Freud's Life and Death

Sigmund Freud, considered to be one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, was born in Freiberg, Moravia (which is today part of the Czech Republic), in 1856 and died in London at the age of 83. Freud spent most of his life in Vienna, but he left the city near the end of his career to escape the Holocaust.

Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud has had such a phenomenal impact that just about everyone has an opinion about him, even those who haven't studied his work. If you were to ask others what they think of Freud, you would get a variety of interesting answers. Some might say that Freud was a cocaine addict. He did use cocaine early on in his career, but quit using after he learned of its harmful side effects. Another opinion likely to be heard is that Freud hated women. Freud's theory of development did include the notion that women are morally inferior to men. In fact though, Freud was never satisfied with his approach to the psychology of women. He did however welcome women interested in pursuing careers in psychoanalysis, and many of his earliest and most influential followers were women. Finally, people might say that Freud thought everything was about sex. That claim, is actually quite true, except by sex Freud did not mean sexual intercourse in the usual sense. Instead, Freud defined sex as anything stimulating, organ pleasure. Anything that is pleasurable is sex, according to Freud.

For Freud, the sexual drive was the most important motivator of all human activity, he thought that the human sex drive was the main determinant of personality development, and felt as though psychological disorders, dreams, and all of human behavior represent the conflict between this unconscious sexual drive and the demands of a civilized human society.

Freud developed psychoanalysis, his approach to personality, through his work with patients suffering from hysteria. Hysteria refers to physical symptoms that have no physical cause. For instance, a person might be unable to see even with perfectly healthy eyes, or unable to walk, despite having no physical injury.

In Freud's day (the Victorian era, a time marked by strict rules regarding sex), many young women suffered from physical problems that could not be explained by physical illness. Freud spent long hours listening to these women explain and talk about their symptoms. Freud came to understand that the hysterical symptoms stemmed from unconscious psychological conflicts. These conflicts stemmed from experiences in which the person's drive for pleasure was thwarted by the social pressures of Victorian society. One of Freud's patients, Fraulein Elisabeth Von R., suffered from horrible leg pains that prevented her from standing or walking. The fact the Fraulein Elisabeth could not walk was no accident. Through analysis, Freud discovered that she had had a number of experiences in which she wanted nothing more than to take a walk but had been prevented from doing so by her duty to her ill father.

Importantly, Freud believed that hysterical symptoms were overdetermined, or they had many causes in the unconscious. Eventually Freud came to use hysterical symptoms as his metaphor for understanding dreams, slips of tongue, and all human behavior. Everything we do, he said, has a multitude of unconscious causes.

Drawing from his work in analyzing patients (as well as himself), Freud developed his model of the human personality. He described personality as like an iceberg, existing mostly below the level of awareness, just as the massive part of an iceberg sits beneath the surface of the water.


Structures of Personality

The three parts of the iceberg above represent the three structures of personality described by Freud. Freud in 1917 called these structures the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The english translations of these Latin labels are as follows: The id is literally the “it,” the edo is the “I,” and the superego is the “above-I.” The id consists of unconscious drives and is the individual's reservoir of sexual energy. This “it” is a pool of amoral and often vile urges pressing for expression. In Freud's view, the id has no contact with reality. The id works according to the pleasure principal, the Freudian concept that the id always seeks pleasure.

The world would surely be dangerous and scary, however, if personalities were all id. As young children mature, they learn that they cannot slug other children in the face, that they must use the toilet instead of a diaper, and that they must negotiate with others to get the things they want. As children experience the constraints of reality, a new element of personality is formed-the ego, the Freudian structure of personality that deals with the demands of reality. Indeed according to Freud, the ego abides by the reality principle. That is, it tries to bring one pleasure within the norms of society. The ego helps us to test reality, to see how far we can go without getting into trouble and hurting ourselves. Whereas the id is completely unconscious, the ego is partly conscious. It houses our higher mental functions-reasoning, problem solving, and decision making for example.

The id and ego do not consider whether something is right or wrong. Rather, the superego is the harsh internal judge of our behavior. The superego is reflected in what we often call conscience and evaluates the morality of our behavior. Like the id, the superego does not consider reality; it only considers whether the id's impulses can be satisfied in acceptable moral terms. The ego acts as a mediator between the conflicting demands of the id and the superego, as well as the real world. Your ego might say, for example, “I will have sex only in a committed relationship and always practice safe sex.” Your id however screams, “Sex! Now!” and your superego commands, “Sex? Do not even thing about it.”

Defense Mechanisms

The conflicts that erupt among the demands of the id, the superego, and reality create a great deal of anxiety for the ego. The ego has strategies for dealing with this anxiety, called defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are tactics that the ego uses to reduce anxiety by unconsciously distorting reality. For example, imagine that Jason's id is pressing to express an unconscious desire to have sex with his mother. Clearly, acting on this impulse would not please the superego or society at large. If he became aware of this impulse, Jason might recoil in horror. Instead, Jason's efo might use the defense mechanism of displacement, and he might develop a relationship with a girlfriend who looks and acts like his mother. Displacement means directing unacceptable impulses at a less threatening target. Through displacement, the ego allows Jason to express his id impulse in a way that will not land him in trouble. Of course, Jason's friends might chuckle at the resemblance between his mother and his girlfriend, but you can bet that Jason will never notice.

Repression is the most powerful and pervasive defense mechanism. Repression pushes unacceptable id impulses back in to the unconscious mind. Repression is the foundation for all of the psychological defense mechanisms, whose goal is to repress threatening impulses, that is, to push them out of awareness. Freud said, for example, that out early childhood experiences, many of which he believed were sexually laden, are too threatening for us to deal with consciously, so we reduce anxiety of childhood conflict through repression.

Two final points about defense mechanisms are important. First, defense mechanisms are unconscious; we are now aware that we are calling on them. Second, when used in moderation or on a temporary basis, defense mechanisms are not necessarily unhealthy (Cramer, 2008). For example, the defense mechanism of denial can help people cope upon first getting the news that their death is impending, and the defense mechanism of sublimation involves transforming unconscious impulses into activities that benefit society. Note that the defense mechanism of sublimation means that even the very best things that human beings accomplish - a beautiful work of art, an amazing act of kindness - are still explained by unconscious sexual drives and defenses.

Psychosexual Stages of Development

As it was said earlier, Freud linked everything to sex. He believed that human being go through universal stages of personality development and that each developmental stage we experience sexual pleasure in one part of the body more than others. Each stage is named for the location of sexual pleasure at that stage. Erongenous zones are parts of the body that have especially strong pleasure giving qualities at particular stages of development. Freud thought that our adult personality is determined by the way we resolve conflicts between these early sources of pleasure; the mouth, the anus, and then the genitals and the demands of reality.

Oral Stage (first 18 months)

The infants pleasure centers on the mouth. Chewing, sucking, and biting are the chief sources of pleasure that reduce the tension in the infant.

Anal Stage (18-36 months)

During a time when most children are experiencing toilet training, the child's greatest pleasure involves the anus and the urethra and their functions. Freud recognized that there is pleasure in 'going' and 'holding it' as well as in the experience of control over the parents in deciding when to do either.

Phallic Stage (3 to 6 years)

The name of Freud's third stage comes from the Latin word phallus, which means male extremity. Pleasure focuses on the genitals as the child discovers that self stimulation is pleasurable.

In Freud's eyes, the phallic stage has a special importance in personality development because it triggers the Oedipus complex. This name comes from the Greek tragedy in which Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. The Oedipus complex is the boy's intense desire to replace his father and enjoy the affections of his mother. Eventually the boy recognizes that his father might punish him for these incestuous wishes, specifically by cutting off the boy's male extremity. Castration anxiety refers to the boy's intense fear of being mutilated by his father. To reduce this conflict, the boy identifies with his father, adopting the male gender role. The intense castration anxiety is repressed into the unconscious and serves as the foundation for the development of the superego.

Freud realized that there were differences between boys and girls in the phallic stage. Because a girl does not have an extremity specific to males, she cannot experience castration anxiety. Instead she compares herself to boys and realizes that she is missing something, a male specific extremity. Without experiencing the powerful force of castration anxiety, a girl can not develop a superego in the same sense that boys do. Given this inability, Freud concluded, women were morally inferior to men, and this inferiority explained their place as second class citizens in Victorian society. Freud believed that girls experience “castration completed” resulting in male extremity envy - the intense desire to obtain an extremity specific to males by eventually marrying and giving birth to a son.

His views ran counter to the early feminist thinkers of his time, Freud stood firm in his belief that the sexes were not equal in every way. He considered women to be somewhat childlike in their development and thought it was good that fathers, and eventually husbands, should guide them through life. He asserted that the only hope for women's moral development was education.

Latency period (6 years to puberty)

According to Freud, this phase is not a developmental stage but rather a kind of psychic time out. After the drama of the phallic stage, the child sets aside all interest in sexuality. Although we now consider these years to be extremely important to a child's development, Freud felt that this was a time in which no psychosexual development occurred.

Genital stage (adolescence and adulthood)

The genital stage is the time of sexual reawakening, a point when the source of sexual pleasure shifts to someone outside the family. Freud believed that in adulthood the individual become capable of the two hallmarks of maturity: love and work. However, Freud felt that human beings are inevitably subject to intense conflict, causing him to reason that everyone, no matter how healthy or well adjusted, still has an id pressing for expression. Adulthood, even in the best of circumstances still involves reliving the unconscious conflicts of childhood.


Freud argued that an individual may become stuck in any of these stages if he or she is under indulged or over indulged at a given stage. For example, a parent might wean a child too early, or not early enough, or be too strict, or too lax in toilet training. Fixation occurs when a particular psychosexual stage colors an individual's adult personality. For instance, an anal retentive person (someone who is obsessively neat and organized) is fixated at the anal stage, The construct of fixation explains how, according to Freud's view, childhood experiences can have an enormous impact on adult personality.


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