An Overview of Sigmund Freud's Theories

Sigmund Freud

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If you are even the most casual student of psychology, then you have probably spent a fair amount of time learning about Sigmund Freud's theories. Even people who are relatively unfamiliar with psychology as a subject have at least some awareness of psychoanalysis, the school of thought created by Sigmund Freud. While you may have some passing knowledge of key concepts in psychoanalysis like the unconscious, fixations, defense mechanisms, and dream symbolism, you might wonder exactly how these ideas fit in together and what influence they really have on contemporary psychologists.

In this brief overview of Freudian theory, learn more about some of the major ideas proposed by Sigmund Freud.

Talk Therapy

One of Freud's greatest contributions to psychology was talk therapy, the notion that simply talking about our problems can help alleviate them. It was through his association with his close friend and colleague Josef Breuer that Freud became aware of a woman known in the case history as Anna O. The young woman's real name was Bertha Pappenheim and she became a patient of Breuer's after suffering a bout of what was then known as hysteria, the symptoms of which included such things as blurred vision, hallucinations, and partial paralysis. It was during her treatment that Breuer observed that discussing her experiences seemed to provide some degree of relief from her symptoms. It was Pappenheim herself who began referring to the treatment as the "talking cure."

While Anna O is often described as one of Freud's patients, the two never actually met. Freud often discussed her case with Breuer, however, and the two collaborated on an 1895 book based on her treatment titled Studies in Hysteria. Freud concluded that her hysteria was the result of childhood sexual abuse, a view that ended up leading to a rift in Freud and Breuer's professional and personal relationship. Anna O may not have actually been Freud's patient, but her case informed much of Freud's work and later theories on therapy and psychoanalysis.

Personality Driving Forces

According to Freud psychoanalytic theory, all psychic energy is generated by the libido. Freud suggested that our mental states were influenced by two competing forces: cathexis and anticathexis. Cathexis was described as an investment of mental energy in a person, an idea or an object. If you are hungry, for example, you might create a mental image of a delicious meal that you have been craving. In other cases, the ego might harness some of the id's energy to seek out activities that are related to the activity in order to disperse some of the excess energy from the id. If you can't actually seek out food to appease your hunger, you might instead thumb through a cookbook or browse through your favorite recipe blog.

Anticathexis involves the ego blocking the socially unacceptable needs of the id. Repressing urges and desires is one common form of anticathexis, but it involves a significant investment of energy. Remember, according to Freud's theory, there is only so much libidinal energy available. When a lot of this energy is being devoted to suppressing urges via anticathexis, there is less energy available for other processes.

Freud also believed that much of human behavior was motivated by two driving instincts: the life instincts and death instincts. The life instincts are those that relate to a basic need for survival, reproduction, and pleasure. They include such things as the need for food, shelter, love, and sex. He also suggested that all humans have an unconscious wish for death, which he referred to as the death instincts. Self-destructive behavior, he believed, was one expression of the death drive. However, he believed that these death instincts were largely tempered by life instincts.

The Psyche

In Freudian theory, the human mind is structured into two main parts: the conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious mind includes all the things we are aware of or can easily bring into awareness. The unconscious mind, on the other hand, includes all of the things outside of our awareness—all of the wishes, desires, hopes, urges, and memories that lie outside of awareness yet continue to influence behavior.

Freud compared the mind to an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg that is actually visible above the water represents just a tiny portion of the mind, while the huge expanse of ice hidden underneath the water represents the much larger unconscious.

In addition to these two main components of the mind, the Freudian theory also divides human personality up into three major components: the id, ego, and superego. The id is the most primitive part of the personality that is the source of all our most basic urges. This part of the personality is entirely unconscious and serves as the source of all libidinal energy. The ego is the component of personality that is charged with dealing with reality and helps ensure that the demands of the id are satisfied in ways that are realistic, safe and socially acceptable. The superego is the part of the personality that holds all of the internalized morals and standards that we acquire from our parents, family, and society at large.

Psychosexual Development

Freudian theory suggests that as children develop, they progress through a series of psychosexual stages. At each stage, the libido's pleasure-seeking energy is focused on a different part of the body.

The five stages of psychosexual development are:

  1. The Oral Stage: The libidinal energies are focused on the mouth.
  2. The Anal Stage: The libidinal energies are focused on the anus.
  3. The Phallic Stage: The libidinal energies are focused on the penis or clitoris.
  4. The Latent Stage: A period of calm in which little libidinal interest is present.
  5. The Genital Stage: The libidinal energies are focused on the genitals.

The successful completion of each stage lead's to a healthy personality as an adult. If, however, a conflict remains unresolved at any particular stage, the individual might remain fixated or stuck at that particular point of development.

A fixation can involve an over-dependence or obsession with something related to that phase of development. For example, a person with an "oral fixation" is believed to be stuck at the oral stage of development. Signs of an oral fixation might include excessive reliance on oral behaviors such as smoking, biting fingernails, or eating.

Dream Analysis

The unconscious mind played a critical role in all of Freud's theories, and he considered dreams to be one of the key ways to take a peek into what lies outside of our conscious awareness. He dubbed dreams "the royal road to the unconscious" and believed that by examining dreams, he could see not only how the unconscious mind works but what it is trying to hide from conscious awareness.

Freud believed the content of dreams could be broken down into two different types. The manifest content of a dream included all of the actual content of the dream - the events, images, and thoughts contained within the dream. The manifest content is essentially what the dreamer remembers upon waking. The latent content, on the other hand, is all the hidden and symbolic meanings within the dream. Freud believed that dreams were essentially a form of wish-fulfillment. By taking unconscious thoughts, feelings, and desires and transforming them into less threatening forms, people are able to reduce the ego's anxiety.

He often utilized the analysis of dreams as a starting point in his free association technique. The analyst would focus on a particular dream symbol and then use free association to see what other thoughts and images immediately came to a client's mind.

Defense Mechanisms

Even if you've never studied Freud's theories before, you have probably heard the term "defense mechanisms" bandied about a few times. When someone seems unwilling to face a painful truth, you might accuse them of being "in denial." When a person tries to look for a logical explanation for unacceptable behavior, you might suggest that they are "rationalizing."

These things represent different types of defense mechanisms or tactics that the ego uses to protect itself from anxiety. Some of the best-known mechanisms of defense include denial, repression, and regression, but there are many more. Discover more about the types of defenses and how they work to protect the ego in this overview of the defense mechanisms.

Contemporary Views

While Freud's theories have been widely criticized, it is important to remember that his work made important contributions to psychology. His work sparked a major change in how we view mental illness by suggesting that not all psychological problems have physiological causes. His belief that mental problems could be resolved by actually talking about them helped revolutionize psychotherapy.

Since many contemporary psychologists do not give much credence to a lot of Freud's ideas, you might find yourself asking why you should bother learning about Freudian theory at all. First and perhaps most importantly, in order to understand where psychology is at today, it is essential to take a look back at where we've been and how we got here. Freud's work provides an insight into an important movement in psychology that helped transform how we think about mental health and how we approach psychological disorders.

By studying these theories and those that came after, you can gain a better understanding of psychology's rich and fascinating history. Many psychoanalytic terms such as defense mechanism, Freudian slip, and anal retentive have become a part of our everyday language. By learning more about his work and theories, you can better understand how these ideas and concepts became woven into the fabric of popular culture.

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Article Sources

  • Freud, Sigmund. (1900). Interpretation of Dreams. Standard Edition, 5.

  • Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1955). 1893-1895 Studies on Hysteria Standard Edition 2 London.
  • Freud, S. (1920).Beyond the Pleasure Principle (The Standard Edition). Trans. James Strachey. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1961.
  • Freud, S. (1920). Manifest Dream Content and Latent Dream Thought. New York. Boni & Liveright. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.
  • Freud, S. (1923) The Ego and the Id. London: The Hogarth Press Ltd.