Psychoanalytic Theory of Phobias

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Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis and is sometimes considered the father of modern psychology. His ideas and concepts attempted to explain the dynamics of the unconscious mind. According to Freud’s structural theory, the mind consists of three parts: the id, ego, and superego.

What Is a Phobia?

A phobia is an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance. Unlike the brief anxiety most people feel when they give a speech or take a test, a phobia is long-lasting, causes intense physical and psychological reactions, and can affect your ability to function normally at work or in social settings.

Several types of phobias exist. Some people fear large, open spaces. Others are unable to tolerate certain social situations. And still, others have a specific phobia, such as a fear of snakes, bees, elevators or flying.

Not all phobias need treatment. But if a phobia affects your daily life, several therapies are available that can help you overcome your fears—often permanently.

Parts of the Mind

The id is the primal portion of the mind. It is inherently self-centered and is the basis of emotions. The superego is the highest level of conscience, passing value judgments and introducing such higher-order feelings as guilt. The ego is the rational mind, which acts as a gatekeeper and moderator between the id and the superego.

The ego is also the conscious, waking mind. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the ego to moderate behavior in ways that are consistent with societal expectations and norms. If the id is allowed to make decisions unchecked, then the ego is attacked by the superego. On the other hand, if the superego is given free rein, then the id will feel attacked and will lash out.

Conflict Resolution

The ego attempts to modulate these conflicting goals by using a number of coping mechanisms. Repression and sublimation are two of the most common.

In repression, the ego attempts to “forget” that the conflict exists. Hypnotists that claim to bring forward repressed memories base their work on the Freudian theory of repression.

In sublimation, the ego attempts to rechannel an unacceptable drive into a more socially useful outlet. This technique is demonstrated in a humorous way in the character of Orin Scrivello, the sadistic dentist in the film Little Shop of Horrors.

Theory of Phobias

The psychoanalytic theory of phobias is based largely on the theories of repression and displacement. It is believed that phobias are the product of unresolved conflicts between the id and the superego.

Psychoanalysts generally believe that the conflict originated in childhood, and was either repressed or displaced onto the feared object. The object of the phobia is not the original source of the anxiety.


Psychoanalytic treatment involves exploring the organization of the personality and reorganizing it in a way that addresses deep conflicts and defenses. According to the principles of psychoanalysis, curing the phobia is only possible by rooting out and solving the original conflict.

Psychoanalysis is the form of therapy often seen in old movies. The client generally lies on a couch with the psychoanalyst seated near his or her head. The psychoanalyst does not inject his or her own opinions but allows the client to transfer feelings onto the analyst.

Psychoanalysis is not as popular today as it was a few decades ago, but is still a treatment used to address deep-seated personality issues. The process is generally lengthy, often lasting for many years. It also tends to be expensive, as analysts must undergo extensive training after their regular psychiatry or psychology training is complete.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cieri F, Esposito R. Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience: The Bridge Between Mind and Brain. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1790. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01983

  2. Garcia R. Neurobiology of fear and specific phobias. Learn Mem. 2017;24(9):462-471. doi:10.1101/lm.044115.116

  3. Boag S. Ego, drives, and the dynamics of internal objects. Front Psychol. 2014;5:666. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00666

  4. Alexander B. Steve Martin had one demand playing sadistic 'Little Shop of Horrors' dentist: No Fonzie. USA Today.

Additional Reading
  • Compton MD, Allan. The Psychoanalytic View of Phobias: Part I Freud's Theories of Phobias and Anxiety. Psychoanalytic Quarterly. 1992. 61:2. p. 206.

  • Mayo Clinic. Phobias.

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.