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Sigmund Freud: The Father of Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who revolutionized scientific understanding of the human mind’s unconscious dynamics and their impacts on mental illness. Sigmund Freud is widely hailed as the Father of Psychoanalysis due to his pioneering clinical treatment of neuroses like hysteria from a purely psychological perspective (in contrast to the prevailing moralistic or strictly physiological modalities of his day).

Sigmund Freud Biography
A biographical examination of Sigmund Freud’s life and theories

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory examines the role of repressed traumatic experiences in the unconscious mind. Freudian psychoanalysis postulates that unresolved libidinal complexes from childhood come into conflict with the conscious mind, manifesting as destructive psychopathologies. Freud built his career around accessing this unconscious reservoir by probing the patient’s preconscious thoughts through innovative talk therapy techniques such as free association, interpretation of dreams, Freudian slips of the tongue, or even patient resistance to therapy.

Freud’s talk therapy informed his broad theory of personality development, which structured the mind into three psychic systems: id, ego, and superego. The id represents instinctual drives stemming from the unconscious repository of repressed desire and trauma. The ego moderates the basal urges of the id in accordance with the conscious preoccupation with social taboos and the higher moral ideals embodied by the superego.

A close study of Freud’s biography reveals an intellectually rigorous if controversial figure, whose life experiences were inextricably linked to his worldview and theories of the mind. Sigmund Freud was born into relative poverty, which he blamed on the perceived impotence of his father. His distant feelings towards his father contrasted sharply with his incredibly close maternal bond. This seemingly simple family dynamic inspired a plethora of Freudian concepts, from Oedipal complexes and sibling rivalries to more profound notions of life and death instincts.

Freud’s childhood fear of poverty and impotence proved a profound driving force in shaping his educational and professional career. Young Sigmund was spurred by ambition and gifted with potent self-reflection that allowed him to forge a lucrative career as a world-famous clinician, lecturer, and writer. Freud’s life work has since inspired countless evolutions and reactions to his school of thought, indelibly paving the way for modern psychotherapeutic modalities.

The biography below examines Sigmund Freud’s life, psychoanalytic theories of personality, career trajectory, and scientific impacts on psychology.

What was the early life of Sigmund Freud?

The majority of the early life of Sigmund Freud was spent in Vienna, Austria with his large Jewish family. Young Sigmund was just three years old when his father Jacob Freud moved the family from their home in Freiberg first to Leipzig and then to Vienna in pursuit of better economic opportunities. Chronic economic hardships instilled a profound dread of poverty in Sigmund, which fostered a somewhat ambivalent relationship with his improvident father. Freud’s young mother Amalia, on the other hand, was highly affectionate yet domineering with her favorite son. Their complex dynamic was a formative inspiration for Freud’s psychosexual theories, which he saw as doubly evident in the corresponding rivalries with his seven siblings. Freud’s theories on parent-child dynamics, the development of the mind, and the influence of early experiences on personality all reflect aspects of his own childhood.

Both of Freud’s parents were supportive of his academic ambitions, and young Sigmund proved precocious from an early age. He demonstrated a particular aptitude for natural sciences, language, and history, receiving high praise for his intellectual rigor and analytical mind. Sigmund’s studies of great historical figures like Caesar, Alexander, and Hannibal fueled resentment toward his own humble station in life. Such studies further keened his awareness of the anti-semitism he perceived as an active adversary in his daily life–whetting his ambition in the process. Sigmund Freud graduated from his prestigious Vienna secondary school with honors in 1873, then entered the University of Vienna to study medicine. This area of study was not motivated by passion but by a desire to improve his personal economic prospects.

When was Sigmund Freud born?

Sigmund Freud was born Sigismund Schlomo Freud on May 6, 1856. Freud’s birth came shortly after the Industrial Revolution’s mass upheaval of social, intellectual, and political norms. The rapid advances in technology of the early 19th century paved the way for the emergence of positivism, a philosophy espousing empirical observation and the formulation of falsifiable hypotheses according to the scientific method. These empirical and increasingly secular methodologies influenced Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. He thus developed groundbreaking theories about the unconscious mind, dream interpretations, the Oedipus complex, and the role of sexuality in human development–all relatively free from the constraints of moralistic or religious dogma that impacted scientific endeavor as early as a century prior.

Where was Sigmund Freud born?

Sigmund Freud was born at his family home in Freiberg, a small Moravian town located in the eastern part of what is now Czechia. Freud’s family occupied their home in Freiberg for only three years following his birth. Nevertheless, it is one of three residences that have been transformed into a Sigmund Freud Museum (the other two are in Vienna and London) as monuments to his life and work. The address of Sigmund Freud’s birthplace is Freudova 185, 742 58 Příbor, Czechia.

Moravia (or “Mähren” as it was known in German) was a fertile region at the center of the Austrian Empire experiencing rapid textile industrialization at the time of Freud’s birth. However, Freud’s father Jacob moved the family out of Freiberg to Leipzig, one of the most prosperous cities of Saxony, in 1859. Jacob’s attempts to garner work and permanent residence in Leipzig were ultimately foiled by a ban on immigration by foreign Jews into Saxony. The Freud family was thus forced to move again just two months after leaving Freiberg. They finally settled in Vienna in 1860, where Sigmund Freud grew up and developed the majority of his psychoanalytic theory. Freud would remain in Vienna until 1938 when the Nazis’ annexation of Austria forced his departure to London.

What was Sigmund Freud’s family background?

Sigmund Freud’s family background is defined by his close relationship with his mother, ambivalence towards his father, and rivalry with his siblings. This complex family dynamic played a critical role in the development of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. He was born in 1856 to Ashkenazi Jewish parents hailing from Galicia (the region located in what is now the border of Poland and Ukraine). Freud’s father Jacob was a wool merchant, while his mother Amalia’s occupation was homemaking and raising their eight children. Sigmund was the eldest of his siblings, Anna, Oliver, Lucian, Mathilde, Sophie, Ernst, and Jean Martin. However, his two half-brothers from Jacob’s previous marriage, Emmanual and Phillip, were 22 and 20 years older than Sigmund and had already largely established their own lives outside of the family household.

The large Freud family struggled financially due to Jacob’s modest income and inconsistent employment in Vienna. Historians debate just how poor the Freuds actually were, but Sigmund’s writings suggest an acutely fearful perception of his childhood poverty. In an 1899 letter to his close friend and collaborator Wilhelm Fliess, he wrote the following.

“…I came to know the helplessness of poverty and continually fear it. You will see that my style will improve and my ideas will be more correct if this city provides me with an ample livelihood.”

Sigmund came to regard his father’s inability to provide a comfortable lifestyle with a degree of resentment, leading the pair to maintain a detached relationship not helped by Jacob’s advanced age 41 years his son’s senior. According to his 1925 Autobiographical Study, Freud’s father nevertheless encouraged him to follow his “own inclinations alone” in terms of a professional career, but Sigmund’s fear of poverty led him to reluctantly pursue a career as a medical doctor.

In contrast to his distant paternal relationship, Freud’s young mother Amalia maintained a dominant role throughout his life. Amalia favored her eldest child, Sigmund, affectionately naming him “mein golderner Sigi” (“my golden Sigi”, short for Sigmund). Amalia’s favoritism was a mixed blessing for Freud, coming with extremely high expectations to make the most of his relative privilege at the expense of resentment and rivalry among his siblings. Moreover, Freud felt separation anxiety when away from his possessive mother, but also experienced stress-related gastrointestinal issues when she was around.

Freud’s complex family dynamic laid the groundwork for his psychosexual theories. For example, his domineering mother figure and ambivalent relationship with his father provided anecdotal evidence that fueled his ideation of the Oedipus complex. Moreover, his own sibling rivalries provided further evidence of how siblings of one sex compete for the affection of the opposite-sex parent.

Sigmund Freud brought his familial complexes with him into adulthood not only through his career studies but through his marital relationship as well. His experience with poverty drove something of an inferiority complex that dictated an extended, four-year engagement with his fiancée Martha Bernays while he attempted to stabilize his clinical career. Moreover, he demonstrated intense jealousy and possessiveness of Martha, writing daily correspondences demanding that she renounce all familial relationships for him alone.

“If you can’t be found enough of me to renounce your family, then you must lose me, wreck my life, and not get much yourself out of your family.”

Nevertheless, Freud and Martha married in 1886–the same year that Freud opened his private clinical practice specializing in the study and treatment of neurological disorders. This marked the period where he developed his formative psychotherapeutic techniques. Freud concurrently replicated the family dynamic with Martha, who birthed six children between 1887 and 1893: Mathilde, Anna, Oliver, Lucian, Ernst, and Sophie. Anna Freud is notable for having followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a pioneering figure in the fields of child psychoanalysis, defense mechanisms, ego psychology, and developmental lines.

What was Sigmund Freud’s educational background?

Sigmund Freud’s educational background was primarily focused on physiology, neurology, and psychiatry. Freud demonstrated an aptitude for the natural sciences during his secondary school education at the Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium from 1865 to 1873. He additionally developed an extracurricular passion for classical language and historical studies, focusing particularly on the rulers of antiquity like Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and Caesar. Jacob Freud aptly illustrated both his son’s didactic ambitions as well as his relationship with his doting mother in the following quote.

“A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success.”

Freud maintained his position at the top of his class for the entire seven years of his secondary education, graduating with honors in 1873. (He later attributed his academic success to his photographic memory.) He then enrolled at the University of Vienna in September of 1873 with the intention to study law. However, his ultimate decision to study clinical medicine instead was practical rather than passionate; the majority of physicians in Vienna were Jewish and he feared that anti-semitism may forestall his advancement in other, more theoretical fields. Moreover, Freud’s deep-seated fear of poverty from childhood motivated him to seek more lucrative clinical work (despite his relative dispassion for becoming a doctor).

Nevertheless, Freud began to study medicine and excelled throughout his time at the Medical Faculty from 1873 to 1881. He primarily studied anatomy, physiology, and neurology, with electives such as philosophy and zoology rounding out his early university courses. In 1876, Freud found a mentor in Ernst von Brücke, under whom he studied the structures of the nervous system as well as neuropathology. Freud attributed a great deal of personal satisfaction and professional inspiration for his later work in psychotherapeutics to his time spent in Brücke’s physiology laboratory. However, his interests evolved past physical and chemical models of the human psyche and onto neuroses (especially those of a sexual origin).

Sigmund Freud graduated with his Doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1881. He then began his residency at the Vienna General Hospital where he conducted research on cerebral anatomy and the central nervous system.

What was Sigmund Freud’s professional life?

Sigmund Freud’s professional life was marked by a series of groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of the human mind, as well as the development and proliferation of the psychoanalytic method. Freud is best known for his contributions to psychology, but his professional contributions started when he was a student at the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna studying neurology and physiology under his mentor Ernst von Brücke.

Freud spent his time in Brücke’s laboratory studying the nervous tissues of the sea lamprey ptromyzon planeri. Lampreys were conducive to this type of research work due to their simple neural architecture, allowing young Freud to form a cogent understanding of basic neural structures. He published his first ichthyological paper as early as 1877 and went on to publish four more by 1882. However, his major contribution to the field of neurology came in 1884 while studying his specimen’s medulla oblongata. Frustrated by his inability to properly observe the translucent tissue under a microscope, Freud developed a novel method of staining this difficult histological sample to make it visible. This was something of a breakthrough for histology and marked Freud’s most notable early professional contribution. Moreover, Freud’s research on lamprey nervous systems is cited as influential to the discovery of neurons by Santiago Ramon y Cajal in 1888.

It was at Brücke’s Institute of Physiology that Freud met his longtime collaborator Josef Breuer sometime around 1880. Josef introduced Sigmund to the case of Anna O., a hysteria patient undergoing treatment with Breuer’s “cathartic method”. The cathartic method operated under the then-novel assumption that repressed traumatic memories could be the cause of neurotic ailments. Breuer would induce a hypnotic state in Anna O., then engage her to recount traumatic events as well as her symptoms with lowered inhibitions. The patient experienced a moderate alleviation of hysteria symptoms and dubbed Breuer’s method her “talking cure”. Freud took profound inspiration from the case of Anna O., from which he later derived his own method of talk therapy. Breuer and Freud continued their collaboration up to their seminal joint publication of Studies on Hysteria in 1895.

Freud obtained his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1881 and began his residency at the Vienna General Hospital in 1882. This coincided with his engagement with Martha Bernays, which prompted him to secure a more stable income in order to support his future family. Freud spent his residency in the Department of Neurology under the renowned psychiatrist and neuroanatomist Theodor Meynert. Meynert emphasized the importance of brain anatomy in understanding psychiatric disorders and was known for his detailed post-mortem examinations to identify brain abnormalities in patients with specific psychiatric symptoms. This rigorous, crossectional exposure to both psychiatric and neurologic cases laid the foundation for Freud’s own clinical methods. Nevertheless, Freud diverged from his mentor to develop his own theories emphasizing psychological aspects over purely anatomical considerations.

Sigmund Freud became professionally fascinated by cocaine in April 1884, and started a series of experimental self-medications with the drug to alleviate anxiety he had been experiencing. He was an early and vocal advocate for the potential therapeutic uses of cocaine, penning the monograph “Über Coca” in July of 1884. Freud received praise from his peers for his ability to transpose his own narrative voice onto otherwise clinically rigorous reporting. This narrative voice would become a hallmark of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory as he provided personalized accounts of the thoughts and feelings of his patients as well as himself as their therapist. Moreover, Freud’s enthusiastic report inspired his friend and colleague, German ophthalmologist Carl Koller to conduct research of his own. Freud is credited for having influenced Koller’s landmark discovery of cocaine’s application as a local anesthetic during eye surgery.

In 1885, Freud temporarily relocated to Paris on a grant from the University of Vienna to study under Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot pioneered the study of hysteria as a treatable disease and made use of hypnosis as a therapeutic technique. Freud was so impressed by this innovative approach that upon his return to Vienna in early 1886, he set up a private practice aimed at treating hysteria and neurotic disorders. He remained fascinated by both hypnotism and cocaine but came to abandon their usage as his nascent psychoanalytic theory began to take shape.

The late 1890s marked a turning point in the development of Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud developed a slate of talk therapy methods for use in his clinical practice including free association, dream analysis, transference, resistance, and slips of the tongue. Freud considered dream analysis to be particularly fruitful, calling it the “royal road to the unconscious”. Freud developed multiple foundational concepts by interpreting the dreams of both his patients and himself, such as manifest and latent dream content, conscious censorship of the unconscious, and wish fulfillment. Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900 broke ground not just for its subject matter, but also for its characterful narration of his personal experiences and observations. He further developed his theories on Freudian slips in his 1901 publication The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

Sigmund Freud spent the early years of the twentieth century researching and refining his hypotheses about human sexuality and personality development. These efforts culminated in 1905’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in which Freud laid out his case for his five psychosexual development stages. The case was considered scandalous for its overt focus on sexuality, and controversy followed Freud for his handling of the study’s subject, Dora. Freud’s young, intelligent patient was resistant to his assertions that her hysteria was a product of sexual jealousy of and homosexual attraction for her father’s mistress, as well as a repressed attraction for a male family friend who made inappropriate advances on Dora. She cut her psychotherapy sessions short with Freud, marking a setback for his theories.

Nevertheless, Freud’s ideas regained esteem at the first International Psychoanalytical Congress held in 1908 in Salzburg. He made use of the platform to elaborate on his complex theories and engage in debate and discourse. Important peers like Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Karl Abraham offered support for the credibility of psychoanalysis, assisting Freud’s reputation as a pioneering thinker and clinician. Freud’s imminence grew in 1909 when was invited to lecture at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. These lectures were pivotal in fostering widespread acceptance of psychoanalysis in the US and boosted Freud’s international reputation. He compiled their contents into his 1916 book Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.

Freud’s fame grew throughout the First World War when he entered a prolific writing phase. The horrors of war forced a reflection on humanity’s aggressive tendencies, leading to Freud’s conceptualization of death instincts to counterbalance libido in his 1920 work Beyond the Pleasure Principle. This period demonstrated Freud’s willingness to revise old concepts in light of fresh debate or further self-reflection. The most important example of this intellectual rigor is Freud’s 1923 book The Ego and the Id, which represented a parallel evolution of his topographic theory of the unconscious and conscious minds. His new tripartite structural model of the psychic systems id, ego, and superego did not invalidate his topographic model but complemented and expanded upon it.

Sigmund Freud remained prolific throughout the rest of his life. His scope of interest expanded to encompass the interplay between individual psychology and religion, society, and culture. He was initially disheartened to see former peers and proteges like Jung and Adler from rival schools of psychoanalytic thought, but ultimately accepted this as a healthy reality for the burgeoning field of science he championed.

What is the contribution of Sigmund Freud to Psychology?

The main contribution of Sigmund Freud to the field of psychology is the notion that hidden desires, memories, and experiences play a significant role in shaping human personality and pathology. Freud introduced therapeutic techniques like free association and dream analysis to delve into the deeper layers of the psyche. His conceptualizations of defense mechanisms, the Oedipal complex, and the tripartite structure of the mind (id, ego, and superego) offered novel ways to understand and interpret human behavior. Freud was not the first to view psychopathologies as treatable disorders, but few bear as much responsibility as him for bringing psychotherapeutic modalities to the mainstream. Many of his specific theories have been debated and revised over the years, but Freud’s emphasis on the intricate interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind remains foundational to psychology and has influenced a vast array of subsequent theories and therapeutic approaches.

What are the theories of Sigmund Freud?

The major theories of Sigmund Freud are listed below.

  • Talk therapy: Talk therapy is the cornerstone of the therapeutic application of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Freud posited that unconscious conflicts with the conscious mind cause psychopathologies that may present physical symptoms, even absent any neurological damage or deformity. Freud’s remedy was to mediate and resolve inner conflicts through systematic dialogue guided by a trained psychoanalyst. Techniques for talk therapy include analysis of free association, dream interpretation, transference, resistance, and slips of the tongue (commonly known as “Freudian slips”).
  • Personality driving forces: Freud maintained that two sets of forces largely drive personality and behavior. The first set is the pair of psychic energies cathexis and anticathexis. Cathexis represents a libidinal attachment to an object, idea, or person, which the unconscious id urges us to desire and pursue. Anticathexis, on the other hand, counterbalances and represses the less socially advantageous drives of cathexis. Freud believed that psychic energy was a zero-sum system, whereby the energy expended to repress cathexis drained a person of resources needed for other healthful psychological functions. The second set of forces driving personality and behavior are life and death instincts. Life instincts derive definition from the Greek god Eros and accordingly pertain to survival, pleasure, and reproduction. Freud correlated Eros with libidinal psychic energies according to his pleasure principle, which posits that individuals are driven to seek pleasure and avoid pain in order to satisfy biological and psychological needs. The pleasure principle and Eros contrast with human death instincts or “Thanatos”. Freud postulated that humans have an inherent desire for a quiescent return to an inorganic state, and this desire drives aggressive and self-destructive behaviors. Both psychic energies feed into Freud’s psychosexual development theory.
  • Structural model of the psyche: Freud’s models of the psyche evolved over time. He initially theorized that the psyche essentially consists of two layers: conscious and unconscious. The relative influence of each over human behavior he likened to the proportions displayed by an iceberg. Freud’s “Iceberg Theory” says that the conscious mind is represented by the tip of the iceberg, whereas the unconscious part is the mass of ice hidden below the water’s surface. Thus, the unconscious mind is the major reservoir for drives and energies that shape human behavior and personality. However, Freud later expanded this model of the psyche in his 1923 essay The Ego and the Id, where he structures the personality into three components: id, ego, and superego. The id maps entirely to the deepest portion of the iceberg model, representing the base instincts of the unconscious mind. The superego spans across all three zones of the iceberg (unconscious, preconscious, conscious), and represents a deep-seated sense of higher morality that often clashes with the instinctual id. The ego resides above the id, spanning the preconscious and conscious zones of the iceberg. The psychic function of the ego is to moderate the basal drives of the id in accordance with both reality as well as the ideals of the superego.
  • Psychosexual development: Freud proposed that as children mature, they traverse distinct psychosexual stages of development: Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent, and Genital. The Oral Stage describes an infant’s primary source of pleasure and interest being centered around the mouth. The Anal Stage shifts a toddler’s focus of pleasure to activities related to the anus, primarily toilet training. The Phallic Stage prompts the child to become more aware of their genitalia, leading to a deeper understanding of the differences between males and females and fostering Oedipus or Electra complexes for their parents. The Latent Stage marks a prepubescent lull in libido in favor of increased social and intellectual interests. Finally, the Genital Stage emerges in adolescence and sees a revival of sexual interests, now directed towards the opposite sex. Successfully navigating these stages fosters a well-adjusted personality in adulthood. Conversely, unresolved challenges or conflicts during any stage can result in an individual becoming psychologically arrested in that development phase.
  • Dream analysis: Freud believed that every dream contains both manifest and latent content. Manifest content is what the dreamer can recall, whereas latent content represents the dream’s hidden meaning through which Freud identified unconscious desires, wishes, and conflicts. Freud believed that dreams revealed the conscious mind’s censorship of unconscious forces which it deems socially taboo. Moreover, Freud analyzed the content of recurrent dreams as markers of unresolved conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind.

How did Freud develop his theory?

Sigmund Freud developed his psychoanalytic theory over several decades, integrating clinical observations, personal introspection, and his intellectual influences. His early clinical work with hysteria patients was formative to his conception of treating mental illness through talk therapy. In 1880, Freud collaborated with Austrian physician Josef Breuer to analyze the treatment of a hysteria patient named Bertha Pappenheim, to whom they gave the famous pseudonym “Anna O.” Breuer developed and used what Anna O. dubbed the “talking cure” method of talking through her traumatic experiences and associated feelings. Freud and Breuer later coauthored the book Studies on Hysteria in 1895, after which Freud determined that Anna O.’s physical ailments stemmed from repressed trauma from childhood sexual abuse.

Another major milestone in the development of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory occurred in 1885 when he obtained a grant from the University to study under Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Charcot pioneered the treatment of hysteria as a distinct neurological condition, and Freud drew profound influence from his demonstrations of therapeutic hypnosis as a means of conducting clinical psychology. Charcot furthermore instilled in Freud an awe of the unconscious mind as a vector for mental disorders. Upon returning to Vienna, Freud soon came to reject hypnosis as a therapeutic modality in favor of free association and dream interpretation.

Throughout the late 1890s, Freud turned to self-analysis and introspection to enrich his study of psychoanalysis. He meticulously analyzed his own dreams, memories, and feelings, often discussing them with his close friend and confidant Wilhelm Fliess. The first significant self-analysis of a dream occurred on July 23, 1895, which he called “Irma’s injection”. His dream focused on his lack of certainty in his treatment of the eponymous patient and the accompanying guilt of seeking reassurance from a senior colleague. Freud concluded that the dream illustrated a type of wish fulfillment wherein his unconscious sought to alleviate this guilt. Freud incorporated “Irma’s injection” into his seminal 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams in which he solidified his process of dream analysis and self-reflection.

Freud continuously revised his concepts and models in light of new insights gleaned from his clinical experiences and criticisms from peers throughout his career. Increasingly, he came to view human sexuality a primary driver of human behavior, and a critical component of his psychoanalytic theory.

What is Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory?

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is a psychological model of the forces that drive human behavior and personality. Freud’s theory describes a dynamic interplay between the three layers of awareness as defined in his topographical model of the mind: conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. The conscious mind is the layer of the human psyche that embodies a person’s active awareness of their own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories. The preconscious mind functions as an intermediary between the conscious and unconscious, housing feelings and memories that aren’t immediately accessible but which may be brought into conscious awareness with focused attention. The unconscious mind is the deepest and least accessible layer of the human psyche which contains the vast reservoir of forgotten (or repressed) memories, feelings, and desires.

Freud believed that the unconscious mind plays a significant role in psychopathological symptoms exhibited by patients with no apparent neurological or physical ailment. Accordingly, these repressed experiences and emotions manifest as neuroses, phobias, fixations, and other psychological complexes that come into conflict with the conscious mind’s healthier intentions. Freud developed his theory of psychoanalysis through a desire to bring these unconscious conflicts into the patient’s conscious awareness, thus providing therapeutic insights necessary for treating mental illness.

In applying his psychoanalytic theory to therapeutic practice, Freud developed a method of treatment known as psychoanalysis. This technique involved having patients engage in free association, where they’d share thoughts, Through interpreting dreams, slips of the tongue, and even resistance to therapy, Freud aimed to bring these unconscious conflicts into the patient’s conscious awareness. By making the patient aware of these previously hidden conflicts, Freud believed they could confront and resolve the tensions, ultimately leading to improved mental health and personal growth. This pioneering approach laid the foundation for many modern psychotherapeutic techniques and remains influential in the world of psychology today.

How does Freudian psychoanalysis work?

Freudian psychoanalysis works to treat psychopathologies rooted in the patient’s unconscious mind through talk therapy. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory led him to develop innovative methods of talk therapy designed to engage the preconscious as a therapeutic bridge to access the unconscious from the conscious realm. One of Freud’s most notable therapy methods is free association, in which the patient spontaneously shares memories and feelings without inhibition. Additional analysis techniques developed by Freud included active interpretation of dreams, slips of the tongue, and even the patient’s resistance to therapy. In all cases, Freud aimed to bring unconscious conflicts into the patient’s conscious awareness so that they could be confronted and resolved.

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis was necessarily intensive, entailing multiple talk therapy sessions per week, for a duration often lasting years. There are four primary reasons for this intensity. First, Freud believed high-intensity treatment regimens were necessary for the therapeutic process to be effective, as coaxing buried psychological elements from the unconscious takes time to do in a coherent manner. Second, Freudian psychoanalysis confronted deep-seated desires as well as repressed trauma, which tended to raise a patient’s defense mechanisms. Sustained probing of the preconscious was necessary to bypass resistance to therapy and fully access the patient’s unconscious reservoir. Third, Freud posited that patients project their feelings of significant people from their developmental life stages onto the therapist in a process he called transference. Thus, time was required to build out a cogent understanding of these transferred roles and characteristics. Finally, Freud maintained that therapeutic outcomes depended heavily upon the patient’s willingness to commit to the process. This commitment, in turn, would facilitate the necessary introspection and reflection to bring about meaningful change.

What is Freud’s theory of Personality?

Freud’s theory of personality is largely explained by his structural model of the psyche: id, ego, and superego. Freud’s personality of theory is an evolution of his earlier topographic model that focuses on how these three psychic systems interact (rather than simply where regions of conscious accessibility lie). The two work hand in hand to describe how a patient’s inner dynamics manifest as their personality.

Moreover, Sigmund Freud’s fascination with human sexuality is deeply embedded in his theory of personality alongside both models of the psyche. Freud controversially maintained that a child’s libidinal energy shapes their personality through conflict resolutions (or lack thereof) according to the five stages of psychosexual development.

Below are the five psychosexual stages along with their respective erogenous zones, conflicts, and fixations.

  • Oral: The first is the Oral Stage with the mouth as its erogenous zone. This occurs in the first year of life when the libido focuses its attention on the conflict of weaning away from the mother’s milk. Unresolved conflicts of the Oral Stage lead to oral fixations like smoking, gluttony, or even loquaciousness later in life.
  • Anal: The second is the Anal Stage with the anus as its erogenous zone. Toddlers focus their libidinal energies on newfound agency over defecation and toilet training. Unresolved conflicts at the Anal Stage lead to obsessive fixations–or a distinct lack thereof.
  • Phallic: The third stage is the Phallic Stage with the genitals as the primary erogenous zone. Freud posited that the libido foments in children up to six years of age a subconscious sexual attraction for the parent of the opposite sex, which he called the Oedipus complex in boys and the Electra complex in girls. Consequently, same-sex parental relationships are marked by rivalry in the Phallic Stage, and left unresolved these conflicts lead to issues with authority and confusion with sexual roles.
  • Latent: The fourth psychosexual development stage lacks a distinct erogenous zone and is marked by the libido entering a Latency Period. The sexual feelings of prepubescent children lie dormant in this period, with libidinal energies shunting instead towards the development of social skills and intellectual curiosity.
  • Genital: The fifth stage of psychosexual development is the Genital Stage, in which the latent libido reawakens with a renewed focus on the genitals coincident with puberty. The Genital Stage differs from the Phallic Stage in how the latter focuses on building awareness of one’s own genitals, whereas the former focuses the libidinal attention outward to potential sexual and romantic relationships.

The interplay of sexual desires and societal norms forms a central theme in Freud’s structural model of personality. The id brims with primal sexual urges from birth, and constantly seeks gratification based on the pleasure principle. This puts the ego in a delicate position to satisfy these urges in a socially acceptable way, usually through moderation of the id’s raw drive. However, the superego’s moral compass castigates certain desires as immoral (moderated though they may be), leading to internal tensions and conflicts. Freud’s complex intersection of conscious and unconscious drives with conflicting desires for satisfaction and taboo avoidance offers rich insight into human personality growth and development. However, Freud’s psychosexual theories were not without criticism in his day, and have only become more controversial within the context of modern psychological modalities.

Why is Freud’s psychosexual theory of personality so controversial?

Freud’s psychosexual theory of personality is controversial largely due to a lack of scientific validity. There are three primary factors that undermine the validity of Freud’s methods and assertions. First, several of Freud’s hypotheses are not falsifiable according to the scientific method. Concepts like unconscious desires and libido are difficult to measure objectively, and correspondingly difficult to prove or disprove. Second, Freud based his theories on case studies, rather than empirical research. Freud’s sampling was relatively narrow, and largely focused on individuals and small groups of upper-middle-class Viennese patients rather than a more universal sampling of diverse groups. Finally, Freud has received criticism for the vaguery of his predictions. For example, he did not precisely define the mechanisms and manifestations inherent to his theory of repression.

Additionally, many of Freud’s views on gender roles and sexuality are considered problematic according to feminist critique. His concept of penis envy reduces the agency of women to their reproductive drives, dismissing most other behaviors as a product of profound feelings of inadequacy due to a lack of male reproductive organs. Freud even went so far as to assert that women have less developed superegos (that is, moral drives) than men.

What is the significance of the “Oedipal Complex”?

The significance of the Oedipal Complex lies in its centrality to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Freud believed that a child’s feelings of attraction toward the opposite-sex parent and rivalry with the same-sex parent occur during the phallic stage of psychosexual development. The Oedipus Complex specifically involves an affectionate attachment of a son to his mother in contrast with a competitive animosity toward his father. (Girls have a corresponding Electra Complex in which the gender roles are reversed.) This paradigm was directly influenced by Freud’s own relationship with his doting but domineering mother, whom he observed at the peak of her fertility birthing Sigmund’s seven younger siblings. Correspondingly, Freud viewed his own father as financially impotent and maintained a respectful but emotionally distant relationship with him. According to Freud, the successful resolution of the Oedipal Complex is crucial for the healthy psychosexual development of the child. Otherwise, unresolved sexual fixations led to persistent psychological challenges, including neuroses and problematic relationships in adulthood. Moreover, the Oedipal Complex underscores Freud’s emphasis on the profound impact of childhood experiences on one’s adult life and personality.

What is the significance of “The Uncanny”?

The significance of the uncanny in Freud’s work lies in its ability to offer insights into the hidden workings of the human psyche. The concept of the uncanny describes an unsettlingly strange or eerie perception of an otherwise benign experience. This superpositioning of the unfamiliar over the familiar creates a kind of cognitive dissonance, which Freud explored as a gateway to repressed fears and desires within the unconscious mind. Freud believed that uncanny experiences are subtle manifestations of earlier psychic stages, repressed traumas, or even primitive beliefs that have been overridden by modern rational thought.

What is Freud’s theory of the unconscious?

Freud’s theory of the unconscious is a model for understanding the vast dynamic realm of thoughts, memories, and emotions buried beneath the surface of conscious awareness. These unconscious elements have been forgotten or repressed due to their unsettling or socially stigmatized natures, and are otherwise unknowable to the conscious mind absent the guidance of a trained psychotherapist. Moreover, Freud believed that traces of these unconscious conflicts manifested in dreams, slips of the tongue, fixations, or unexplained and unwanted behaviors. Freud sought to probe these preconscious artifacts in an effort to establish a therapeutic bridge between the conscious and unconscious minds.

What are the common misconceptions about Freud’s theory?

The common misconceptions about Freud’s theory tend to oversimplify or misinterpret his complex ideas. Freud made extensive use of metaphors to describe his models of the human mind, and it is incorrect to assume that he meant them literally. The most infamous misinterpretation comes at the expense of the Oedipus complex, wherein it is wrongly assumed that Freud meant that young boys literally wish to kill their fathers and engage their mothers sexually. Moreover, Freud’s psychosexual theory leads superficial critics to erroneously assert that he viewed psychoanalysis exclusively through the lens of sex. This is not to say that Freudian theory is without legitimate criticism; the Oedipus complex remains controversial and it is undeniable that Freud placed a significance on sex beyond what modern therapeutic modalities consider valid. Regardless, it is incorrect to wholly dismiss Freud’s ideas as irrelevant, as concepts like defense mechanisms, the role of the unconscious, and the significance of early childhood experiences still resonate in modern therapeutic modalities and cultural discourses.

What is the difference between Freudian psychoanalysis and other psychoanalytic theories?

The primary difference between Freudian psychoanalysis and other psychoanalytic theories is a reduced emphasis on sexual urges rooted in biology. This is not to say that it is the only difference that matters, but the level of emphasis Freud put on childhood sexuality remains fairly idiosyncratic to Freudian psychoanalytic theory–even among his peers.

For example, Carl Jung disagreed with the degree to which libidinal impulses throughout childhood overrode other significant motivational factors in Freud’s theory. Instead, Jungian psychoanalysis focused on the process of individuation, which cultivates a “personal myth” that informs an individual’s understanding of their unique role in the world. Moreover, Jung believed that the unconscious was less germane to individual wishes and drives, and more a repository for the “collective unconscious” of universal human experiences and archetypes.

Alfred Adler is another foundational figure in psychoanalytic theory who disagreed with some of Freud’s assertions. Adler did not dismiss childhood psychosexual development altogether, but he placed a greater emphasis on childhood inferiority complexes as a vector for personality growth. Adlerian psychoanalysis similarly prioritized a forward-looking therapeutic approach wherein patients are guided toward developing a sense of belonging and purpose. Moreover, Adler focused on helping patients navigate social pressures to hone their sense of self, in contrast to Freud who probed deep into innate individual motivations and forces.