Key Psychological Terms & Counselling Phrases
Archetype: An image or pattern of thinking that is held in all of the unconscious minds of a race or culture, inherited from the collective experience of our ancestors. Universal symbols like 'mother', 'wise old man', and 'the hero' are all examples of archetypes.
Attachment Theory: Based on the premise that there is a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings, psychiatrist John Bowlby devised attachment theory to explain his belief that a child has a need to develop a strong bond with at least one primary caregiver during their infancy and early childhood. Deprivation of care during this period can result in adverse psychological consequences in the child's social and emotional development which can then affect their future adult life.
Cognitions: The mental processes involved in acquiring and processing information including thinking, knowing, judging and problem solving.
Cognitive Dissonance: An unpleasant feeling that occurs when we hold inconsistent or conflicting ideas simultaneously, e.g. “I like smoking cigarettes”, and “but I want to live a long time and smoking damages my health”. Proposed by US psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, this theory would suggest holding two such opposing views leads to denying our true values or deciding on irrational behaviour, such as deciding, 'smoking is fine if I only smoke low-tar brands'.
Cognitive Reappraisal: A strategy for regulation emotions in which an individual changes the way they think about a situation in order to alter their emotional response to it.
Collective Unconscious: A term coined by Jung to refer to a universal data bank of images and stories (archetypes) innate in every human and held in their unconscious from birth.
Co-morbidity: The tendency for different mental disorders to occur together in the same person.
Conscience: The part of our mental processing that holds our beliefs and information around what our society deems as right and wrong, and regulates our desire to act in a moral manner or feel guilty if we don't.
Conscious Level: Thoughts and feelings that one is aware of having.
Defence Mechanism: A mental process used unconsciously to keep the conscious mind safe from thoughts that cause stress and anxiety. Freud felt that defence mechanisms protect the ego from the demands of the id.
Delusions: A false beliefs that is firmly held despite strong evidence to the contrary. Delusional beliefs are often centred around notions of persecution or grandeur.
Denial: A defence mechanism involving a failure to consciously acknowledge thoughts, feelings, desires, or aspects of reality that would be painful or unacceptable.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM): A book published by the American Psychiatric Association that provides standard criteria for the classification of mental health disorders. It is used to varying degrees around the world by clinicians, researchers, policy makers, pharmaceutical companies and many more.
Diathesis-Stress Model: A theory that suggests the reason some people have mental health disorders and others don't is due to a genetic predisposition combining with stressful life experiences. Instead of nature vs nurture, it proposes nature and nurture.
Displacement: A defence mechanism where frustrations, impulses, and feelings are diverted to a person or object felt to be more acceptable and less dangerous. For example, if an employee is angry at their boss so goes home and picks a fight with their spouse.
Dissociation: A defence mechanism where thoughts, feelings or experiences that are unwanted or too hard to deal with are separated out of memory in order to create a psychological distance. This can leave a person disconnected from their sensory experiences, life history, and sense of self.
Drive: An inner urge that impels you to take action or alternately inhibits action, which can be instinctive, like a sex drive or a hunger drive. “Drive theory” states that motivation to take certain actions is based on a desire to reduce the tension that one feels from unmet needs.
Ego: One of the three elements of the personality according to Freudian theory. The ego is the part that is responsible for managing reality, keeping the other two parts, the id and superego, in line. It controls the basic impulses of the id, such as letting you know if a person jumps a queue in front of you that hitting him is socially unacceptable. And it helps balance out the high ideals of the superego.
Emotions: In psychology, emotions are seen in two ways. Some believe they are judgements on your environment and how it is meeting your desired goals. For example, if you want to be rich, and lose your job, your emote sadness in response to your goal being undermined. Other psychologists see emotions as physiological perceptions and not judgements at all. They believe that the body reacts to the environment then emotions are merely responses to things like your heart beating, or your hormones fluctuating. So, in general, emotions are a response that can involve changes in behaviour (how we act), subjective experience (how we feel) and physiology (how various systems in our bodies respond).
Free Association: A method use in psychoanalytic therapy in which the patient is to say anything that comes into their mind, no matter how trivial, unrelated or embarrassing.
Habituation: A decreased reaction and response to a repeated exterior stimulus due to increasing familiarity. For example, if we hear a cuckoo clock go off every hour, the first time we hear it it might annoy us, but over time we can get used to it.
Hallucinations: Often thought of as just 'seeing' things, hallucinations actually include any sensory experience that is perceived as real but actually doesn't exist outside of the experiencer's mind. This includes things that are felt, smelt, tasted, or heard, as is common in cases like schizophrenia where sufferers hear voices.
Hypnosis: A temporary trance state that can be induced in most people. The person under hypnosis is led to relax to a point they are awake but tuned out to exterior stimuli, leaving them open to suggestion and with heightened focus and imagination.
Metacognition: Knowledge and beliefs about one’s own cognitive processes.
Moods: The psychological state you are in, which can be short or long-term. While a mood can be seen as a prolonged emotion, moods are less precise than an emotion and more likely to be caused by several things as opposed to the one trigger it takes to create an emotion. Moods change, but if they change too often and too quickly as well as moods that seem to last for a very long time might be a sign of a disorder.
Object Relations: A branch of psychoanalytical theory that focuses on interpersonal relations. It deviates from Freud's idea that we are merely pleasure-seeking creatures driven by sexual and aggressive triggers, and suggests instead we are motivated by relationships.
Placebo Effect: The medical or psychological benefits of a treatment produced simply because an individual believes the treatment has therapeutic powers.
Positive Psychology: A branch of psychology that instead of focusing on identifying and treating mental problems searches for ways that individuals and communities can live happier, value-laden and productive lives.
Preconscious Level: A term from Freudian psychoanalysis, thoughts at the preconscious level are not in mental focus but are also not repressed so are available if the person wants to access them.
Primary Attachment Figure: The main person, either a parent or caregiver, to whom an infant attaches psychologically and emotionally.
Projection: In psychology, this is a defence mechanism in which intolerable feelings, impulses or thoughts one does not want to admit to are dealt with by attributing them to other people. For example, someone who is really judgemental of others might accuse others of always judging them.
Psychopathology: The science and study of mental disorders, including all angles of research on why mental disorders happen such as psychological, genetic, social, and biological.
Rationalization: A defence mechanism in which one makes up a false but reassuring explanation to explain their behaviour and/or feelings to both themselves and others, thus avoiding the reality of why they are really acting or feeling as they do.
Reaction Formation: A defence mechanism where someone does the polar opposite of something they want to do or are thinking. For example, someone who is really angry with a work colleague may be exceptionally friendly towards them.
Repressed Memory: An anxious memory that has been pushed out of consciousness where it may fester and cause emotional and life problems until it is “recovered” and processed.
Repression: A defence mechanism in which thoughts, impulses or memories that cause to anxiety are pushed out of consciousness so that the person no longer is aware of them.
Resistance: Psychological resistance refers to when a client doesn't cooperate or refuses to engage with the process of therapy, which can include refusing to discuss something relevant or deciding they won't change their behaviour.
Rorschach Test: A personality assessment and psychological test that requires an individual to look at a certain series of inkblots and report their perceptions of what they see.
Schema: A mental sorting system created by the mind using prior experience and learnings that it uses to facilitate the process of the information life throws up, a schema can also be seen as a cognitive pattern or framework. Schemas affect how we choose to see things. For example, if a child has a schema that dogs have four legs and a big nose, they might meet a horse and at first see it as a dog. As adults, schemas can be powerful and limit perspective, or even feed in to the creation of stereotypes.
Secure Base: A term from Attachment theory which states that to have a healthy attachment style one requires a quality, trusted contact in their life with whom one can feel safe. As a child this might be a parent and as an adult this might be a partner, friend, or close family member.
Self-Esteem: An evaluation one makes of how much value they see themselves as having, both to others and within the world. In other words, a self judgement of worth.
Self Schema: The beliefs that people use to define who they are and create their identity from, often created from ideas and memories and by societal influence. A self-schema often becomes the platform one sees others, their experiences, and their world from. For example, if a child is told they are too quiet and grew up in a society that values communication, they will develop a belief they are an introvert and see all their experiences from this frame, as well as judge others on how much more or less introverted they are.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: A self-fulfilling prophecy is the tendency for our expectations to foster the behaviour that is consistent with our beliefs. For example, a teacher who believes a pupil is far more intelligent than the rest may give extra time and praise to that child resulting in the child attaining high grades, thus reinforcing the belief that the child is more intelligent.
Social Learning Theory: A theoretical approach to socialisation and personality that stresses learning by observing others who serve as models to show a child whether a response he already knows should or should not be performed.
Transference: A term used in psychotherapy to describe an unconscious process where a client project onto his or her therapist the attitudes, feelings and desires from his or her earliest significant relationships. The individual thus begins to experience the therapist in the same way as a significant person from their past.
Unconscious: In psychoanalytical Freudian theory the unconscious is a level of the mind we are not aware of or easily able to access that contains things we've decided to repress as we deem them not likeable. This includes socially unacceptable desires, painful memories, or emotions that overwhelm us. Although we are not consciously aware of the things in our unconscious, they can still exert a strong influence on our moods and actions.
Some Further Freudian Psychoanalytical Terms
Anal Stage: Second stage of Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual stages of development. Freud proposed this stage occurs between the ages of two to three when the child begins to toilet train. According to Freud, pleasure is derived from controlling bladder and bowel movements. This represents a conflict between the id, ego and superego, whereby the id derives its pleasure from bodily functions and the ego and superego seeks to represent the practical and societal pressures to control oneself.
Electra Complex: Term used to describe a girl’s sexual feelings toward her father, and anger towards her mother. Freud postulated that during psychosexual development a young girl is initially attached to her mother. When she discovers that she does not have a penis, she becomes attached to her father and begins to resent her mother who she blames for her “castration”. Freud therefore believed that the girl then begins to identify with and emulate her mother out of fear of losing her love. Comparable to the Oedipus Complex.
Fixation: The lingering attachment to an earlier stage of pleasure seeking, even after a new stage has been attained.
Id: The most primitive reactions of human personality, consisting of blind strivings for immediate biological satisfaction regardless of cost. Governed by the pleasure principle.
Oedipus Complex: The cluster of impulses and conflicts hypothesised to occur during the phallic phase in boys, at around age five. A fantasized form of intense, possessive sexual love is directed at the mother, which is soon followed by hatred for and fear of the father. As the fear mounts, the sexual feelings are pushed underground and the boy identifies with the father. An equivalent process is hypothesised in girls and is called the Electra Complex (see above).
Oral Stage: The earliest stage of psychosexual development during which the primary source of bodily pleasure is stimulation of the mouth and lips.
Penis Envy: The wish for a penis in females as part of the Electra Complex.
Phallic Stage: the stage of psychosexual development during which the child begins to regard his or her own genitals as a major source of gratification.
Pleasure Principle: One of two major principles that Freud held governed psychological life. The pleasure principle is thought to characterise the id, which seeks to reduce tensions generated by biological urges.
Reality Principle: The other of the two major principles Freud claimed governed psychological life. This principle is said to be governed by the ego, which gains pleasure by finding practical strategies that work in the real world.
Superego: One of the three components of the human mental apparatus. The superego consists of two parts, the conscience and the 'ideal self', and incorporates the values and morals of society. Its primary function is to control the impulses that society may deem inappropriate, such as sex and aggression, and it encourages moralistic goals over realistic ones.
Types of Disorders
Acute stress disorder: A reaction sometimes observed in individuals who have experienced a traumatic event, characterised by recurrent nightmares and waking flashbacks. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one such example.
Affective disorders: A set of psychiatric conditions also known as mood disorders that involve disturbances in mood and motivation. The main types are depression, anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder.
Agoraphobia: An anxiety disorder involving fear of being in situations from which one can't escape and there is no help available. This leaves sufferers often afraid to leave the house and can involve fear of public places, crowds, or being outside alone. It's often observed in those suffering from Panic disorder.
Anhedonia: An inability to experience pleasure from once enjoyable activities and interests.
Dissociative Disorders: Disorders thought to be caused by trauma in which a whole set of mental events seem to be inaccessible and stored out of ordinary consciousness. This causes gaps in memories as well as breakdown of one's sense of identity, awareness of surroundings, and perception of reality.
Hysteria: A once-popular name for mental health problems characterised by emotional outbursts and fainting. Now viewed as aspects of Conversion disorder.
Mania: A mood disorder characterised by racing thoughts, pressured speech, irritability or euphoria, and marked impairments in judgment.
Neurosis: Once used for mental disorders where primary symptoms are anxiety or defences against anxiety, this term has now been dropped as a broad diagnostic label. Disorders that were once considered the various subcategories of neurosis (e.g. phobia, anxiety, and dissociative disorders) are now classified separately.
Psychosis: Loss of contact with reality, which occurs in severe cases of mental disorders such as mania, major depression, or schizophrenia.
Stress: Psychological and bodily tension generated by difficult or unmanageable circumstances and/or experiences. Such events might be physical, emotional, social, economic, and/or occupational.
For more examples of disorders, see our A-Z Guide of Psychological Conditions.