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Founded by the Austrian neurologist and physician Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), psychoanalytic theory is a framework for understanding the impact of the unconscious on thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Freud posited that most of what motivates individuals lies outside of their immediate awareness. Borne out of Freud’s treatment of patients with neurological disorders, psychoanalytic theory describes both normal and abnormal human experience and emphasizes the lasting impact of early childhood events on adult personality and psychological development. Psychoanalysis, the clinical application of Freud’s theory, is a tool that explores the unconscious mind in order to relieve painful emotional symptoms and increase self-awareness. Psychoanalysis is the forerunner of most forms of modern psychotherapeutic techniques. To this day, psychoanalytic theory and the practice of psychoanalysis continue to evolve in ways that support, discard, and expand some of Freud’s original principles.
At the heart of Freud’s ideas was his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which describes dreams as unconscious wish fulfillments. Freud contended that there are core sexual and aggressive wishes that the conscious mind finds unacceptable and represses. These wishes are symbolically expressed in dreams. The surface details and narrative structure of the dream—what we remember—are referred to as the manifest content. The latent content of the dream represents its unconscious hidden meaning and can only be discovered through the process of interpretation.
Freud described other ways in which the unconscious is revealed in everyday life. For example, what Freud called a parapraxis, known today as a “Freudian slip” or “slip of the tongue,” is popularly understood to describe the occurrence of an unconscious wish “accidentally” being revealed in an individual’s speech or writing. For instance, a man who calls his wife “mom” may unconsciously reveal repressed thoughts or feelings that he has about either woman. Freud also argued that jokes can be derivative expressions of unconscious sexual or aggressive feelings disguised as humor.
Freud’s explication of dreams and the unconscious led him to develop a more comprehensive theory of the mind. His topographical model posited conscious, unconscious, and preconscious parts of the mind. The unconscious contains all that is outside of immediate awareness, whereas the conscious contains those parts of which individuals are immediately aware. Information that is not in immediate awareness but is easily retrievable is called preconscious. Freud used the analogy of an iceberg to describe this model: Only a small tip of a much larger iceberg is visible above water, much like only a small fraction of the mind is conscious. Most of the mind lies in the unconscious, below the level of awareness.
Complementing the topographical model, Freud also proposed a structural model of the mind that includes three parts: id, ego, and superego. The id is unconscious and active at birth, and encompasses all of the instinctual and bodily wishes. It operates according to the pleasure principle, which has as its sole goal the immediate gratification of all urges. The ego operates mostly out of the reality principle, which accounts for reality factors and social norms that prohibit instinctual urges from being immediately gratified. The ego helps to regulate the frustration from ungratified id drives. The superego is the moral part of the mind that represents an individual’s internalized sense of parental and societal values. Freud compared the conflict between the id and the ego to that between an unruly horse and its rider; the rider (ego) has to direct the unbridled energy of the horse (id) in a way that is neither too permitting nor too restrictive. These conflicts are at the heart of both classic and modern psychoanalytic theories’ understanding of symptoms, psychopathology, and defense mechanisms.
When unacceptable and unconscious id drives approach conscious awareness, a sense of danger and anxiety develops. Defense mechanisms are employed by the ego to defend against this anxiety. In a compromise formation, the ego attempts to express these id impulses in socially appropriate ways while accounting for the moral and societal values of the superego; there is a compromise between the original wish and the anxiety against the wish. Some examples of defense mechanisms are projection, displacement, reaction formation, and sublimation.
Projection occurs when an individual’s own unacceptable impulses are attributed to another person. The boy who, before dinner, asks his mother if she wants a cookie projects his own desire onto her because he may feel ashamed by his wanting something that has been prohibited in the past. Displacement is the transferring of unacceptable thoughts or feelings one might have towards an object onto a more acceptable target object: A man who is mad at his wife “displaces” his dangerous angry feelings when he comes home and kicks the dog. Reaction formation involves the blocking of an unacceptable impulse by acting in an exaggerated and opposite way. For example, a new mother’s friend may shower the mother with gifts and praise to conceal her own feelings of jealousy at not having a baby. Sublimation is considered one of the more mature defense mechanisms, and involves the redirection of unacceptable impulses into constructive, healthier endeavors. A successful surgeon sublimates unconscious aggressive impulses through the helpful act of surgery. The use of defense mechanisms is a natural function of living that helps individuals manage overwhelming thoughts and feelings. The rigid and pervasive adherence to particular defense mechanisms and styles of coping, however, may become maladaptive, often causing more psychological and emotional turmoil than it resolves.
Psychoanalytic theory encompasses views on human development and personality. According to Freud’s theory there are five stages of psychosexual development that children must negotiate. At each stage id energies, called libido, are focused on various parts of the body called erogenous zones. The stages are: oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital. During each stage a child must negotiate fulfilling those pleasures in the context of growing social rules and norms. The pleasure area during the oral phase is the mouth, and actions such as sucking, teething, and biting are prominent. During the anal phase children must reconcile the pleasures of retaining and eliminating feces (and urine) and the socially imposed responsibility of toilet training. During the phallic phase bodily pleasures are obtained from self-stimulation of the genitals. It is during this phase that the challenge of the Oedipal complex is confronted. Fond of antiquity and the classics, Freud named this complex to invoke the themes of Sophocles’s Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, a tragedy in which the character Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Freud argued that in this complex, children feel repressed sexual attraction towards the parent of the opposite sex and aggressive hatred of the same-sex parent. During the next phase, the latency phase, libidinal instincts are repressed, only to reemerge at the start of puberty and the genital phase. At this time the focus is on genital pleasures with another person, leading toward the development of adult sexuality. When individuals have difficulty resolving the conflicts that each particular stage presents, they may become fixated, which affects adult personality.
These stages are important ideas in the history of psychoanalytic theory, but they are not distinct and precise developmental events. Rather, they are theoretical conceptualizations of some of the important challenges of psychological maturation. Nonetheless, they live on in modern parlance. Someone who is “orally fixated,” for example, may have been overly indulged during the oral phase of psychosexual development and later, as an adult, develop an oral symptom such as excessive drinking or cigarette smoking. An adult described as “anal” may be excessively concerned with orderliness, timeliness, and control, much as a toddler in the anal phase must negotiate the pleasures and challenges of bowel control.
Encompassed in psychoanalytic theory of all types are the ideas of cure and personal growth. Psychoanalysis represents the clinical application of psychoanalytic theory to the issues of psychopathology, neurosis, psychosis, and dysfunctional patterns of living. It is an intense form of psychological treatment that involves four to five sessions per week with a trained psychoanalyst (usually a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker) and lasts several years. Patients lie on a couch and are asked to speak as freely as they can about whatever comes to their minds, a process called free association. As with dream interpretation, the theory holds that free associations, no matter how irrelevant, obscure, or trivial they may seem, exhibit an internal logic that, through the process of interpretation, reveals conflicts of the unconscious that can be worked through to bring about symptom relief. Integral to this intense form of treatment is the development of transference, which occurs when a patient unconsciously transfers onto the psychoanalyst the thoughts, feelings, and conflicts that they have toward early caregivers. Working through the transferred conflicts in the unique interpersonal relationship with the psychoanalyst is a key component of the psychoanalytic theory of cure. Psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy, though similar in guiding principles, differs from psychoanalysis in that an analytic couch is not typically used, sessions are less frequent, and transference issues, though present, are not as fully integrated in the curative process.
As a prolific theorist, writer, and practitioner, Freud had many followers, some of whom broke ranks with aspects of his theory. Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1968), for example, was the heir apparent to the psychoanalytic movement until theoretical differences ended his professional relationship with Freud. Jung emphasized religion, archetypes, and what he called the collective unconscious, a culturally shared set of unconscious symbols. Alfred Adler’s (1870–1937) emphasis on individual striving for superiority and Karen Horney’s (1885–1962) integration of feministic views of psychological development and functioning—something Freud is often criticized for ignoring—represent some of the earliest expansions of psychoanalytic theory.
Modern additions to psychoanalytic theory, such as object-relations theory, move away from strict driveand conflict-motivated models to more relational and interpersonal ones. That is, interpersonal relationships, in addition to internal bodily drives and instincts, play an increasingly important role in individuals’ conscious and unconscious notions of self and other. As such, these issues are often played out in rich and meaningful ways in psychoanalytic treatment, which most modern psychoanalytic practitioners view as inherently more relational than Freud’s original conception.
The ever-evolving system of psychoanalytic theory that exists today is arguably one of the most far-reaching and pervasive theories of the last one hundred years. One can hardly escape the influence of Freud’s unique system of thought. As a theory of symbolic and hidden meanings, psychoanalytic theory is often applied to the critical understanding of literature, poetry, cinema, and the visual arts. Anthropologists have used psychoanalytic ideas to explore and understand the relationship between individuals and their cultures. Modern neuroscience has even paved the way for the emerging field of neuropsychoanalysis, which aims to integrate psychoanalytic ideas with physically observable brain structures, neural pathways, and brain chemistry. Psychoanalytic theory has often been criticized as being the unscientific, dogmatic, chauvinistic, illogical, and narcissistically insular theory of one man, Freud. Fair though aspects of these criticisms may be, the psychoanalytic theory of today offers a comprehensive and cogent account of the human condition.
- Crews, Frederick C., ed. 1998. Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend. New York: Viking.
- Ellenberger, Henri F. 1970. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.
- Freud, Sigmund.  1965. Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Avon Books.
- Gay, Peter. 1998. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Mitchell, Stephen A., and Margaret J. Black. 1995. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books.
- Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual Task Force. 2006. Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual. Silver Spring, MD: Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations.
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