Freudian slips

Verbal gaffes can profoundly challenge our sense of self, offering insight into our idiosyncrasies and desires

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Photo by Photo Alto/Getty

Photo by Photo Alto/Getty

Jay Watts is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and academic based in London. She tweets @Shrink_at_Large.

I have been interested in Freudian slips for as long as I can remember. Where I grew up, etiquette was everything. My mother spent considerable time doing ‘meals on wheels’ for the elderly, helping local disabled youngsters, and was much admired for these virtues. She never had a cross word for anyone, and always dressed immaculately. One Christmas, she took us to a neighbour’s party who, local gossip had it, was envious of my mum. As the party drew to a close, my mother went up to the hostess and thanked her ‘for her hostility’. Despite my mother’s mortification, this small bungle meant something. Knowledge had leaked through the slip and we could all stop holding our breath for a second, and laugh.

A similar reaction of unchecked laughter was the response when the presenter James Naughtie somewhat unfortunately renamed the politician Jeremy Hunt on BBC’s Radio 4 in December 2010. Naughtie spent much of the next 10 minutes in giggles, poorly masked as a cough. As is often the case, such camouflage only served to underline what was actually going on.

Freudian slips often have something of the prohibited in them — a reference to a rude word or contempt. Sigmund Freud called them Fehlleistungen (literally, ‘faulty actions’) in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), though his editor favoured the term parapraxes (a minor error). For Freud, slips were almost invariably a result of an unconscious thought, wish or desire. What we want most is forbidden and therefore provokes anxiety. We make slips because a suppressed element ‘always strives to assert itself elsewhere’. Slips, like dreams, are royal roads to the unconscious: they both hide and reveal that which drives us.

Despite cultural recognition, today Freud’s theories are seen as outdated and irrelevant

The technique of ‘free association’ was introduced to explore these ‘errors’ of speech, memory or action. If we listen closely enough, Freud argued, ‘the accidental utterances and fancies of the patient… though striving for concealment, nevertheless intentionally betrays’ that which is suppressed. By examining the chain of associations we emphasise the extra word, the wrong word, the missing word, and ask ‘Why?’ What is being kept out of the conscious mind?

Such a way of understanding the human experience has saturated the cultural world. Think of all the films — from Cruel Intentions (1999) to The Twilight Saga series — in which a geeky teenager's clumsy awkwardness suddenly disappears after their first kiss. Scriptwriters seem to suggest that there is no longer any need to stumble, drop or fall, once repressed sexuality has been expressed. In psychoanalysis, we welcome these parapraxes: in them lies a clue to the inner world of our unconscious. Through the careful work of unpacking condensed and disguised references within slips, we can find a nexus of forgotten material and distress that can then be untangled.

Despite this cultural recognition of Freudian slips, today Freud’s theories are seen as outdated and irrelevant by proponents of cognitive psychology and many in psychoanalytic circles. Cognitive psychologists argue that how we produce speech is so complicated that there are bound to be gaffes. Consider how speech occurs. We must generate the intention to relate a particular idea with a word. We formulate a pre-verbal message, part of which involves a serious competition between a number of words, before we select the most relevant ones. Then we consider the form. There needs to be grammar. We need to encode how words are uttered. Naturally, our brains use shortcuts, going for the quickest, most efficient solution, tending to pick words we have used before. All of this happens through super-quick, preconscious processes, or we’d go quite mad.

Given the complexity of this process, things can go wrong. We might mix up parts of words: for example, ‘the self-destruct instruction’ can become ‘the self-instruct destruction’. Or we might anticipate part of a later word too early in a sentence — ‘the reading list’ becomes ‘a leading list’. Similarly, words gain meaning only within the organisation of a sentence. In this way, for cognitive psychologists, these gaffes are simply a misfiring of the shortcuts that brain-processing relies on.

But popular culture suggest otherwise. Consider an episode of the American sitcom Friends (1998). At the altar, Ross is due to marry a woman who is not the woman, Rachel, who has haunted him for years. Though the woman in front of him is Emily, the name that leaves his lips is Rachel. The TV congregation, both women, and the entire watching audience know what this means instantly: that his true desire is elsewhere. His slip has the same dignity as Portia’s Freudian slip to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice: ‘One half of me is yours, the other half yours.’ Desire leaks and insists through language.

Much has been made of a recent study by Howard Shevrin, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, which appeared to prove that the words relevant to an unconscious conflict are actively inhibited, or repressed, in anxious patients (cue headlines such as this in the Daily Mail last June: ‘Couldn't come quick enough: Theory behind the Freudian slip is finally proven after 111 years, new research claims’). However, Freud had already predicted many of the critiques that would be offered by cognitive psychologists. He stressed how ‘favourable circumstances’ such as ‘exhaustion, circulatory disturbances and intoxication’ can make slips more likely. To identify these favourable circumstances as the cause of a slip would be like going to a police station and blaming the theft of one’s purse on the isolated part of the city one found oneself in, Freud argued. There must also be a thief. And the thief is a desire that tries to burst through.

Psychology professionals do their patients a disservice if they focus on broad brushstrokes rather than the singular tapestry of a person’s life

In certain psychoanalytic circles, a focus on the slipperiness of language has been eclipsed by a focus on the relational — a shift from the purely psychoanalytical to the psychodynamic. The focus now is on what type of relationship is repeated by the patient within the therapeutic relationship. A classic example from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life demonstrates this shift. Freud describes meeting a young man who bemoaned how useless his generation was. He tried to muster a famous Latin proverb to clinch his argument, but missed out the key word aliquis (meaning someone or something) and couldn’t recall it. Having accused Freud of gloating, he then requested an analysis of his slip. Freud instructed him to associate to the missing word, which led to the sequence: a liquid, liquefying, fluidity, fluid, relics… saint’s relics, St Simon, St Benedict, St Augustine and St Januarius. The man then identified St Januarius as both a calendar saint and one who performed the ‘miracle of the blood’. He then half-started a sentence, before cutting himself off. Freud commented on the pause, and the youngster revealed an anxiety that a certain young lady — perhaps not from the best family — might very soon have news that she had missed her period. The slip allowed the young man to make conscious a fear he had tried to repress — that he might have made this girl pregnant, and that this would bring shame upon his family. The young man began to articulate something of what bothered him for the first time.

Had the young man been in a modern consulting room, the process of association might have been cut off in favour of a discussion of the young man’s transference (unconscious relationship) to Freud as an authority figure. The focus would be on a pattern of relating, as opposed to delving into his unconscious associations. A similar limitation is found in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is often employed in situations where there is a pressure to achieve the same outcomes for each patient as quickly as possible. In CBT, if a patient’s surface symptoms seem stuck, one searches for the patient’s ‘core beliefs’ about the world by getting them to reveal how they would end the sentences ‘I am…’, ‘People are…’, or ‘The world is…’ Most patients will complete the propositions with the words ‘worthless’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘unfair’. The problem with this formula is that the individual’s internal world risks being reduced to one not dissimilar from the bloke in the consulting room next door. Psychology professionals do their patients a disservice if they focus on broad brushstrokes rather than the detailed and singular tapestry of a person’s life — which slips help to reveal.

By contrast, communications technology means that Freudian slips are increasingly unforgettable within our culture. If you Google ‘Freudian slip’, you’ll find multiple compilations of slips from politicians and celebrities. If we film celebrities for long enough, something other than the performance managed by media training, publicity agents and the celebrities’ own ideas of themselves emerges. We relish these eruptions, especially when they come from ‘the great and the good’. George H W Bush’s famous slip is a good example: ‘For seven and a half years, I've worked alongside President Reagan, and I'm proud to have been his partner. We've had triumphs. We've made some mistakes. We've had some sex — setbacks.’ Many sites include instructions to watch Bush’s chest during the replay as he ‘looks like he’s having a minor heart attack after the slip’ — an example of the glee we often find when discussing celebrity slips. Slips become great power equalisers. ‘You are not what you would have us believe you are,’ we say, laughing.

Curiously, when slips are shared in cyberspace, there is nearly always a swift framing of their meaning, often with some libidinal thrill — a rush to pin down the slip to the known and certain. But this is often a way to foreclose something more enigmatic and anxiety-provoking in us. It’s why we still need a Freudian theory of the unconscious to understand the hide and seek of language. By putting a quick exclamation mark on an explanation of what a slip might mean, we negate the fact that slips open up questions rather than closing them.

When patients come to therapy they often fear that once their story has been told — the 'big events' of their life — nothing will be left to say. Yet by exploring the ruptures in our language, there is always more to say, always more that is unknown. My mother’s slip signalled to us the underlying violent emotions that were foreclosed in our Stepford neighbourhood. It was a relief to hear the unconscious speak.

Language, rather than being merely descriptive, is ultimately constitutive of our sense of self. If we allow them to be, our day-to-day verbal slips, mishearings and bungled actions can be a welcome clue to the mysterious, flawed, contradictory, crazed idiosyncrasies of our own character and history. They can challenge and change us. In locating a ‘something more’ inside us, we keep desire alive, rather than mortified in the illusion that we could ever be masters of ourselves and our image.

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