Psychology Primer: Psychoanalytic Theory/Freud

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Psychology Primer
By Cyndi Lupo, BA Psych

Tutorial 1: Theory

Tutorial 2: Application

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Sigmund Freud

Long before Sigmund Freud came on the scene, people with emotional disturbances or irrational fears often sought out oracles and wise men and women to guide them and help them make sense of their given situation. Dream analysis was an ancient art that finds its expression in some camps of psychology.

Often times, however, simply finding someone who was willing to listen to one’s problems or concerns, without interpretation or advice giving, seems to have been somewhat successful in helping the “client” to release their psychological burdens and live a more balanced and happy life. In Freud’s day, this was known as the “talking cure”.

The Talking Cure

Sigmund Freud revolutionized the use of the talking cure by not only listening to what was being said, but by making observations about what he felt were the deeper truths behind the conscious thoughts being expressed.

Freud theorized that there were three main components to a person’s personality:

  • Id
  • Ego
  • Superego

The id, he believed represented the most primitive and animalistic part of the mind. The id is the repository of all instinctive drives including sex, hunger, self preservation, and the like.

The ego, he postulated, represented the part of the mind that corresponds with the conscious processes of decision making, reasoning, execution of tasks or intentions, and so on.

The superego in turn represented the moral authority or conscience, which he believed unconsciously, though sometimes in a conscious manner, polices, inhibits or passes judgment upon the id’s drives and instincts and the decisions and actions of the ego.

Many of Freud’s controversial ideas about the nature of the superego, such as the necessity of a boy’s abandoning of his primitive lusts to “possess” his mother out of fear of castration by his father, and the idea that women are already biologically “castrated” by their reproductive makeup and therefore can only form a weak superego which disposes them to immoral behavior and sexual confusion, amongst others, have largely been cast aside.

There are, however, some interesting interpretations that have evolved over the years regarding the superego. While Freud identified the superego as the father figure of the mind, he also stressed the influence of society in the form of religious and cultural socialization as well. In modern times social psychologists have sometimes referred to a concept called the “ought self”, and the parallels to the superego cannot be ignored.


The movement that Freud created, based upon his theories and constructs is known as Psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis, in a nutshell proposed that psychiatric problems and neuroses were the outer manifestations of internal and unconscious conflicts between the id, the ego and the superego. Through the use of the talking cure method, dream interpretation and an examination of his clients early childhood experiences, Freud believed that he could identify the way that those childhood experiences were playing themselves out in the present time.

Using this methodology, he would help his clients to come to an understanding of which of the various stages of development, according to his theories, were being retarded by these internal and unresolved conflicts. Although, as previously noted, many of his emphases on sexual symbolism and obsessions with death have been largely abandoned, the concept of early childhood stages of development and their impact upon adult mental health are widely accepted axioms of modern psychotherapy.

Freud is most widely known by his association with the terms “Freudian slip”, “Penis envy” and “Oedipal Complex” as well as the concept of transference; that is the unconscious association of one’s feelings towards a person or situation in childhood to a person or situation unrelated to the original in adulthood.

The concept of a “Freudian slip” refers to a person saying something they did not consciously intend to say, which is interpreted as indicating a truth about the person’s actual, but unconscious feelings on the subject.

“Penis envy” is often misquoted as being a man’s feelings of inadequacy being manifest in a form of overcompensation, another psychological term, meaning an often over the top exaggeration of his success, physical prowess, power or bravado, etc. The term actually referred to one of Freud’s more sexist assertions that women who aspire to be successful in a “man’s world” were driven by a feeling of being cheated for not being born with male genitalia.

The “Oedipal complex” refers to a struggle between a father and a son over the love and attention of the child’s mother.