Sigmund Freud - Psychotherapy - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Sigmund Freud
The Canon


BORN 1856, Moravia, Austrian Empire


DIED 1939, London, England


Educated at the University of Vienna



There is no name in modern culture more closely associated with the field of psychology than Sigmund Freud’s. It’s not just that a Freudian slip makes for a convenient and inexpensive Halloween costume—though it does—but that his theories of the mind have been absorbed indelibly into our language, our cultural beliefs, and our understanding of who we are as people. Freud wrote extensively, often beautifully, about the psychological forces behind our actions. And while some of his theories are downright cringeworthy, and many suffer from the lack of systematic empirical scrutiny, he nonetheless had several ideas about human nature that were right on target and that revolutionized the way our culture thinks about the human psyche. And these ideas helped push forth psychology to be studied in ways that it never had been before.

Freud’s biggest overarching contribution to psychology was his passionate argument that the unconscious mind plays a very meaningful role in our behavior. By unconscious he meant thoughts and feelings operating beneath the threshold of ordinary awareness. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Freud gave detailed evidence for the unconscious mind: his observations of “slips of the tongue,” as he called them, or even “slips of the pen.” In these cases, people accidentally substituted a different word for the one they had intended to say, but the word that came out instead was much more revealing—sometimes embarrassingly so—of their real feelings.

Freud would say that we can sometimes sense our unconscious mind’s presence, as when something is right on the tip of our tongue. We can’t come up with the word we want, but we know it exists right beyond our awareness. In those moments, what is it that we’re aware of? Freud would say that it’s the ever-present unconscious, always looming just below our immediate awareness. Some things we may attempt to push as far down as possible, repressing them in an attempt to keep from feeling pain or discomfort.

Freud’s theories incorporated both the unconscious mind and the conscious mind. He believed that within the psyche are opposing forces called the id and the superego. The id is made up of the animalistic desires we are biologically prone to; Freud wholeheartedly believed that our inherent nature, in its most-stripped-down state, is just as base as that of your average beast and includes things like lust, aggression, hunger, and thirst. The superego, on the other hand, is the internalization of all the values, rules, and expectations that we absorb from living in a particular society and culture and in a particular family: Don’t run with scissors! Don’t punch your friend! Don’t eat a seventh bowl of curds and whey! Naturally, the id and the superego clash constantly. Imagine the proverbial devil on one shoulder, and an angel on the other, battling it out—and the poor entity left to constantly reconcile and referee these skirmishes is called the ego. Freud would say that the ego is essentially you and is housed within your conscious mind, unlike the superego and the id, which are submerged within the unconscious.

The angst and tension that result from these frequent battles don’t make us feel very good. Anxiety rises with each conflict, and Freud said that this is where defense mechanisms come in. Defense mechanisms, Freud believed, are the thoughts and actions that we unconsciously trot out in order to soothe the conflict between the id and the superego. He listed many such mechanisms, from simple denial (“I’m not angry. Why would I possibly be angry, just because you forgot to pick me up at the airport? It’s no big deal.”) to projection, whereby we attribute our own feelings to someone else in order to believe that we’re not feeling them ourselves (as when we shout at someone else to calm down). We see intellectualization: “Why was I driving by my ex-boyfriend’s house at 3 A.M.? I didn’t even notice that I did that. I simply had to go and fill my car up, and the gas station 16 miles from my house, but near his, has the best deals.” And we see repression: “I have no memory of my dad hitting me at all. Apparently he did, and he was quite abusive, but I really don’t know for sure that it ever happened.”

Freud believed that our unconscious processes also seep into our dreams. Current theories say that during sleep our brains take out the neural trash, getting rid of the toxins and waste that have built up as by-products of our daily cognitive processes. And it’s true that looking in someone’s trash can sometimes tell you something meaningful about what’s going on in his or her life.

Freud also had meaningful ideas on the nature of human development. He posited five psychosexual stages that we all go through and that unfold naturally as time goes by in our early lives. Though the stages themselves are no longer taken literally by most psychologists, the idea of qualitatively different developmental stages has stood the test of time. And Freud was right on target with his idea that something happening early in childhood can permanently affect development and continue to influence personality, emotions, and behavior in adulthood.

Freud’s psychosexual stages have most certainly added color to our language. The first two, the oral stage and the anal stage, have become ingrained in our culture. The former is the stage from birth to about the age of two, when babies naturally want to put everything in their mouths as they sense their environment best that way and are always attuned to feeding. And the latter is the time when all focus shifts to toilet training. Freud’s theory says that if something goes wrong during any of the stages, it will create a lasting disruption to mental well-being. Let’s say a baby is either overfed or underfed. According to Freud, this disruption of the oral stage will lead to a later fixation that will affect the person throughout the rest of his or her life. Similarly, an overly rigid or overly permissive approach to toilet training will create an anal fixation.

Some of Freud’s ideas have been considered downright degrading, especially to women. He believed that women unconsciously suffer from penis envy, for instance. His theory of the Oedipus complex, named for the figure Greek myth, says that little boys secretly lust after their mothers and therefore want to kill their fathers in order to be able to possess their mothers sexually. Even though these theories are hardly progressive, it is nevertheless worth noting that Freud, unlike many others of his time, believed that homosexuality, though perhaps related to a disruption in early development, is “nothing to be ashamed of.”

Finally, Freud’s influence on therapeutic treatment represents one of his crowning achievements. He pioneered psychoanalysis, the first systematic psychotherapy of the modern era. It put a special emphasis on the patient-therapist relationship, with the concept of transference dictating that the patient would transfer some unconscious feelings onto the therapist, thus replaying other relationships from life outside the consulting room. This gave the psychotherapist an additional opportunity to help the patient heal. Though psychoanalysis has largely been overtaken by more modern, empirically validated techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, it still has plenty of adherents, and there’s even an upswing in recent research. And its premise—that talking to an objective professional can help provide insight into the unconscious mind, healing distress and empowering one to live a healthier life—is the underpinning of modern talk therapy.



Freud’s ideas and his practice gave rise to psychoanalysis, which for many decades was the gold standard of psychological treatment, and which in turn has given rise to many different subtypes. His focus on the unconscious directly influenced several fields within psychology, with a newfound emphasis on the difference between what we are and are not aware of. Freud’s theories directly influenced Carl Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious, Karen Horney’s beliefs about neurosis, and Erik Erikson’s theories of development.


Do you have a recurring dream that appears only at specific times—when you are sick, when you feel particularly effective at work, when you are worried about a parent’s health or are in a rut of arguing with your partner? The dream itself may seem incidental or even odd (you’re back in high school, walking down a long hallway but unable to find your locker), but its continued presence at certain times in your life underscores its latent meaning. You are likely hashing out meaningful fears, hopes, or urges.

What about your friend who chews on everything, had a terrible time quitting smoking, and was a nail-biter through most of her childhood and teen years? Freud’s followers would say this is a clear-cut case of an oral fixation. Freud himself would posit that perhaps her mother was overly strict about your friend’s feeding schedule when she was an infant, and that your friend now exhibits the effects of a developmental hiccup that makes her continue to seek oral stimulation, a proxy for nourishment.

The term anal has gradually become shorthand for anal-retentive, the specific subtype of anal fixation that predisposes a person to obsessional inflexibility, perfectionism, orderliness, and neatness. Freud’s interpretation would be that people are doomed to be overly rigid in this manner because of having suffered a disruption at the anal stage, perhaps because of always needing to hold back bowel movements during toilet training, and that they will always be anxious and have trouble letting go. (Personalities that are anal-expulsive, and who perhaps had virtually no order or structure regarding toilet training, are characterized by messiness and disorganization, and even by aggressive impulses and outbursts.)

Perhaps you know your own defense mechanisms pretty well—it’s nearly guaranteed that your loved ones do. Do you tend to deal with emotional stress by keeping a stiff upper lip, not talking about your feelings, and pretending to everyone that you are fine? You may have a vested interest in denying your emotions and even repressing your stress because somewhere along the way your superego absorbed the idea, with your ego falling in line, that you just need to keep plowing forward without getting bogged down in your feelings. This could have happened via any number of messages that you grew up with: Big girls (or boys) don’t cry! Don’t be a wuss! Get over it and move on! But you may have noticed that your feelings don’t automatically go away just because they’ve been buried. In fact, they may come back to haunt you in an emotional outburst or in a troubling dream.

Maybe you’re much more likely to yell at your partner or your kids when you are stressed out about what’s going on at work. Your loved ones did nothing except exist and happen to be in your vicinity on a day when you felt really angry at your boss. But one false move—something as inconsequential as a sock left on the floor—and you scream at them. Freud would call this defense mechanism displacement. Your superego has internalized the idea that screaming at your boss is not acceptable, but you have so much built-up distress that it has to come out somewhere. And so your ego dictates that you will displace all that fury onto a safer, more acceptable object—the spouse or children who cannot fire you.

Perhaps you’ve had the Freudian slip to end all Freudian slips, like the classic “Over there, on the bed—uh, the couch!” that slipped out of the actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s mouth in the famous nude-portrait scene with Kate Winslet in Titanic. In that case, a sexually charged situation, the Freudian subtext was clear. Hollywood lore has it that the film’s director, James Cameron, thought this was such a true-to-life slip that he left it in the film.