Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development
Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development
Sigmund Freud, born in 1856 was an Austrian neurologist who would later go on to found the discipline of psychoanalysis. He is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind and repression and his concept of the dynamic unconscious suggesting that it is our unconscious mind that determines how we as individuals behave, Freud also believed that the unconscious mind established sexual drives as the dominant motivation of human life. He considered the unconscious mind as being the source of mental energy which determined behaviour, basing his findings on the results of his use of hypnosis where he found that he was able to produce and remove symptoms of hysteria.
There have been numerous approaches in the field of psychology that have put forward the belief that behaviour is directed by an individual’s goals but the idea behind a goal-directed unconscious is an original Freudian concept. The main underlying belief of this theory is that any individuals’ behaviour is the direct result of the influences that prior experiences have had on them where these influences have an even greater effect if they are from our childhood. Freud believed that our early experiences formed the solid foundations on which we would build the structure of our life and that the adult personality is indeed formed in childhood according to the situations, treatment and feelings experienced as a child.
Freud defined the human psyche as comprising of three parts, the unconscious or sub-conscious containing material that we are unable to bring into our conscious awareness and therefore unknowable. The preconscious which consists of information that is not at the present moment in our conscious awareness but is stored in our memory and can if need be easily recalled to the conscious level; and the conscious part of our mind which is where all current and new incoming content is processed. Within these parts operate the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego that work together to create complex human behaviours. The Id is the only part of our personality that is present from birth and is entirely unconscious, seeking instant gratification and fulfilling instinctive human needs. The Id is governed by the pleasure principle desiring the fulfilment of all desires, needs and wants. If these are not immediately satisfied this results in a state of anxiety or tension.
The Id serves of great importance early on in life, a child will cry as a result of their Id if they are hungry or in discomfort and ensures that their needs are met. Later on in life it is not always realistic or indeed possible to immediately satisfy such needs, it would be morally and socially unacceptable for us to just help ourselves to other people’s things in order to satisfy our own needs and wants and so later in childhood our Ego comes in to play. The Ego is responsible for dealing with reality and acts to ensure that the impulses of the Id are satisfied in a way that is acceptable to the real world and functions in the conscious, preconscious and unconscious parts of our mind. The reality principle weighs up the pro’s and con’s of an action before deciding whether or not to act upon the impulse. Often the impulses of the Id can be satisfied but through delayed gratification with the Ego allowing the behaviour at an appropriate time and place. The Ego is a part of the Id that has been somewhat modified and rounded by external factors in the environment in which we live.
Freud originally used the word Ego to mean a sense of self but later revised it to represent a set of psychic functions such as judgement, control, intellectual functioning and memory. Finally we develop our Super Ego. The Super Ego is the part of our personality that holds our morals and ideals that we have acquired from our parents and environment and acts as a voice for right and wrong. As with the Ego it is present in the conscious, preconscious and unconscious parts of our mind. The Super Ego consists of two parts, the Ego ideal which sets out the rules and standards for good behaviour. Conformity to behaviours that are approved of by our parents and people in positions of authority give us feelings of pride and accomplishment. The second part of the Ego is the Conscience which holds information on all the things that are viewed as being bad by our parents and the society in which we live. Behaviours that are forbidden or at the very least frowned upon and fill us with feelings of guilt and remorse. The perfection principle of the Super Ego strives to suppress any unacceptable desires of the Id and to make our Ego act upon idealistic rather than realistic standards.
One of Freud’s better known theories and also one of the most controversial is that of psycho-sexual development. He proposed that an instinctual libido is present in all of us from birth and develops in five stages. First is the oral stage which occurs from birth up until around the age of eighteen months. The main focus here being the gratification and pleasures the infant receives through feeding. Children in this stage place objects into their mouths in order to orally explore their environment. At this young age the child is entirely dependent on their carers and thus develops a sense of trust and comfort in relation to those carers.
This stage is dominated by the Id as at this point the Ego and Superego have not yet fully developed and all actions are based on the “Pleasure Principle”. The key experience for a child in the oral stage of development is weaning, allowing the child to become less dependent on their caretakers. Freud said that too much or too little gratification may lead to an oral fixation, which Freud claimed could result in them developing a passive, immature, manipulative personality. This fixation could present in an adult as issues with eating, smoking, nail biting and aggression.
The second stage of psycho-sexual development is the anal stage taking place between around 18 months to three years old. Freud believed at this stage that the primary focus of the libido was on controlling bladder and bowel movements. Toilet training is the key experience here which brings into conflict the Id that demands immediate gratification and the Ego that demands delayed gratification. The resulting outcome of this conflict is heavily influenced by the parenting style that a child receives during toilet training. The ideal resolution of this conflict is a gradual adjustment whereby the child adjusts to moderate parental demands, learning the values of physical cleanliness and self control.
Freud suggested that if parents over-emphasized toilet training or punished accidents then the child may develop what we term as an anally retentive personality, with the potential to become obsessively concerned with neatness and order. On the other hand if the parents were too lenient then the child may develop an anally expulsive and destructive personality whereby they are self-indulgent, messy and wasteful. Faeces and money are often linked in psychodynamic literature and according to Freudian theory; attitudes to money can reveal what the individual experienced during toilet training.
The third stage of psycho-sexual development is the phallic stage taking place between the ages of three and six. During this time a child begins to gain awareness of its body and also the bodies of their parents and other children, in particular genitalia. They begin to explore their genitals and learn the physical differences between male and female. During this stage boys experience what Freud termed as the Oedipus complex whereby the child wishes to remove his father in order to gain full attention of his mother’s affections. This urge to eliminate the father is controlled by what he termed as castration anxiety and so instead the child learns to imitate the father. Girls experience what Carl Jung in 1913 termed as the Electra complex where instead she wishes to remove the mother in order to gain full possession of her father.
Freud however rejected this term as being psycho-analytically inaccurate believing that the reasoning behind the Oedipus complex applied only to male children and that it was wrong to share this analogy between the two sexes. He did however believe that girls experienced what he termed as penis envy and that initially the child experiences a lot of anger towards their mother for not sharing the same appendage as their father but in time they learn to identify with their mother in order to possess their father. Freud was very much influenced by the death of his father in 1896. In the three years following the death of his father, Freud became preoccupied with self-analysis where he realised that he had repressed feelings of anger and resentment against his father. He believed that as a small boy he had been in love with his mother and was jealous of his father. Freud based his theory of early sexual development on personal theory instead of exploring further using empirical methods.
The fourth stage of psycho-sexual development is the latency stage taking place from around the age of six up until puberty. During this stage the child enters into a sexually dormant period, consolidating the habits of the previous three stages. The Ego and Superego take precedence over the Id due to the child’s defence mechanisms repressing its instinctual drives during the phallic stage. Now that gratification is delayed, the child is driven to derive pleasure from external activities such as friendships, education and hobbies. Any neuroses established during this fourth stage of psycho-sexual development may be due to the unresolved issues of the Oedipus complex or the Ego’s failure to focus on socially acceptable activities.
The fifth and final stage of psycho-sexual development is the genital stage that spans from puberty throughout the remainder of adult life. As with the phallic stage the genital stage is focussed upon genitalia but in this instance the sexuality is consensual and more often involving another adult in the form of a relationship rather than being solitary and infantile. This is due to the establishment of the Ego which shifts attention away from primary-drive gratification to secondary process thinking and to satisfy desire in a more symbolic and intellectual way through loving relationships, friendships and family. The genital stage is the time when a person is able to resolve any psycho-sexual childhood conflicts that they may have and allows psychological detachment and independence from their parents.
In previous stages focus was placed solely on individual needs, now the welfare of others comes strongly into play and if all stages have been completed successfully then Freud believed that the individual should be a well-balanced and fully functioning person. Unfortunately it isn’t all that simple and the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego continuously come into conflict with one another. The Ego has to work to control the demands of the Id whilst at the same time having regard for the restrictions placed upon it by the Super Ego. At times these desires and constraints cause conflict that our Ego is unable to deal with resulting in anxiety and stress.
Freud identified three types of anxiety, firstly neurotic anxiety which occurs through fear that we will lose control of the Id’s urges and the resulting punishment for inappropriate behaviour. Secondly reality anxiety which is a fear of external events often culminating in phobias, we are able to reduce such anxiety by avoiding the threatening object or situation. Thirdly is moral anxiety from a fear of violating our own moral principles and values that have been set down by our Super Ego. Neurosis also figured heavily in Freud’s psycho-analytical theory. He proposed that neurosis occurs when the Ego is unable to deal with desires that produce feelings of guilt and a sense of wrong. Through repression these thoughts manifest themselves through symptoms that have no physical dysfunction.
The mental illness acts as a replacement for the guilt ridden desires of the Id allowing the Ego to avoid the conflict between itself and the Id. Such symptoms however are worse than the conflict they set out to hide, not only stopping the individual from being accepting of their repressed desires but also causing them to become socially incapable of enjoying a happy and healthy life. He also believed that neurosis can be triggered by a traumatic childhood event that the individual is unable to handle. Often such experiences give rise to feelings of guilt that we seek to repress through use of various displacement mechanisms. Sometimes these repressed memories make their way back into our conscious minds in a different form producing a great amount of anxiety in turn triggering psychological disorders that seek to block out the real cause.
Psychoanalytical therapy has proved productive in being able to help a client uncover unconscious defence mechanisms and help them find better ways of dealing with their anxiety or removing it all together. Psycho-analysis opened up a new view regarding the treatment of mental illness, suggesting that psychological distress could be reduced through talking about their problems with a therapist. The work of Freud was responsible for bringing about a greater understanding of behaviour that was unusual and differences were no longer automatically equated as unacceptable, with understanding comes greater tolerance. He radically changed the view of sexuality making it an acceptable topic of conversation and a natural part of a healthy, happy life. The approach is also credited with highlighting the importance of childhood and our unconscious mind.
Despite the influential effect of his theories Freud is open to numerous criticisms. Many psychologists have adopted his ideas but there has been a great deal of modernisation on his original views. Carl Jung who was a pupil of Freud’s even disagreed with certain aspects of his theories; in particular Freud’s reliance on sex as the answer to many problems. Jung went on to develop his own theories known as Analytical Psychology. Erich Fromm rejected Freud’s view that the drives of the human being are solely biological, believing instead that it was down to our freedom of choice and ability to choose our own destiny. He believed any conflict arose as a result of the fear or uncertainty which that freedom entailed. Feminists are particularly critical of the work of Freud due to the sexist nature of many of his ideas.
Neo-Freudian Karen Horney proposed that instead of penis envy girls in fact developed power envy and that in their inability to bear children men develop womb and vagina envy. Scientifically the validity of Freud’s theory of psycho-sexual development is brought in to question due to his perceived personal fixation on human sexuality and the phallic stage of development proved controversial for being based upon clinical observations of the Oedipus complex. Many were critical of the fact that a lot of Freud’s ideas were based on case studies or clinical observations rather than empirical, scientific research.
Contemporary criticism questions the universality of Freud’s theory of personality and psycho-sexual development. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski studied the matriarchal society of the Trobriand where young boys are punished by their maternal uncles not their fathers and thus suggested that in this case power is the source of Oedipal conflict not sexual jealousy. Contemporary research has also confirmed that although personality traits corresponding to the oral, anal, phallic, latent and genital stages are observable they are not necessarily fixed stages of childhood or indeed adult personality traits that were derived from childhood.
While there is no denying that Freud is of great historical significance and he developed many ground breaking theories and ideas some of which still hold relevance today although many over time have been discredited. It must then be said that Freud’s theory of psychosexual development may in some cases offer us a limited understanding of a client’s issue it would not be ethical practice to rely entirely on this theory when working with a client. Due to its lack of credibility in many areas, Freud’s theory cannot be implemented as a full explanation or means with which to begin the process of understanding and healing.
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