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Zetzel, E.R. (1963). The Significance of the Adaptive Hypothesis for Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 11:652-660.

(1963). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 11:652-660

The Significance of the Adaptive Hypothesis for Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice

Elizabeth R. Zetzel, M.D.

In his 1914 monograph on the history of the psychoanalytic movement, Freud made the following statement: "Everywhere I seemed to discern motives and tendencies analogous to those of everyday life, and I looked upon mental dissociation itself as an effect of a process of rejection which at that time I called a defense and later called repression" (2). It is common knowledge that when, at a later date, Freud revised his theory of anxiety to include the concept of an internal danger situation, the term defense was reinstated (3). Anxiety as the signal for defense became the nucleus or seed from which contemporary ego psychology has evolved. In addition to the structural significance of this concept, however, its adaptive implications are also manifest. Defense, not only in psychoanalysis, but in everyday life, is predominantly to be regarded as an attempt to adapt to danger, whether external or internal. The adaptive capacities of the human psychic apparatus have therefore been implicit to psychoanalytic theory for many years.

It is, moreover, abundantly clear that Freud himself recognized the significance of adaptation from a very early date. He stated, for example, in his 1911 paper on the "Two Principles of Mental Functioning": "The institution of the reality principle proved a momentous step … in the first place the new demands made a succession of adaptations necessary in the mental apparatus which on account of insufficient or uncertain knowledge we can only detail very cursorily" (1). This statement indicates, first, the degree to which Freud was able to recognize the significance and importance of certain capacities of the psychic apparatus prior to the time at which psychoanalytic knowledge was equipped for their full elucidation. Second, and perhaps even more important, it clearly foreshadows the orientation toward adaptation which differentiates psychoanalysis proper from other schools of thought.

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