Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is one of the most famous and influential psychologists of the twentieth century. Even those who don't know much about psychology or give much thought to the workings of the unconscious have some awareness of Freud. They have heard the term Freudian slip. They might have a vague notion of what the Oedipus Complex is, and the words ego and id have entered the vernacular. Most people have heard the expression “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” though not everyone takes that adage to heart. The pop culture representation of a psychologist is often a bearded, bespectacled egghead pompously intoning psychobabble in a German accent. Freud has as many detractors as advocates, and Freudian psychology falls in and out of favor, but there is no doubt that he is a pioneer in the exploration of the mind and its motivating forces.


Freud practiced medicine in Vienna, Austria, in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was a neurologist by formal training. He encountered many patients who complained of ailments, but upon thorough examination, had nothing physically wrong with them. Freud deduced that their conditions were psychosomatic in nature. In other words, they were caused by a mental condition or disorder. If he got to the root of what was really bothering them, the physical manifestation of their psychic distress would alleviate. This was done through hypnosis, or sometimes by simply talking about it. Thus, psychoanalysis was born, the most influential psychological school of the twentieth century.

The next time your friend complains about her boss, saying, “He's, like, so anal!” ask her whether she really thinks he is stuck in one of Freud's stages of psychosexual development: They are, in order, the Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent, and Genital Stages.

Freud was intrigued by the concept of the unconscious. He used the popular iceberg analogy to explain the workings of the mind. Our consciousness was a mere tip of the iceberg, and the unconscious was looming below the surface of our waking hours, a formidable force that was directing our thoughts and our actions in ways in which we were completely unaware. Why does a woman constantly sabotage relationships? Why does a hack writer lay fallow with writer's block as his deadline fast approaches? Why does a man get laryngitis the night before he must deliver a speech to a large audience? Why do people do things that seemingly make no sense and create unnecessary problems for themselves? Freud posited that this was the unconscious at work.

The unconscious forces that clandestinely drive us are largely sexual and aggressive in nature, according to Freud. They are thoughts and impulses that are best kept under wraps. But the unconscious must find expression in some form. Just as matter is neither created nor destroyed, buried emotions do not go away. They lay dormant, and if not owned and faced, they will surface unsummoned with, at best, embarrassing results. They must find expression in a socially acceptable form in order for the individual to stay psychologically fit.

Two of the techniques of Freudian psychoanalysis are the interpretation of dreams and free association. Even while sleeping, the mind is busily processing data. Dreams are the mind's method of dealing with unresolved issues and baggage. Dreams speak to us in symbols, some obvious, others obscure. According to Freud, dreams are like one act plays and surreal videos that give us clues to what is really on our minds. The patient discusses his dreams with the doctor, who tries to interpret what the dream is really revealing. Freud once said, “Every dream is a wish,” which means most of us have some very bizarre wishes indeed.

Via free association, the psychiatrist also tries to unlock the mysteries of the unconscious. The patient reclines on a couch and chatters away about whatever comes to mind: memories, fantasies, issues of the day, resentments. Anything and everything is grist for the analyst's mill, who tries to find rhyme and reason amid the patient's rambling.

The Oedipus Complex

Freud also came up with the infamous theory of the Oedipus Complex. Oedipus was a character in a play by the Greek playwright Sophocles. It tells the story of Oedipus, a king who, through a series of coincidences, happens to murder his father and then marry his mother. Upon discovering the truth, the horrified Oedipus gouges out his own eyes in penance.

Freud felt that every young man goes through his internal Oedipus Complex, a rivalry with the father for the attentions of the mother. He suggests that young boys unconsciously want to get the father out of the picture and possess the mother, to put it politely. They are in a maelstrom of love and hate, torn with jealousy, desire, confusion, and rage. Healthy young men outgrow the Oedipus Complex, but pity the poor souls who do not. They are walking wounded, and their dysfunction will continue to hound and cripple them unless they seek treatment.

Sigmund Freud is one of the founding fathers of modern psychology. Though he falls in and out of favor, his theories on the unconscious, the Oedipus Complex, and the interpretation of dreams continue to intrigue both professional and armchair psychologists.

Freud, a product of Europe of the nineteenth century, believed that the Oedipus Complex was a universal phenomenon. Other researchers believe that this is not an archetypal condition that spans all cultures. Freud assumed girls had a corresponding love-hate relationship with their mothers. He didn't assign it with its own name, but the distaff version was later called the Electra Complex, named after a character from Greek drama who murdered her mother.

The Personality

Freud divided the personality into three components:

  • The Ego is the part of a person that he or she is most aware of and that the rest of the world sees. It is the conscious, rational part of the personality.

  • The Id: The Id remains largely unconscious. It is the sensual, primal side of ourselves, pure instinct and libido. When the Id is allowed to run rampant, all manner of havoc ensues.

  • The Superego is the “conscience.” It contains the ethics and values that have been instilled by parents and society.

The Stages of Development

Freud also categorizes the stages of psychosexual development. The Oral Stage is from birth to eighteen months. During this stage, the baby discovers the world via oral sensations.

The Anal Stage, from eighteen to thirty-six months, coincides with the toilet training period. Adults who get psychologically stuck in this stage are either fastidious and fussy or a total slob.

The Phallic Stage lasts from three to six years. The child becomes fascinated with their genitals, and the Oedipus Complex kicks in.

Sexual feelings are suppressed in the Latency Stage, according to Freud. It lasts from age six to puberty. It is the period for boys when girls are “icky,” and vice versa.

The final stage is the Genital Stage, which starts at puberty and continues throughout life. The normal person begins what will hopefully be a happy and gratifying sexual life.

Freud's Legacy

Freudian psychoanalysis became enormously popular in medical and scientific circles, and Freud found himself a mentor with many protégés.

As is always the case, the pupil rebels against his teacher, and these men of science and medicine adapted and built upon Freud's work. They all embraced the belief in the major role the unconscious plays, but many disagreed with Freud's emphasis on sex.

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