Understanding Sigmund Freud and His Influence

May 15, 2012

A certain degree of neurosis is of inestimable value as a drive, especially to a psychologist.  -Sigmund Freud

When I hear the name Sigmund Freud, images of his famous therapy couch always come to mind. But who is this icon of psychology who still has so much influence over modern Western thought? Just a basic understanding of Freud requires a study of his structure of personality, the defense mechanisms, and of course his psychosocial stages of development. The foundation of Freud’s work is the structure of personality; the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is what drives the unconscious mind; it is our animalistic instincts. Based on physical drives like hunger and sex, the id seeks only to please itself. The ego represents the conscience mind, it thinks realistically and logically, it makes plans. The ego knows how to satisfy the needs of the id, but it also knows when the needs of the id need to be repressed until appropriate times. The superego is the moral code that a person develops through the laws of society and the values of parents that have been instilled in the individual since birth. The superego influences and exists in both the id and the ego. Ideally, it creates balance between the two, but often there is conflict, which creates anxiety in the individual. The ego responds to anxiety by using various defense mechanisms. The purpose of the defense mechanisms is to reduce stress; everyone does this from time to time, but it can become a problem if an individual begins to rely too much on them and try to avoid reality. Examples of defense mechanisms are: repression, denial, reaction formation, projection, displacement, sublimation, rationalization, regression, identification, and intellectualization. Freud believed that the personality developed through the psychosexual stages of oral, infants exploring with their mouths; the anal stage, where toddlers are supposedly are obsessed with their feces; the phallic stage where young kids like to play with themselves; latency, where older kids get to just be kids, and finally the genital stage where adolescents begin to discover and pursue the opposite sex. If kids make it through these stages with minimal problems, they’ll grow up into healthy adults.

Freud obviously is invaluable to modern psychology, as he laid the foundation for many forms of therapy that have helped generations of people overcome multitudes of problems, but I find many of his ideas outdated to say the least with some bordering on the absurd and can only come from a worldview that rejects God as an ultimate authority of morality. While there are many details of Freud’s theories I have trouble with, his psychosexual stages are where he and I most significantly part ways. I believe that human beings are sexual in nature, and we all need to develop a healthy understanding of our sexuality. However, I don’t think our sexual natures are truly awakened until adolescence unless there is some kind of abuse or neglect which results in early exposure. Kids aren’t obsessed with their poop, nor are they trying to get off when they play with themselves, they are just exploring their bodies. Boys don’t want to have sex with their moms and girls don’t want to be with their dads. Thankfully, Erik Erikson offers his take on the stages of psychosocial development which are much more realistic and reasonable.

According to Freud, the development of personality, including the formation of the id, ego, superego and defense mechanisms, depends upon an individual’s “psychosexual” development during his/her childhood. What happens, or doesn’t happen, to an individual during five important stages greatly determines who he/she becomes as an adult. Freud believed that each stage is based on biological drives and the child needs to explore and satisfy sexual needs through the pleasure principle in order to successfully move on to the next stage. Erik Erikson, a student of Freud’s sister, Anna, who took up her brother’s work after he died, supported the idea that individuals each have stages they must work through, but he rejected Freud’s pleasure principle and emphasized that success in each stage is dependent on how the individual relates to the outside world, calling the stages psychosocial; in addition, Erikson has added three additional stages into adulthood and old age. Following is a short comparison of each stage.

Freud called the first year of life the oral stage, in which a child explores his world and seeks to find gratification through the mouth; their basic needs are founded in nurturing mothers. Erikson calls this stage trust vs. mistrust. He states that if an infant does not get his basic needs met during this stage, he may develop an attitude of mistrust later in life. Freud considers ages one to three to be the anal stage, when a child’s focus in on the anal zone. Erikson calls this stage autonomy vs. shame and doubt, in which the child begins to test her limits in the world around her. How her parents respond to the testing, and where they place the boundaries on their children, can greatly influence the child’s ability to be autonomous as adults. Freud calls the ages of three to six the phallic stage. This is when the child supposedly has unconscious sexual desires for the parent of the opposite sex, and therefore considers the parent of the same sex to be competition; this is called the Oedipus complex for boys and the Electra complex for girls. Erikson calls this stage initiative vs. guilt. During this stage, children begin to develop a sense of competence in the tasks they choose to perform. If they are given freedom to experiment, they will develop a positive self-image and take initiative later in life; however, if they are not permitted to make their own choices, they may develop a sense of guilt over any decisions they make as adults.

During the school years, ages six to twelve, what Freud call the latency stage, kids finally get to stop unconsciously thinking about sex, and just enjoy being kids; this is when they begin to develop relationships with others outside their immediate family. Erikson calls this stage industry vs. inferiority. This is when a child learns the basic skills for success, and what is expected of him or her through society. If the child does not feel he is learning at the expected rate, he may develop feelings of inferiority that last throughout adulthood. Freud’s final stage occurs in adolescence, ages twelve to eighteen, and sometimes continues through to adulthood. This is called the genital stage, when children work through the struggles of puberty, and they begin to focus their sexual energy on members of the opposite sex. Erikson calls this stage identity vs. role confusion which is the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is when individuals search for identity and try to discover their true selves. Many individuals spend years discovering their role and place in the world. Erikson also added three additional stages in adulthood which are intimacy vs. isolation in young adulthood when the goal is to form intimate relationships, generativity vs. stagnation in middle age when the focus is providing for the next generation, and integrity vs. despair in later life when one should be able to look back at life with few regrets. When compared side by side, Erikson’s stages of development just make more sense than Freud’s and offer us a much more healthy analysis for determining childhood issues.

What Freud and I do agree on is his theory of defense mechanisms. I can see a lot of those in myself and in others as well. Freud states that the ego copes with anxiety by using defense mechanisms. Individuals will unconsciously deny or distort reality to reduce stress. The infrequent use of defense mechanisms is normal; however, often the consistent use of defense mechanisms becomes a problem as some individuals use them to avoid reality altogether. There are many types of defense mechanisms; however, the following four are often the most common.

Repression is a defense mechanism in which individuals will repress, or bury deep into their unconscious, traumatic events that occurred during childhood. The individual is unable to cope with remembering the experience, so it is pushed deep into an unconscious level in order to avoid reliving the pain. Often the pain will resurface in some form in adulthood, as psychological issues or in a physical manifestation.

Denial is a defense mechanism in which an individual refuses to accept the reality of some kind of traumatic event. Rather than experience the pain of the trauma, the individual will pretend he doesn’t care, or even pretend it hasn’t happened. Another form of denial is when an individual refuses to admit problems that are obvious to everyone else.

Projection is when an individual has feelings or thoughts she considers unacceptable, and rather than dealing with reality of the negative parts her personality, she projects the negative behaviors on others and becomes judgmental towards them, because she unconsciously is punishing herself through judging the others.

Rationalization is the defense mechanism when an individual tries to explain away an area of themselves, or an event or action they committed in which they feel inferior. Rather than accept the responsibility of the mistake or lack of ability. The individual will make excuses for himself and rationalize the problem away in his mind.

As a teacher, it helps to be able to identify some of these behaviors in my students, so I can deal with them and the problem in an appropriate way, but we all should become familiar with them so we can recognize if we might be using any of them in an unhealthy way. After all, the whole point of seeking to gain a better understanding of ourselves is so that we can have healthy relationships with others.

After taking the time to study his work, I have a better understanding of Freud’s importance in the foundation of psychology that he laid down. Personally, I have always loved the concept of free association. I have an artistic background and have created many of my best paintings, poems, and songs by just letting my mind and hands wander through my imagination. I think that is part of why art therapy is so successful. And although I don’t agree with Freud’s specific interpretation of dream symbols, I do think exploring dreams is an important part of therapy and can be used to discover many unconscious issues a client might be having. Therefore, even though I disagree with many details in his theories, I recognize that if it wasn’t for Sigmund Freud, we may not have the knowledge and understanding of the human psyche and personality that we have today. However, despite my renewed respect for him, reading up on his specific theories has only led to reinforce what I can accept and what I think should be rejected.

Peter L Richardson


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