Why Free Association is So Difficult

Most people understand what free association means: to voice all thoughts, feelings and ideas that come to mind during a therapy session, without deciding in advance whether they’re relevant or “worth saying.” At the beginning of traditional psychoanalysis, clients are instructed to freely associate and occasionally reminded to do so as the treatment proceeds. We call it the “fundamental rule” of psychoanalysis; we believe that free association brings apparently unconnected ideas into relation with one another, revealing links that give us access to the unconscious.

Here’s an an example. In session this week, my client Tom was discussing his work schedule. Tom is a highly successful entrepreneur with several thriving businesses; he works enormously long hours and operates himself as if he were a machine, with little regard to his needs, feelings and limitations. In this particular session, Tom spent a long time discussing the demands of the workplace in a light-hearted manner, telling jokes about problems he encountered, making light of his frustration. In a practical vein, I kept pointing out that he could say “no” to certain demands upon his time. I wondered aloud whether he had room to acknowledge just how exhausted he felt, how far beyond his limits.

Tom abruptly shifted gears and said, “I don’t mean to change the subject, but I heard from Jennifer the other day that her friend’s son committed suicide. He threw himself out of a window. And get this — his family decided that the best thing to do under the circumstances was just to move away. He only died on Monday and already they’ve moved to their vacation home in Hawaii!” It gave me a way to address a split-off and neglected part of Tom who’s in extreme pain. Tom wants nothing to do with that part of himself; he prefers to stay busy, to “move away” and keep his distance from his suffering. To an outsider, it might seem as if I’m reading too much into Tom’s change of subject, but there’s been ample material of a similar nature in prior sessions. It felt right to me; more to the point, Tom agreed, even if he still couldn’t allow himself to go near those feelings. Not yet.

To my mind, there’s no doubt that free association helps the work along, helps me get to know my clients better and more quickly. In a couple of recent sessions, I came to a deeper understanding of why most clients resist it, and why some resist more than others. It’s an outgrowth of some thoughts I expressed in my recent post about keeping secrets from your therapist.

When I was urging my client Isaac to freely associate, he looked very uncomfortable. He eventually told me that many of his thoughts focus on aspects of himself he finds “ugly” — primarily but not entirely physical ugliness. He found it too painful that another person should know the full extent of these thoughts. Another client thought that if he were honest about the kind of thoughts that randomly occurred to him, or the paucity of emotion he experiences, he’d appear to be some kind of autistic freak. Earlier in my career, I might have talked about a harsh superego, projected into me, and the development of transference; these days, while I still find value in such a view, I focus more on shame and vulnerability.

If you freely associate, telling me exactly what you think and feel, you relinquish control over my view of you. You’re no longer holding back certain details and emphasizing others in order to promote a skewed view of yourself. There’s a very high likelihood that you’ll feel shame as a result. In order to avoid that experience, you may resist free association; if shame is a central issue for you, your resistance may be intense. You’ll keep certain thoughts to yourself because you’re afraid I’ll reject you if I know about them. You won’t describe your preferred way of masturbating — say, with a finger in your anus — because I might then find you “disgusting.” Or maybe you won’t tell me that the only way you can reach orgasm with your loving partner is to fantasize about rape. You’re certain that nobody would understand or sympathize with such a “perverse” fantasy.

In other words, to associate freely means to be more fully seen. Most people who come for therapy want relief from their suffering, of course, but they often hope to get it without having to reveal their most painful secrets. Clients with no prior experience of psychotherapy usually hope to receive advice or learn techniques to alleviate suffering; they don’t realize that psychotherapy means revealing yourself fully to another human being in order to be known and understood. For some, that’s the very last thing they want. They’re hoping the therapist can help them escape from themselves, to become another person altogether, rather than having their pain and shame fully exposed. For this reason, they’ll question and resist the suggestion that they freely associate. They’ll repeatedly “forget” that they’re supposed to do so.

It’s not a terribly profound insight, but it feels important to me.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Does free association actually mean that the client is more fully seen? I mean, thinking along the lines of the classical composition of the psyche, decision are made about what becomes the totality of the psyche in each individual, albeit much of the material unconscious. What we rule out of our integrity is just as important as what we rule in. If I detuned my radio so that alongside the programme I’d tuned into I also received cross over from another station, I could say that I received a broader range of the spectrum of broadcast radio waves, but collectively wouldn’t have any integrity or autonomy. And what about people with pure ‘O’ ocd. If they free associate they’d tell you that they were pedophiles and murders waiting in the wings but these subconscious obsessions have no real gravity or integrity to the psyche of the individual?

    1. The free associations of a person with obsessions (if they really do free associate) are often extremely revealing and open a window into a lot of unconscious rage and violence kept at bay/under control by obsessive thought.

        1. I talk about obsessive control and rage in Chapter Nine of my book on psychological defense mechanisms.

  2. That is so important. I think the Bible teaches that is foundational to our inner peace and mental health. Not all of our shame comes from sin, but confessing/acknowledging our shame (to ourself or to others or to God) whether it’s from sin or not, is the first step towards relief from emotional suffering. When we keep it repressed, we can suffer physical symptoms as we see with King David in the Bible.

    Psa 32:3 When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long.
    Psa 32:4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah.
    Psa 32:5 I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah.
    Psa 32:6 For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found: surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him.
    Psa 32:7 Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble; thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance. Selah.

  3. I’ve found voice work in acting so beneficial because it’s like free association, but with sounds and movement. You make sounds and move before you’ve had a chance to think, and so what comes out is less restrained, less controlled. Shame is felt but in a good group environment, with everyone equal, you see it’s ok, everyone is in the same boat.

    1. I would think that could be a very healing experience. Experiencing shame that way, being seen and seeing others “in the same boat,” as you say, has to make it a lot less toxic. Thanks.

      1. Five rhythms depends on the facilitator. I like that the music changes and allows different feelings to be expressed based on the mood, but often there’s a push for a certain type of energy or expression. When I’ve gone there has been talking through it all and suggestions of what to feel and express. In both counselling and facilitation, it takes a lot of wisdom and presence to be able to hold an energy for a room and do nothing – just give space for free associations and movement to come. So often there’s a desire to help and assumptions about what is best for the other person – but what if what is needed is a deeper connection to the authentic self, which is usually served by creating a space for it?

        1. Absolutely it depends on the facilitator.

          “often there’s a push for a certain type of energy or expression. When I’ve gone there has been talking through it all and suggestions of what to feel and express”

          I don’t like the sound of that!

  4. I never thought about what I do as free association, but perhaps it is, in a way. I draw, or colour, to be more specific. I don’t make a concious choice about what colours I chose or what the pencils are going to create. I just let it flow and at the end I am surprised to discover what it is that I was feeling. Sometimes I can interpret it, sometimes I can’t. Either way I always feel better afterwards. Many times I show my therapist – it’s a doorway to discussion. Sometimes they see things that I don’t. Depending on how deep my depression is or isn’t is all reflected in the harshness of the lines or the darkness, or brighter colours- they all seem to accurately reflect where I am at that moment.
    It’s a good exercise for when we don’t know or realize if or what I’m feeling.

    1. There’s been quite a lot written about how artists have a more direct access to the unconscious, and your description of your painting does bear some strong resemblances to free association. Thanks, Sheila.

  5. I notice that you’re including more references to sex and sexuality in your more recent posts. Bravo! I love this new hint of openness in your writing.

    I wanted to share a resource that helped me escape my own shame about my sexual likes and dislikes. It’s Dan Savage’s sex advice column, “Savage Love.” It’s a fun read, because he’s very playful, but it has also been enlightening to me to learn about the incredibly wide range of sexual preferences.

    I can imagine people taking offense to Savage’s aggressively sex-positive stance, but I can’t tell you how much more I’ve learned through his columns than through my own experience, conversations with others and, of course, abstinence-only sex ed. classes back in the day. To me, he’s both an entertaining writer and a model of accepting our sexual selves.

    1. I’ve had several other people recently tell me how much they like Savage. I think I may have to start reading his column.

    2. Even though I’m proud of my “vanilla” sex life with my sweet husband, I also really love Savage’s column. He has inspired me to broach topics that I would normally never dream about discussing. It’s definitely good stuff!

  6. I love to think of myself as an extra ordinary therapy client but this blog always calls me out. I’m a lot like most of your clients (which isn’t bad of course). I really don’t like free association and have been known to spend a whole therapy hour trying to “figure out” something to say. I really thought your comment about me trying to control my therapist’s view of me was right on. I want to be a “good patient” (see above), and say the exact right thing, whatever that is and it totally freezes me and blocks me. Since my therapist knew what was going on and realized like you do that I was trying to control things (and hide my shame), he often refused to buy into my silence and allowed some really silent, uncomfortable sessions to happen. One time, he randomly took some book off of his formidable book shelf about some antiquated therapy technique like “doing my colors” and read about it to illustrate to me that the session really needed to be directed mostly by me, not him. It was kind of hilarious and we laughed but I still struggle with this. I wanted him to ask me questions! I wanted to know he cared about me before I spilled my guts and put my shame on the table. I think I am also reacting to an old family dynamic. My family never seemed that interested in me and my parents hardly ever asked what was going on with me so I think on some level I vowed not to tell them anything about me to defend against the pain of not feeling cared for. Or something. Hopefully when I go back I can get a little more courageous and work on talking in the moment and just let myself go a little.

    1. I related to what you said about your family. I still struggle with this one. I’m not one of those people who can talk at length about himself in a social situation; if people don’t ask questions and express interest in what I’m saying, I’m done.

      1. Dr. Burgo, I completely relate to your comment. It seems that more often than not the people I come into contact with dominate the conversation about themselves with no interest in anyone else. I used to listen endlessly perhaps with the hope of some reciprocation. I don’t spend as much effort listening to the endless prattle anymore and have given up hope of reciprocity. It feels very isolating.

  7. Do you free associate and tell your client everything that comes into your head? Is the reason you don’t nothing to do with shame?

    Wouldn’t you resist someone knowing all your secrets? Especially someone who want tell you anything about themselves.

    I’m saying that the reluctance to free associate is evidence of sanity.

  8. I completely failed at free association (and psychoanalysis in general, though that’s partly because I think it’s a load of bs). My poor therapist would ask me to say whatever popped into my head, which 90% of the time is that I’m hungry/bored/tired/have to pee. Needless to say, we gave this up pretty quickly…

  9. I’m bilingual and If I truly say what I think without filtering it I’d be speaking in 2 languages. Could translating the thoughts into 1 language impact the value of free association?

    1. That is a fascinating question and I don’t know how to answer it. I’m currently working with a woman who speaks five languages fluently; I feel at a distinct disadvantage because I often feel she’s translating from the word that actually occurred to her and I wonder if it might have had more resonance in the original.

      1. See Saussure’s work on semiotics. If you believe that psychoanalysis is an immutable discourse, the language of a subject has no bearing. However, one doesn’t have to go far to see that the immutability of psychoanalysis locates it within North America and Western Europe, otherwise the unconscious of the subject is not encoded to respond to the discourse, the superstructure of their unconscious is formed by other cultural observations.

      2. As someone in psychoanalytic psychotherapy in a foreign language and who once upon a time studied linguistics (applied), the answer is I think “yes”: free association is more difficult (not impossible, perhaps, but …) in a foreign language. Most people in therapy are there due to psychic traumas caused in their earliest environments, where whatever memories exist are encoded in their native tongue(s), and through these connected to the emotional center of the brain which incurred the trauma. The client who speaks five languages will be translating into English emotionally-potent memories that are encoded in whatever language she acquired the experience; not only would they resonate more if she were relaying them in the original language connected with the emotional memory, they might even be slightly different than what she conveys in English because there may be no one-to-one equivalent for what she is feeling. For the more sophisticated/synthetic emotions, there is not always a perfect correspondence between signifier and signified.

        1. That is absolutely fascinating. I suppose it’s where empathy comes into play: the therapist has to rely much more on non-verbal intuition to get at the “truth.”

          1. Joe – I suspect your answer about relying on empathy and non-verbal intuition has more insight than you realize. As someone who speaks four languages, three of them fluently, and considers myself an “amateur” linguist, the only thing I can say for sure is that language is complicated. We tend to think of language in monolithic terms – “English”, “Spanish”, etc – when in reality there are many forms of each canonical language. I’m not just talking about US vs UK English or Mexican vs Peninsular Spanish. I’m talking about slang, dialect, register, and more, which can be worse because it can leave the false impression of understanding where none exists. My favorite example is the Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

            I’m also reminded about your post about “Thinking” as defense. If verbal thought can be a defense mechanism, imagine the verbal thought of someone who speaks five languages (distinct from someone who is natively bilingual)!

            1. Thanks, J. It makes me think about how much (narcissistic) pride I used to take in speaking French. As if that somehow made me special.

              1. Speaking French doesn’t make you special, but learning foreign languages as an adult does. I still remember a chart from elementary school showing how achievement in various subjects predicted overall academic achievement. I don’t remember the context, but the idea was that somehow it measured which subjects were the “hardest.” Foreign languages was at the top (ironically Spanish was my worst subject in high school, and it wasn’t until my immersion experience over a decade later that I finally learned it. I remember this anecdote because math was number 2, and I was always good at math, making me feel my own [narcissistic] pride).

              2. Reading my last comment, I realize my own narcissism in wanting to justify your using speaking a foreign language to feel special, since I use it to feel special!

                I’m not sure I understand though, what is the difference between narcissistic pride and “health” pride? Is there a non-narcissistic form of pride?

                1. Narcissistic pride involves a comparison — a feeling of superiority to others. It often goes along with arrogance and contempt.

                2. These comments about taking pride in knowing foreign languages remind me of Betty Draper (character on “Mad Men”) saying, “I’m not stupid. I speak Italian!” 🙂 I felt a lot of pride when I was able to read “real books” in the original language, and also wished it were somehow possible to learn all languages, ha!

        2. While I believe it is true that valuable information can get lost in translation when doing therapy in a foreign language, I also believe that it can facilitate free association at times. My native tongue is German. I speak 2 other languages fluently, and very often I find it a lot easier to express emotions in one of those 2 other languages. If I had to say emotional stuff in German, I would think of it as “kitsch”, and it would make me cringe. My completely unscientific theory is that because languages that one acquires later in life are less connected to the emotional center of the brain, words in those languages don`t trigger shame as much as words in one`s native tongue. I guess this is not the case for truely bilingual people, since they – from what I have read in some neurology article – process the 2 languages within the same neurological network, while people who grew up using just one language go and build separate neurological networks for each language they learn later in life.

            1. This is absolutely true of me. English is my second language and I’ve only ever been comfortable having therapy in English and all my serious intimate relationships have been in English. I feel that going out with someone who speaks my language is too intimate. Too like me. Therapy is too uncomfortable in my language. My therapist would know me too much. Very weird.

  10. “They’re hoping the therapist can help them escape from themselves, to become another person altogether, rather than having their pain and shame fully exposed.” This sentence just strikes me. I’ve never thot of it that way but its so true for me. Escape from myself, indeed it is! That, and also help me justify that its ok to want to escape … Why is it so hard to dare to be seen? Afterall we all have shame! Keep writing! What may seem not so insightful to you, can be just that & more to another.

  11. You write “If you freely associate, telling me exactly what you think and feel, you relinquish control over my view of you.”

    BANG! You nailed this one! I practice psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and I’ve never quite put it together like you have, but relinquishing control over somebody’s else’s perceptions through talking freely, risks unintended exposure of vulnerability and shame, especially. This seems like a profoundly important observation (“discovery”?) you’ve made, and I haven’t heard that before in the psychoanalytic community. Good one!

  12. It’s great that you shared this column. I use free association A LOT I find it’s a much faster way to dig deep into my subconscious than just writing about safe thoughts and feelings. The most painful, shameful stuff is where the most destructive traumas are. After 10 years of easier therapy, I went hard the last three years using radical, blunt honesty that allowed me to know so many confused beliefs and defense mechanisms I had running. It was like being tripped in the lunchroom every morning by the school bully and winning a championship every afternoon. Every horrendously shameful thing that came out was worked through and I felt so free and unimaginably stronger days or weeks afterward. It’s to the point I have a lot less fear of getting egg on my face in public because I know it’s only a moment and I’ll survive it and people’s reaction says more about them than me. I used to think humiliating moments defined me and I was a prisoner to them, never letting myself forget and move on. I believed my bullies, family and friends, who’d enjoy those moments of humiliation and betrayal. Now I have learned how to have perspective and mercy, something I desperately needed to stop beating myself to death with shame. Shame shrinks your whole world, your emotional range and courage to live down to a dried up raisin. Radical honesty and perspective gives you your life back.

  13. Hi Dr. Burgo,

    I’m sorry if you’ve talked about this before, but do your analysis patients lie down on a couch? If so, do you find that this enhances their ability to free associate? My therapist has mentioned that I should try it, but it feels way too vulnerable for me. I feel like I might instantly start sobbing in that position.

    I actually spend a lot of time thinking about what I will say in therapy before each session, and then I never end up talking about those things. Maybe those thoughts are mere fantasies of what I would like to say, but never will. Or maybe once I arrive something triggers a mood or train of thought that I have to embark upon. Hmm…

    1. Because I work exclusively via Skype these days, nobody is lying on the couch. Most of my clients used to lie down but I don’t think I’d revert to that practice anymore because facial expressions and what they reveal seem far too important to me.

  14. I completely understand, Y. I too feel the need to rehearse in advance of therapy, for me for fear I will not have anything “worthwhile” to say. I find it very intimidating going to the building, ringing the bell, entering and being greeted, sitting down in the chair, then being faced in silence by a very intense, silent, focussed therapist. I have been going to my therapist for two years, but even now I feel a sort of panic and fear at the beginning. I usually say “Er, I don’t really know what to talk about today..” After which I gradually start to talk about things I haven’t planned to mention at all. My therapist is very patient and I almost trust her (!) She is good at recapping the “story” I have brought to therapy. She brings together themes and points out connections. I have tried to end therapy twice because I “felt better” but she has gently tried to persuade me to stay. Just before I am due to leave each time, I suddenly seem to undergo an emotional meltdown and find I need to go to therapy twice a week for a short while. It is strange and makes me wonder if I am just testing her to see how far she will go to keep me. I actually resist therapy most of the time, yet I also have begun to feel that I can’t cope waiting a week to go there again. I definitely have a problem about resisting being needy!

  15. Really fine clarification & clinical examples of the impossible and rewarding challenges of Free Association. A lot like mindfulness meditation, without having to return consciousness to a chosen focus — unless the focus is awareness of one’s inner experience.
    While doing therapy, I do my best to be aware of whatever all is passing through me and reporting to the client what seems relevant and useful. My main filters of what to share depend on my intention to be differently available to different folks, at different places in their process of personal growth. For me, this altered state is the hypnotic trance I’m in when working with someone — at different times: a familiar “role”, a comfort, a wellspring of my own associations to the other and the moment between us, a source of emotional and cognitive understandings about my client, and when things are going well, an opportunity to model useful ways to be appropriately intimate with another trustworthy person.
    Darn — often when I comment on your blog, I have much more to say than I want to take time for, & thanks J, for another chance to think through things that interest me. Dr Bob

    1. We therapists on the site should have a dialog about what we reveal about our own associations/train of thought, feelings, reactions, etc. to our clients and why.

          1. I am a training therapist and the question about how much/when to reveal is a really tough part of the work for me. I think of therapeutic experiences as resting on a continuum from “safety” at one end to “danger” at the other. I try to keep myself equidistant from both poles, and when working with different clients, I know there there are different levels of self-disclosure that I can use based on where the client falls on the continuum. For example, I had a client come share about some sexual abuse and tell me that she felt turned on during this experience and felt very disgusting for enjoying the experience. While she was talking, I also felt turned on and then felt disgusted with myself for feeling turned on. If I shared this reverie with her, I think it would totally flood her and tip the balance in the danger direction. To keep the equidistant with this client, I will use my experience to help her know that I get how powerful the two feelings are to hold simultaneously and how shameful they can feel. I would maybe share my personal reaction with another client if it didnt feel so flooding. I am curious how clients would experience it if I shared that I was turned on? Have other therapists ever shared something like this? What was it like?

            I also think that it is our job to share with our clients what it is like to be in a relationship with them. I have shared with clients (with a lot of compassion), when I have felt resentful of cancellations, fee ect. I think it is important to model that I am human and flawed and that I want to find a way to create relationships where there is room for both of our experiences. It is obviously way more complicated than just this, as there have been times where I have introduced my subjectivity too soon. I have really felt though that most relationships I have been in have really been strengthened though the rupture and repair process.

            1. Your insights are extremely useful and important. I’ve been thinking more about this very issue, when and how much to share with clients. When I do write more, I hope you’ll add to the conversation. Admitting to feeling sexually aroused in session is a touchy subject. I notice how much more comfortable I feel with “sexually arouse” than “turned on.”

  16. For Y and Looby Lou: I find it helpful to journal through the week so I have all the things I want to cover written down and I can check them off as I go through the session. I found went I went with my ex I had to stay on the subject or it would get derailed. (rolleyes)

  17. I would like to see the method of free association to dreams and to other mental content made more widely known to others, not necessarily in therapy, but working on their own to find out about themselves. I use it and find it an extremely useful tool.

    However, when I recently expressed my views to someone, they cautioned me against promoting this idea, since it could be dangerous for certain vulnerable people. Yet, something like journalling, for example, is widely recommended as a tool of self discovery and it has some similarities to free association as it involves writing down a stream of unhindered thoughts and feelings for subsequent review

    When I tried to find out more about my idea online, there was a dearth of material. This is probably the reason I discovered your book which is the first “self-help” book that I have come across that is about uncovering unconscious motivations. (Your book and this site are great, by the way.)

    However, I notice that in your book you use defensive behaviours as the means to find out about mental content that one has repressed and I wondered if you therefore feel that there is in fact a danger in using the technique of free association by oneself, on oneself, without at least having been introduced to it through therapy? (For example, I have been through a successful, 5 day a week analysis. I have read widely on psychoanalytic technique and theory and have an B.Sc. in experimental psychology from way back, which is different from having no psychotherapy at all.) Or is there another reason that you think that the use free association for people trying to find out more about themselves would not be effective?


    P.S. In a different light I was struck by the way that you operationalized defensive behaviours which I would think that with some modifications could be used to study these in experimental situations.

    1. Hi Jackie,

      Thanks for your observations. My guess is that free association, if you tried it alone, would not expose you to traumatic material because if the unconscious feelings or conflicts are too much for you to bear, you probably wouldn’t be able to decipher the meanings of your associations. Just my guess. I have some therapists in my practice who bring in dreams; as accustomed as they are to working with dreams with their own clients, they often don’t grasp the meaning of the associations they bring to me until I put it together for them.

  18. Hi Dr. Burgo,

    I stumbled upon this post through a google search of free association; very insightful post and blog!

    I have been reading Theodor Reik’s book “The Search Within” and it seems that he is in favor of self-analysis/self-observation and considers it an important practice for psychotherapists. I am not a psychotherapist myself, but aspire to pursue a master’s in Clinical Counseling. Even though it’s not ideal, I am curious what your thoughts are on practicing free association by yourself. Using Garageband on my Mac, I have recorded a few of my free associations and they have been insightful in letting me hear where I start to change the subject just as I’m starting to get into things with more depth. I have also found it insightful to record my thoughts and reactions on an additional track as I go back and listen to the free association I just recorded; it seems that there is another layer of dialouge going on as I listen and observe my reactions.

    Have you had an experience with self-analysis?


    1. While I’m engaged in a continual process of self-analysis, I’ve not used this technique of free association since my therapy ended. I make use of my dreams and I try to observe myself in action and to see the ways I am inevitably the same person I’ve always been. But I think free association in the way you describe could be very useful.

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