Psychological Fixations and How They Develop

A fixation is a persistent focus of the id’s pleasure-seeking energies at an earlier stage of psychosexual development. These fixations occur when an issue or conflict in a psychosexual stage remains unresolved, leaving the individual focused on this stage and unable to move onto the next. For example, individuals with oral fixations may have problems with drinking, smoking, eating, or nail-biting.

Oral, anal, and phallic fixations
Verywell / Cindy Chung

How Fixations Develop

According to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, children develop through a series of psychosexual stages during which the id’s libidinal energies become focused on different areas of the body. During the anal stage, for example, a child supposedly gains a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment by controlling his or her bladder and bowel movements.

So what does this have to do with the development of a fixation? Freud believed that the development of a healthy adult personality was the result of successfully completing each of the psychosexual stages. At each point in development, children face a conflict that must be resolved in order to move successfully on to the next stage. How this conflict is resolved plays a role in the formation of adult personality.

Failing to successfully complete a stage, Freud suggested, would cause that person to remain essentially “stuck.” In other words, they would become fixated at that point in development.

In addition to resulting from failure at a certain stage of psychosexual development, Freud also believed that fixations could result if a particular stage left a dominant impression on an individual's personality. Resolving the psychosexual conflicts requires a considerable amount of the libido’s energy. If a great deal of this energy is expended at a particular point in development, the events of that stage may ultimately leave a stronger impression on that individual’s personality.

Examples of Fixations

Oral Fixations: As mentioned previously, Freud might suggest that nail-biting, smoking, gum-chewing and excessive drinking are signs of an oral fixation. This would indicate that the individual did not resolve the primary conflicts during the earliest stage of psychosexual development, the oral stage.

For example, Freud might suggest that if a child has issues during the weaning process, they might develop an oral fixation.

Anal Fixations: The second stage of psychosexual development is known as the anal stage since it is primarily focused on controlling bowel movements. Fixations at this point in development can lead to what Freud called anal-retentive and anal-expulsive personalities.

  • Anal-retentive individuals may have experienced overly strict and harsh potty training as children and may grow to be overly obsessed with orderliness and tidiness.
  • Anal-expulsive individuals, on the other hand, may have experienced very lax potty training resulting in them being very messy and disorganized as adults.

In either case, both types of fixations result from not properly resolving the critical conflict that takes place during that stage of development.

Phallic Fixations: The phallic stage of development is primarily focused on identifying with the same-sex parent. Freud suggested that fixations at this point could lead to adult personalities that are overly vain, exhibitionistic, and sexually aggressive. At this stage, of development boys may develop what Freud referred to as an Oedipus complex. Girls may develop an analogous issue known as an Electra complex. If not resolved, these complexes may linger and continue to affect behavior into adulthood, according to Freud.

Can Fixations Be Resolved?

So how exactly are fixations resolved? According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the process of transference played an important role in treating such fixations. Essentially, an old fixation is transferred to a new one, allowing the person to consciously deal with the problem.

The goal of psychoanalytic therapy is to often utilize the process of transference to release the energies of fixations.

A Word From Verywell

Fixations were important to Freudian and many neo-Freudian theories. One major problem is that while early theorists connected fixations to specific childhood events, it is difficult or impossible to link adult fixations such as nail-biting to a specific triggering conflict in early childhood.

If you do have a problematic behavior or fixation on a particular object or habit, there are things that you can do to overcome such tendencies. Behavior, cognitive, and cognitive-behavioral therapies, for example, are often used to develop newer, more productive thought and behavior patterns.

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Article Sources

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  • Freud, S. (1910). Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.
  • Freud, S. (1962). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. n.p.: Basic Books.