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Dr Claudia Sheftel-Luiz: From Freudian Psychoanalysis to Modern Psychoanalysis

Updated: Apr 15

Let’s start from the beginning, Claudia! I read your mother started with her journey in psychoanalysis, and then you grew yourself into this tradition. Could you tell us about how your journey in this field began?

Well, my mother's father was from Argentina & he was very, very disturbed. In fact, he died in a mental institution. He suffered from severe bipolar disorder, including violent manic episodes. But she was able to leave South America and study music with their assistance. Although she was able to escape the disease, she was understandably numb.

And she went to Italy with my father, who was also a refugee from Russia. There was a lot of trauma and some mental illness on that end as well. And they reasoned that if they remained away from us, they would shield me and my sister from the illness. They went on tours because they were musicians, and we were raised by nannies. They thought that if they called us, we would sob. So they didn't call us.

My sister and I were a mess by the time we were eight or nine. As Galit Atlas would say, we had inherited some of the 'emotional inheritance'. We also had new trauma from our carers. As a result, my mum realized she needed to do something to help us. She brought us to America and found us these fantastic psychoanalysts.

It was only luck and destiny that led her to the psychoanalyst, and the entire family changed. We were living together. We started to talk. We had a completely different family dynamic, and by the age of 16, I knew this was the path I wanted to take. Meanwhile, my mother, who had been a musician and subsequently an interpreter at the United Nations, began studying it.

She really wanted to understand me and my sister. She wanted to understand mental illness. She wanted to understand what creates healing. She wrote her dissertation on us and she turned the family history around. So I've been in the psychoanalytic world because she ascended through the ranks--I was there as a child--and in the entire milieu of this New York modern psychoanalysis.

I was able to witness a few generations and what happens when you have an emotional inheritance. (I adore this word, instead of mental disease, which is so dreadful). So, when there are emotional inheritances, it takes several generations to change the DNA, since the first generation must change their actions. But the second generation is still experiencing the feelings and trying to find a vocabulary for the distortions, cognitive disorders, mood disorders, impulse disorders, or whatever you've inherited. And then when you raise your own children, it's really not until the third generation that you see freedom. True freedom- from the disorders where there is mentation right out of the gate, ego strength right out of the gate, trust, and resilience right out of the gate. So I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a second-generation analyst in a system capable of studying intergenerational processes.

I think you're putting it so poignantly that psychoanalysis is not just healing you and healing your traumas, but how it is also so powerful that it can change generations and what we call the trans-generational trauma.

That's really how longitudinally it can also work. I believe that with an inherited trauma, particularly thought disorders, which are the most severe, you can expect to see a lot of improvement in a 30-year analysis and the ability to develop some mind, but you will not see that person who can function in the world, get married, and work.

So the psychoanalytic work is one of generational healing. This also takes me back to when I was reading about you, that there is something really authentic in you. (Once again, that is the term that springs to me whenever I view your work, including your book).

It's a very genuine work, in my opinion. It's written in terms of your own cases and how you've fallen and failed, and how you've recognised and welled with your patients. I believe it's such an authentic, permeable expression.

Yeah. I love that you've observed that because it's crucial to the training. Nothing was off the table when I was training to be a psychoanalyst. You researched yourself and your peers. Everything was discussed. The line between personal and private was fairly thin. We used ourselves as clinical examples and worked with our own countertransference and character. So I learned to be clinical, and that helps a lot with the shame that comes with being disordered.

It's very painful to be disordered. And when you start to realize in a sense that you are crazy, that your mind is playing tricks on you because we all know that we hurt, but we don't yet know how we defend; we can't see our defences until very late. And seeing that fills us with shame. So being able to be clinical about oneself definitely helps with that embarrassment. And I believe this is what you're getting from me, which I love because it really helps you become a good analyst, is being able to be clinical about your own life.

So you feel this, this authenticity, which is sometimes also confused with self-disclosure in the psychoanalytic realm is actually helpful...

I believe so because, with patients, everyone comes in regressive, and it's really not about you as a person, it's about them.

And something happens in a different dimension that has nothing to do with the manifest content, or with the actual conversation. That's that evenly hovering attention that a patient can feel if you are with them.

Yeah, sure. I'm just thinking about the ethics or training that has been instilled in us... This concept of how much we disclose, and how honestly and eloquently you put out your life history, I'm sure your patients are aware of it as well. Do you think it gets in your way or it facilitates your way of working?

Well, I never disclose things that I'm still working on if they would be a hindrance to a patient. Certain patients, for example, I still can't work with & I'm not sure why I can't work with them. I'm attempting to comprehend something about it, so I wouldn't necessarily divulge anything because I'm not there yet.

If I feel I've gotten over something, it's no longer a part of my consciousness, I've moved on from that in some way, that's somewhere in the ether. And patients can tell when you've gotten over yourself, and you're not going to be in the way.

What I realised during my training is that the concept of neutrality is a position in and of itself, and it reveals something to the patient. That could be a counter-resistance.

Because, in modern analysis, emotional communication replaces interpretation when you are with the patient. If a patient was born in Italy and speaks fluent Italian, and they have a sense that you were born in Rome, that will foster the narcissistic transference, so you can disclose that as long as you're cultivating the feeling that the patient is safe with someone familiar.

Now, I made a terrible mistake with a patient who I lost. I had an African American patient, and I began to talk to them about the European tradition, inviting them to into this European tradition of psychoanalysis. I lost the case because that patient didn't want to feel that difference; that patient wanted to feel we had a similar oppressive tradition.

I don't know what I was doing. The patient had a lot of rage, and I wanted them to free associate, and they were very intelligent. I made the mistake of appealing to their intellect rather than their narcissistic transference. So what you disclose about yourself must be in a soul-to-soul connection with the patient in order for the patient to feel safe and comfortable, and even analytic neutrality can get in the way.

It is a position. There's no such thing as not having a position. The patient will see your face and have feelings about it. The patient will hear your voice and have feelings; there's no such thing as neutrality. There's only what the transference is.

What you're saying is extremely crucial, and I don't think it's said enough, and we're still holding onto this couch and chair distance. So this is quite incredible for me because some days I simply stare at it, or observe or reflect with my supervisor on how I'm withholding certain things from my patients. And I consider it to be out of care for the patient. Like "I'm not telling you why I'm late for the session because I don't want you to feel sorry for me and make this about me". But I suppose you're suggesting that this filtering is what we mistake for care, but we need to own it as our spontaneity.

It's always intriguing to find out what the patient's fantasy is when something happens that brings your life into the patient's consciousness.

So the patient asks, "Why were you late?" And you say, "Oh, my doctor's appointment. But, what were your thoughts about it? Did you come up with an idea?" And then the patient will say, "oh, you don't really want to be with me", or you don't know what, and so you give the patient just enough so they don't feel you're withholding and become caught up on that.

You do want to know how the patient experiences you.

So it's a fine line to tread, but it's doable! This leads me to a felt change in the fundamentals of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysts, I believe, have their own relationship with Freud and have formed a love-hate relationship, or a love-love relationship. But we all have some sort of connection to him; he is someone in our minds & theories. And I'm curious, where do you place him?

Well, you know, I sort of see it like Newton invented physics. But we've come a long way since Newton. All of our great thinkers gave us a starting point. So for me, what I love; I love two things about Freud. One is I love how when he wrote, he always had a counter position to his own position. So it was always a kind of an open-minded dialogue. That, and I liked how he was interested in impulses. He was fascinated by sexuality. So he was theorizing about child sexuality. He thought women were hysterical because of sexuality. Although mistaken at times, the base or impulses were of interest to him. 

The fact that he developed meta-theories of the mind is extremely significant for clinical thinking. I have a strong affinity for drive theory. When you're with a patient, thinking in terms of drive theory is a great way to be clinical. In other words, what is the patient doing with their energies? Since Freud, modern psychoanalysis has placed more emphasis on aggression than on sexuality. And Hyman Spotnitz, the father of modern psychoanalysis, examined how pathology is aggression turned against the self.

So this is the kind of Freudian meta-theory from which we may then leap. Now I'm not an ego psychologist, but thinking in terms of ego structure, super- ego, or thinking in terms of defence mechanisms is a brilliant meta-theory of the mind. What is the patient defending against?

How do you recognize yourself?

I see myself as primarily a drive theorist because patients come in highly regressed states of mind and modern psychoanalysis treats narcissistic disorders, which Freud did not believe could be treated.

So thinking in terms of drive theory is quite helpful. What are the patients' impulses, and what are they defending against the pure libidinal and destructive energies? With neuroscience, we have new labels for all of that, but I find that to be the most liberating meta-theory and the most all-encompassing in helping me stay clinical in attempting to conceptualise the patient's character and defences.

That's true. I was reading Beyond Pleasure Principles recently, and what wonderful antidote in the drive theory that he discovered, a little too late. But, as you mention in your book, you don't always have neurotic patients. You don't get a patient with a high metabolic function. All you have to do is work with the raw material.

Another thought on that note... I believe you coined the concept of "Wobble," and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I'm completely captivated! What is it? It's fun and playful when you hear about it.

Well, you know, in terms of attempting to mainstream psychoanalysis. For two reasons, psychoanalysis is difficult to integrate into the mainstream. The first is that it is a very, very deep and painful experience, and people are in a lot of pain, so you can't bring them the truth about it.

You can't tell them that you'll go into analysis and feel even more, because it's frightening. So that's the first problem. The second problem is that nobody is the same. So you can't generalise the experience of one individual on that deep level to anyone other.

For this reason, it's almost like an underground movement. You know, the mindfulness movement or the cognitive behavioral movement can be discussed. And that gives a lot of hope.

So I see one of the goals of my life is to be able to find ways of talking about psychoanalysis. I consider myself a good ambassador for it because of the influence it had on my family, and the love that I have for the work we’re able to do.

Now the wobble...

My daughter wanted to be an astrophysicist when she was little, and every month I would take her to the Center for Astrophysics. They had these huge telescopes and we would look at the stars. But we'd have to sit through this boring lecture till it was finished so we could go up and look at the stars.

Well, what I didn't know about my little girl is that she was listening to the lecture and then she went home & watched YouTube videos, learning all about space and black holes. And then she would try to explain it to me. So what she explained to me is that we can't see planets, we can only see stars, but the planets are there.

And I thought, "aha!, this is just like our mind". We can see stars, our emotions, and that we are depressed. Certain things are visible to us. But there are mental planets we can't see. Because it doesn't feel like a distortion, we can't see how we distort reality. We don't see how we may be adding or exaggerating anything. We can't see how we are magnetically drawn to some things and not others. So there's a lot that we can't see about our reflexive brain. It's like having all these planets, but how are we going to see them?

Now, my daughter explained to me about the lectures that when radio waves are sent out, the planets that are in the way manage to receive them. You're transmitting a radio frequency to, say, the moon, or any planet or star. If there is a planet there, the radio frequency will detect it. So I wondered, what are the radio frequencies that can help us in identifying our own unconscious mechanisms? When there is a wobble in radio frequency, it indicates the presence of a plant. So, if we look at our own lives, what are the wobbles that can clue us about the presence of our emotional planets?

And I developed this quiz to understand what an internal wobble might be. It may be insomnia, maybe it's a bit of losing your temper in certain situations and feeling that you can't get in control. That is a wobble since we are unsure as to why.

You can see there's a pattern in your life but you're confused about it, and that's a wobble. So this is a fun way to think about a mystery, about something that is still dark.

Wow.. I feel it's a playful way of looking at something very intense, and I think that's a huge shift from how psychoanalysis speaks to everybody.

So, if I may put it this way, I perceive the Wobble movement as your movement. Do you feel you have allies in this movement? Because I'll tell you why I'm asking this... Indian psychoanalysis began with our own cultural psyche, but we also adopted certain ideas from Freud. And, of course, there are some timeless pieces, such as the unconscious, that there is no turning back from. However, we have also found our anchor in other theorists like Bion, Jung, Winnicott and other thinkers who speak to a more subaltern praxis.

So I'm curious if the New York psychoanalytic chapter is still very Freudian, or if they're increasingly drawn to the Wobble movement, or if it's more fragmented.

There are a lot of psychoanalytic movements in New York; they're classical freudians; they're jungians, they're existentialists. And there's a lot of moderns like me who evolved from Hyman Spotnitz as the main thinker who wrote the 'Modern Psychoanalysis of the Schizophrenic Patient'. And he, really believed in leveraging the counter transference and using our emotions as instruments to provide emotional communication rather than interpretation, because interpretation necessitates mentation. This was Freud's model, so there is every kind of psychoanalyst in New York.

Modern psychoanalysis is what's called lay analysis because you don't have an MD. And here in this country, the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, where I was trained was the first school that was given authority to grant a degree. Psychoanalysis has become an accredited discipline in many states, New York being one of the top ones. So you not only have a degree, but also a license here to collect insurance. So we've come a very long way.

But the real split is not as much in the different schools of thought who all work differently, who are all using different meta-theories as their emphasis. Some analysts are still working four days a week with a patient, Moderns work one day a week with a patient. It's a big change.

However, to respond to your question, the larger split is whether psychoanalysis should adopt a new name. That would be a different brand or a different school of thought. And I know that the presidents of the modern analytic schools in Boston, New York, and New Jersey are all thinking about it, and they all agree we should come up with a new acronym.

But I feel that there's a lot of gravitas with the term 'psychoanalysis'. It has a 150-year history. And if you affiliate yourself with it, you know you're part of something that isn't new; it's well-established, and so the question is how to talk about it in creative ways. So I don't want a new term and begin explaining it all over again because the word psychoanalysis is a lovely word to me. So I believe I am alone in feeling that we should continue to use the term; I believe I am alone in being wedded to that word.

I think what you're experiencing also speaks of the larger political environment. We live in a name & shame world or as African- Americans protested that they don't want to give away the term 'black', it's who they are. They just want it to be used differently. Perhaps this holding on to the term is our way of silent protest...

We’ll perhaps have to close on that inspirational note, Dr. Luiz… although you have given us so much to think about & breathed life into the dense work, any last snippets?

I'd say to be a psychoanalyst is to learn how to think in a new way, and the training is transformational, ideally. And as you continue to practice, you find your groove.

You have to feel comfortable with the patient. So you have to be you to feel comfortable.

This is the most difficult aspect of being a beginning analyst. You're scared. You have no idea what you're doing; you feel like an imposter. You have not yet been analysed; so you're worried about showing too much. So it's not a comfortable situation. And so my advice to younger analysts is to relax and step outside of the restricted corridors of instructions. I would say to the young analyst to soften a little bit and only think about one thing- how to keep the patient.

I think your expertise and your position in psychoanalysis speaks for itself by just the fact that you know where younger analysts like myself and anyone else reading this is coming from, and you're already speaking to them because this is literally where we sometimes find ourselves.

It's a struggle, I remember. And that's because you have open minds on our learnings. You wouldn't be in that insecure position if you thought you knew everything. But, you know, you've got your supervisors and the theory to guide you. You are being observed by your fellow students. I mean, there's so much pressure. You're new to the field, are you even gonna succeed in it?

It's the hardest time to do the work. You get to my age, you're in your sixties, and you've been doing it for a long time... It's something I've been doing for 40 years.

And now it's really gratifying. I can truly be with the patients because it's never harder than at the start. So be patient with yourself.

The fact that it is hard for you means that you're a good learner, means you're in the right place.


Dr. Claudia Sheftel-Luiz, Ed.M., Harvard University (1982), PsyaD, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis (1997) has been in private practice and serving as a consultant to profit and non-profits for over 35 years. She is on the faculty of the Academy for Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis.

A frequent contributor to news and radio shows, Dr. Luiz is the first-place winner of the 2006 Phyllis W. Meadow Award for Excellence in Psychoanalytic Writing (published in Modern Psychoanalysis) and first place winner of the 2008 Reader's Digest Best Writer's Website Award.

Dr. Luiz is the author of a new introductory textbook to psychoanalysis, written as a set of stories, about treatment called: "The Making of a Psychoanalyst: Studies in Emotional Education" (2018 Routledge Press.) The book illuminates the innovations to theory and clinical method that have revolutionised psychoanalysis. New Books in Psychoanalysis called the book “a tour de-force poised to create a shift in the cultural consciousness” and the Journal of Modern Psychoanalysis called it “arguably the best lay book written about Modern Psychoanalysis.”

Visit to read more about accessing the unconscious, or find her on Instagram.

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