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Freud and Psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud is a controversial figure in the world of psychology. He was the first to formulate a complex, multidimensional theory of personality, called psychoanalysis, and was the first to consider many important issues. At the same time, his theories are often more philosophical than psychological. He never did any scientific studies or experiments—all his ideas came from what he observed during sessions with his patients (he was a clinical psychologist).
Many of his ideas have been discredited and are no longer used in therapy. But some of his ideas, such as defense mechanisms, are still considered important today. Either way, it is important to study Freudian psychoanalysis because it is the basis for many more modern theories and was the first major psychological field.
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The Nature of the Mind
If you only associate one word with Freud, it should be “unconscious.” To Freud, most of our personality stems from our unconscious thoughts and motivations. This is the basis of his psychoanalysis theory. It isn’t important what we consciously choose to do, or what we think our problems are. Our real problems and the causes of our behavior are deep down in the parts of our mind we can’t access without help. Often these unconscious motivations are negative: sex and aggression were the drives Freud thought most important.
Freud formulated a unique way of thinking about the mind, made up of three parts: Id, Ego, and Superego. These three structures describe the way we think and make decisions on a day-to-day basis.
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Id, Ego, and Superego
Id: The id is the part of the mind that wants what it wants, and wants it now. It is demanding and childish, and operates via the pleasure principle. This simply means that it motivates you to do things that make you happy. This is the structure we were born with, according to Freud. Think about a baby—its thoughts aren’t that complex. It just wants things. Throughout our life there is always a part of our mind that demands we do whatever necessary to make ourselves happy.
Superego: Freud said that this structure develops later, when a child starts learning from its parents, teachers, and society what it should and shouldn’t do. The superego is our conscience, and tells us what is right and wrong. It wants us to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, and is just as demanding as the id in its own way. If you do something you know you shouldn’t do, it’s the superego that makes you feel guilty.
Ego: The ego is the most conscious part of your mind, and it functions via the reality principle. This means that it has to figure out a way to compromise between the demands of the other two structures, to take what the id and superego want into account and chose a realistic course of action. If the id is demanding pizza, and the superego is telling you you’re a bad person if you don’t go to class, the ego might say “let’s go to class, then right afterward we’ll go over to the dining center and get some food.”
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According to Freud, our personalities and psychological problems are determined when we are very young. By the time we are five or six, we’ve already encountered many important conflicts that have shaped us into the person we will be for the rest of our life. Freud’s theory of personality development is referred to as the Psychosexual Stages, and is comprised of five parts:
Oral Stage: This stage takes place until a child is about a year and a half old, and the important event that occurs is being weaned from breastfeeding. It is important that the child is weaned at an appropriate time, not too early or too late.
Anal Stage: The child is in this stage from the time they are one and a half years old until they are about 3. The crucial event here is potty training, and again it is important that this event happens at just the right time.
Phallic Stage: In this stage, from 3 to 6 years old, the child must deal with the Oedipal Complex. This means they feel a strong attachment to their opposite-sex parent, and hostility towards the same-sex parent. A little boy might be very attached to his mother and see his father as an intruder into this relationship, for example. To successfully resolve this stage, the child must learn to identify with the same-sex parent, thus figuring out what it means to be a girl or a boy.
Latency: From the age of 6 to puberty, there is a period of relative calm. There is no special task to learn or conflict to overcome at this time, and the sexual and aggressive drives are subdued.
Genital Stage: This stage begins when the child hits puberty. At this point young teenagers begin to find themselves attracted to the opposite sex (this theory doesn’t incorporate homosexuality). If they have successfully resolved the Oedipal Complex, they can now learn to have relationships with socially acceptable partners, who are seen as substitutes for the child’s parents (the original objects of attachment).
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The psychosexual theory also accounts for psychological problems and disorders. If the child does not successfully pass through each stage at the right time they are said to be fixated on that stage. For example, a child who is weaned from breastfeeding too late is said to have an oral fixation, and as an adult might have problems with depending too much on other people. The adult might also show signs of an obsession with oral activities, such as overeating or biting his or her nails.
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According to Freud, another source of our psychological problems is our dependence on defense mechanisms. When we have thoughts or feelings we are uncomfortable with, or things happen to us that we don’t want to deal with, we use strategies to defend ourselves from the anxiety caused by those thoughts and experiences. In therapy, Freud would help people identity which defenses they were using and what problems they were trying to avoid. There are many different defense mechanisms, so check with your teacher to find out which ones you need to know. Here are some of the more common and basic ones you might want to be familiar with.
Repression: This was the defense mechanism of most interest to Freud. When something is too difficult for us to deal with or think about, sometimes we push it away so hard we literally forget about it. We force it so far down into our unconscious that we don’t even remember it’s there. For example, people who are abused as children sometimes repress the experience and only remember it years later.
Denial: Just like it sounds, with this defense we are denying the uncomfortable thought or situation even exists. This doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten about it, just that you are avoiding thinking about it.
Projection: Sometimes when we have thoughts we don’t want to deal with, we push them onto other people. We project our unwanted feelings and desires onto those around us. For example, if someone is thinking about cheating on her boyfriend she might project that desire onto him and become paranoid that he is cheating on her.
Displacement: This is often confused with projection, but is quite different. Here we are taking out our emotions on someone who didn’t cause them. If your teacher does something to make you angry, you might take your anger out on your family or your roommate instead.
Regression: To regress is to return to an earlier state, to act like you did when you were younger. A new college student who can’t handle the responsibility of living on his own might start acting childish by skipping class and playing video games all day.
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Because our problems are rooted in our unconscious, where we can’t access them easily, Freud couldn’t just ask his patients what was wrong. He had to use clever methods to try and get at their unconscious minds, to figure out what thoughts and motivations were really driving a patient’s behavior. These are some of the most common psychoanalytic methods Freud and his followers would use in therapy. None are widely used today, because these methods are too subjective and have not been proven by scientific experimentation.
Dream analysis: Because you aren’t conscious while you are asleep, Freud thought dreams could reveal what is in the unconscious mind. He would ask people about their dreams and try to determine what those dreams ‘really’ meant. A dream about living in a tiny house might suggest the dreamer feels confined or oppressed by their real life roles, for example.
Free association: This is when Freud or his followers would tell a client to just talk, to say anything and everything that came to mind. The hope was that this would get past the person’s conscious mind and let their subconscious thoughts come through. The patient would typically lie on a couch while doing this—hence the popular image of a psychotherapy session where the patient reclines on a couch and rambles on about his or her thoughts.
Transference: Sometimes in a psychotherapy session a patient would start treating the therapist as though he or she were someone from the patient’s past. For example, if the patient had a rough relationship with her father she might start acting towards the therapist the same way she would have acted towards her father. This is known as transference, and helped the psychoanalyst uncover conflicts in the patient’s past that might be affecting his or her behavior today.
Projective tests: In these tests the therapist would present ambiguous stimuli to the patient—pictures that aren’t supposed to be anything in particular. For example, they might show a serious of inkblots to a patient and ask what the patient thinks the inkblots are. Since they are just random blots of ink, whatever the patient sees is supposed to say something about his or her state of mind and unconscious thoughts.
People end up projecting their own thoughts and motivations onto the ambiguous stimuli. If the patient sees a picture involving blood, this might suggest he has issues with violence. Another common projective test involved showing patients pictures of a person or a couple of people, and asking them to make up stories about those people. The content of the story suggests what problems or issues the storyteller might have.