Sigmund Freud

Type of psychology: Personality

Fields of study: Classic analytic themes and issues; personality theory; psychodynamic and neoanalytic models

Freud's theory of personality, emphasizing unconscious motivation, sexual instincts, and psychological conflict, is one of the most profound and unique contributions in psychology. Freud described both the normal and abnormal personality, and he proposed a therapy for the treatment of mental problems.

Key concepts

• genital stage

• Oedipal conflict

• phallic stage

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) saw people as engaged in a personal struggle between their instinctual urges and the requirements of society. According to Freud, this conflict often takes place outside one's awareness, in the unconscious, and affects all aspects of people's lives. The instinctual energy which fuels the mind has its source in the unconscious. It is highly mobile and once engaged must achieve expression, however disguised the expression might be.

Freud said that most of the mind is below the level of awareness—in the unconscious—-just as most of the mass of an iceberg is below the surface of the water. The id, the most primitive structure in the mind, is in the unconscious. The id is composed of the instincts (psychological representations of biological needs and the source of all psychological energy), including the sexual and other life instincts and the aggressive and other death instincts. For Freud, the sexual instincts were particularly important. They take a long time to develop, and society has a large investment in their regulation.

The instincts press for gratification, but the id itself cannot satisfy them, because it has no contact with reality. Therefore, the ego, which contacts the id in the unconscious but also is partly conscious, develops. The ego can perceive reality and direct behavior to satisfy the id's urges. To the extent that the ego can satisfy the id's instincts, it gains strength, which it can then use to energize its own processes, perceiving and thinking. It is important that the ego can also use its energy to restrict or delay the expression of the id. The ego uses psychological defense mechanisms to protect the individual from awareness of threatening events and to regulate the expression of the instincts. For example, a strong ego can use the defense mechanism of sublimation to direct some sexual energy into productive work rather than sexual activity itself.

In the course of a child's development, the superego develops from the ego. The ego attaches energy to the significant people in the child's world— the caregivers—and their values are then adopted as the child's own ideal and conscience. This process becomes particularly significant during the phallic stage, between the ages of four and six. At that time, the child becomes sexually attracted to the opposite-sex parent. In giving up that passion, the child adopts the characteristics of the same-sex parent; this process shapes the child's superego. The superego is mostly unconscious, and it strives for perfection. Throughout life, the id will strive for instinctual gratification, and the superego will strive for perfection. It is the task of the ego to mediate between the two, when necessary, and to chart a realistic life course.

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