Self-Directed Education in Psychoanalysis: The Unspoken Alternative

Self-Directed Education in Psychoanalysis: The Unspoken Alternative

This is appeared in the “From the President” column of the MSPP News,

Newsletter of the Michigan Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology, February 2009 Issue


by Barry Dauphin, Ph.D.


Recently, I presented a paper to MSPP, titled, “Are you an Analyst? Self-Directed Education in Psychoanalysis: Encounter? Escape? How About Escapade?” I raised questions about the qualifications needed to embrace the title “analyst”. In this column I’d like to address the relevancy of this question both philosophically and via a brief review of the history of psychoanalytic education in the U.S.  

I believe this question remains relevant despite the proliferation of routes for credentialing in psychoanalysis. Institutes affiliated with the American Psychoanalytic Association readily admit psychologists, social workers, and other non-medical professionals to their ranks. Furthermore, there are numerous institutes across the country, which are not affiliated with the American. They constitute a large opportunity for credentialing, and many have garnered a great deal of respect locally and nationally. Considering the number of such opportunities, does self-directed education in psychoanalysis remain a sensible option for some individuals? 

Of course, it depends upon what anyone desires out of education and what kinds of consequences one is willing to live with. Today pursuit of self-directed education is necessarily more of an active choice than once upon a time… once upon a time when non-medical professionals had little choice for psychoanalytic education other than self-directed and becoming “friends” of psychoanalytic institutes. Non-medical professionals used to be treated like disappointed suitors, who were told, “Let’s be just friends.” Psychoanalysts, such as Richard Sterba, who attempted to provide training for non-medical professionals got into a lot of hot water with the American for such activity. Times change in many respects. 

Today self-directed education in psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic ways of working and thinking is a shrinking phenomenon and is often off the radar screen. For example, for all the sturm and drang over attempting to agree on standards to accredit institutes, the Consortium (later the Accreditation Council for Psychoanalytic Education: ACPE) had no thought about self-directed education as a legitimate route to becoming a psychoanalyst. In essence, such a route seemed to baffle them. At an informal level, my experience as president of Section IV suggested that the local chapters, which existed in cities with APsaA Institutes, were either suffering from membership or organizational crises/difficulties or were extremely connected to these institutes. Those local chapters with little or no institute competition are often doing quite well, with robust memberships and multiple activities. Many non-medical professionals have decided that, when they have a realistic option, then pursuit of a credential is important for a variety of reasons. Thus, those who pursue self-directed education today affirmatively value the self-directed aspect of their psychoanalytic education. This can be an invigorating and scary choice.  

It is invigorating because one is not beholden to a large bureaucracy for educational direction after having spent many years of official forms of education. Bureaucracies, especially ones large enough to credential, have agendas of their own. One must take such-and-such course or do such-and-such activity because it is valued or needed by the institution often for reasons having little or nothing to do with individual needs. Adults with certain experience can be expected to be responsible for their choices and decisions, and directing one’s education is empowering in many ways. Self-directed education can be invigorating because of its emphasis to pursue that, which is of interest to the individual and stimulates his/her curiosity. Educational choices have a greater chance of being based upon love of the field and less upon compliance with the will of the other.  

It is scary because the world at large often values credentials for economic and sociological reasons. Not having the credential can be viewed as being less than those who possess the credential. One can literally be treated as less than in a number of ways. When there are so many options for credentialing, the choice for self-directed education might strike some as downright weird. One might face the reaction, “What are you, crazy or something?” Only not in so many words. 

Self-directed education can be scary in other ways too. Self-directed education might not have some of the checks and balances of more “legitimate” forms of education. Unless one exerts deliberate efforts to create some checks and balances, it can become quite tempting to think things such as, “I don’t have to do much more than I’m doing now” or “Those others really are nincompoops who are simply lackeys of large bureaucracies” or “My ideas about psychoanalysis don’t need to be challenged because I know I’m right.” Self-directed can become myopic unless one makes ongoing efforts to associate and connect with other thinkers. The liberty associated with self-directed education is most fruitfully enjoyed by undertaking active efforts toward getting oneself to expand past a simple comfort zone. I am not suggesting that institute training inoculates a professional from narcissism. Rather, I am suggesting that those of us who elect self-directed education bear a special burden for creating the conditions to challenge ourselves, because we can more easily escape certain kinds of challenges if we so choose. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that self-directed education in psychoanalysis is vital for many reasons, and I have concerns about allowing psychoanalysis (and thus its educational process) to be exclusively defined by institutions, be they affiliated with professional practice groups or governments.  

Defining what a psychoanalyst is by means of the criteria created by bureaucracies, especially government bureaucracies, or by means of institutional codes raises interesting questions. Namely, those who work psychoanalytically often proudly describe the work as dangerous and risky, and not without some merit. However, when society actively regulates a profession, its ostensible focus is on the health and safety of the public. The electoral process creates bureaucracies whose purpose is to tame and to control, to provide members of the public with some sign that this person is safe to work with, safe in the sense of whatever safe means to the bureaucracy.  

If we understand that it is inevitably subversive to listen to individuals while striving to understand unconscious meanings, then defining who is an analyst? by criteria created by the state or other institutions, leaves us with the interesting possibility that psychoanalysis could be dangerous to bureaucracies. A psychoanalytic listening stance can subvert the very structure that authorizes it, something not inherent to other similarly regulated activities. Psychoanalysis can bite the hand that feeds it, unless it is defined by the institution (state or other bureaucracy) as something that doesn’t bite, namely because it has been defanged. This wouldn’t be psychoanalysis, as most of us understand it, but once such definitions are turned over to institutions, they can lead a different life. 

Bearing the label psychoanalyst implies a fixed entity. Fixed entities are not dangerous to bureaucracies. Doing psychoanalysis is a process. That’s a different story, as processes escape fixed connotations. Perhaps one doing the latter need not only be the former, but it is hard to escape being asked “are you an analyst?” when you go to psychoanalytic meetings or cocktail parties, as if we escape ambiguity by answering yes or no. If the self-educated analytic worker claims to be “an analyst”, he/she would violate the parameters of the label as conventionally understood and could even prevent oneself from being listened to. Labels bring order to conversations.  

A label is often viewed as a desirable thing. The label of psychoanalyst is like a brand or a trademark, kind of like "ipod™" is a brand and trademark. It bestows an instant recognition of something or other to members of the culture. It is prepackaged with cultural associations, and many of its cultural meanings have been desired by psychoanalysts at one time only for them to encounter the need to escape those associations at a later time. For example, much effort has been exerted in recent years trying to escape public notions of what a psychoanalyst is.  The public has a variety of prejudices about psychoanalysis, but the profession of psychoanalysis benefited from many of those prejudices once upon a time.  A trip down memory lane might help clarify this. 

The supposed stodginess of pipe-smoking, well off, white men was a desirable brand back in the day, that is back in the day when psychoanalysis was practiced almost exclusively by stuffy, pipe-smoking, white male medical doctors.  The exclusivity implied in that iconic portrait of the analyst was actually good for business.  Once upon a time, that image connoted a privilege, which outsiders desired but could not possess without encountering the official certification process.  The exclusivity of that type of good ole boys’ club remained institutionalized until a lawsuit filed by the American Psychological Association charged the American Psychoanalytic Association with being a cartel.  Psychologists desired to participate in these dangerous encounters after having been told for many years that psychoanalysis was dangerous if practiced by non-medical personnel.  

However, we should remember that it was the “stuffy” analysts, who had done everything possible to trumpet Freud in the first place and to encourage people (even the great unwashed masses) to read Freud. They desired to popularize Freud. They really wanted more patients and supervisees, not more analysts. Well, the great, unwashed masses read Freud. Imagine that. Coming to encounter Freud and to contemplate some of the central ideas of psychoanalysis led many to desire to escape a humdrum, literal approach to working with others and instead work in this dangerous world of metaphor. Psychoanalysis desired to escape the institutions created by psychoanalysts, and to bite the hand that fed it. Psychoanalysis desired to be de-institutionalized. 

The institutions redefined the qualifications for entry into this bureaucracy, although the process of certification remained. As it turned out, the redefinition of who could become an analyst happened not a moment too soon. Many medical doctors desired to escape association to psychoanalysis, which had encountered a dangerous assault from biological interventions and behavioral therapies as well as from third-party payers. Biology and behaviorism sought to medicate and condition away desires deemed too dangerous, while third-party payers desired to escape a dangerous, infectious condition known as “red ink.” As the number of medical doctors who desired to become certified psychoanalysts shrunk, institutions and training analysts realized that they might encounter the dreaded “red ink” too. Rather than escape from non-medical practitioners, the institutes instead came to desire them. When we encounter economic forces, sometimes, erstwhile dangers suddenly become new desires and vice versa.  

Another movement occurred as well, namely the rise of institutes not affiliated with the American. These institutes often had different desires concerning who is called an analyst. They created another danger called competition. Competition can be desirous for some and dangerous for others.  It can create a spectacle. It especially muddies the waters of who is an analyst, because if there are many definitions to this question, then there isn’t a winner and loser in determining the definition, but there are winners and losers in the marketplace. However, the existence of a variety of standards creates dangers in the view of the bureaucracies. That bureaucracy of bureaucracies known as "the government" does not tolerate multiple standards well. As the story goes, the Feds wanted standards for psychoanalysts and one group desired to assert its standards, which were perceived as dangerous by other groups.  

In order to escape the anxiety that results in confusion to the question, who is an analyst, negotiations ensued to find some common ground satisfactory to the different factions. The Consortium entered to remove the danger of conflicting viewpoints about accreditation standards for institutes. What escaped the public presentation of the Consortium was that accreditation is not really so separate from certification, namely if one can only become an analyst by graduating from an accredited institute.  Although many of the negotiators desired to argue otherwise, they were defining who is an analyst by developing standards for accreditation.  

Then some states got into the act by establishing licensing laws for psychoanalysis. Now we can have an official designation for psychoanalysis as determined by the state. It becomes a strange journey. Psychoanalysis, that ultimate outsider, becomes registered and licensed. You can’t practice that way without a license is what we will hear next. Will there be couch cops? Face a state inquiry if you use free association without a license? No transference interpretations without having the correct papers? Ultimately, what the state regulates, it gets to define. Does that sound like hyperbole? Well, did you know that it is illegal in 22 states to call yourself an interior designer without a title or license?  

Allow me a brief digression into the process of regulation of interior design and ask yourself if you have heard something like this somewhere else before. According to Dick Carpenter, Ph.D., writing a research paper titled “Designing Cartels: How Industry Insiders Cut Out Competition” published by the Institute for Justice in 2007, titling regulations are an entrée into occupational licensing. Large professional organizations of Interior Designers and their political action committees have lobbied very hard for titling and/or occupational licensing laws, which create an official monopoly on the term “Interior Designer”. They argue that such laws are needed to ensure public health, safety, and welfare, i.e., to protect the public. One might be forgiven for asking …protect the public from what?… bad taste? Now there’s an irony for you… imagine government bureaucrats sitting in ugly cubicles surrounded by velvet paintings of Elvis and of dogs playing poker having the power to define taste… or perhaps define psychoanalysis.   

Supporters of such legislation would say that I am exaggerating that the government would be deciding taste. I would counter, if the government doesn’t define taste, how can it protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, since that’s the premise of the whole legislative enterprise? Of course, such defining isn’t obvious today, but one day it would have to become so. The logic is inescapable.  

We don’t know what future compromises legitimate psychoanalysis will need to make to remain licensable by the state or institutes accreditable by the Department of Education, but they will have to make compromises. Today's senior analysts might not have to make many more adjustments before they retire, but those coming up behind them will. At some point, psychoanalysis could come to be defined by more concrete and quantitative criteria. Imagine specifying the criteria for a transference interpretation using bureaucratically derived, quantitative measures, and failure to use those approved techniques constitutes grounds for psychoanalytic malpractice. Now wouldn’t that be an interesting trial to sit through. 

The regulatory bureaucracies could suck the life out of official psychoanalysis. However, they will not contain unofficial psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis always escapes. Perhaps it will have a different name or face. Perhaps it will emerge as something other than healthcare in the world of relatively unregulated human interactions. If the unconscious is dynamic as we say, if in the unconscious anything can come to stand for anything else, it’s hard to imagine that creating concrete, tangible, measurable, a priori observable criteria such as an institutional consensus of weekly frequency of sessions for psychoanalysis, for example, is anything more than the creation of a another cartel.   

Of course, regulated training is often rigorous, often quite good, even exceptional. However, you cannot know that someone is a respectable thinker or clinician by asking if he/she is an analyst. You have to talk with the person, have dangerous encounters him or her in order learn things that no certificate or state stamp of “analyst” can tell you.  

What does one desire then? Perhaps it is legitimacy. Legitimacy is worthwhile in many ways. Legitimacy is a path to escape the dangers of not knowing or of the potential of not encountering acceptance by one’s peers. Legitimacy establishes brands. Brands escape dangers, right? Why just consider such rock-solid brands as Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG. Today AIG adds to its brand the characteristic of “too big to fail.” Is psychoanalysis too big to fail?  

One method of encountering psychoanalysis usually escapes the notice of arguments over bureaucratic definitions of standards. That is self-directed education. I suggest that self-directed education in psychoanalytic thinking is an escapade. From the Latin excappare-"to get out of one's cape; to leave a pursuer with just one's cape." An escapade means to engage in adventuresome activity that runs counter to socially approved conduct. It is like the superhero taking off the cape. Being an “outsider” might serve psychoanalysis well, especially is self-directed education is pursued in the affirmative instead of simply being reactionary. 

Self-directed education can be dangerous to oneself if it leads to implicitly embracing the very hierarchies it critiques. In other words, just as it is vital to ask those who pursue the regulated and institutional routes of psychoanalytic education to listen to outsiders before rendering a judgment, the same holds for the “rascals”. Finding fault with those who pursue regulated avenues of psychoanalytic education just for simply educating themselves in that manner without listening to them is the mirror image of a bureaucratic mindset.


Barry Dauphin, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department of the University of Detroit-Mercy.  He has served as president of the Michigan Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology (1997-99; 2003-2009).  He is a past president of the local chapters section of Division 39.  He has written on psychoanalysis & culture, psychoanalysis & philosophy and issues involved in psychoanalytic therapy with children and has published the book Tantalizing Times: Excitements, Disconnects, and Discontents in Contemporary American Society published by Peter Lang in 2006.