Sigmund Freud

Dr. C. George Boeree


Sigmund Freud was born May 6, 1856, in a small town - Freiberg - in Moravia (now a part of the Czech Republic). His father was a wool merchant with a keen mind and a good sense of humor. His mother was a lively woman, her husband's second wife and 20 years younger. She was 21 years old when she gave birth to her first son, her darling, Sigmund. Sigmund had two older half-brothers and six younger siblings. When he was four or five - he wasn't sure - the family moved to Vienna, where he lived most of his life.

A brilliant child, always at the head of his class, he went to medical school, one of the few viable options for a bright Jewish boy in Vienna those days. There, he became involved in research under the direction of a physiology professor named Ernst Brücke. Brücke believed in what was then a popular, if radical, notion, which we now call reductionism: "No other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism." Freud would spend many years trying to "reduce" personality to neurology, a cause he later gave up on.

Freud was very good at his research, concentrating on neurophysiology, even inventing a special cell-staining technique. But only a limited number of positions were available, and there were others ahead of him. Brücke helped him to get a grant to study, first with the great psychiatrist Charcot in Paris, then with his rival Bernheim in Nancy. Both these gentlemen were investigating the use of hypnosis with hysterics.

After spending a short time as a resident in neurology and director of a children's ward in Berlin, he came back to Vienna, married his fiancée of many years Martha Bernays, and set up a practice in neuropsychiatry, with the help of his friend Joseph Breuer.  It was with Breuer that Freud published the first of many books, on the psychological problem known then as hysteria, and today as conversion disorder.

Freud's books and lectures brought him both fame and ostracism from the mainstream of the medical community. He drew around him a number of very bright sympathizers who became the core of the psychoanalytic movement. Unfortunately, Freud had a penchant for rejecting people who did not totally agree with him. Some separated from him on friendly terms; others did not, and went on to found competing schools of thought.

Freud emigrated to England just before World War II when Vienna became an increasing dangerous place for Jews, especially ones as famous as Freud. Not long afterward, in 1939, he died of the cancer of the mouth and jaw that he had suffered from for the last 20 years of his life.

Basic theory

Freud didn't exactly invent the idea of the conscious versus unconscious mind, but he certainly was responsible for making it popular. The conscious mind is what you are aware of at any particular moment, your present perceptions, memories, thoughts, fantasies, feelings, what have you. Working closely with the conscious mind is what Freud called the preconscious, what we might today call "available memory:" anything that can easily be made conscious, the memories you are not at the moment thinking about but can readily bring to mind. Now no-one has a problem with these two layers of mind. But Freud suggested that these are the smallest parts!

The largest part by far is the unconscious. It includes all the things that are not easily available to awareness, including many things that have their origins there, such as our drives or instincts, and things that are put there because we can't bear to look at them, such as unacceptable impulses and the memories and emotions associated with trauma.

According to Freud, the unconscious is the source of our motivations, whether they be simple desires for food or sex, neurotic compulsions, or the motives of an artist or scientist. And yet, we are often driven to deny or resist becoming conscious of these motives, and they are often available to us only in disguised form. We will come back to this.

Freudian psychological reality begins with the organism. The organism acts to survive and reproduce, and it is guided toward those ends by its needs - hunger, thirst, the avoidance of pain, and sex.

A part - a very important part - of the organism is the nervous system, which has as one its characteristics a sensitivity to the organism's needs. At birth, that nervous system is little more than that of any other animal, an "it" or id. The nervous system, as id, translates the organism's needs into motivational forces called, in German, Triebe, which has been translated as instincts or drives. Freud also called them wishes. This translation from need to wish is called the primary process.

The id works in keeping with the pleasure principle, which can be understood as a demand to take care of needs immediately. Just picture the hungry infant, screaming itself purple. It doesn't "know" what it wants in any adult sense; it just knows that it wants it and it wants it now. The infant, in the Freudian view, is pure, or nearly pure id. And the id is nothing if not the psychic representative of biology.

Unfortunately, although a wish for food, such as the image of a juicy steak, might be enough to satisfy the id, it isn't enough to satisfy the organism. The need only gets stronger, and the wishes just keep coming. You may have noticed that, when you haven't satisfied some need, such as the need for food, it begins to demand more and more of your attention, until there comes a point where you can't think of anything else. This is the wish or drive breaking into consciousness.

Luckily for the organism, there is that small portion of the mind we mentioned before, the conscious, that is hooked up to the world through the senses. Around this little bit of consciousness, during the first year of a child's life, some of the "it" becomes "I," some of the id becomes ego. The ego relates the organism to reality by means of its consciousness, and it searches for objects to satisfy the wishes that id creates to represent the organism's needs. This problem-solving activity is called the secondary process.

The ego, unlike the id, functions according to the reality principle, which says "take care of a need as soon as an appropriate object is found."  It represents reality and, to a considerable extent, reason.

However, as the ego struggles to keep the id (and, ultimately, the organism) happy, it meets with obstacles in the world. It occasionally meets with objects that actually help it reach its goals. And it keeps a record of these obstacles and aides. In particular, it keeps track of the rewards and punishments meted out by two of the most influential objects in the world of the child - mom and dad. This record of things to avoid and strategies to take becomes the superego. It is not complete until about six or seven years of age. In some people - psychpaths - it is never complete.

There are two aspects to the superego: One is the conscience, which is an internalization of punishments and warnings. The other is called the ego ideal. It derives from rewards and positive models presented to the child. The conscience and ego ideal communicate their requirements to the ego with feelings like pride, shame, and guilt.

It is as if we acquired, in childhood, a new set of needs and accompanying wishes, this time of a social rather than a biological origin. Unfortunately, these new wishes can easily conflict with the ones from the id. You see, the superego represents society, and society often wants nothing better than to have you never satisfy your needs at all!

Freud saw all human behavior as motivated by the drives or instincts, which in turn are the neurological representations of physical needs. At first, he referred to them as the life instincts. These instincts perpetuate (a) the life of the individual, by motivating him or her to seek food and water and avoid pain, and (b) the life of the species, by motivating him or her to have sex. The motivational energy of these life instincts, the "oomph" that powers our psyches, he called libido, from the Latin word for "I desire."

Freud's clinical experience led him to view sex as much more important in the dynamics of the psyche than other needs. We are, after all, social creatures, and sex is the most social of needs. Plus, we have to remember that Freud included much more than intercourse in the term sex! Any desire to touch or be touched was included. Anyway, libido has come to mean, not any old drive, but the sex drive.

The defense mechanisms

Freud once said "life is not easy!"

The ego - the "I" - sits at the center of some pretty powerful forces: society, as represented by the superego; biology, as represented by the id; and reality. When these make conflicting demands upon the poor ego, it is understandable if the ego feels threatened, feels overwhelmed, feels as if it were about to collapse under the weight of it all. This feeling is called anxiety, and it serves as a signal to the ego that its survival, and with it the survival of the whole organism, is in jeopardy.

The ego deals with the demands of reality, the id, and the superego as best as it can. But when the anxiety becomes overwhelming, the ego must defend itself. It does so by unconsciously blocking the impulses or distorting them into a more acceptable, less threatening form. The techniques the ego uses are called the ego defense mechanisms, and Freud - with his daughter Anna - discovered quite a few.

Denial involves blocking external events from awareness. If some situation is just too much to handle, the person just refuses to experience it. As you might imagine, this is a primitive and dangerous defense - no one disregards reality and gets away with it for long! It can operate by itself or, more commonly, in combination with other, more subtle mechanisms that support it.

I was once reading while my five year old daughter was watching a cartoon (The Smurfs, I think). She was, as was her habit, quite close to the television, when a commercial came on. Apparently, no-one at the television station was paying much attention, because this was a commercial for a horror movie, complete with bloody knife, hockey mask, and screams of terror. I wasn't able to save my child from this horror, so I did what any good psychologist father would do: I talked about it. I said to her "Boy, that was a scary commercial, wasn't it?" She said "Huh?" I said "That sure was scary wasn't it?" She said "What commercial?" I said "The commercial that was just on, with the blood and the mask and the screaming...!" She had apparently shut out the whole thing.

Since then, I've noticed little kids sort of glazing over when confronted by things they'd rather not be confronted by. I've also seen people faint at autopsies, people deny the reality of the death of a loved one, and students fail to pick up their test results. That's denial.

Repression, which Anna Freud also called "motivated forgetting," is just that: not being able to recall a threatening situation, person, or event. This, too, is dangerous, and is a part of most other defenses.

As an adolescent, I developed a rather strong fear of spiders, especially long-legged ones. I didn't know where it came from, but it was starting to get rather embarrassing by the time I entered college. At college, a counselor helped me to get over it (with a technique called systematic desensitization), but I still had no idea where it came from. Years later, I had a dream, a particularly clear one, that involved getting locked up by my cousin in a shed behind my grandparents' house when I was very young. The shed was small, dark, and had a dirt floor covered with -- you guessed it! -- long-legged spiders.

The Freudian understanding of this phobia is pretty simple: I repressed a traumatic event - the shed incident - but seeing spiders aroused the anxiety of the event without arousing the memory of it.

Other examples abound. Anna Freud provides one that now strikes us as quaint: A young girl, guilty about her rather strong sexual desires, tends to forget her boy-friend's name, even when trying to introduce him to her relations! Or an alcoholic can't remember his suicide attempt, claiming he must have "blacked out." Or a someone almost drowns as a child, but can't remember the event even when people try to remind him - but he does have this fear of open water!

Displacement is the redirection of an impulse onto a substitute target. If the impulse, the desire, is okay with you, but the person you direct that desire towards is too threatening, you can displace to someone or something that can serve as a symbolic substitute.

Someone who hates his or her mother may repress that hatred, but direct it instead towards, say, women in general. Someone who has not had the chance to love someone may substitute cats or dogs for human beings. Someone who feels uncomfortable with their sexual desire for a real person may substitute a fetish. Someone who is frustrated by his or her superiors may go home and kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage in cross-burnings.

Projection, which Anna Freud also called displacement outward, involves the tendency to see your own unacceptable desires in other people. In other words, the desires are still there, but they're not your desires anymore. I confess that whenever I hear someone going on and on about how aggressive everybody is, or how perverted they all are, I tend to wonder if this person doesn't have an aggressive or sexual streak in themselves that they'd rather not acknowledge.

Let me give you a couple of examples: A husband, a good and faithful one, finds himself terribly attracted to the charming and flirtatious lady next door. But rather than acknowledge his own, hardly abnormal, lusts, he becomes increasingly jealous of his wife, constantly worried about her faithfulness, and so on. Or a woman finds herself having vaguely sexual feelings about her girlfriends. Instead of acknowledging those feelings as quite normal, she becomes increasingly concerned with the presence of lesbians in her community.

Reaction formation, which Anna Freud called "believing the opposite," is changing an unacceptable impulse into its opposite. So a child, angry at his or her mother, may become overly concerned with her and rather dramatically shower her with affection. An abused child may run to the abusing parent. Or someone who can't accept a homosexual impulse may claim to despise homosexuals.

Perhaps the most common and clearest example of reaction formation is found in children between seven and eleven years old or so: Most boys will tell you in no uncertain terms how disgusting girls are, and girls will tell you with equal vigor how gross boys are. Adults watching their interactions, however, can tell quite easily what their true feelings are!

Introjection, sometimes called identification, involves taking into your own personality the characteristics of someone else, because doing so solves some emotional difficulty. For example, a child who is left alone frequently, may in some way try to become "mom" in order to lessen his or her fears. You can sometimes catch them telling their dolls or animals not to be afraid. And we find the older child or teenager imitating his or her favorite star, musician, or sports hero in an effort to establish an identity.

A more unusual example is a woman who lived next to my grandparents. Her husband had died and she began to dress in his clothes, albeit neatly tailored to her figure. She began to take up various of his habits, such as smoking a pipe. Although the neighbors found it strange and referred to her as "the man-woman," she was not suffering from any confusion about her sexual identity. In fact, she later remarried, retaining to the end her suits and pipe!

I must add here that identification is very important to Freudian theory as the mechanism by which we develop our superegos.

Regression is a movement back in psychological time when one is faced with stress. When we are troubled or frightened, our behaviors often become more childish or primitive. A child may begin to suck his thumb again or wet the bed when he needs to spend some time in the hospital. Teenagers may giggle uncontrollably when introduced into a social situation involving the opposite sex. A freshman college student may need to bring an old toy from home. A gathering of civilized people may become a violent mob when they are led to believe their livelihoods are at stake. Or an older man, after spending twenty years at a company and now finding himself laid off, may retire to his recliner and become childishly dependent on his wife.

Where do we retreat to when faced with stress? To the last time in life when we felt safe and secure, according to Freudian theory.

Rationalization is the cognitive distortion of "the facts" to make an event or an impulse less threatening. We do it often enough on a fairly conscious level when we provide ourselves with excuses. But for many people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy that they never are truly aware of it. In other words, many of us are quite prepared to believe our lies.

A useful way of understanding the defenses is to see them as a combination of denial or repression with various kinds of rationalizations.

All defenses are, of course, lies, even if we are not conscious of making them. But that doesn't make them less dangerous - in fact it makes them more so. As your grandma may have told you, "Oh what a tangled web we weave..." Lies breed lies, and take us further and further from the truth, from reality. After a while, the ego can no longer take care of the id's demands, or pay attention to the superego's. The anxieties come rushing back, and you break down.

And yet Freud saw defenses as necessary. You can hardly expect a person, especially a child, to take the pain and sorrow of life full on! While some of his followers suggested that all of the defenses could be used positively, Freud himself suggested that there was one positive defense, which he called sublimation.

Sublimation is the transforming of an unacceptable impulse, whether it be sex, anger, fear, or whatever, into a socially acceptable, even productive form. So someone with a great deal of hostility may become a hunter, a butcher, a football player, or a mercenary. Someone suffering from a great deal of anxiety in a confusing world may become an organizer, a businessperson, or a scientist. Someone with powerful sexual desires may become an artist, a photographer, or a novelist, and so on. For Freud, in fact, all positive, creative activities were sublimations, and predominantly of the sex drive.

The stages

As I said earlier, for Freud, the sex drive is the most important motivating force. In fact, Freud felt it was the primary motivating force not only for adults but for children and even infants. When he introduced his ideas about infantile sexuality to the Viennese public of his day, they were hardly prepared to talk about sexuality in adults, much less in infants!

It is true that the capacity for orgasm is there neurologically from birth. But Freud was not just talking about orgasm. Sexuality meant not only intercourse, but all pleasurable sensation from the skin. It is clear even to the most prudish among us that babies, children, and, of course, adults, enjoy tactile experiences such as caresses, kisses, and so on.

Freud noted that, at different times in our lives, different parts of our skin give us greatest pleasure. Later theorists would call these areas erogenous zones. It appeared to Freud that the infant found its greatest pleasure in sucking, especially at the breast. In fact, babies have a penchant for bringing nearly everything in their environment into contact with their mouths. A bit later in life, the child focuses on the anal pleasures of holding it in and letting go. By three or four, the child may have discovered the pleasure of touching or rubbing against his or her genitalia. Only later, in our sexual maturity, do we find our greatest pleasure in sexual intercourse. In these observations, Freud had the makings of a psychosexual stage theory.

The oral stage lasts from birth to about 18 months. The focus of pleasure is, of course, the mouth. Sucking and biting are favorite activities.

The anal stage lasts from about 18 months to three or four years old. The focus of pleasure is the anus. Holding it in and letting it go are greatly enjoyed.

The phallic stage lasts from three or four to five, six, or seven years old. The focus of pleasure is the genitalia. Masturbation is common.

The latent stage lasts from five, six, or seven to puberty, that is, somewhere around 12 years old. During this stage, Freud believed that the sexual impulse was suppressed in the service of learning. I must note that, while most children seem to be fairly calm, sexually, during their grammar school years, perhaps up to a quarter of them are quite busy masturbating and playing "doctor." In Freud's repressive era, these children were perhaps a little more subtle than their modern counterparts.

The genital stage begins at puberty, and represents the resurgence of the sex drive in adolescence, and the more specific focusing of pleasure in sexual intercourse. Freud felt that masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality, and many other things we find acceptable in adulthood today, were immature.

This is a true stage theory, meaning that Freudians believe that we all go through these stages, in this order, and pretty close to these ages.

The Oedipal crisis

Each stage has certain difficult tasks associated with it where problems are more likely to arise. For the oral stage, this is weaning. For the anal stage, it's potty training. For the phallic stage, it is the Oedipal crisis, named after the ancient Greek story of king Oedipus, who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother.  This is, with out a doubt, the weakest part of his theory.  In particular, he introduced two concepts that practically no one finds realistic:  Castration anxiety and penis envy.

Castration anxiety is the supposed fear that little boys have of someone cutting off their penis.  Penis envy is the supposed desire all little girls have to grow a penis of their own.  If Freud meant these things metaphorically, to represent the power of maleness in male-dominated societies like his own, we could understand them.  But he was serious about these ideas, and they form the basis of his theory of sexual development.

Here's how the Oedipal crisis works: The first love-object for all of us is our mother. We want her attention, we want her affection, we want her caresses, we want her, in a broadly sexual way. The young boy, however, has a rival for his mother's charms: his father! His father is bigger, stronger, smarter, and he gets to sleep with mother, while junior pines away in his lonely little bed. The boy, recognizing his father's superiority, and fearing for his penis, engages some of his ego defenses: He displaces his sexual impulses from his mother to girls and, later, women; And he identifies with dad, and attempts to become more and more like him, that is to say, a man.

The girl also begins her life in love with her mother, so we have the problem of getting her to switch her affections to her father before the Oedipal process can take place. Freud accomplishes this with the idea of penis envy: The young girl has noticed the difference between boys and girls and feels that she, somehow, doesn't measure up. She would like to have one, too, and all the power associated with it. At very least, she would like a penis substitute, such as a baby. As every child knows, you need a father as well as a mother to have a baby, so the young girl sets her sights on dad.  Dad, of course, is already taken. The young girl displaces from him to boys and men, and identifies with mom, the woman who got the man she really wanted.

As I said, if this part of Freud's theory bothers you a bit, don't feel alone:  Practically everyone agrees with you!


Your experiences as you grow up contribute to your personality, or character, as an adult. Freud felt that traumatic experiences had an especially strong effect. Of course, each specific trauma would have its own unique impact on a person, which can only be explored and understood on an individual basis. But traumas associated with stage development, since we all have to go through them, should have more consistency.

If you have difficulties in any of the tasks associated with the stages - weaning, potty training, or finding your sexual identity - you will tend to retain certain infantile or childish habits. This is called fixation. Fixation gives each problem at each stage a long-term effect in terms of our personality or character.

If you, in the first eight months of your life, are often frustrated in your need to suckle, perhaps because mother is uncomfortable or even rough with you, or tries to wean you too early, then you may develop an oral-passive character. An oral-passive personality tends to be rather dependent on others. They often retain an interest in "oral gratifications" such as eating, drinking, and smoking. It is as if they were seeking the pleasures they missed in infancy.

When we are between five and eight months old, we begin teething. One satisfying thing to do when you are teething is to bite on something, like mommy's nipple. If this causes a great deal of upset and precipitates an early weaning, you may develop an oral-aggressive personality. These people retain a life-long desire to bite on things, such as pencils, gum, and other people. They have a tendency to be verbally aggressive, argumentative, sarcastic, and so on.

In the anal stage, we are fascinated with our "bodily functions." At first, we can go whenever and wherever we like. Then, out of the blue and for no reason you can understand, the powers that be want you to do it only at certain times and in certain places. And parents seem to actually value the end product of all this effort!

Some parents put themselves at the child's mercy in the process of toilet training. They beg, they cajole, they show great joy when you do it right, they act as though their hearts were broken when you don't. The child is the king of the house, and knows it. This child will grow up to be an anal expulsive (a.k.a. anal aggressive) personality. These people tend to be sloppy and disorganized, but generous to a fault. They may be cruel, destructive, and given to vandalism and graffiti.

Other parents are strict. They may be competing with their neighbors and relatives as to who can potty train their child first. (Early potty training with intelligence back in the day. Needless to say,I was potty trained by 9 months!) They may use punishment or humiliation. This child will likely become constipated as he or she tries desperately to hold it in at all times, and will grow up to be an anal retentive personality. He or she will tend to be especially clean, perfectionistic, dictatorial, very stubborn, and stingy. In other words, the anal retentive is "tight" in all ways.

There are also two phallic personalities, although no-one has given them names. If the boy is harshly rejected by his mother, and rather threatened by his very masculine father, he is likely to have a poor sense of self-worth when it comes to his sexuality. He may deal with this by either withdrawing from heterosexual interaction, perhaps becoming a book-worm, or by putting on a rather macho act and playing the ladies' man. A girl rejected by her father and threatened by her very feminine mother is also likely to feel poorly about herself, and may become a wall-flower or a hyper-feminine "belle."

But if a boy is not rejected by his mother, but rather favored over his weak, milquetoast father, he may develop quite an opinion of himself (which may suffer greatly when he gets into the real world, where nobody loves him like his mother did), and may appear rather effeminate. After all, he has no cause to identify with his father. Likewise, if a girl is daddy's little princess and best buddy, and mommy has been relegated to a sort of servant role, then she may become quite vain and self-centered, or possibly rather masculine.

These various phallic characters demonstrate an important point in Freudian characterology: Extremes lead to extremes. If you are frustrated in some way or overindulged in some way, you have problems. And, although each problem tends to lead to certain characteristics, these characteristics can also easily be reversed. So an anal retentive person may suddenly become exceedingly generous, or may have some part of his life where he is terribly messy. This is frustrating to scientists, but it may reflect the reality of personality!

Many of Freud's ideas have become a part of common culture - who hasn't heard of denial and repression, for example.  And the foundations he built for therapy are still very much alive.  But, outside of terminology, not many psychologists today call themselves Freudians.  His work is now of mostly historical interest.  While many of his concepts appeared to apply well to the upper-class of turn of the century Europe, it hasn't generalized well to other cultures or to modern times.  But beware of those who take delight in knocking Freud down:  He was a brilliant student of human nature, and there aren't many psychologists who haven't had to admit that, as often as not, Freud had it right!

© Copyright 2003, 2009, C. George Boeree