The Story and Mind of Sigmund Freud

By Dr. Mark Kelland / 11.03.2015
Professor of Psychology
Lansing Community College


Sigmund Freud is unquestionably the most famous person in the fields of psychiatry and psychology, and one of the most famous individuals in modern history. He is of particular importance for this subject because he was probably the first person to address psychological problems by examining the individual’s personal development in detail. As he developed his psychodynamic theory, and the treatment known as psychoanalysis, he attempted to carefully observe and listen to his patients in order to determine not only how and why they had become the person they were, but also whether those developmental processes might be common to all people. This careful approach to studying psychological conditions was likely the result of Freud’s substantial scientific research in anatomy and physiology earlier in his career.

But why is Freud so famous? Much of his theory may not seem relevant today, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever have come up with the theory of penis envy. And yet Freud remains extraordinarily influential. There are at least three good reasons for Freud’s enduring influence and popularity. First, Freud was first! No one before him had established a cohesive theory of the development of personality, especially a theory that attempted to explain both normal and abnormal development. Thus, most theories developed since then have been viewed as extending, modifying, or opposing Freud’s psychodynamic theory. Second, key elements of Freud’s theory are generally accepted in psychology and psychiatry, such as the existence of unconscious elements of our mind that can affect our thoughts and behaviors and both the normal and abnormal roles of psychological defense mechanisms. The final factor contributing to Freud’s lasting influence is somewhat more complicated. Psychodynamic theory was not well received at first. In fact, the emphasis on childhood sexuality was ridiculed and scorned by many in the medical profession. However, Freud was determined, and he did not let the rejection of others deter him from continuing his studies. In addition, there were several very famous and influential individuals who supported his efforts. Thus, Freud found the motivation to persevere, and the rest, as they say, is history.

A Brief Biography of Sigmund Freud, M.D.

Sigmund’s father, Jakob Freud / Public Domain

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on May 6th, 1856, in the small, industrial town of Freiberg in Moravia (today it is known as Pribor in the Czech Republic). Freud never used the name Schlomo, his paternal grandfather’s name, and he shortened his first name while at the University of Vienna. His family life was unusual, and somewhat complicated. His father, Jakob Freud, was 40 years old when he married Freud’s mother, Amalia Nathanson. She was 20 years younger than Jakob Freud, and several years younger than Jakob’s son, Emanuel, from an earlier marriage. One of Freud’s first friends was a nephew who was a year older than Freud!

Jakob Freud was never particularly successful in business. The industrial importance of Freiberg was declining, so the young family left and eventually settled in Vienna, Austria (Jakob’s sons from his first marriage, Emanuel and Philipp, emigrated to England). At this point Jakob and Amalia Freud had two children, Sigmund and his sister Anna (a brother born between them, Julius, died at 7 or 8 months of age). Shortly after arriving in Vienna, however, they had five more children during the years 1860-1866: Rosa, Marie, Adolfine, Pauline, and Alexander. This resulted in continued financial difficulties, which appears to have been painful for the young Freud (Gay, 1998). There were also personal difficulties that made it difficult for Freud to enjoy a close relationship with his father. Jakob Freud once told his son a story about being abused by an Austrian Christian, a man who knocked Jakob Freud’s hat into the muddy street and then ordered the “Jew” to get off the sidewalk. When Freud asked his father how he had responded, his father said he simply stepped off the sidewalk and picked up his hat. Freud was very disappointed by what he apparently perceived as weakness in his father (Gay, 1998). There was also an embarrassing episode involving his father’s brother, Josef. Josef Freud was convicted and sent to jail for trading in counterfeit money. This caused a great deal of concern for Jakob Freud, who might have been involved in the illegal scheme along with his sons, Emanuel and Philipp (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953).

Still, Jakob Freud did try to be a good father. His children were generally successful, and he remained active and supportive in the lives of his children and grandchildren. The story mentioned above, when Jakob Freud tried to impart some “fatherly” wisdom to his son, may not have had the intended effect, but it demonstrates that he cared about teaching his son some of life’s lessons. On Freud’s thirty-fifth birthday his father sent his “dear son” a copy of the family’s Philippson Bible (this Bible contains the Old Testament, which is the only testament in the Jewish faith), which Freud had often studied as a young child (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953; Nicholi, 2002). The inscription written by Jakob Freud in the Bible ended with a description of the gift “as a token of love from your old father” (see Jones, 1953; Nicholi, 2002). When Jakob Freud died, Freud wrote to a friend that his father’s death had profoundly affected him, leaving him feeling uprooted. He described the death of one’s father as “the most important event, the most poignant loss, in a man’s life” (see Nicholi, 2002). The death of his father appears to have stimulated Freud’s self-analysis, the writing of The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900/1995) and the formulation of his theory of the Oedipus complex (Nicholi, 2002). Jakob Freud was also remembered quite fondly by his grandson Martin, the eldest son of Freud (M. Freud, 1983).

Freud’s relationship with his mother was also complex. Amalia Freud is described as young (which she was, compared to Jakob), attractive, and energetic. She always took great pride in her son, and was a strong and positive influence throughout his life. Later in life he wrote that “A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success” (see Jones, 1953). During Freud’s self-analysis, around the year 1897, he uncovered profound memories from his earliest years. Sometime between the ages of 2 ½ and 4 years old, Freud accidentally saw his mother naked. This event awakened a powerful desire in Freud. Shortly after recovering this memory, he remembered the deep jealousy he had felt when his brother Julius was born, shortly before Freud was 2 years old. So jealous was Freud, that he remembered welcoming the death of his infant brother (see Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953). Each of these incidents certainly had an impact of Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex. Surprisingly, however, during the first 2 ½ years of Freud’s life he actually spent very little time with his mother, since he was being raised by a nursemaid. Keep in mind that his mother became pregnant again, then his brother Julius became ill and died, and then his mother became pregnant again, finally giving birth to his sister Anna, all by the time Freud was 2 ½ years old.

Freud’s nursemaid has been described as an old and ugly woman, but Freud loved her and dreamed about her later in life (see Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953; Nicholi, 2002). The nursemaid was a devout Roman Catholic, and she regularly took Freud to church with her. Despite his young age (less than 2 ½ years old), Freud would come home from church and preach to his family about God. Even though his family was Jewish, they did not practice their faith with much devotion, and it must have been quite interesting to listen to the sermons of their little boy. Why then, as we will see, did Freud come to reject religion and spirituality? It turns out that this relationship ended abruptly. Freud’s half brother Philipp accused the nursemaid of petty theft, and she was sent to prison. At this time Freud’s mother was confined with his recently born sister, so Freud was suddenly denied access to both his mother and his nursemaid. It has been suggested that because he was abandoned so suddenly, and at such a critical time (Freud was 2 ½ years old at this time), by his Roman Catholic nursemaid, that his anger and disappointment led to his ultimate rejection of the spiritual worldview and his antagonism toward the Catholic church (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953; Nicholi, 2002).

Freud’s Early Career in Basic Research (Pre-Psychiatry)

High school de:Sigmund-Freud-Gymnasium in Vienna Leopoldstadt / Photo by Peter Gugerell, Wikimedia Commons

Freud was very successful in school from an early age. At the Gymnasium, which is the term for a preparatory school in countries such as Germany and Austria, he was first in his class for 7 years. This led to a variety of special privileges, including seldom being required to take any examinations (Freud, 1952). It also led to privileges at home. According to his sister Anna, Freud always had his own room to study in, no matter how difficult the family’s financial situation (Gay, 1998). As he prepared for college, Freud initially wanted to study law. However, after learning about Darwin’s theory of evolution and hearing Goethe’s essay on nature, he decided to become a medical student (Freud, 1952).

In 1873, Freud entered the University of Vienna. Initially he suffered greatly from prejudice and discrimination against him because he was Jewish. Believing that he was expected to feel inferior and alien because he was Jewish, he nonetheless persevered. As a result of these experiences, later in life he was prepared for dealing with the considerable resistance that occurred in response to his theories (Freud, 1952). His first research project in medical school came at the suggestion of Professor Carl Claus. Prof. Claus was interested in a report that the Polish scientist Simone de Syrski had identified structures that might represent the testes of the male eel. This was a question that had been studied for centuries without success. After dissecting some 400 eels, Freud appeared to have confirmed Syrski’s findings. The research was not definitive, however, and Freud found little satisfaction in the publication of his work (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953). He was, however, about to find satisfaction, in the physiological laboratory of Ernst Brucke.

Brucke was a renowned physiologist, anatomist, histologist, and more. Freud had great respect for his newfound mentor, referring to him as Master Brucke and describing him as “the greatest authority I ever met.” In Brucke’s laboratory Freud “found rest and full satisfaction at last” (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953). The research he conducted under Brucke’s guidance was impressive. Brucke put Freud to work studying the anatomy of the spinal cord and its neurons. At that time, the structure of neurons was not understood. Freud modified the histological staining methods being used in Brucke’s laboratory, and eventually developed a gold chloride method of staining nervous system tissue around the year 1880 (Jones, 1953). This was one of the first uses of a heavy metal stain on nervous system tissue. The silver nitrate method of staining neurons had been developed by Camillo Golgi a few years earlier, in 1873, but it was not until 1888 that Santiago Ramon y Cajal first reported on the structure of the brain using Golgi’s technique. For this research, Golgi and Ramon y Cajal shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906 (Finger, 1994). If Freud had not left basic research for a career in medicine, he might have ended up famous just the same.

Freud did eventually leave the university, however, and began a career in medicine at the General Hospital in Vienna. Part of the reason for leaving and beginning his medical career was that he had met Martha Bernays, the woman who would become his wife, and he needed to begin earning enough money to support a wife and family. First, however, he needed to establish himself in his career. At the General Hospital he met and worked with the eminent Theodor Meynert, who, among other accomplishments, was the first to correctly suggest that Parkinson’s disease resulted from abnormal functioning of the basal ganglia (Finger, 1994). This stimulated Freud’s continued interest in anatomy and brain function, and in 1891 Freud published a book entitled On Aphasia. You may remember from introductory psychology that the two primary speech centers in the human brain are Broca’s area (speech production) and Wernicke’s area (speech reception), and that damage to these areas results in Broca’s aphasia or Wernicke’s aphasia. Carl Wernicke had also been a student of Meynert, but Freud’s book on aphasia was especially critical of Wernicke (Finger, 1994). This put both men firmly in the middle of the debate on structuralism vs. functionalism as it pertains to the activities of the human brain (see Finger, 1994). Although Meynert suggested that Freud should devote himself to studying the anatomy of the brain, Freud had had enough of this sort of work in Brucke’s laboratory. Instead, Freud’s interest turned toward the diseases of the brain (Freud, 1952). With the help of a recommendation by Brucke, Freud was awarded a Traveling Fellowship, which allowed him to afford a trip to Paris to study at the prestigious Salpetriere. He intended to study under Jean-Martin Charcot, one of the world’s foremost neurologists of his day, and the man who named Parkinson’s disease after the physician James Parkinson (Finger, 1994).

The Mazarin entrance to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital / Wikimedia Commons

Freud was largely ignored when he arrived at the Salpetriere, since he was just one of a crowd of foreign visitors. As luck would have it, one day he heard Charcot expressing regret that Charcot had not heard from his German translator in some time, and he wished someone could be found to translate his latest lectures into German. Freud wrote to Charcot, offered to do the job, and was accepted. From that point on he became a member of Charcot’s inner circle, and was active in all aspects of the work at the clinic (Freud, 1952). One of the main topics Freud studied with Charcot was the use of hypnosis in the study of hysteria. Freud discussed the earliest conceptions of his psychodynamic theory with Charcot. Charcot was supportive and agreed with Freud’s fledgling ideas, but Charcot’s interests remained firmly in the field of neurology, not in psychology or psychiatry (Freud, 1952).

Upon returning to Vienna and settling down as a practicing physician, Freud was finally able to marry Martha in 1886 (he was 30 years old, and she was 25). They had six children: Matilde, Martin, Oliver, Ernst, Sophie, and Anna. According to his son Martin, Freud was a loving and generous father (M. Freud, 1983). He was also very supportive of his children. As Martin became disillusioned with the study of law, he turned to his father for advice:

…It had always been his hope that one of his sons would become a lawyer. Thus he watched, and I think guided, my first faltering steps in my law studies with the greatest concern.

He agreed that my first studies were dull and boring, but he assured me that one day I would find a teacher with an impressive personality, perhaps a man of genius, and that I would become deeply interested and carried away by his lectures…

Father always expressed himself with great clarity and, when advising me at so critical a time in my life, he added to his normal clarity of expression a natural tenderness and concern… (M. Freud, 1983; pg. 161)

Martin did become a lawyer and, after Martin served as an officer in the Austrian army during World War I, his father helped him to establish his practice.

Finally, any discussion of Freud’s early research career would not be complete without mentioning what Ernest Jones, Freud’s official biographer, called “the cocaine episode” (Jones, 1953). In his last autobiographical book (Freud, 1952; originally published in 1925 in a collection of medical autobiographies) he makes only passing reference to studying cocaine, reporting another near miss in his research career. He had begun studying cocaine while he was away from Vienna, and an opportunity arose to return home for vacation and an opportunity to see his fiancé Martha. As he prepared to leave, he suggested to a couple of colleagues that they examine the effectiveness of cocaine as an anesthetic for use in eye diseases. While Freud was visiting Martha, one of his colleagues, Carl Koller, confirmed the local anesthetic properties of cocaine and became famous for it. Afterward, Freud noted that “it was the fault of my fiancé that I was not already famous at that early age,” but he insists that “I bore my fiancé no grudge for her interruption of my work” (Freud, 1952). Something quite fascinating is that Freud’s interest in cocaine was initially based on the possibility that its euphoric properties might be used to alleviate the problems associated with withdrawal from morphine. A close and long-time friend, Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow had become addicted to morphine because of the extreme pain of an infection, and Freud hoped that cocaine would help. Freud himself began using cocaine to boost his own mood. He sent some to Martha with the recommendation that she try it (there is no evidence that she ever did), and he even began sending cocaine to friends, colleagues, and his sisters. Eventually, however, Freud realized that cocaine was not helping his friend; indeed von Fleischl-Marxow became addicted to cocaine instead of morphine. Freud eventually deeply regretted his research on cocaine, especially since the one positive result of that research had garnered fame for a colleague while Freud was on vacation (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953).

Freud’s Psychiatric Career

Josef Breuer / Wikimedia Commons

Many people believe that psychoanalysis was developed by Freud during the early years of his medical practice in Vienna. Freud, however, would disagree. He insisted that psychoanalysis was begun by the Viennese physician Josef Breuer (Freud, 1914/1995), a close friend and mentor of Freud. The basis of psychoanalysis lay in a patient that Breuer had seen as early as 1880, and had treated with hypnosis. This case, and the use of hypnosis as part of the “cathartic procedure” developed by Breuer, was the original inspiration for Freud’s interest in hypnosis and his trip to Paris to study the technique with Charcot. When Freud returned to Vienna, he asked Breuer to tell him all of the details of this case, which involved a young woman. This famous patient, known as Anna O., was described by Breuer in the book coauthored by the two men (Freud & Breuer, 1895/2004). As Freud used Breuer’s techniques with his own patients, however, he began to realize that something was lacking. Hypnosis did little to reveal the underlying causes of the hysteria that their patients were experiencing. Since Freud was every bit the scientist, he needed to know more about why he was able to help some patients. He eventually replaced hypnosis with his own techniques of free association (early 1890s) and, eventually, dream analysis (essentially done in 1896, but not published until 1900). This was the point at which psychoanalysis, in the sense that we think of it today, was born (Freud, 1914/1995, 1952).

As Freud’s ideas diverged from those of Breuer, the two parted ways. Freud then developed the aspect of psychodynamic theory that led to his near total rejection by the German and Austrian medical communities: the primacy of childhood sexuality. This theory was so difficult for others to accept that Freud spent nearly 10 years working on psychoanalysis in isolation. However, Freud claims that the concept of a sexual etiology for the neuroses was not really his idea, it had been superficially suggested by Breuer, Charcot, and a highly respected Viennese gynecologist named Chrobak (Freud, 1914/1995). During those years of isolation Freud began to define other major aspects of psychodynamic theory, such as: resistance, repression, conflict, and unconscious impulses.

Around 1902, Freud began to find support for his theories among a select group of physicians. Shortly thereafter a group of psychiatrists in Zurich, Switzerland, which included Eugen Bleuler (the man credited with identifying both schizophrenia and autism as we define them today) and his assistant Carl Jung, began “taking a lively interest in psychoanalysis” (Freud, 1952). In 1909 Freud and Jung were invited to America, where they were warmly received, and psychoanalysis became well-established in America and Canada. By the 1910s it was reported that psychoanalysis was being championed in Austria, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, England, India, Chile, Australasia (the region), France, Italy, Sweden, Russia, Hungary, Holland, and Norway (where the first textbook on psychiatry that included psychoanalysis was written) (Freud, 1914/1995). Germany proved quite resistant, although the renowned Karl Abraham practiced psychoanalysis in Berlin.

Perhaps it was inevitable that all of this success should eventually lead to conflict. Two major groups, whose members differed significantly in their views on psychodynamic theory and psychoanalysis, broke away from the main psychoanalytic groups. They were led by Alfred Adler (see Chapter 4) and Carl Jung (Chapter 3). In his first autobiography, Freud is not exactly kind to these two men. He goes to great length to dismiss Adler’s theories as mistaken, and he flatly rejects Jung’s perspective:

Of the two movements under consideration here, Adler’s is undoubtedly the more important. Though radically false, it is, nevertheless, characterized by consistency and coherence, and it is still founded on the theory of the instincts. On the other hand, Jung’s modification has slackened the connection between the phenomena and the instinctive-life; besides as its critics (Abraham, Firenze, and Jones) have already pointed out, it is so unintelligible, muddled and confused, that … it is impossible to know how one can arrive at a correct understanding of it… (Freud, 1914/1995; pg. 940).

It is curious to speculate whether Freud’s isolation for so many years may have led to the profound possessiveness he later expressed regarding psychoanalysis as his technique, and his alone, in The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement:

…For psychoanalysis is my creation; for ten years I was the only one occupied with it, and all the annoyance which this new subject caused among my contemporaries has been hurled upon my head in the form of criticism. Even today, when I am no longer the only psychoanalyst, I feel myself justified in assuming that nobody knows better than I what psychoanalysis is… (Freud, 1914/1995; pg. 901)

Freud’s Final Years

Freud in later years / Public Domain

Freud’s final years were somewhat tumultuous. The Nazis had taken over Germany and Austria, and they were rapidly preparing for World War II. Being Jewish, Freud’s life was in danger; indeed, at least three of his sisters were murdered in the concentration camps, most likely in Auschwitz (M. Freud, 1983). Freud, however, had influential friends, including European royalty and wealthy individuals with ties to the British and American governments. The American secretary of state, Cordell Hull, took word of the situation to President Franklin Roosevelt, and following Roosevelt’s instructions, Hull had the American ambassador to Germany intervene on Freud’s behalf (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1957). Freud also received substantial help and comfort from Marie Bonaparte, H.R.H. the Princess George of Greece, including the payment of a ransom in order to secure permission for Freud to leave Austria (M. Freud, 1983). Finally, in May 1938, Freud, his wife Martha, and their daughter Anna left together for England, along with Freud’s dog. They were all received quite warmly in London, except for the dog. She was quarantined for six months (M. Freud, 1983).

Freud, however, had already been ill for many years, and was suffering a great deal of pain due to cancer. He was also in his eighties. Nonetheless, Freud continued to work, and he completed An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1938/1949) and Moses and Monotheism (1939/1967) while living in London. But the end was near, and the cancer was progressing rapidly. In September 1939, Freud asked his doctor, Max Schur, to remember an agreement the two had made not to prolong Freud’s life unnecessarily. Freud asked Schur to discuss his condition with Anna Freud. Anna Freud at first resisted, but eventually submitted to the inevitable, and Schur administered a series of morphine injections that proved fatal. Sigmund Freud died on September 23, 1939 (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1957).

In the funeral oration delivered by Ernest Jones, Jones remembered that three qualities had particularly impressed him upon first meeting Freud: first, “his nobility of character;” second, “his direct and instinctive love of truth;” and third, “his courage and inflexible determination.” Jones also said that a “great spirit has passed from the world…for Freud so inspired us with his personality, his character and his ideas that we can never truly part from him…” (Jones, 1957). Prior to the escape from Austria, Freud had expressed a sincere desire to “die in freedom.” He loved England, where he was able to accomplish that goal. In reference to England and the funeral ceremony, Jones said:

He died surrounded by every loving care, in a land that had shown him more courtesy, more esteem and more honor than his own or any other land, a land which I think he himself esteemed beyond all others. (pg. 247; Jones, 1957).

Placing Freud in Context: Connecting Personality Theories

Sigmund Freud was one of the greatest minds of modern times. He was the first person to provide a comprehensive theory of personality and personality development, and he did so in what he considered to be a logical and scientific manner. Since he was first, however, how can we place him amongst the other great psychologists? As I contemplated the importance of Freud to the history of psychology, I looked back at my own graduate school training. The textbook assigned for my graduate history of psychology course was Theories and Systems of Psychology by Robert Lundin (1979). In the chapter titles, Lundin mentions only three psychologists by name: Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of experimental psychology; William James, America’s preeminent psychologist; and Sigmund Freud. Since Freud’s name is also mentioned in the title of the chapter devoted to his followers, Freud actually has two chapters devoted to his influence. I also looked at A History of Psychological Theories by Ross Stagner (1988), who was an esteemed faculty member in the psychology department at Wayne State University in Detroit and author of one of the first personality textbooks (Stagner, 1937). Stagner mentions six individuals in the titles of his twenty-two chapters, and once again Freud is among them. In addition, the well-known psychological historian Ludy Benjamin includes a chapter on the correspondence between Freud and Jung in A History of Psychology in Letters (1993). There are actually numerous books published on the correspondence between Freud and a variety of other people, and thousands of those letters have been published. These are just a few examples of how deeply Freud is recognized as a major figure in the history of psychology.

Another testament to the legacy of Freud is how enduring some of the issues he addressed have proven to be. In the early years of the twenty-first century there has been a growing conflict between religion and society. In the United States the concept of separation of church and state has been challenged perhaps most aggressively in our schools, with issues such as praying at school sporting events and the teaching of creationism in science classes. In other countries, religious fundamentalists often stand in opposition to the establishment of democratic governments. Increasing globalization does not seem to be bringing people together, but rather bringing people into competition and conflict. Freud used the knowledge he had learned in his studies on psychoanalysis to address such major societal issues. He presented his ideas in books such as The Future of an Illusion (1927/1961) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930/1961), and he hoped that by advancing our knowledge of the human psyche we could help to continue the development of the human species and civilization. The recognition that problems like these still plague humanity suggests that we have a long way to go. But brilliant men like Sigmund Freud have helped to provide us with a basis for moving forward.

Basic Concepts

Creative Commons

It is not easy to read the earliest writings of Freud on psychoanalysis. Following his years of working in isolation, Freud published four books in a span of 5 years: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900/1995), Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904/1995), Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905/1995), and Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905/1995). Each of these books clearly reflects their author: a genius, educated in Europe, and writing in a style well suited to the late 1800s/early 1900s. Not only are these books intellectually challenging, but even the English translations are sprinkled with lines in German, French, and Latin. In 1917, however, Freud published a series of lectures he had given at the University of Vienna during the years 1915-1917. His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1917/1966) describes the essential aspects of his theory in neatly organized lectures that are much easier to grasp than his earlier work. Shortly before he died, Freud presented a very brief outline of his theories in the aptly named An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1938/1949). In what seems to be a logical approach to the study of Freud’s work, we will begin with the general theory and then address the psychoanalytic method. Keep in mind, however, that Freud actually worked the other way around: first he developed his modifications of Breuer’s cathartic method and began treating patients (actually, treating patients contributed to his development of the methods), and then he developed his theoretical perspectives in order to explain what had already proved successful.

Hysteria and Psychic Determinism

The term hysteria generally refers to a condition in which psychological trauma or stress is converted into physical symptoms and/or excessive emotional behavior. Today, this condition is typically referred to as a conversion disorder (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Society, 2000). However, Freud meant to use the term in a rather broad sense, and he applied it to a collection of disorders that are not officially recognized today: the neuroses (relatively mild mental illnesses, often associated with stress, but which do not result in a loss of contact with reality).

Freud and Breuer (1895/2004) believed that their clinical observations revealed a number of key elements that provided the early framework for psychodynamic theory and psychoanalysis. In each case, the symptoms exhibited by their patients were connected to some earlier psychological trauma. This connection was not always obvious, however, and often could not be remembered by the patient. When the patient was helped to remember the traumatic event, the symptoms were typically relieved, a process known as catharsis. In order to help patients remember, Breuer and Freud (as well as Charcot and a few others) relied primarily on hypnosis. What intrigued Freud and Breuer was the observation that these traumatic memories seemed to last for a very long time without getting weaker, even though they were not conscious memories. What seemed to matter most was whether there had been an energetic reaction to the emotional event when the memory was formed. In order for the trauma to be released, there needed to be a cathartic event strong enough to adequately dissipate the energy associated with the formation of the traumatic memory.

Both Freud and Breuer recognized that this was only the beginning of this new field of clinical research. Although they were somewhat satisfied that they had described the nature of hysterical symptoms, and that they had moved further than Charcot, they recognized that they were no closer to understanding the internal causes of hysteria and the neuroses. This would become the work of Freud alone, at least for a number of years.

The concept of psychic determinism arises naturally from these early observations. Freud believed that all behavior and thought is the result of psychological connections created during previous experiences, nothing happens by accident or chance. The fact that we might find it difficult to recognize the connections between some emotion or behavior and a previous incident does nothing to minimize the reality of those connections, it just presents a challenge for the psychoanalyst. In Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud (1904/1995) described how psychic determinism results in many common problems, certainly the most famous of which is the “Freudian slip.” A Freudian slip is an instance where someone says something wrong, but it actually reflects the persons true feelings. Freud attributed the following example to Dr. Brill:

While writing a prescription for a woman who was especially weighed down by the financial burden of the treatment, I was interested to hear her say suddenly: “Please do not give me big bills, because I cannot swallow them.” Of course, she meant to say pills. (italics in the original, pg. 50; Freud, 1904/1995)

Freud’s Theory of Instincts

Freud used the term instinct in a way that does not fit with the technical term instinct as defined by Tinbergen (see Beck, 1978). It has been suggested that the German word trieb should not have been translated as instinct, and actually referred to something more like a drive or impulse. Freud was not concerned with specific behaviors, but rather with general categories of behavior. As a former scientist, Freud never left his interests in biology behind. When Freud referred to the psyche, or mind, he considered both its physical elements, the brain and the rest of the nervous system, and its mental elements, primarily our consciousness (which is made possible by the structure and function of the brain). Given our basic biological nature, and our genetic make-up, we inherit basic instincts essential to our survival: both our individual survival and the survival of our species. In recognition of the general rule in nature that all systems are comprised of opposing forces (attraction and repulsion) Freud hypothesized a life instinct and a death instinct.

Freud gave the life instinct the name Eros. Each organism has available to it energy to act within its environment. The energy associated with Eros is called libido. Libido has been mistakenly associated with the concept of a sexual impulse. What Freud was really referring to was a general survival impulse, both individual and species survival. While it is true that the survival of our species depends on sexual reproduction, there are many aspects of our behavior that are not directly related to sex. For example, we might have many friends, but our sexual interests are typically limited to only a few (it is our culture that encourages us to limit our interests to only one person). From an evolutionary perspective, of course, friends and others within our social group helped to protect us from predators and enemies. Similarly, the love and care we provide for our children are essential to the survival of our species, but are not usually associated with sexual acts. Incest appears to be one of the most common cultural taboos, and Freud found this to be a fascinating observation amongst primitive societies, which could not be expected to know anything of Western ideas of morality (Freud, 1913/1995). So it becomes apparent that the impulse to survive, Eros and its associated libido, involves many types of behavior, of which sexual intimacy is just one.

Libido is limited. We have only so much energy to devote to the many aspects and responsibilities of our lives. Cathexis refers to the attachment of libidinal energy to some psychical phenomenon. This is what Freud and Breuer meant by an energetic reaction to some experience. When we are attracted to someone, we connect some of our libidinal energy to that relationship. That energy is no longer available to us for other relationships, or to deal with the daily stress of our lives. If we have previously connected libidinal energy to some traumatic event, which might require a great deal of libidinal energy, it may prove difficult to maintain the level of energy we desire for our new relationship. As a result, that relationship, indeed all of our relationships, may suffer.

Although the libido is limited, it has the important characteristic of mobility (Freud, 1938/1949). In other words, it can switch from one task to another as necessary. At least, that is how it is supposed to work under normal conditions. Sometimes, however, problems arise, such as the failure to satisfy the needs that occur during a particular psychosexual stage of development (see below). When this occurs, the libido can become fixated on particular psychological objects. These fixations can last a lifetime, interfering with continued normal development and the individual’s ability to live a healthy adult life.

Freud also proposed a destructive instinct, which is sometimes referred to as the death instinct. The energy associated with the death instinct is aggressive, but Freud never gave names to either the death instinct or its associated aggressive energy. This was never an important aspect of Freud’s theories, but he did address it in some detail in the book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud, 1920/1961). In this book, Freud makes one thing very clear: the life instinct is far more influential than the death instinct. The primary role of the death instinct is protective. This may sound strange, but he considered the developing organism, even well before birth, as a fragile being assailed on all sides by threatening stimuli (both external stimuli and internal psychical stimuli). The death instinct creates a shell of inert tissue (figuratively, if not also literally), which protects the developing organism from harm.

Although Freud did not include the death instinct among his major concepts, other psychologists have. The neo-Freudian theorist Melanie Klein found evidence of the death instinct in the aggressive fantasies of children, and Wilhelm Reich’s concept of armoring is reminiscent of Freud’s description of the theoretical shell protecting the developing organism. Regarding aggression itself, there are many different forms, including predatory aggression, self-defense, defense of one’s young, learned aggression, etc. The noted animal behaviorist and Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz wrote extensively on aggression, and he proposed a very Freudian perspective in which instinctive aggressive energy builds up and lashes out, unless an opportunity for catharsis arises first (see Beck, 1978).

At first it might seem strange that Freud suggested the role of the death instinct is to create a protective shell around the core of the developing nervous system, but the important question is whether we can find any evidence of it. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence (1995), suggests a similar theory. The primitive role of emotion is evident in the brain regions devoted to emotion, which are common to many species other than humans. As the mammalian brain evolved, structures were added to the reptilian brain, culminating in the neocortex of the cerebral hemispheres. The cerebral hemispheres are necessary for the cognitive functions that are characteristic of humans. Still, we retain the emotional structures that developed first, and our rational thoughts can easily be hijacked by emotional reactions (Goleman, 1995, 1998). Perhaps the most important brain region involved in the processing of emotional information is the amygdala. Jerome Kagan has suggested that if the amygdala is overly sensitive a child will avoid external stimuli, leading to a life of shyness, and vice versa (cited in Goleman, 1995). The development of brain structures that process emotion and allow for cognitive processing well beyond the primitive and most basic emotions sounds very much like what Freud had proposed regarding the role of the death instinct. This is not to suggest that either the amygdala or some portion of the neocortex is the anatomical location of the death instinct, but the evidence that such functions exist within the brain lends support to Freud’s concept. According to Goleman, the ability to work with emotional intelligence is essential to one’s well-being in life, and fortunately emotional intelligence can be trained and strengthened (Goleman, 1995, 1998).

The Development of Libido and Psychosexual Function

Freud’s most controversial theories related to sexual function and its role in personality development. Even more controversial than that initial statement was his suggestion that the sexual life of every person begins at birth. It is important, of course, to remember that Freud did not mean intimate sexual behavior when he talked about sexual impulses, but rather a general life impulse. He made an important distinction between “sexual” and “genital.” By sexual he was referring to a wider concept of obtaining pleasure from different regions of the body, whereas genital refers to the act of reproduction, which comes into play following puberty.

Freud was well aware of this controversy during the early days of psychoanalysis, and many of his books make a special point of defending the theory of infantile sexuality. As mentioned in the biography, he actually attributed the initial observations of the role of sexuality in the development of neuroses to Breuer, Charcot, and Chrobak (Freud, 1914/1995). As he reflected on the history of psychoanalysis, Freud described how he and others before him had not intended to address infantile sexuality, but it proved unavoidable after extensive experience with psychoanalysis. In other words, Freud kept encountering infantile sexuality, and eventually he concluded that it was both universal and far too important to ignore. Therefore, he felt he could not allow old prejudices against recognizing or discussing the relevance of sexuality to interfere with the development of psychoanalysis (see Freud, 1938/1949).

Freud also defended his theory of sexuality in logical ways. In his initial work on this topic, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905/1995), Freud specifically argued against the prevailing views that sexuality develops at puberty for the purpose of attracting a man and a woman to each other for the ultimate purpose of reproduction. He noted that there are individuals who are attracted to members of their own sex, that there are those who engage in sexual acts that disregard the genitalia (e.g., fetishes), and there are undeniable examples of children who become interested in their genitalia and obtain some excitation from them. Finally, in his Introductory Lectures… (Freud, 1917/1966) he declared his position quite clearly:

To suppose that children have no sexual life – sexual excitations and needs and a kind of satisfaction – but suddenly acquire it between the ages of twelve and fourteen, would (quite apart from any observations) be as improbable, and indeed senseless, biologically as to suppose that they brought no genitals with them into the world and only grew them at the time of puberty. (pg. 385).

Levels of Consciousness

The levels of consciousness and the structures of the mind, as proposed by Freud. The iceberg analogy should actually be attributed to Theodor Lipps, whose work on the unconscious mind and humor was cited extensively in Freud’s early books.

From the very beginning of psychoanalysis, Freud and Breuer (1895/2004) recognized that their patients were often unaware of the connections between their symptoms and earlier traumatic events, and they might not even recall the events themselves. And yet, as described above, the memory of those events remained strong. How can a memory be strong but not remembered? The answer lies in the theory that there are different levels of consciousness. Freud described three levels of consciousness: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.

The conscious mind is our awareness, the knowledge that we exist and are alive. As you read this book you are conscious of it, when you talk to a friend you are aware of what they are saying and how you will respond (unless, of course, you respond with a Freudian slip!). Although the conscious mind is usually identified with our personality, and Freud recognized that people viewed consciousness as nothing more or less than the defining characteristic of the mind, his clinical experience with psychoanalysis made it impossible for him to accept the identification of the conscious mind with the mental mind (Freud, 1917/1966).

The unconscious mind, according to Freud, is the true psychic reality, and all conscious thought has a preliminary unconscious stage. And yet, the unconscious mind is truly inaccessible. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900/1995), Freud wrote about the unconscious mind that:

…in its inner nature it is just as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly communicated to us by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the reports of our sense-organs. (pg. 510)

How then does the unconscious mind affect our personality? Between the unconscious and conscious minds there is an intermediary: the preconscious. Technically, the preconscious mind is part of the unconscious, but only through the preconscious mind can the impulses arising in the unconscious enter into our conscious awareness. Freud distinguished between the two by theorizing that the unconscious cannot enter into consciousness, but if certain rules are followed, the preconscious can enter into consciousness (but perhaps only after being censored; Freud, 1900/1995).

Freud also made two important points regarding these levels of the mind. First, the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious minds are not located in different regions of the brain. Instead, the level of consciousness of any particular psychical phenomenon depends on the cathexis of libidinal energy (or perhaps energy related to the death instinct) and repression (see Anxiety and Defense Mechanisms below). If the memory of a traumatic event is significantly repressed, it will remain in the unconscious, if not, it may enter into consciousness through the preconscious. Yet it has remained the same memory within the same memory structure of the brain. Freud also distinguished between the mind and reality, particularly between the unconscious mind and reality. He did, however, remind his readers that they would do well to remember that psychic reality is a special form of existence, though not to be confused with material reality (Freud, 1900/1995).

Structure of Personality

It is no accident that our discussion of the id, ego, and superego follow immediately after our discussion of the levels of consciousness. In The Ego and the Id (which also discuss the superego, despite not including it in the title; Freud, 1923/1960), Freud begins with a chapter on consciousness and what is unconscious, then follows with a chapter on the ego and the id, and then a chapter on the ego and the superego. It is difficult to discuss the two concepts, levels of consciousness and the psychical apparatus (a term Freud used for the id, ego, and superego), without intertwining them. In addition, these three structures begin as one, the ego develops from the id, and later the superego develops from the ego. As with levels of consciousness, it is inappropriate to think of the id, ego, and superego as actual structures within the brain, rather they are constructs to help us understand the psychodynamic functioning of the mind. Freud acknowledged this lack of understanding, and went so far as to say that even if we could localize them within the brain we wouldn’t necessarily be any closer to understanding how they function (Freud, 1938/1949).

Id, Ego, Superego

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The oldest aspect of the psyche is the id, which includes all that we inherit at birth, including our temperament and our instincts. The only goal of the id is to satisfy instinctual needs and desires; therefore, it acts according to the pleasure principle. It knows nothing of value judgments, no good, no evil, and no morality at all. It does not change or mature over time. According to Freud, there is nothing in the id except instinctual cathexes seeking discharge (Freud, 1933/1965). The energy associated with these impulses, however, is different from other regions of the mind. It is highly mobile and capable of discharge, and the quality of the discharge seems to be disregarded. This is a very important point, because it means that the id does not need to satisfy its desires in reality. Instead, they can be satisfied through dreams and fantasy.

Because the id demands satisfaction, and knows nothing of restraint, it is said to operate as a primary process. Since it can be satisfied in unreal ways, if we examine phenomena such as fantasies and dreams we can uncover the nature of the id. It was during his studies on dream-work that Freud developed his understanding of the primary process of the id (Freud, 1923/1960). Actually, we can only know the id through psychoanalysis, since it exists entirely within the unconscious mind. Therefore, we need a secondary process structure in order for the mind to interact with the external world. This structure is found in the ego.

The ego arises from the id as an intermediary between the id and the external world. The ego functions according to the reality principle, and tries to bring the external world to bear on the impulses of the id. In other words, as the id demands satisfaction it is hindered by the reality of our environment, our societal and cultural norms. The ego postpones satisfaction until the time or the circumstances are appropriate, or it may suppress the id impulses altogether (Freud, 1938/1949). Freud believed that the ego is associated with perception (of reality), in the same way that the id is associated with instinct. The id is passionate, whereas the ego represents reason and common sense. But the id has the energy, the libido, to demand its satisfaction in some way, and the ego can only derive its energy from the id. Freud likened the ego to a horseback rider on a horse named id. The rider cannot always control the far more powerful horse, so the rider attempts to transform the will of the horse as if it were the rider’s own will (Freud, 1923/1960).

The ego develops in part because it is that portion of the mind impacted by sensory input from the external world. Therefore, it resides partially in the conscious mind, and must serve three tyrannical masters: the id, the external world, and the superego (which we will discuss below). The goals of these three masters are typically at odds with one another, and so the ego’s task is not an easy one (Freud, 1933/1965). The ego approaches this task by monitoring the tension that exists within the mind. This tension arises from internal and external stimuli making demands upon the mind, lowering this tension is felt as pleasurable, and increasing the tension is unpleasant. The id demands immediate reduction of tension, in accordance with its pleasure principle, whereas the ego seeks an appropriate reduction of tension, in accordance with its reality principle. A key point, of course, is that the ego also seeks pleasure. It does not try to deny the impulses of the id, only to transform or delay them. But why does the ego even bother to do that? There are times when pursuing pleasure can get us in serious trouble, but there are also times when we make choices because they seem right to us. These decisions, based on justice, morality, humanism, whatever term you choose, are mediated by the superego.

According to Freud, the superego is heir to the Oedipus complex (which we will discuss below), and arises as the child abandons their intense attachment to their parents. As a replacement for that attachment, the child begins to identify with their parents, and so incorporates the ideals and moral values of their parents and, later, teachers and other societal role models (Freud, 1933/1965). According to this view, the superego cannot fully develop if the child does not resolve the Oedipus complex, which, as we will discuss below, cannot happen for girls (Note: In addition to further discussion below, the issue of a more balanced female psychology will be discussed again in later chapters). The superego functions across all levels of the conscious and unconscious mind.

The superego takes two forms: an ego-ideal and a conscience. Freud considered the term ego-ideal as an alternative to the term superego, and it is not until we incorporate the development of conscience that we can recognize ego-ideal and conscience as different aspects of the superego. Indeed, it might be more appropriate, if one reads The Ego and the Id carefully (Freud, 1923/1960), to consider the ego-ideal and conscience as consecutive transformations of that portion of the ego that becomes known in general as the superego. The development of the superego is a complicated process, and seems to derive from the development of the ego itself. For an infant, the attachment to the parents and identification with them is not recognized as something different. The ego is weak, and can do little to restrain the id. As the child grows, the erotic nature of the love for the mother is slowly transformed into identification; the ego grows stronger, and begins to become associated with being a love-object itself. When the ego is capable of presenting itself to the id as an object worthy of love, narcissistic libido is generated and the ego becomes fully formed (Freud, 1923/1960). In other words, the child becomes an individual, aware that they are separate from their parents. There is still an intense attachment to the mother, however, which stems from the early days of breast feeding. The child must eventually lose this intense attachment to the mother, and begin to more fully identify with either the father (for boys) or the mother (for girls). As noted above, this final transformation from attachment to identification should occur during the Oedipus complex, and the ego-ideal arises within the context of the child knowing “I should act like my father” (for boys) or “I should act like my mother” (for girls).

Although the ego-ideal could represent the culmination of development, Freud believed that one more step came into play. Because of the difficulty the child encounters during the loss of the intense, erotic desires of the Oedipus complex, Freud felt there was more than simply a residue of those love-objects in the mind. He proposed an energetic reaction-formation against the earlier choices. Now, the child incorporates concepts of “I must not act like my father or mother.” Under the influences of authority, schooling, religion, etc., the superego develops an ever stronger conscience against inappropriate behavior. This conscience has a compulsive character and takes the form of a categorical imperative (Freud, 1923/1960). This conscience is our knowledge of right and wrong, and early on it is quite simplistic. There is right and there is wrong (as with Kohlberg’s earliest stages of moral development; Kohlberg, 1963).


We have already taken a look at the challenge faced by the ego in trying to balance the demands of the id, the superego, and the external world. What happens when the demands of these conflicting elements become too much for the ego to deal with? Simply put, we get scared, we experience fear and anxiety as a signal that there is some impending danger. Only the ego can experience anxiety, even if the underlying cause begins with the id or superego. Anxiety arises primarily from libido that has not been utilized. For example, if we are frustrated from fulfilling some id impulse, such as needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of a great movie, the libido cathexed to that impulse grows. This creates tension and the corresponding unpleasant feelings. As the id demands satisfaction, but the ego cannot figure out how to satisfy the id (and you really don’t want to miss the good part of the movie), the fear arises that the id will satisfy itself. Most of us would consider the possibility of going to the bathroom in our pants while at a movie a real danger to our self-esteem, and we could be arrested if we simply went to the bathroom right there in the movie theater. As the ego is reduced to helplessness in its inability to find a reasonable outlet for the impulse of needing to go to the bathroom, anxiety serves the useful and important purpose of warning the ego that the impulse must be satisfied in order to avoid the danger (Freud, 1926/1959). And in support of Freud’s view regarding our sexual nature, who would deny the great pleasure felt upon finally getting to the bathroom?

Freud described three general types of anxiety. Realistic anxiety involves actual threats to our physical safety. It is similar to fear, in that there is a real and external object that could harm us, but it differs from fear in that we may not be aware of a specific danger. For example, after the famous book Jaws (Benchley, 1974) was made into a movie (the kind of movie that you don’t want to miss the good scenes) many people became anxious about swimming in the ocean, even though there were no specific sharks for them to fear. Still, there are sharks in the ocean, so it might be reasonable to experience some anxiety. Sometimes we are anxious about a real danger, but the anxiety we experience is completely out of proportion in relation to the threat. This suggests that there is an element of neurotic anxiety accompanying the realistic anxiety (Freud, 1926/1959).

Neurotic anxiety generally arises from an internal danger, the threat that unacceptable id impulses will break through and be acted on by the individual. The ultimate danger that exists is that we really will be harmed as a result of our actions. Therefore, Freud considered there to be a close association between neurotic and realistic anxiety (Freud, 1926/1959). For example, if we are being harassed by a bully, our aggressive id impulse might be to respond by killing this bully. Of course, that could result in going to prison or having the bully’s friends kill us. So the anxiety that our violent id impulse might break out and influence our behavior is associated with the real danger posed by the consequences of that behavior, if it should happen to occur. Therefore, our neurotic anxiety is composed, in part, of our internalized realistic anxiety.

In a similar way, moral anxiety arises from conflict between our ego and the constraints imposed on it by the superego. Since the superego arises from the internalization of our parent’s teaching us what is or is not appropriate behavior, we again have an association between the internal threat of the superego and the real, external threat of being punished by our parents. Therefore, as with neurotic anxiety, the precursor to our moral anxiety is realistic anxiety, even if our fears are based on our psychological impressions of a situation as opposed to an actual danger (e.g., the fear of castration; Freud, 1926/1959, 1933/1965). Freud (1933/1965) described the relationships this way:

Thus the ego, driven by the id, confined by the super-ego, repulsed by reality, struggles to master its economic task of bringing about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it; and we can understand how it is that so often we cannot suppress a cry: ‘Life is not easy!’ If the ego is obliged to admit its weakness, it breaks out in anxiety – realistic anxiety regarding the external world, moral anxiety regarding the super-ego and neurotic anxiety regarding the strength of the passions in the id. (pgs. 97-98)

Freud also described an overall pattern to the development and expression of anxiety and its useful role in life. In early childhood we experience traumatic situations in which we are helpless. Remember that Freud believed that psychic reality is every bit as significant as actual reality (Freud, 1900/1995), so the nature of these traumatic events is subject to individual perception. As the child’s capacity for self-preservation develops, the child learns to recognize dangerous situations. Rather than waiting passively to be threatened or harmed, an older child or an adult will respond actively. The initial response is anxiety, but anxiety is a warning of danger in anticipation of experiencing helplessness once again. In a sense, the ego is recreating to the helplessness of infancy, but it does so in the hope that now the ego will have at its command some means of dealing with the situation. Therefore, anxiety has hopefully transformed from a passive response in infancy to an active and protective response in later childhood and/or adulthood (Freud, 1926/1959).

Defense Mechanisms

We will cover defense mechanisms only briefly. Although Freud talked about a wide variety of defense mechanisms during his career, he left it to his daughter Anna to literally write the book on The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (Anna Freud, 1936/1966). Freud himself discussed primarily two defense mechanisms: repression and regression. The recognition of these defense mechanisms was essential to the development of psychoanalysis, and they are the only two defenses mentioned by Freud in The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914/1995). The purpose of these defense mechanisms is to protect the ego during the early years of life, when the ego has not adequately developed in its ability to control the libidinal impulses of the id. Thus, defense mechanisms serve a useful function at first, but later prove inadequate when the re-animation of the sexual life is reinforced following puberty (Freud, 1938/1949). Similarly, in adult life, defense mechanisms are useful in the short-term, but since they do not deal with problems directly they must eventually prove inadequate.

Freud identified repression as one of the key elements establishing psychoanalysis as unique from the cathartic method he had been working on thanks to the contributions of Josef Breuer (Freud, 1914/1995). Indeed, according to Freud, his own contributions that transformed Breuer’s cathartic method into psychoanalysis were repression, resistance, infantile sexuality, and dream analysis for the understanding of the unconscious mind. The value of repression cannot be underestimated:

The theory of repression is the pillar upon which the edifice of psychoanalysis rests. It is really the most essential part of it, and yet, it is nothing but the theoretical expression of an experience which can be repeatedly observed whenever one analyses a neurotic without the aid of hypnosis. One is then confronted with a resistance which opposes and blocks the analytic work by causing failures of memory. This resistance was always covered by the use of hypnosis; the history of psychoanalysis proper, therefore, starts with the technical innovation of the rejections of hypnosis. (pg. 907; Freud, 1914/1995)

The resistance Freud is referring to here is the defense mechanism of repression, which is the means by which the ego refuses to associate itself with an unacceptable instinctual impulse generated by the id. The ego is able to keep the “reprehensible” impulse from entering into the conscious mind (Freud, 1926/1959). But an important question arises: What then happens to this impulse seeking satisfaction? There are several possibilities, and Freud himself considered the answer to be rather complex. One thing that might happen is that the ego attempts to shift the libido cathexed to the impulse toward release as anxiety (Freud, 1926/1959). However, anxiety is unpleasant, and the id demands satisfaction in accordance with its pleasure principle. Therefore, this procedure is doomed to failure (and, therefore, the development of neurosis). There are, of course, alternatives that can occur prior to the failure of this initial defense. The ego may find some acceptable alternative to the impulse through the other defense mechanisms, such as sublimation or reaction-formation.

Regression can be seen when an individual engages in behavior typical of an earlier stage of development. As Freud and Breuer tried to work out the causes of their patient’s neuroses by using the cathartic method, they repeatedly found that they could not help their patients by focusing on the actual event that had led to a crisis. Instead, their patients inevitably made associations between the traumatic event and earlier experiences. Initially, these earlier experiences went back to puberty, and ultimately they went back to early childhood. Although Breuer favored some physiological explanation of this phenomenon, Freud insisted that it was psychological, and he termed the process regression (Freud, 1914/1995). According to Freud:

This regressive direction became an important characteristic of the analysis. It was proved that psychoanalysis could not clear up anything actual, except by going back to something in the past. (pg. 903)

Psychosexual Stages of Development

Above, we examined the basic development of libido and psychosexual function. Freud also believed that psychosexual function developed in a series of stages that occur in two waves. The first three stages occur during early childhood, from infancy to about the age of 5. Freud referred to this early period as the pregenital phase (Freud, 1905/1995). There is then a latency period, which lasts until puberty, after which the final stage, the genital stage, is realized and the individual is capable of physically mature reproductive functioning. These stages are typically presented as if they are exclusive and sequential. Although it is true that they are sequential, they are not entirely exclusive. Therefore, it is possible for the stages to overlap (Freud, 1938/1949). However, it remains true that during a particular stage one region of the body will be dominant, and most of the libido will be focused on that region (see Jarvis, 2004). For the sake of simplicity, we will treat the stages as if they occur one after another.

The Psychosexual Stages

The first phase of psychosexual development begins at infancy with the oral stage. According to Freud, the mouth is the first region of the body to become an erotogenic zone, and this lasts for approximately the first year of life. During this time the mouth makes libidinal demands on the mind. In other words, the region of the mouth demands that the mind direct adequate libidinal energy to satisfy the desires of the oral region. Although this serves the purpose of sustaining the infant by satisfying its nutritional needs, Freud believed that the infant’s persistent sucking belied a need for satisfaction that was far greater than simply taking care of physiological needs. He believed that the infant needed to satisfy its desire for psychological pleasure independent of nourishment, and this was the basis for arguing that the behavior was sexual (in the larger, life-oriented perspective on sexuality).

Evidence for this stage is easy to see, and such commonplace observances contributed to Freud’s thinking. Infants suck almost continuously, even when not being fed. They suck their thumbs, they can be comforted with pacifiers, as they become older they put everything they can get their hands on into their mouths. If they cannot satisfy this need, they may become fixated in the oral stage. As a result of this oral fixation, when an older child or adult becomes frustrated or overwhelmed, they may regress and engage in oral behavior. This occurs because the fixation of libido on the oral region during infancy results in a deficiency of the libidinal energy needed to cope with some stressful period of adulthood. This oral behavior can take many forms, such as: overeating, smoking, drinking too much (of course, this usually refers to drinking alcoholic beverages), or just talking excessively.

During the second stage of psychosexual development, the anal stage, the anus becomes the focus of the libido, and the child derives pleasure from the ability to both retain and expel feces. Initially, the pleasure associated with evacuating the bowels is felt within the child, something Freud referred to as the autoerotic nature of sexual development (Freud, 1917/1966). Soon, however, the child learns that the world can be an inhibiting place, that greater pleasure can be derived only if the child defecates when and where others consider it to be appropriate. This realization occurs as a result of the most significant parent-child interaction during this stage of development: toilet training. If the parents are either too strict or begin too early the child may develop the traits of an anal character (Jarvis, 2004). These traits include excessive orderliness, stubbornness, and parsimony, each of which results from denial of the child’s anal pleasure during toilet training. Orderliness, or tidiness, serves as a denial of taking pleasure in defecating, and stubbornness carries over from the child’s assertion of their right to defecate at will (Jarvis, 2004). Parsimony, or being stingy, stems from the child’s association of the feces with money. According to Freud (1917/1966):

He feels no disgust at his feces, values them as a portion of his own body with which he will not readily part, and makes use of them as his first ‘gift,’ to distinguish people whom he values especially highly. (pg. 390)

Freud was by no means unaware of how strange this part of his theory seemed. Immediately following the above quote, he went on to say the following, and remember that his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis were actual lectures delivered to students at the University of Vienna:

I know you have been wanting for a long time to interrupt me and exclaim: ‘Enough of these atrocities! You tell us that defecating is a source of sexual satisfaction, and already exploited in infancy! That feces are a valuable substance and that the anus is a kind of genital! We don’t believe all that…’ No, Gentlemen. You have merely forgotten that I have been trying to introduce the facts of infantile sexual life to you in connection with the facts … that for a large number of adults, homosexual and heterosexual alike, the anus does really take over the role of the vagina in sexual intercourse? (pg. 391)

So Freud was simply trying to address very real issues that he, and others, had observed in their clinical practices. His years of working in isolation had prepared him for dealing with disapproval, and he was not going to be shy about studying things that might make others uncomfortable.

The phallic stage, in which the libido focuses on the genitalia, represents the culmination of infantile sexuality. Although it typically occurs between the ages of 3 to 5 years old, it sets the stage for adult sexuality. Therefore, it is a very important period. According to Freud (1905/1995), this stage will “leave behind the profoundest (unconscious) impressions in the person’s memory; if the individual remains healthy they determine his character and if he becomes sick after puberty, they determine the symptomatology of his neurosis.” There are two critical aspects of this stage: the first involves the castration complex and penis envy, and the second is the Oedipus complex. Technically, the Oedipus complex subsumes castration anxiety, but it is important to consider these aspects separately. In Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (Freud, 1905/1995), the book that obviously focuses on the sexual aspects of psychoanalysis, Freud discussed the castration complex and penis envy, but not the Oedipus complex. Although he discussed the Oedipus legend in his earlier books, he did not use the term Oedipus complex until 1910 (see Jarvis, 2004). The other reason for considering the major aspects of this stage separately is the difference between boys and girls. Penis envy is obviously something that only girls can experience and, according to Freud, the Oedipus complex is something that only boys can experience. Girls experience something similar to the Oedipus complex, but their efforts are in vain, and this has a permanent, negative effect on their character (Freud, 1938/1949). For more discussion on the latter point, see the section below on Freud’s perspective on the female psyche.

As we begin to address the castration complex and penis envy, it is important to realize that Freud’s phallic stage is entirely focused on the penis, for both boys and girls. As the libido becomes focused on the genitals, a boy begins to manipulate his penis. He experiences no shame, and even enjoys displaying his body (Freud, 1905/1995). As a counterpart to this joy in his own sexuality, children are often curious about seeing other children’s bodies. This creates a very different experience for boys and girls. When boys see a girl’s body, they believe the absence of a penis means that the girl has been castrated. This leads to a fear of the same thing happening to them, and creates castration anxiety, which in adulthood can lead to a castration complex. When girls see a boy’s body they are fully prepared to recognize the penis, and they become envious of it. Indeed, this envy can become strong enough that the girl wishes she was a boy (Freud, 1905/1995). Since she cannot be a boy, she begins to seek an alternative, either her father or a child of her own.

As Freud continued to develop his theory of the phallic stage, he included a broader perspective beyond the castration complex: the Oedipus complex. A boy’s first love object is his mother, the one who feeds him and attends to all of his needs. This is only natural. As his libido becomes focused on his genitalia, however, this takes on the sexual desire that became so controversial. Keeping in mind that Freud did not believe that children understand the adult reality of their desires (much of it is unconscious), he described their behaviors as obvious evidence of their desire: boys talk about loving and marrying their mother, they persistently pursue being in her presence when she is dressing, they want to be in bed with her at night, etc. (Freud, 1917/1966). This eventually leads to conflict with the father, and with it the castration anxiety described above. Since there is no satisfactory resolution, given that the father is much more powerful than the child, the boy is compelled to give up the Oedipus complex, to repress it. In the healthiest condition, the Oedipus complex is completely destroyed in the id, and gives rise to a severe superego (Freud, 1933/1965). This repression, or destruction, of the Oedipus complex allows the boy to transition into the latency period.

For girls, the Oedipus complex takes a very different course. A girl’s first love object is also her mother, since again it is the mother who provides most of the childcare. Once the girl realizes that she does not have a penis she develops penis envy, and she must undertake a change in her love object to her father, the one who can provide her with the desired penis. The mother is then seen as a rival for the father’s penis, and indeed as someone who has already received all that the girl wants from her father. This can intensify feelings of hostility toward the mother. Consequently, she may enter into the Oedipus complex feeling that it is a refuge or safe haven. However, the girl does not fear castration, since she has no penis to begin with, and without the fear of castration leading to repression of the Oedipus complex there is no motivation for the girl to move into the latency period (Freud, 1933/1965). Freud believed that girls remain in the Oedipus complex, and thus the phallic stage, for an indeterminate period of time, and that they cannot ever completely resolve it. Adding one more point of controversy, the only way in which girls can shift from an initially masculine situation (the mother as love object) to a feminine situation (the father as love object) is if they replace their penis envy with the desire for a child, given the ancient symbolic equivalence between the penis and giving birth (Freud, 1933/1965).

Following the oral, anal, and phallic stages there is a period of latency, during which progress is at a standstill. There are, however, some interesting things that happen during this period. The child knows that they are still incapable of procreation (even though this knowledge may be unconscious), so they begin to turn away from their sexual desires. They begin to view sexual impulses with disgust and shame, and to consider them immoral (Freud, 1905/1995). Although their education has much to do with this, Freud believed that it is also a natural occurrence. To compensate, the child (or the child’s mind, as this again may be entirely unconscious) engages the defense mechanism of sublimation: the conversion of the unacceptable sexual impulses into activities that are socially acceptable (such as school work or sports). Another important consequence of this mental activity is that we forget our infantile sexual impulses, something Freud called infantile amnesia. Infantile amnesia is critical to the whole theory of the development of neuroses and the technique of psychoanalysis (Freud, 1938/1949), and it is one of the main reasons that many adults insist upon denying the possibility of infantile sexuality in the first place.

With the onset of puberty, the individual enters the final stage of psychosexual development: the genital stage. If the challenges of the earlier stages have been resolved in a satisfactory way, the individual is finally capable of appropriate and mature intimacy and sexual behavior. All of the psychodynamic processing that has taken place is not gone, however. According to Freud (1938/1949), even normal people have some of the following factors included in their final psychosexual organization: some libidinal cathexes are retained, others are taken into sexual activity as preliminary acts (such as foreplay), and still others are excluded from the organization either by repression or sublimation.

Freud’s Perspective on the Female Psyche

I would like to begin this section by being fair to Freud. First and foremost, there were no other theories on the development of personality for Freud to consider as he developed his own theory. Second, most of the patients Freud saw were women, and apparently he needed to explain how it was that so many of his patients were women and not men. There were certainly other possible explanations than those offered by Freud, but it has been easy for others to look back and criticize him with the benefit of new and different ideas. One must also keep in mind that Freud was a basic scientist for many years, and he put a lot of emphasis on details. It is an undeniable, biological fact that men are male and women are female! Freud believed that psychology could never truly understand sex and gender differences unless we could understand why so many species exists as two different sexes in the first place (Freud, 1933/1965). Nonetheless, having acknowledged this, Freud’s theory does, unfortunately, describe women as the products of an incomplete and frustrated male development.

Freud believed that the development of the feminine psyche was more difficult and complicated than that of the masculine psyche for two main reasons, neither of which is faced by boys during their development. Initially, there are basic biological differences, both anatomically and in terms of temperament. Girls are typically less aggressive, defiant, and self-sufficient; they also seem to have a greater need for affection, and as a result become more dependent and pliant. However, Freud disregarded these differences, feeling that they were insignificant compared to individual differences between boys and girls (Freud, 1933/1965). Through much of the first wave of infantile sexuality, particularly the oral and anal stages, there is no difference between boys and girls. Even during the early portion of the phallic stage there is no difference between the sensations boys experience via the penis and the sensations girls experience via the clitoris. The first difference, however, arises from the need for girls to shift the focus of their libido from the clitoris to the vagina, particularly with regard to the importance of the latter for sexual activity leading to procreation. The second difference is the need for the girl to shift the focus of her libido from the mother to the father as she enters the Oedipus complex. This shift in the love object is not easy, and the outcome is not pleasant.

Freud proposed that the young girl’s attraction to her father at the beginning of the Oedipus complex is not simply a shift in the libido, but involves a rejection of the mother who had been the previous love object. The girl’s rejection of her mother is accompanied by hostility, and can end in hate. The hate can be profound and last the girl’s entire life, even if it is carefully compensated for later in life (Freud, 1933/1965). The reason for this hostility toward the mother arises from the castration complex and penis envy. Whereas a boy fears being castrated, the girl believes that she already has been, and the mother is responsible. The girl then develops an overwhelming desire to have a penis, the so-called penis envy, but it simply cannot be. Even when a girl is old enough to understand the basic biology of sex differences, she still retains an unconscious feeling of having been wronged and a considerable cathexis of libido remains (Freud, 1933/1965). It is interesting to note that Freud acknowledges that it is difficult to see these processes in action if one simply observes young girls. However, in his clinical practice he saw patients whose neuroses amplified these processes, and following psychoanalysis the underlying basis of this developmental stage seemed evident to Freud.

Table 3.1: A Summary of the Psychosexual Stages


Approximate Age Range

Essential Elements

Oral Stage Birth through the first year The mouth is the source of erotic pleasure; this helps to obtain nourishment, but babies also put everything else they get their hand on into their mouths
Anal Stage From age 1 to 3 years old The anus is the source of erotic pleasure; toilet training is the major task of this stage (and as any parent can tell you, a most interesting experience!)
Phallic Stage From age 3 to 5 years old The genitals are the source of erotic pleasure; boys may fear castration, girls develop penis envy; boys resolve the Oedipus complex due to the motivation provided by their castration anxiety; since girls are not motivated by castration anxiety, they lack the motivation to completely resolve the Oedipus complex
Latency Period From age 6 to puberty At the beginning of this period infantile amnesia hides our earlier experiences from us; recovering them is the major task of psychoanalysis
Genital Stage From puberty throughout adulthood If the earlier stages were resolved successfully, then normal adult life proceeds; if not, a neurosis may develop; according to Freud, women cannot resolve the Oedipus complex, so they must have some psychological deficiencies relative to men

How then is a girl to resolve the Oedipus complex and achieve a healthy, adult personality? As described above, she can’t! In Freud’s own words:

The girl, after vainly attempting to do the same as the boy, comes to recognize her lack of a penis or rather the inferiority of her clitoris, with permanent effects on the development of her character; as a result of this first disappointment in rivalry, she often begins by turning away altogether from sexual life. (pg. 26; Freud, 1938/1949)

In these circumstances the formation of the superego must suffer; it cannot attain the strength and independence which give it its cultural significance, and feminists are not pleased when we point out to them the effects of this factor upon the average feminine character. (pgs. 160-161; Freud, 1933/1965).

Another important observation that came to Freud in his early psychoanalytic practice was the recognition that almost all of his female patients reported having been seduced by their fathers (which, if true, is an inaccurate way of saying they were sexually assaulted by a child molester). This led Freud to propose a seduction theory, which was the basis for first proposing the role of sexual trauma in the development of neuroses. This sexual trauma did not have to be as severe as rape, but it was considered significant nonetheless (see Jarvis, 2004). Later, however, Freud came to the conclusion that these seductions occurred only in the fantasies of the young girls. Indeed, Freud described the fantasy of a young girl being seduced by her father as the typical expression of the Oedipus complex in women (Freud, 1933/1965). Freud was criticized for theorizing that young girls fantasized about being seduced by their fathers, and Breuer ended his pursuit of understanding sexual trauma when faced with the same conclusion (Freud, 1914/1995). Today, however, Freud is criticized more for having turned away from what may have been his most startling discovery, the prevalence of sexual abuse (see Jarvis, 2004).

Connections Across Cultures: Male/Female Differences

We don’t normally think of men and women as being different cultures, but this has become a more popular approach to understanding their differences (e.g., see Brislin, 2000; Ferraro, 2006a; Haviland, 2005; Matlin, 2004). As we consider gender differences it is, of course, important to avoid stereotyping individuals. Nonetheless, the reality of cultural expectations related to sex and gender, some of which have a basis in the development of the human species, has led to some interesting research in both professional and popular psychology. As mentioned in Chapter 1, psychology has often been portrayed as a discipline focusing on White, European males. However, research on the psychology of women continues to expand, it has begun to address the specific differences of women of color, and it has led to the establishment of specific men’s studies as well (Matlin, 2004). The latter point is an important one, since the earlier emphasis on White males was more circumstantial than intentional. For our purposes, I would like us to consider some of the interesting popular work on male/female differences.

In 1992, John Gray first published a very popular book entitled Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. This book openly addresses the different ways in which men and women typically communicate and express their emotions. He offers practical advice on how men and women should react, or perhaps not react, to one another in everyday interactions. In his introduction to the paperback edition, Gray (2004) emphasizes how important it is not to try changing your partner. To expect members of the opposite sex to become more like yourself sends a message that they are not good enough as they are. He also notes that not all men or women will fall into the typical gender roles, so it is important not to stereotype. What is important, according to Gray, is that we recognize the general differences that exist between men and women and keep them in mind when we communicate with each other. If we can, then hopefully we can avoid conflicts that need not be inevitable. It might sound simple, but Gray clearly struck a chord in couples and individuals across America. He wrote numerous follow-up books, including Mars and Venus on a Date (1997) and the parenting guide Children are From Heaven (1999), each of which became #1 New York Times Bestsellers like the original. There is an interesting website (, there are workshops and counseling centers based on Gray’s work, and workplace seminars based on Mars and Venus in the Workplace (2002). Clearly, relationship problems based on the differences between men and women are of great interest to people in our society today. As harshly as Freud has been criticized for his views on the differences between men and women, he was certainly on to something. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why even those who criticize Freud continue to talk about him.

More recently, Norah Vincent (2006) spent 18 months masquerading as a man, and then wrote about her experiences in Self-Made Man. Ms. Vincent spent a substantial amount of time working to look and act like a man. She consulted a professional make-up artist (especially to help with her “beard”), a voice coach, and a personal trainer to help her build muscle mass in her arms and shoulders. She even went to a sex shop and purchased a prosthetic penis, just to help make sure that her appearance was as convincing as possible. Using the name Ned, she then traveled around the country, to five different states, and attempted to pass for a man in a variety of settings. She played on a men’s bowling team, went to strip clubs with “other” men, spent time in a monastery, got a job as a salesman, and joined a men’s group. One of the most interesting aspects of her masquerade involved dating. Curiously, it was not really difficult for her to consider dating women, because she happens to be a lesbian. But she was not prepared for how often she would be rejected when trying to meet women! Maybe that’s why she wrote: “It was hard being a guy. Really hard.” In fact, she found the entire experience quite disturbing. As a woman, she had always been viewed as very masculine. But when pretending to be a man, she was seen as very effeminate. She felt that her masculinity was constantly being judged, both by men and women. And the constant pressure to be a “real man” was overwhelmingly stressful. As she concluded her book, talking about the camaraderie of the men on the bowling team, she observed that:

Making this removed comforting contact with men and feeling the relief it gave me as my life as a man went on was not a sign of having joined the overclass, for whom superiority is assumed and bucking up unnecessary. It was more like joining a union. It was the counterpart to and the refuge from my excruciating dates, which were often alienating and grating enough to make me wonder whether getting men and women together amicably on a permanent basis wasn’t at times like brokering Middle East peace.

I believe we are that different in agenda, in expression, in outlook, in nature, so much so that I can’t help almost believing, after having been Ned, that we live in parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects. (pgs. 281-282; Vincent, 2006)

As an indication of how popular this topic continues to be, shortly after Ms. Vincent published her book she was interviewed on the popular news/comedy show The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. I guess it’s important to keep smiling as we struggle through the many challenges of male/female relationships.

Freud’s perspectives on women have created a great deal of negativity toward him and his theory, particularly among women. But should we judge Freud so harshly? It was common in the society in which he lived to consider women as the “weaker sex.” In his practice, most of the patients he saw were female, so he needed his theory to explain why most of the people with psychological disorders were women (at least, that’s what he thought). Granted he had made fundamental errors by not realizing that men might be avoiding help for psychological problems because of the culture and by not recognizing that women might be suffering from oppression caused by men, but since there were no other theories to compare his own ideas to, it is easy to condemn him. However, those theorists who began to address the cultural issues, like Adler and Horney, had Freud’s theory for comparison. Horney in particular also had a growing body of research on anthropology and sociology to draw on. So as much as Adler and Horney may have disagreed with Freud, he still laid the foundation for their work and the work of many others.


Most psychologists today make a distinction that Freud seldom, if ever, made. We refer to all theoretical perspectives related to the views of Sigmund Freud as psychodynamic theories, reserving the term psychoanalysis for the therapeutic method developed by Freud. Freud simply referred to both his theories and his therapy as psychoanalysis. This may well have resulted from the fact that Freud began as a therapist, and only developed his theories in order to explain why certain approaches worked and others did not. It may also have something to do with the fact that Freud’s personality theories came first, and so there was no need in his mind to distinguish his views from the work of others. Whatever the reason, for our purposes we will use the term psychoanalysis to refer to the therapeutic method developed by Freud, which was uniquely different from the techniques already in use by people such as Breuer and Charcot. I would also like to note that many of the references in this section cite the book co-authored by Freud and Breuer (1895/2004). However, the citations come from a portion of the book written by Freud alone, and in which he takes personal credit for the work. Therefore, we need to acknowledge that although the book is published as the work of both men, it contains mostly each man’s individual work, and only the “Preliminary Statement” is co-authored by Freud and Breuer. This point is by no means a small one, because it was at this point in their careers that the two men went their separate ways.

As mentioned above, Freud came to believe that the use of hypnosis, which had been championed by Breuer and Charcot, was unable to get at the root causes of patient’s neuroses. He also learned through experience that psychoanalysis could only be effective if he was able to go back into the early childhood of his patients and uncover the unconscious conflicts and repressions that led to their neurotic behaviors. In order to accomplish this goal, Freud relied primarily on free association and dream analysis. In the history of psychoanalysis, there have been those who believed that psychoanalysis officially began when Freud rejected hypnosis and introduced free association (Freud, 1914/1995). Free association is often used, of course, during the interpretation of dreams, so the two techniques are not mutually exclusive. With regard to the value of interpreting dreams, Freud wrote perhaps his most famous line: “…the interpretation of dreams is the via regia [royal road] to a knowledge of the unconscious element in our psychic life.” (pg. 508; Freud, 1900/1995).

Free Association – Freud’s Therapeutic Breakthrough

Free association grew out of a need that resulted from problems implementing Breuer’s cathartic method. The first problem was that many patients could not be hypnotized. With the patients that Freud could not hypnotize, especially those who would not even allow him to try hypnotizing them, Freud tried a technique of pressing them to remember. This technique also came up short, and Freud recognized a need to work around the patient’s resistance (which we will examine in more detail below). The first technique that Freud developed involved pressing his hand against his patient’s forehead and asking them to say whatever thought, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, came first into their consciousness (Freud & Breuer, 1895/2004). Freud himself described this technique as a trick, one that disconnects the patient’s attention from his conscious searching and reflecting. However, trick or not, Freud found the technique to be indispensable. The thoughts that came to the forefront of consciousness, those believed to be easily accessible via the preconscious, were likely to be connected to the underlying associations responsible for the neurotic patient’s symptoms. Freud used this technique of free association quite successfully. As early as 1892, he treated a patient known as Fräulein Elisabeth von R. by relying entirely on free association (Freud & Breuer, 1895/2004).

Still, Freud did make some modifications in the technique. Two other methods used to begin the free association were to have the patient think of a number or a name at random. Of course, Freud did not believe that it was possible for anything in the mind to occur at random, and by continuing the association brought up by that first name or number, Freud could help his patient to arrive at the true unconscious associations that were the root of their problems (Freud, 1917/1966). He also used free association during the interpretation of dreams, and often found it helpful to examine which part of the dream the patient chose to begin making free associations (Freud, 1933/1965). Freud also considered psychoanalysis to be effective with children, but cautioned that a child’s lack of psychological development limited their ability for free association. Other psychodynamic theorists worked more extensively with children, however, including Adler, Anna Freud, and Klein.

The Elements of Dream Analysis

For someone who considered dreams to be the royal road to the unconscious mind, it is no surprise that Freud’s first book of his own was The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900/1995). The value of this work never diminished, and Freud devoted a chapter to dream interpretation in one of his last books: An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (Freud, 1938/1949). In the latter book, published only a year before Freud died, he wrote:

The only thing that can help us are states of conflict and uproar, when the contents of the unconscious id have a prospect of forcing their way into the ego and into consciousness and the ego puts itself once more on the defensive against this invasion. …Now, our nightly sleep is precisely a state of this sort, and for that reason psychical activity during sleep, which we perceive as dreams, is our most favourable object of study. In that way, too, we avoid the familiar reproach that we base our constructions of normal mental life on pathological findings; for dreams are regular events in the life of a normal person… (pg. 38)

Freud described our recollection of a dream as a façade, a covering that hides the underlying process of the dream. Thus, a dream has both manifest content and latent content. The manifest content (or the dream-content) of a dream is what we actually remember when we wake up. The latent content (or the dream-thoughts), however, is the true underlying meaning of the dream, the unconscious material from the id desiring satisfaction. Freud described the process by which the latent content is transformed into the manifest content as the dream-work (Freud, 1900/1995). Studying the nature of the dream-work, the way in which the unconscious material from the id forces its way into the ego but is transformed by the ego’s opposition to the impulse, allows us to understand what is known as dream-distortion (Freud, 1938/1949). The importance of dream-distortion becomes clear when we consider the purpose of dreams. Freud believed that all dreams represent our true desires. Therefore, all dreams can be viewed as wish fulfillment. Although some dreams can be very anxiety-provoking, and certainly do not seem to represent our wishes and desires, this is the result of the distortion. If we successfully analyze the dream and identify its latent content, then Freud believed we would recognize the true wish-fulfillment nature of even anxiety-provoking or frightening dreams (Freud, 1900/1995).

When we sleep, the ability of the ego to repress or otherwise redirect the unacceptable impulses of the id is paralyzed. The id, then, is afforded “a harmless amount of liberty” (Freud, 1938/1949). But the ego is still the seat of consciousness, and still exerts some influence over the expression of the id impulses. And so the dream is distorted, transformed into something less threatening to the ego, particularly into something not threatening enough to wake the person up. To summarize this situation, when we are asleep the ego is less able to restrain the id. Consequently, the impulses of the id intrude in the preconscious and then into the conscious mind. This provokes anxiety and threatens to wake us up. However, the dream transforms the id impulse into the fulfillment of a wish, and we are able to continue sleeping. As Freud described it:

We shall be taking every experience into account if we say that a dream is invariably an attempt to get rid of a disturbance of sleep by means of a wish-fulfillment, so that the dream is a guardian of sleep. (pg. 46; Freud, 1938/1949)

Does it seem reasonable to say that all dreams are wish fulfillment? Certainly some dreams clearly fulfill our wishes and desires, at least through fantasy. Such dreams do not require any analysis. Other dreams, however, seem to make no sense at all. The id and the unconscious mind are not logical at all, contradictory ideas easily coexist side by side, and Freud even referred to the unconscious mind as the “Realm of the Illogical” (pg. 43; Freud 1938/1949). As these latent impulses are transformed into manifest content, it can be very difficult to separate them and make sense of a given dream. The dream-work itself, the very process of distorting or transforming the latent content into the manifest content in order to disguise the meaning of our dreams, involves a variety of factors, including: condensation, displacement, the use of symbolic representation, and secondary elaboration (Freud, 1900/1995).

According to Freud, condensation refers to the tendency to create unity out of a variety of dream elements that we would keep separate if we were awake. So, a single element of the manifest content of a dream might represent a number of latent thoughts. Thus, the analysis of a dream could be much longer than the dream itself. Displacement is not unrelated to condensation according to Freud, and refers to the switching of libidinal energy from one object to another, such that the important object of a dream might seem inconsequential, and vice versa. In other words, the apparent focus of the dream is probably not the actual focus of the dream. This does not simply suggest that we might substitute one person for another in a dream, it also happens that we might represent various elements through symbols. Once again, these symbols are employed by dreams to disguise the representation of latent content. As important as Freud considered symbols to be in a dream, he did not support the idea that dream dictionaries can identify universal meanings of dream symbols. It is only through the associations relevant to a specific dreamer that we can make sense of a dream’s symbolism (Freud, 1938/1949). Finally, as the dream is actually presented to the conscious mind, the ego ensures that the material is acceptable by performing what Freud termed the secondary elaboration. As with any perception, the ego fills in gaps and connections, but also misunderstands the true nature of the dream. As a result the secondary elaboration can offer little more than a smooth façade for the dream. Also, the secondary elaboration may only be partial, or even absent (Freud, 1933/1965). All of these processes together form the manifest content of the dream, resulting in something that might be difficult to understand, but which is within the reach of a determined psychoanalyst.

The Therapeutic Process

Initially, Freud began with a fundamental belief in the effectiveness of catharsis, the discharge of pent-up emotion that follows the recall and re-experiencing of traumatic memories (see Jarvis, 2004). If only a patient can recognize the unconscious association between an early traumatic event and their current symptoms, then the symptoms should be relieved. As Breuer and Freud noted in the introduction to their book:

For we found, at first to our great surprise, that the individual hysterical symptoms disappeared immediately and did not recur if we succeeded in wakening the memory of the precipitating event with complete clarity, arousing with it the accompanying affect, and if the patient then depicted the event in the greatest possible detail and put words to the affect. Remembering without affect almost always fails to be effective… (pg. 10; Freud and Breuer, 1895/2004).

One can see from this description, however, that the process of psychoanalysis is not easy. There must be a clear recognition of the initial traumatic event, in detail, with all of its original emotional impact, and the patient must then be willing to talk about the event in relation to their current problems.

As we have already seen, the first obstacle is resistance, the patient’s reluctance to experience the anxiety associated with recovering repressed material. The more severe the symptoms, the more severe the resistance is likely to be. Even when a little trick is successful, such as pressing on the forehead to break the patient’s concentration and allow free association, in serious cases the self remembers its intentions (which are often unconscious motives) and resumes its resistance (Freud & Breuer, 1895/2004). Because of this challenge, Freud believed that the therapist must be patient. Resistance that has been constituted over a long period of time can only be resolved slowly, step by step. In addition to the intellectual role of the therapist, there is an important emotional role as well. In some cases, Freud found that only the personal influence of the doctor could successfully break down the patient’s defense mechanisms.

A large part of the reason that psychoanalysis can be so difficult has to do with how the unconscious mind exists. Freud believed that memory of a traumatic event exists as a pathogenic nucleus within multiple layers of pathogenic psychical material of varying resistance. The outer layers may be easy to uncover, but as one progresses into the deeper layers, resistance grows steadily. Adding to the challenge, the associations between layers do not simply go deeper, they can travel at odd angles, in something of a zigzag fashion, or branch out in multiple ways (Freud & Breuer, 1895/2004). Because multiple associations may exist between a patient’s neurosis and the underlying traumatic event, it is critical to address all of the psychical material that comes to bear on the current condition of the patient. Even if the therapist rightly knows the basis for the patient’s problems:

…there is no point at all in advancing directly to the nucleus of the pathogenic organization. Even if it were possible for us to guess this, the patient would not know what to do with the elucidation given to him and would not be altered by it psychically. (pg. 293; Freud & Breuer, 1895/2004)

As suggested above, a different kind of obstacle arises when the relationship between the doctor and the patient has been damaged somehow. Freud considered this to be a likely occurrence in serious cases of analysis. Freud described three ways in which the doctor/patient relationship can suffer. The first case involves the patient feeling estranged, neglected, undervalued, insulted, or if they have heard negative things about the doctor. Freud considered this problem to be fairly easily handled through good communication, although he noted that good communication can be difficult with hysterical patients. The second situation involves patients who fear that they will become too dependent on the therapist and that they will lose their independence. This can lead to new resistances. As an example, Freud described patients who complained of headaches when he pressed on their forehead, but really they were just creating a new hysterical symptom to mask their aversion to the belief that they were being manipulated or controlled. The final problem that commonly disturbs the relationship between the therapist and the patient is known as transference (Freud & Breuer, 1895/2004). Transference occurs when the patient reacts as if the therapist were an important figure from the patient’s childhood or past, and transfers onto the therapist feelings and reactions appropriate to that person from the past. Although transference can interfere with the therapeutic process, it also offers advantages. The power conferred on the therapist by transference affords him an opportunity to re-educate the patient, correcting the mistakes of the parents, and it leads patients to reveal more about themselves than they might have if they had not developed such a connection to the therapist (Freud, 1938/1949).

Following transference, it is also possible for countertransference to occur. Countertransference refers first to an unconscious influence of the patient on the therapist, after which the therapist directs their own emotional states back onto the patient. In Freud’s circle of analysts their own psychoanalysis was conducted in large part to eliminate the influence of this distorting effect. Today, there are some therapists who view countertransference as a useful means to gain a deeper perception about what is going on in their patient’s mind (see Jarvis, 2004).

Is Psychoanalysis Effective?

The effectiveness of psychoanalysis as a treatment for psychological disorders has been a source of ongoing debate. In 2006, a select task force, established by the presidents of five major psychoanalytic organizations, published the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM Task Force, 2006). Included within the PDM is a section on research, including meta-analytic studies on the effectiveness of psychoanalysis on patient populations in the United States (Westen et al., 2006), the United Kingdom (Fonagy, 2006), and Germany (Leichsenring, 2006). Each of these chapters emphasize the difficulty in empirically evaluating the effectiveness of psychotherapy, and even more so comparing the effectiveness of different psychotherapeutic approaches. Nonetheless, for a variety of psychological disorders, there is evidence supporting the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatments. Both Fonagy (2006) and Leichsenring (2006) identify another area of research that needs to be continued: there is not just one type of psychoanalysis. Thus, continued research on the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatments should address the relative efficacy of different styles of psychoanalytically based therapies.

Religion and Spirituality

In the last section, we will look at spiritual philosophies that provide positive guidelines for personal development and living one’s life. Freud had rather strong feelings about religion, and simply put, he did not approve! Freud actually considered religion to be an obstacle to the further development of civilization, and of the “three powers” that oppose a scientific worldview (art, philosophy, and religion), “religion alone is to be taken seriously as an enemy” (Freud, 1933/1965). In his first and last books reviewing psychoanalysis Freud makes almost no mention of religion (Freud, 1917/1966, 1938/1949), a rather conspicuous absence. In between, however, he wrote two books thoroughly condemning religion and societies depending on it.

In The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927/1961), Freud describes the role that religion has played in establishing and maintaining inequitable civilizations. According to Freud, the primary purpose of civilization is the gathering of wealth and, then, its distribution. This distribution is almost always unfair, and leads to the establishment of a small group of wealthy elite and a much larger mass of lower classes. The challenge for the wealthy elite is to maintain this unfair distribution, without the unreasonable use of force. The use of force will ultimately fail, since the instinctual demands for pleasure by the masses (driven by their id impulses) will drive them to take whatever they want from each other and from the wealthy. And the masses have power in numbers! Religion has served civilization by providing a controlling force over these instinctual demands, incorporated directly into the psyche of each individual by means of the development of the superego. The problem, however, lies in the fact (according to Freud) that there is no God, it is all an illusion. Thus, in Civilization and Its Discontent (Freud, 1930/1961), Freud states that the “religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions…” that are used to provide people with a certain degree of happiness and protection against suffering, in spite of the reality of an unfair and uncertain world.

In his last completed book, Moses and Monotheism (Freud, 1939/1967), Freud flatly rejects the entire basis for Judaism and Christianity. Based on archaeological evidence, Freud claims that Moses was not Jewish, but rather an Egyptian. Furthermore, he argues that the monotheistic religion that provides the basis for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the Abrahamic religions) was a discredited Egyptian religion established by the pharaoh Amenhotep IV. When Amenhotep IV died, and Egyptians who still followed the traditional religion of Egypt came back into power, Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt so that he would have followers to whom he could teach the religion he hoped to maintain. Since Moses was a hero to the Jewish people, Freud claims that they rewrote the story to say that Moses was Jewish and that their one true God had been revealed to them long before they entered Egypt (Freud, 1939/1967).

If religion is nothing more than an illusion, where does it come from, and what is the danger of it? According to Freud, the development of religion is analogous to the development of each individual. Basically, God is symbolic of our relationship with our own father. In his New Introductory Lectures… (Freud, 1933/1965), Freud neatly lays out this relationship. Religion serves to provide us with an understanding of the origins of the universe and life, it offers us hope for protection and ultimate happiness, and it lays down moral guidelines for living our lives. Similarly, our fathers give each of us life, they protect us when we are young, and they teach the rules and morality of our culture. Although the establishment of religions by our primitive ancestors may be quite understandable, Freud used rather harsh language when referring to religion. He wrote that “…our wretched, ignorant and downtrodden ancestors…” “…were far more ignorant than we are…” (Freud, 1927/1961). In his opinion, ancient religious books are the product of “fraud” from a time when “man’s ignorance was very great…,” and he includes the Bible and the Koran in that category (Freud, 1933/1965). He considered religion to be the antithesis of science and art, the two highest achievements of man (Freud, 1930/1961). Even when addressing more modern times, he compares the political oppression by the Russian Bolsheviks, with its prohibition of thought (punishable by death), as “just as ruthless as was that of religion in the past…doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic Church” (Freud, 1933/1965). And in anticipation of his views being challenged, Freud wrote that his considerations “will impress only that minority of readers familiar with analytical reasoning and able to appreciate its conclusions” (Freud, 1939/1967). The danger in all of this, according to Freud, is what might happen if people become aware of this illusion and fraud. If people become aware that there is no God, if they discover that no one else believes, then there may be a violent reaction as a result of the inherent hostility toward civilization by the masses (Freud, 1927/1961). Accordingly:

…either these dangerous masses must be held down most severely and kept most carefully away from any chance of intellectual awakening, or else the relationship between civilization and religion must undergo a fundamental revision. (pg. 39; Freud, 1927/1961)

And yet, in spite of such harsh condemnation of religion, Freud was at times fascinated by individuals who expressed deep spiritual experiences. While in college, Freud was profoundly impressed by the religious philosopher Franz Brentano, a former Catholic priest. Freud wrote to a friend that he could not refute any of Brentano’s theistic arguments, and he referred to Brentano as a “remarkable man” (cited in Nicholi, 2002). Much later in life, Freud discussed an alternative to his earlier analysis of the basis for religion. He had sent a copy of The Future of an Illusion to a friend who was well versed in traditional Yoga. This friend, named Romain Rolland, described for Freud an “oceanic” feeling, a sense of eternity and limitlessness. Freud was unable to discover such feelings within himself, and expressed a general dissatisfaction with scientific investigations of such phenomena. Today, however, neuroscientists are using real-time brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to study the alterations in brain activity unique to meditative states and, in particular, positive emotions (e.g., see Barinaga, 2003; Goleman, 1988, 2003; Mathew, 2001). Although Freud obviously had no knowledge that such studies would someday be possible, he did acknowledge that experiences like the “oceanic” feeling might form the basis for religious sentiments in the human species (Freud, 1930/1961). Yet another friend encouraged Freud to practice Yoga, particularly meditation, to experience these altered states of mind for himself. It is unclear whether Freud ever attempted to meditate, but he does make mention of his friend’s belief that meditation may reveal a primordial state of mind, perhaps even deeper than that of the id and the unconscious with which Freud had occupied his career (Freud, 1930/1961). Freud even went so far as to suggest that if we could somehow achieve a complete reduction, an extinction, of the tension between our instinctual needs and the constraints imposed by reality and the superego that we might achieve “nirvana” (Freud, 1938/1949).

How might we reconcile the seeming contradiction between Freud’s harsh attitude toward religion with his apparent fascination with mystical spirituality and deeply spiritual individuals? Freud believed that religion had failed society. Religion has ruled human civilization for thousands of years, and yet, “We see that an appallingly large number of people are dissatisfied with civilization and unhappy in it…In every age immorality has found no less support in religion than morality has…” (Freud, 1927/1961). Also, it is undeniable that death awaits each of us, and Freud was definitely concerned with death. In 1909 Freud met William James (Freud, 1952). James asked Freud to carry the bag James had with him and to walk on; James said he would catch up after dealing with an attack of angina pectoris. James died of heart disease a year later. Freud wrote that “I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.” Freud was also concerned about how his own death might affect his mother, who lived to a ripe old age. Martin Freud noted that “Grandmother Amalia…looked for some time as if she would live forever, and my father was terrified by the thought that she might survive him and, in consequence, have to be told of his death.” (M. Freud, 1983). Perhaps we should not be surprised that someone who was so thoughtful regarding death, someone who proposed a death instinct, might be inclined to have some concern regarding what happens after one’s life comes to an end.

As gloomy as Freud’s perspective may seem at first, he remained hopeful regarding the future of humanity. He considered religion to have been just one step in the development of our species, and that science had reached a point where it could move us ahead another step. When addressing the belief of many people that we were created in the image and likeness of God, a god who must also have created evil and the Devil (other theologians have come to a different conclusion on this point; see, for example, Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis [1952]), Freud suggested that we bow to the deeply moral nature of mankind, which has overcome this difficulty (Freud, 1930/1961). He acknowledged the positive role that religion has played in redirecting and transforming some of our sexual impulses into impulses experienced as love. Indeed, the purpose of civilization itself is to serve Eros, the life instinct, by combining individuals into “families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind” (Freud, 1930/1961). But the natural aggressive instinct, the death instinct manifested as the hostility of the individual for civilization, opposes the establishment of civilizations. Thus, the meaning of the evolution of civilizations becomes clear:

It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species. And it is this battle of the giants that our nurse-maids try to appease with their lullaby about Heaven. (Freud, 1930/1961)

A Final Note

An important aspect of Freud’s theory is his belief that development occurs in a series of predictable stages. This belief is not common to all of the theories we will cover in this textbook. Furthermore, stage theories are likely to be influenced by cultural relativism, the perspective that the significance of an idea or concept is determined by how it is valued within a given culture. Noted psychologists who have offered such a developmental perspective include Vygotsky and Bronfenbrenner, and it has been suggested that an approach incorporating cultural relativism may be of particular importance when studying the development of African Americans and other minority groups (Belgrave & Allison, 2006; Howard-Hamilton & Frazier, 2005). For example, it has been noted that religion is a very important aspect of African American, Hispanic American, and Asian American culture (Axelson, 1999; Belgrave & Allison, 2006; Taylor, Chatters, & Levin, 2004), and we have just examined how little Freud cared for religious or spiritual matters. Other psychologists, however, gave significantly more consideration to cultural influences (e.g., Adler, Horney, and the Stone Center Group). We will examine their contributions in later chapters.

Review of Key Points

  • Early in his career, Freud felt that hypnosis could not help to understand why hysteria developed or why some patients got better with treatment. Psychoanalysis grew out of his desire to understand psychological processes better.
  • The terms hysteria and neurosis are no longer recognized as technical terms. Hysteria would commonly be called a conversion disorder today, and the neuroses refer to a variety of disorders.
  • Catharsis refers to the release of pent-up emotion that occurs when a patient remembers a traumatic event
  • Psychic determinism is the concept that all thoughts and behaviors have some basis in prior experience, nothing happens by accident or chance.
  • Each person is driven by a life force known as Eros. The energy associated with this life force is called libido.
  • Cathexis refers to the attachment of libido to some psychical phenomenon. Since libido is limited, experiencing numerous traumatic events can leave a person with limited resources to cope with normal life.
  • Freud believed that individual development is driven by sexual impulses that begin at birth. However, when Freud referred to sexual impulses he was really referring to the life force Eros.
  • Freud described three levels of consciousness: the unconscious, the preconscious, and the conscious minds.
  • Personality has three basic components according to Freud: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the oldest and most basic component, and the source of all sexual impulses and libidinal energy. The id acts according to the pleasure principle.
  • The ego arises from the id, and acts according to the reality principle. It tries to balance the desires of the id with the constraints of the superego and the real world.
  • The superego arises from the ego as we internalize the rules and customs of society. As it develops it takes two forms: the ego-ideal and the conscience.
  • When we are conscious of the ego being unable to restrain the impulses of the id we experience anxiety. The threat can be real, or primarily psychological. Freud emphasized that psychological reality can be every bit as important actual reality.
  • When faced with anxiety, we resort to defense mechanisms. The defense mechanisms first proposed by Freud were repression and regression.
  • There are four psychosexual stages, separated by a latency period. The oral, anal, and phallic stages occur during early childhood. Following the latency period and puberty, the genital stage represents physically mature reproductive functioning.
  • During each psychosexual stage, a different region of the body becomes an erotogenic zone. The child’s recognition of these sexual feelings belies the autoerotic nature of sexual development.
  • The most dramatic development occurs during the phallic stage. It is in this stage that the Oedipus complex occurs, with its potential for the castration complex or penis envy.
  • Infantile amnesia occurs naturally, according to Freud, and is the reason that we do not remember these psychosexual processes from our childhood.
  • Freud’s perspective on the development of girls has been problematic since its inception. He considered the female psyche to be the result of an incomplete and frustrated male development.
  • Freud’s initial contributions to therapy were the development of free association and dream analysis, leading some to suggest that this was point when psychoanalysis was created.
  • In analyzing dreams, Freud distinguished between the manifest and latent content. The difference results from distortion that occurs during the dream-work.
  • The analysis of a dream can be quite complex, since information might be condensed, displaced, represented symbolically, and finally it all undergoes a secondary elaboration.
  • The challenge faced by a psychoanalyst is the nature of the unconscious mind. It exists as layer upon layer with different degrees of resistance. Only through patience can the psychoanalyst overcome this resistance and help the patient.
  • During the process of psychoanalysis itself the psychoanalyst may encounter transference and experience countertransference.
  • Freud acknowledged that religion had served a useful role in the history of humanity, but he firmly believed that there is no God. He felt we have grown beyond the ignorance of our ancestors, and the observations of psychoanalysis could explain how religion had arisen. He believed that the future of humanity was being hindered by clinging to these ancient and meaningless beliefs.