Note that free association is not used to discover ‘hidden memories”. This is just a popular misconception.
A brief history of free association
Free association is attributed to Freud. He recognised that the human mind is designed to strongly avoid pain. It is so good at this that it creates defence mechanisms that trick us into thinking we are not even suffering. These can include projection and transference. Freud developed free association as a way to circumnavigate these mechanisms, and get to the painful memories that needed to be healed.
While Freud developed and popularised free association, it should be noted he didn’t come up with the concept. He was influenced by ideas of hypnosis, by leading edge thinkers of the time who were looking at the powers of the creative mind, and possibly also by writers then using stream of consciousness in their work.
Free association is the concept behind psychological tests still in use today, including the Rorschach’s Inkblot Test.
Not all psychologists and therapists believe in free association as an effective tool. From the beginning Freud had detractors who felt free association was putting too much pressure on the client. Others feel that the ability to free associate is something that should come naturally, as a sign the client is progressing and healing, not be something a client is forced to do. In fact nowadays classical Freudian free association is mostly just offered by psychoanalysts.
But the concept of free association has infiltrated most forms of therapy. This can look like a therapist asking you to share the first word that comes to mind when thinking of a situation or person, asking you to quickly recall a situation without judging what comes out, or maybe asking you to free-form journal about an experience.
First your therapist will encourage you to relax. You can keep your eyes open, but free association can feel easier to do with your eyes gently shut.
You’ll be asked to say out loud the first things that come to mind, without any kind of judgment or worry about whether it sounds weird, illogical, or unacceptable. You don’t try to make any linear, understandable story out of what you are saying, you just keep saying what comes to you.
Your therapist will listen very carefully for things said that could relate to the conflict in your life. After, when you naturally stop speaking and it seems you are finished, the two of you can discuss what the therapist noticed. You can together work to recognise how it might connect to what is going on for you lately.
The benefits of free association
Loosen the hold of your controlling conscious mind
Understand the contrast between what you tell yourself, and what is true for you
Recognise your true inner conflicts
Empower yourself to make choices that resolve your conflict over avoid it
Gain clarity on what new behaviours can now help you move forward.
An example of how free association can solve a conflict
Let’s say that you have been seeing an old friend a lot lately as she has recently left her husband. A few weeks ago you told your therapist about how you were snappy with her for no reason, which made you feel terrible.
Perhaps, during free association a few weeks later, after saying words like, sandbags, tight heart, hungry, yellow balloons… you might suddenly say things like, betrayal, feeling used, vampire.
Discussing the associations with your therapist afterward, you might be sure that it’s about a colleague at work who keeps asking you for advice on his projects and is annoying you.
But your therapist might gently bring your attention back to this old friend. You might suddenly realise that you feel she is using you, and that you are angry that when she was married she made no time for you but now she’s divorcing she wants to be your best friend.
You’d been practicing denial because all these thoughts go against your idea of yourself as a ‘nice person’ and a ‘good friend’.
Using this new understanding of how you truly feel about the situation and your friend, you and your therapist can discuss useful new behaviours and action steps. You might commit to meeting her for a coffee and honestly sharing how you feel with her.
This might end up improving your relationship with your work colleague. He was really the subject of projection, where you put your tension with your friend onto him.
Possible problems of using free association
You might feel pressured to produce associations. This might be especially true if you have a codependent personality. In your effort to please your therapist, you could say things that didn’t really come naturally but that you’ve created so quickly you’ve convinced yourself they are a free association.
You can end up going really off track and into memory instead of associations. If you find it hard to relax and let go and have a very controlling mind, you might also control your association. This will be evident in things like making lists, reciting song lyrics, or saying too many things in a row that are clearly very organised.
It is possible to create false memories. You could blurt out something from your imagination and worry it’s a memory. A well-trained and experienced therapist should be able to help you differentiate.
Could free association work for you?
Not all therapeutic tools are for everyone, and it depends on your psychological issues and personality. Again, free association might be harder for you if you need to be in control, or are codependent and struggle not to fall into pleasing your therapist instead of being true to the process.