledgement of all the lower aspects of our nature, all the impulses, passions and illusions, plus their manifold combinations and deviations, which dwell and seethe in our unconscious and which delude, limit and enslave us. Psychoanalysis, in its best aspects, is effective in helping us to overcome the resistances and repressions produced by our ignorance, our fear, our pride and our hypocrisy; these prevent us from seeing clearly the dark sides of our nature. Their recognition is a prerequisite in dealing with them satisfactorily and thus laying a sound and stable foundation for all our subsequent work on the psychological building-up of our personality.” (5)
We can see that an exploration of the lower unconscious and the accompanying techniques to “overcome the resistances and repressions” are what Assagioli considers to be the best aspects of psychoanalysis. This is also what he stresses in his book Psychosynthesis, where Assagioli explains:
“We have recognised that in order really to know ourselves, it is not enough to make an inventory of the elements that form our conscious being. An extensive exploration of the vast regions of our unconscious must also be undertaken. We have first to penetrate courageously into the pit of our lower unconscious in order to discover the dark forces that ensnare and menace us – the ‘phantasms’, the ancestral or childish images that obsess or silently dominate us, the fears that paralyse us, the conflicts that waste our energies. It is possible to do this by the use of the methods of psychoanalysis.” (6)
The methods of psychoanalysis are useful, but what are the problematic aspects of this psychology, according to Assagioli? Let us take a look at that.
The problematic aspects of psychoanalysis
As we shall discover, psychoanalysis, according to Assagioli, can have “harmful” effects. He explains:
“A too insistent and one-sided delving into the lower aspects of the human psyche can be definitely harmful. Therefore, the practice of psychoanalysis requires much caution and should be kept within definite bounds; but above all, it should be integrated by active psychosynthetic procedures. This integration enables therapists to help patients, and educators to help the young, to utilise, transmute and sublimate their exuberant vital and psychological forces.” (5)
(The active procedures Assagioli refers to are the active techniques applied in psychosynthesis to develop the weak psychological functions in order to give clients the tools for life with which they can work on their psychosynthesis.)
Again, Assagioli is very direct in describing what he considers to be the “dangerous aspects” of psychoanalysis. He states:
“The more questionable, excessive and dangerous aspects of psychoanalysis have been those most emphasised and widespread. The sexual theory (or the alleged sexual origin of most manifestations of human life) and a system of often arbitrary and far-fetched interpretations have had a great vogue among the public, arousing unwholesome curiosity and frequently furnishing a pseudo-justification for an uncontrolled indulgence of the instinctive nature. At the same time the higher aspects, the fine flowerings of human nature such as express themselves through religion and art, have been subjected to a destructive analysis that misses their true and deeper essence.” (5)
Let us conclude this brief exploration with a precise critique of the psychoanalytical theory, or theology, that is not included in psychosynthesis. In a paper from 1927, one of the first in which Assagioli presents an outline of psychosynthesis, we find his nuanced critique of psychoanalysis. Assagioli states:
“Psychoanalysis… while it has some very fruitful and genial aspects, it is also dangerous, and, when indiscreetly used, is apt to cause very real harm.
“The great value of psychoanalysis lies in the fact that it offers an ingenious and efficient method of exploring the subconscious, of recovering the hidden conflicts which cause the trouble, of removing the harmful repressions, of liberating useful energies. But unhappily Professor Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis, and even more many of his followers, has associated it with a mechanical and ‘positivistic’ conception of life, have given a most exaggerated importance to the sexual element, have arrived at absurd excesses in their fanciful symbolic interpretations of dreams. And even in its better and saner aspects psychoanalysis cannot deal with all the cases.
“Against the troubles due to the deepest and most fundamental problems of human nature psychoanalysis fails. To discover the conflict is often not sufficient in order to solve it: sometimes the discovery makes it even more acute; to liberate repressed energies is not enough: if proper measures to have them duly utilised and harmonised are not taken, they might cause more trouble than before. And there is a whole series of problems and conflicts connected with the spiritual nature of man, which require a broader, higher, more comprehensive method.” (7)
You can read my compilation of Assagioli’s quotes on this topic at https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/glossary/psychoanalysis/
- The Concept Of Synthesis In The History Of Medicine, Roberto Assagioli. A Course of Lessons on Psychosynthesis. Lesson VIII- 1970. Original Italian Title: Il Concetto Di Sintesi Nella Storia Della Medicina. From the Assagioli Archive in Florence.
- Psychoanalysis. A compilation of quotes by Roberto Assagioli about the link between psychosynthesis and psychoanalysis.
- Psychosynthesis Medicine and Bio-Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli,
- The Golden Mean of Roberto Assagioli, Sam Keen
- Psychosynthesis – Individual and Social, Roberto Assagioli
- Dynamic Psychology and Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli.
- A New Method of Healing – Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli.