In stark contrast to the previous theories, which focused on the public personality and behavioral patterns, psychoanalytic theory turns inward to your private personality where unconscious motives are responsible for the behavior you exhibit.
In Sigmund Freud's Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940), he compared the human mind to an iceberg in order to describe the structure of personality. The small portion of the iceberg that lies above the water represents the conscious mind, or all of the thoughts, feelings, and desires that you are fully aware of. The massive chunk below the surface represents your unconscious mind where all of the dreams, impulses, and repressed memories that are outside of your conscious awareness are housed. In order to begin to understand these unconscious mysteries, Freud used free association tactics to get a glimpse at what lay beneath. This exercise required the patient to talk about whatever came to mind no matter how relevant, nonsensical, or foreign the thoughts sounded. This technique, along with dream analysis and childhood memory evaluation, attempted to help patients understand themselves and their actions.
Stream of consciousness is a term applied to a writing exercise utilized by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Beat writer James Kerouac, to name a few, as a means of recording the conscious experience of a continuous flow of ideas, feelings, and images running through the mind at the exact moment they occur.
In addition to free association, Freud's idea that personality is constructed of three components (the id, ego, and superego) is one of the most widely recognized theories in psychology, and is often the subject of cartoons and comics.
The id is the aspect of personality that wants immediate gratification of physical distress such as hunger, thirst, and sexual tension. These biological instincts dictate the id's loyalty to the pleasure principle in that it wants to get rid of pain and discomfort in order to experience satisfaction and relief. The id says, “I seek pleasure.”
Of course, if you acted on the desires of the id you might find yourself acting in some very socially inappropriate ways. Left to its own devices, the id might drive you to snatch food right out of other people's hands or simply take the things that you desire from stores. The ego is the part of personality that mediates between the desires of the id and the demands of reality. Although the ego still seeks to gain pleasure, it operates on the reality principle where impulses are controlled when situations aren't favorable for meeting its demands. For example, finding a restroom, rather than using the sidewalk in the middle of a busy city to urinate on, is a decision made by the ego. It says, “I seek pleasure when it's appropriate.”
The superego is best described as the little angel that sits on your right shoulder whispering morals into your ear. The superego censors and restrains the ego, makes value judgments, sets standards, and weighs consequences. It is the part of the personality where all of the moral standards and values that you have learned from your parents and society are internalized. It says, “I seek pleasure only if I don't have to do something unpleasurable to receive it.”
All three parts of Freud's personality model seem as though they're vying for the spotlight, but usually they share the stage in order to approach a situation with as complete an understanding of it as possible. When they are struggling with each other, feelings of anxiety may become repressed only to show up at a later time, or they may be expressed in other forms such as rigorous exercise or extreme competition. These reactions are called defense mechanisms and are put into place to avoid feeling the conflict that goes on among the three impulses.
According to Anna Freud, daughter of the famous Sigmund, you employ several types of defense mechanisms in order to get yourself through tough times until you are capable of handling the situation from a more realistic approach. Repression, rationalization, reaction formation, projection, intellectualization, denial, and displacement are all ways in which you engage in some form of artifice. Let's take a closer look at these.
Repression is the most basic and most important mechanism in which painful and frightful memories that incite guilt, shame, or self-worthlessness are kept out of your conscious reach and stored in the unconscious region of the mind. Rationalization is best illustrated by Aesop's fable where the fox decides the grapes are sour only after he can't reach them. You follow the reasoning that sounds good at the time, rather than the reasoning that best reflects the situation, taking on an “I didn't really want it anyway” attitude.
Reaction formation is hiding a motive from yourself by performing acts that display the extreme opposite of that motive. For example, you may hate your mother-in-law, but are ashamed that you feel that way, so you go out of your way to be extra nice to her. Projection is when you assign your own offensive traits to other people in an attempt to avoid disliking yourself. Intellectualization is coping with stressful situations in purely abstract and intellectual terms. People who work in a field where suffering and death are constant must attempt to detach themselves emotionally in order to perform the job successfully (doctors, police officers, firefighters, etc.).
Denial occurs when the reality of the situation is too hard to accept, and therefore you refuse to acknowledge it. Displacement is the defense mechanism in which motives that cannot be fulfilled in the intended way are expressed in other ways such as art, music or poetry.