Working-through is the name for an operation resulting from the putting into effect of several processes during treatment; it opposes the work of resistance by making the analysand better aware, through time, of the defensive mechanisms upon which resistance is based, and it sparks "processes of remodeling the ego" (1937c, p. 249). Freud accords it a primary place in the analyzand's domain, to the extent the analyst allows him the time to accomplish it. At the same time however, this activity also seems closely tied to interpretation, and the interpretive modalities of the analyst. It is a term that may only be surmised in relation to economic principles, including those of resistance and elements of timing such as duration and "tempo."
The German term durcharbeiten is difficult to translate. Although the English translation "working-through" does successfully convey its dynamic aspect, it fails to capture the aspect of work that occurs at the surface. In the technical paper "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II)" (1914g), where Freud uses the term for the first time, it was to describe a "consistent technique used today" that prevails over hypnosis because it gives up on privileging the interrogation of the patient concerning a specific problem or factor. It is a technique, writes Freud, used to study "whatever is present for the time being on the surface of the patient's mind" (p. 147)—though this does not prevent him from deploying metaphors of in-depth work in the same article. The term durcharbeiten thus conveys two notions whose co-existence in a single word is difficult to maintain: depth and surface.
Psychoanalytic technique came after that of hypnosis, and Freud sometimes placed the two in opposition in order to highlight ways in which Psychoanalysis represents a departure. Working-through comes out of a fundamental difference between the two techniques in that it assumes a gradual, step-by-step approach to resistance. Hypnosis circumvents the notion of resistance; it allows repressed memories to emerge but in no way involves "processes of remodeling the ego" and repression in its dimension as a part of processes of symbolization. The idea of resistance is necessary given the economic aspects of the drives, notably with regard to excesses of drive energy. But as Freud continually pointed out, the ego defends itself against dangers that are no longer current. Thus "to work through" implies the idea of a repetition that garners small quantities of energy to deal with the compulsion to repeat emanating from the id. Working-through is proposed answer to resistance in "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through."
That the form of resistance forwarded at the time is repression, attests to the fact that Freud conceived the psychic apparatus as highly-advanced in the realm of symbolization—flexible and effective in its ability to confront the drives. But the effectiveness of the function of working-through must be relativized in the face of difficulties involving defusions of instinct, narcissistic fragility, and deficiencies in symbolization. Although it remains true in these instances that certain forms of resistance must be recognized, interpreted, and then given up when they no longer further the ends of self-preservation; more recent analytic technique has ways of handling the transference and a conception of the framework for treatment which are based on metapsychological representations that are more complex than in 1914. Thus working-through is no longer indicated at certain times during treatment; and sometimes a poor understanding of negative elements in the transference may lead the analysis into a working-through that is intellectual and falsely effective.
Although Freud did not explicitly come back to this notion after 1920, it is useful to reconsider it while taking into account the upheavals brought about by the dual theory of the instincts and the negative currents it entails. Although he did not use the term durcharbeiten, Freud reworks the idea of it in "Negation" (1925h), when confronted with the negative element that subtends a patient's denial of the analyst's interpretation. It would be necessary to wait until "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937c) for him to explore how the joint efforts of the analyst and patient to recognize and conquer resistance run aground upon the negative factor of the "bedrock" of castration.
In theory, the more working-through can relate representational content to its corresponding affect, the more effective it is. We know that most of the defensive forms resistance takes, whether splitting, repression or negation, seek to divorce affect from representation and leave them strangers to one another. Certain defensive formations, notably those that combine splitting and negation, make working-through laborious, and its visible effects appear only in the long term. The forms then assumed by these psychic contents, ruled by resistances which stem from the instability of drive fusion, are subject to the repetition compulsion and are difficult to access by means of working-through, unless the analyst pays special attention to the psychoanalytic setting and to the analysis of his or her counter-transference.
In "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through," Freud optimistically stated that symptomatic repetition compulsion could be rendered "harmless," or even "useful," if the analyst could bring it into the "transference as a playground in which it [the repetition compulsion] is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything in the way of pathogenic instincts that is hidden in the patient's mind" (1914g, p. 154), where everything is accessible to the analyst's interpretations. He cited the example of an analysis that seemed to be stuck in one place but that was actually evolving normally. What must be remembered, he then wrote, is "that giving the resistance a name could not result in its immediate cessation. One must allow the patient time to become more conversant with this resistance with which he has now become acquainted, to work through it, to overcome it, by continuing, in defiance of it, the analytic work according to the fundamental rule of analysis" (p. 155).
Working-though is indeed linked to the notion of time, of duration, as is pointed out again at the end of the essay: "The working-through of the resistances may in practice turn out to be an arduous task for the subject of the analysis and a trial of patience for the analyst" (p. 155). The theme of the length of the analysis was much more explicit, if only because of its title, in the 1937 essay "Analysis Terminable and Interminable." The justification for prolonging the length of the analytic cure is considered relative to the "acquired . . . alterations of the ego" (1937c, p. 235) in its defensive struggle with the drives. These modifications of the ego seem like fixations, and the analyst's task is to promote the "processes of remodeling the ego" in the patient. Moreover, it is this aspect of the work of analysis that, from the analyst's viewpoint, supports the idea that "to analyze" is "an interminable task" (p. 249).
In "An Outline of Psycho-Analysis" (1940a ), Freud put the finishing touches on his metapsychological overview. The mental apparatus with its two topographies, his two theories of the drives, and his theories on anxiety constitute a complex whole, in light of which thinking about analytic technique must remain cautious.
The notion of working-through retains its full importance, provided it is conceived in relation to the notion of drive fusion and defusion and the consequences thereof, as well as in relation to the analyst's interpretation, whether it is explicit or latent, as Jean-Paul Valabrega proposed in La formation du psychanalyste (The training of the psychoanalyst; 1994).
See also: Conscious processes; Fundamental rule; Lifting of amnesia; Memories; Memory; Psychoanalytic treatment; "Remembering, Repeating and Working-through"; Resistance; Transference neurosis; Work (as a Psychoanalytical Notion).
Freud, Sigmund. (1914g). Remembering, repeating and working-through (Further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II). SE, 12: 145-156.
——. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.
——. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 255-269.
——. (1940a ). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.
Valabrega, Jean-Paul. (1994). La formation du psychanalyste. Paris: Payot.