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Regression: what is according to psychoanalysis (and critiques)

Regression: what is according to psychoanalysis (and critiques)

July 12, 2024

The Freudian concept of regression is well known at present, although it is in clear decline because of 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. To finish we will review some of the most representative criticisms that have been made about the regression.

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Defining the regression

According to Sigmund Freud, considered the founder of psychoanalysis, regression is a defense mechanism that consists of the retreat of the ego to a previous stage development. This process would occur in response to unacceptable thoughts or impulses that the person can not face in an adaptive way, and could be transient or chronic.


Freud affirmed that, throughout psychosexual development, young people run the risk of being psychologically anchored in one of the stadiums, without achieving complete progress through subsequent ones. This is known as "fixation," and the more intense the risk of reacting to psychosocial stress with regression, the greater the risk.

In the original psychoanalytic approach regression in adulthood is presented as intimately associated with neurosis. Later it has been proposed that this change is not always pathological or negative, but rather that Sometimes transient regressions could be beneficial for overcoming the discomfort or the promotion of 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 artistic ones), while the malignant or pathological variant would be related to neurosis and specifically to the Oedipus complex.

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Typical behaviors of regression

A very remarkable feature of this phenomenon is the emergence of typically infantile behaviors and attitudes . However, depending on the psychosexual stages in which a fixation occurs, some regressive or other behaviors will appear; For example, Freud considered that nail biting and smoking are signs of fixation in the oral phase.


Oral regression would also manifest itself in behaviors related to food intake and speech. In contrast, fixation in 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 who starts wetting herself in bed after the birth of her little brother or a preadolescent who cries every time her classmates make fun of him.

It should be borne in mind that, theoretically, the 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 in the same temporal moment.

Regression as a therapeutic method

Several followers of Freud's proposals explored the potential of his concept of regression as a therapeutic tool in several alterations associated with neurosis. Sometimes hypnosis was used as a means to try to achieve regression , whereas in other cases the process had a more tangible character.

Sandor Ferenczi said that regression could be a good method to enhance the effectiveness of psychotherapy. In this sense, Ferenczi advocated the practice of pseudo-parent behaviors by the therapist, such as giving verbal comfort and even embracing patients to help them overcome traumas or stressful situations.

In addition to 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 reeducation" more satisfying than the original. 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 in helping patients to process traumatic events of the past through reexperiencing through imagination or suggestion, including hypnosis. At present, similar techniques are applied to this in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Criticisms of this Freudian concept

According to Inderbitzin and Levy (2000), the popularization of the term "regression" has made its use extended to a large number of signifiers, which has decimated the clarity of the concept. These authors highlight that the regression is part of an obsolete development model (the theory of Freud's stadiums) 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 impulses or abstract needs, and that this is not possible if the relationship between a person is not understood. determined 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 been surpassed at present even 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 related to this orientation.

Bibliographic references:

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

Psychoanalytic Theory by Sigmund Freud (Hindi Version) (July 2024).


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