Sigmund Freud

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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is famous for his provocative and influential psychodynamic theory. His method of gaining insight into personality, psychoanalysis, is considered, by the contemporary mental health professions, a predecessor rather than a current technique in psychotherapy.


Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia (today's Příbor in the Czech Republic) in 1856. However, Freud spent most of his life (from ages 4 to 82) in Vienna. In 1938 he left his home for London, United Kingdom, pressured by the threat of Hitler's invading army. He died the following year.

Freud attended medical school in Vienna. He was a brilliant student whose early work focused around the nervous system; particularly brain functioning. Freud became interested in psychology while studying under Jean Charcot, an eminent French neurologist. Charcot was treating patients who suffered blindness and paralysis (a disorder called conversion hysteria). Freud's observations of these patients led him to believe that there was a subconscious part of the mind, capable of exerting a powerful control over behaviour. In the years following his work with Charcot, while treating neurotic patients, Freud invented his famous psychoanalysis.

Freud's methods attempted to access the subconscious aspect of the mind and included hypnosis, dream interpretation and free-association (saying aloud whatever comes to mind). Freud himself suffered from depression, and attempted to treat himself through the interpretation of his own dreams.

His first book, The Interpretation of Dreams, was published in 1900. Freud's radical work was immediately unpopular with the Victorian society of his time. However, followers slowly became attracted to his ideas -- which proved to be revolutionary.

Freud's Psychodynamic Theory

Freud's Tripartite Theory of Personality

Freud viewed the human personality as having three discrete structures which interacted with each other: the id, the ego and the superego.

The id is a fundamentally irrational aspect of personality. It seeks the immediate gratification of its instinctual wants, and because of this is said to operate according to the "pleasure principle". However, the id is wholly subconscious and can not directly effect the external world.

Since the id cannot effect the external world itself, another aspect of personality called the ego develops. Unlike the id, the ego operates on a primarily conscious level. Its purpose is to mediate between the id and reality, and it operates according to the "reality principle". The ego tests and monitors reality, finding safe ways to outlet the irrational desires of the id.

Finally, a third structure called the superego develops. The superego is a moral center which absorbs the values and ideals of one's parents and society. Its function is self-control, thus with its development external controls (such as parenting which reinforces and punishes) are substituted.

Freud's Five Psychosexual Stages of Development

  • Oral: Developmentally the first of Freud's psychosexual stages. During this stage the id seeks gratification through pleasuring the oral erogenous zone, and revolves around eating and sucking.
  • Anal: The anal stage begins at 2-3 years of age, during which the id derives pleasure through waste elimination. Freud viewed this stage as significant because it marks a child's first attempt to control a biological impulse in order to meet the demands of society.
  • Phallic: Beginning at 4-5 years of age, it is in this stage that Freud's famous Oedipus and Electra complexes emerge. These complexes are named after characters of Greek myth whose narratives share common traits. Male children develop a sexual desire for their mother, view their father as a rival, and fear that he will castrate them as a result -- the so called Oedipus complex. Female children, on the other hand, develop penis envy (the Electra Complex). They blame their mothers for their lack of penis, and desire to compensate for this by giving birth to their father's children. The phallic conflicts are resolved by a method of denying reality known as repression. Through repressing the child learns to identify with its same-sex parent, allowing for both the vicarious possession of the opposite-sex parent and the development of the superego.
  • Latency: The latency stage begins at age six. Children are sexually latent during this stage.
  • Genital: The reappearance of sexuality during adolescence marks the beginning of the genital stage, which lasts for the rest of the person's life. In this final stage, sexual urges are outlet directly into sexual relationships.

Freud believed that during any of these three stages deprivation or overindulgence may cause "fixation", which is arrested development through the psychosexual stages.

Freud's Psychoanalytic Ego Defence Mechanisms

Freud believed that anxiety occurs when impulses emanating from the id threaten to overpower the ego. The ego can respond to this threat by using coping mechanisms that are in line with reality. However, if these attempts to cope realistically fail, the ego may resort one or more of the following eight defense mechanisms:

Example: A marriage partner represses deep feelings of discontent with their spouse, and instead becomes clingy and affectionate.

  • Sublimation occurs when the anxiety-arousing impulse is released in an altered, socially acceptable form.

Example: A person with violent impulses becomes a nightclub bouncer, acting on those impulses as required by the job.

Criticisms and responses



  • Passer, Michael W; Smith, Ronald E; Atkinson, Michael L; Mitchell, John B; Muir, Darwin W. (2003). Psychology: Frontiers and Applications. First Canadian Edition. Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited. ISBN 0-07-089188-5
  • Freud, Sigmund; ed. McLintock, David (2002) Civilization and Its Discontents. London: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13: 978-0-141-18236-0 ISBN-10: 0-141-18236-9

See also