Active Technique

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A method advocated by Sándor Ferenczi starting in 1919, the active technique consisted of formulating to the patient, at certain moments of stagnation in the treatment, injunctions or interdictions concerning his or her behavior in such a way as to provoke tensions within the psychic apparatus, with the aim of reactivating the process and of bringing to light repressed material.

Only the patient was encouraged to perform certain actions. The psychoanalyst remained inactive and attentive to the emergence of new mnemic material in the associations of the patient. The process was used only as an "adjuvant" in order to precipitate the emergence of new associations, the interpretation of which remained, just as in the classic technique, the principle task of the analysis.

Impasses with the active technique led Ferenczi, several years later, to abandon an economic and authoritarian conception of psychoanalytic treatment and replace it with neocathartic relaxation and technical elasticity, an approach facilitated by empathy and benevolence.

"We owe the prototype of this 'active technique' to Freud himself," wrote Ferenczi in 1919 (p. 157), noting that at the beginning of the Freud's work, the cathartic method was a technique of great "activity," as much on the analyst's part as the patient's. The idea in those days was to apply pressure as a way of awakening memories and precipitating the abreaction of blocked affects. This approach was succeeded by the technique of free association, a non-directive method founded on the apparently passive listening and receptivity of the analyst.

However, recalled Ferenczi, it was while developing analytic technique that Freud was led, during the analysis of anxiety hysterias, to require of his patients that they directly confront the critical situations that gave rise to their anxieties, not in order to habituate themselves to those situations, but rather to achieve the "ligature of customary, unconscious paths of discharge of excitation and the enforcement of the preconscious cathexis as well as the conscious ones of the repressed material." (p. 157)

Thus Ferenczi was led, following Freud, to break at certain points in the treatment with the receptive and passive attitude of the analyst monitoring the associative material of patients, and to intervene actively at the level of their psyche.

"The patients, in spite of close compliance with the 'fundamental rule' and in spite of a deep insight into their unconscious complexes, could not get beyond 'dead ends' in the analysis until they were compelled to venture out from the retreat of their phobia, and to expose themselves experimentally to the situation they had avoided with anxiety, but, in exposing themselves to this affect, they at the same time overcame the resistance to hitherto repressed material which now became accessible to analysis in the form of ideas and reminiscences" (Ferenczi, 1921/1999, p. 189).

"I really meant," Ferenczi continues, "that the description of 'active technique' should be applied to this procedure, which does not so much represent an active interference on the part of the doctor as on the part of the patient upon whom are imposed certain tasks besides the keeping to the fundamental rule. In the cases of phobia the task consisted in the carrying out of unpleasant activities." (p. 189)

Thus "[i]n stimulating what is inhibited, and inhibiting what is uninhibited" (p. 201), in demanding that patients renounce certain satisfactions and in advising them to perform certain unpleasant acts, Ferenczi hoped to provoke an increase in psychic tension, a new distribution within the libidinal economy, and thus to allow new mnemic material to become accessible, and ultimately to accelerate the course of the analysis.

For Freud, then, the active technique was a kind of "agent provocateur," the injunctions and the prohibitions serving only as an adjuvant, promoting the repetition that must then be interpreted or reconstructed in memory.

Later, Ferenczi came to have serious reservations about the usefulness of the active technique. Badly applied, or poorly employed by novice analysts, this method risked exacerbating the patient's resistances and hampering the deployment of the transference. It was liable to reinforce the patient's masochism by organizing his or her submission (Bokanowski, T. 1994). Ferenczi specifically questioned the wisdom of an arbitrarily decided date for the termination of the treatment.

So Ferenczi progressively distanced himself, above all in his critical study, "Contra-Indications to the 'Active' Psychoanalytical Technique" (1926/1999), from an authoritarian orientation of the treatment founded on frustration and abstinences. He introduced the new notions of "elasticity," that is, patience and empathy, and "relaxation." He even mentioned (1933/1999) the aggressive features of the active technique that aimed at a "forced relaxation" in the patient (p. 296).

It was no longer up to the analyst, but rather to the patient, to determine the opportune moment when the treatment had sufficiently progressed to allow him or her to tackle the renunciation of neurotic satisfactions and the overcoming of inhibitions.

In "Analysis, Terminable and Interminable" (1937c), Freud criticized in the firmest manner any intervention of the psychoanalyst at the level of material reality for the purposes of moving the analysis along or of making a negative transference appear artificially when it was not yet manifest.

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Character neurosis; Direct analysis; Elasticity; Framework of the psychoanalytic treatment; "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" (Wolf Man); Kovács-Prosznitz, Vilma; Mutual analysis; Sokolnicka-Kutner, Eugénie; Tact; Technique with adults, psychoanalytic; Termination of treatment.


Bokanowski, Thierry. (1994). Ensuite survient un trouble. In Michéle Bertrand (Ed), Collectif: Ferenczi, patient et psychanalyste. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1994). Contra-indications to the "active" psycho-analytical technique. In Further contributions to the theory and technique of psycho-analysis (pp. 217-230). London: Karnac. (Original work published 1926)

. (1999). The confusion of tongues between adults and the child (The language of tenderness and of passion). In Selected writings. (pp. 255-268). London: Penguin. (Original work published 1933)

. (1999). The elasticity of psychoanalytic technique. In Selected writings (pp. 255-268). London: Penguin. (Original work published 1928)

. (1999). The further development of the "active technique" in psychoanalysis. In Selected writings (pp. 187-204). London: Penguin. (Original work published 1921)

. (1999). On forced fantasies. In Selected writings (pp. 222-230). London: Penguin. (Original work published 1924)

. (1999). Technical difficulties in a case of hysteria. In Selected writings (pp. 151-158). London: Penguin. (Original work published 1919)