Regression: What Is It According To Psychoanalysis (and Criticism)

This controversial concept refers to a return to childhood or to earlier stages of life.

The Freudian concept of regression is well known today, although it is clearly in 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 will review the different nuances of this term. Finally, we will review some of the most representative criticisms that have been made about regression.

Defining the regression

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

Freud asserted that, throughout psychosexual development, young people run the risk of becoming psychologically anchored in one of the stages, without being able to advance fully through the later ones. This is known as “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. Subsequently, it has been proposed that this change is not always pathological or negative, but that sometimes transitory regressions could be beneficial in overcoming discomfort or promoting creativity.

Michael Balint, a Hungarian psychoanalyst who is considered a relevant member of the school of object relations, proposed the existence of two types of regression. One of them would be benign (like those of childhood or those of an artistic nature), while the malignant or pathological variant would be related to neurosis and specifically to the Oedipus complex.

Typical regression behaviors

A very remarkable characteristic of this phenomenon is the appearance of typically infantile behaviors and attitudes. However, depending on the  psychosexual stages in which a fixation occurs, some regressive behaviors or others will appear; for example, Freud considered nail biting and smoking to be signs of fixation in the oral phase.

Oral regression would also manifest itself in behaviors related to eating and speaking. By contrast, fixation on the anal stage could lead to a compulsive tendency to order or disorder, accumulation and extreme stinginess, while conversion hysteria would be characteristic of regression to the phallic period.

Although it can occur in adulthood, regression is more common in childhood. Examples of regression would be a girl starting to wet the bed after the birth of her little brother or a preteen crying every time his classmates make fun of him.

It should be noted that, theoretically, fixation can occur simultaneously in several stages of psychosexual development. In these cases, regressive behaviors characteristic of each of the phases in question would appear, although not always at the same time.

Regression as a therapeutic method

Various followers of Freud’s proposals explored the potential of his concept of regression as a therapeutic tool in various disorders associated with neurosis. Sometimes hypnosis was used as a means to try to achieve regression, while in other cases the process was more tangible.

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

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

From this point of view, regression is associated with the famous cathartic method, which consists of helping patients to process traumatic events from the past by re-experiencing them through imagination or suggestion, including hypnosis. Techniques similar to this are now being used in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Criticisms of this Freudian concept

According to Inderbitzin and Levy (2000), the popularization of the term “regression” has caused its use to be extended to a large number of signifiers, which has decimated the clarity of the concept. These authors emphasize that regression is part of an outdated developmental model (Freud’s stage theory) and that the concept itself can be harmful.

Rizzolo (2016) states that the concept of regression should be abandoned and replaced by the study of the person as a whole, instead of focusing on abstract impulses or needs, and that this is not possible if the relationship between a person is not understood. particular conduct 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 now been surpassed even in the field of psychoanalysis. However, the concept of regression as a defense mechanism continues to be used today from an explanatory point of view by many people related to this orientation.

Bibliographic references:

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

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