What Is a Fixation?

Oral, anal, and phallic fixations
Verywell / Cindy Chung

In general, a fixation is an obsessive drive that may or may not be acted on involving an object, concept, or person. Initially introduced by Sigmund Freud, a fixation is a persistent focus of the id’s pleasure-seeking energies at an early stage of psychosexual development. Oral, anal, and phallic 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.

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.

The Id and Libidinal Energies

The id, the only aspect of the mind thought to be present at birth, operates on the pleasure principle on an unconscious level. Libidinal energies, otherwise known as the libido, are considered biological and sexual drives and desires that are heavily influenced by the id. The id drives the libido, seeking out the most pleasurable situations possible.

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 on successfully 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. 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

There are multiple ways the three fixations mentioned above may manifest in different individuals.

Oral Fixations

The oral stage tends to occur between birth and around 18 months old, during which time the oral (feeding) needs of the child are either met, overstimulated, or unmet. For example, Freud might suggest that if a child has issues during the weaning process, they might develop an oral fixation.

Freud may also 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.

Anal Fixations

The second stage of psychosexual development is known as the anal stage because 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: This group 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, anal-expulsive individuals 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 this 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, 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.

Treatments for Fixation

So how exactly are fixations resolved? According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the process of transference plays 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.

Therapy

The goal of psychoanalytic therapy is to utilize the process of transference to release the energies of fixations. The therapist may discuss with their client patterns of reactions and attitudes that they observe their client unconsciously projecting onto them. This allows them to help their client bring their unconscious feelings from their past into conscious awareness.

If you aren't one for psychoanalytic methods, keep in mind that the most effective therapeutic outcomes reflect the client/therapist relationship, not the theory or methods the therapist utilizes. If you do opt to see a therapist, be sure you feel comfortable around them and trust them. Other therapeutic methods to consider:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be used to address the thoughts, emotions, and behavioral patterns that the client would like to shift.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) may be a helpful option for individuals who have experienced previous traumatic experiences.
  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) can be a great option for those who prefer to do therapeutic work outdoors versus in an office setting.
  • Trauma-centered therapeutic methods: These may include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

Keep in mind that many therapists tend to use an eclectic approach when it comes to selecting their treatment framework.

Self-Help

Depending on the complexity of the issue you would like to work on, there are various techniques you can try on your own. These include:

  • Mindfulness: This method may be used to help connect with your body, develop deeper insight into your own thought process, and may also reduce stress.
  • Exercise: Exercising regularly may help reduce overall stress and be used as a way to replace habits you'd like to shift, such as nail biting or smoking.
  • Relaxation techniques: Various relaxation methods, including progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and breathing exercises, may help reduce stress, ease tension, and refocus your energy inward.
  • Journaling: Getting into the habit of journaling may help you reflect on your specific fixation and better understand how your fixation impacts your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Affirmations: Reciting positive affirmations to yourself or writing them down may help you re-focus your energy on your strengths.

When to Call Your Doctor

The symptoms associated with fixation can vary from person to person. If you are experiencing difficulty with acts of daily living, are noticing a reduction in your quality of life, are having distressing thoughts, and/or are engaging in harmful behaviors, it's important to reach out to your doctor right away.

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. Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. 1910.

  • Freud S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Basic Books; 1962.