Roberto Assagioli was an Italian psychiatrist who, in 1910, rejected what he felt was the psychoanalytic overemphasis on analyzing the childhood dynamics underlying psychopathology. Accordingly, he conceived “psychosynthesis” emphasizing how the human being integrated or synthesized the many aspects of the personality into increasing wholeness. An early student of psychoanalysis, Assagioli respected and valued Freud’s views but considered them “limited” (Assagioli 1965a). Here, Assagioli, in an interview with Psychology Today, describes his relationship to early psychoanalysis:
I never met Freud personally but I corresponded with him and he wrote to Jung expressing the hope that I would further the cause of psychoanalysis in Italy. But I soon became a heretic. With Jung, I had a more cordial relationship. We met many times during the years and had delightful talks. Of all modern psychotherapists, Jung is the closest in theory and practice to psychosynthesis. (Keen 1974, 2)
As Jung would do after him, Assagioli became a psychoanalytic “heretic,” refusing to accept Freud’s reductionism and neglect of the positive dimensions of the human personality. Psychosynthesis thus became the first approach, born of psychoanalysis, which would include: the artistic, altruistic, and heroic potentials of the human being; a validation of aesthetic, spiritual, and peak experiences; the insight that psychological symptoms can be triggered by spiritual dynamics (often now called spiritual emergency) -, and the understanding that experiences of meaning and purpose in life derive from a healthy relationship between the personal self and a deeper or higher Self in ongoing daily living, or what is called Self-realization.
These concerns were later to place psychosynthesis within the developing fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology.
By developing psychosynthesis, Assagioli sought, then, to address not only the resolution of early childhood issues—a focus on what he called the lower unconscious—but to give attention to the sphere of aesthetic experience, creative inspiration, and higher states of consciousness—which he called the higher unconscious or superconscious. He sought to give each of these central dimensions of human experience its proper due, avoiding any reduction of one to the other.
So although extending beyond psychoanalysis, Assagioli did not intend to leave Freud’s system completely behind. In the first of his two major books, Psychosynthesis (1965a), Assagioli envisioned psychosynthesis as founded upon a psychoanalytic exploration of the lower unconscious:
We have first to penetrate courageously into the pit of our lower unconscious in order to discover the dark forces that ensnare and menace us—the “phantasms,” the ancestral or childish images that obsess or silendy dominate us, the fears that paralyze us, the conflicts that waste our energies. It is possible to do this by the use of the methods of psychoanalysis.
As this exploration of the unconscious proceeded—including the higher unconscious and middle unconscious as well—the individual was more free to develop a conscious relationship with a deeper or higher Self beyond the conscious personality or, in Assagioli’s words, “widening the channel of communication with the higher Self” .
This relationship with Self could then guide a new synthesis of the personality embracing the fruits of the prior self-exploration and, more, it could become a source of direction and meaning in a person’s life. This ongoing relationship with Self, emerging from prior exploration of the unconscious, is called Self-realization and is a fundamental principle of psychosynthesis.
For Assagioli, then, analytic work was an essential part of the personal exploration upon which the process of psychosynthesis was based. Assagioli seemed clear that both psychoanalysis and psychosynthesis were needed to work with the whole person.