The psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud

Categories: Sigmund Freud

The psychoanalytic theory was developed by Sigmund Freud who sought to make an impact on the world. This theory was developed in the late nineteenth century, and it is said to bring out what is at the unconscious or subconscious level up to consciousness (Ackerman, 2018). Freud argued that the behaviour of people could be understood through examining their unconsciousness, and thus he believed that if there was a disturbance in a person's life it was most probably related to their unconscious.

According to Freud, people could access their unconscious through different ways such as slips of the tongue, in their dreams, and by using their sense of humour. These would manifest unconscious conflicts and bring them to the person's conscious state causing them to act in a certain way. The psychoanalytic theory also explains 'self' as the mental structure. A person is never one thing, but is instead a "multiplicity of interacting systems and processes" (Watson, 2014). Multiple different factors contribute to this concept of self, and in order to understand a person's behaviour, one would have to explore and examine those factors first.

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As human beings we have two drives or instincts which enable us to live. The life instinct, eros, which includes our urge to survive and sexual drive, and the death instinct, Thanatos, which is a person's destructive tendencies and the instinct that we need to be prepared to fight for what we need or want. As explained above, unconsciousness is one of those factors, childhood is another. Freud focused heavily on the early years of life and the implications it could have on a person's life.

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He believed that they had a substantial impact, and were able to explain why a person behaved the way they did. Furthermore, a person's relationship with self is determined by the functioning of their id, ego, and superego. The ego acts a balance between the id which works on the pleasure principle, and the super ego which is often referred to as your conscious. Both sides of the balance need to be kept in check because if one ends up dominating the other, it could lead to serious issues in a person's behaviour. If there is a disturbance in a person's mental health, one would need to examine all of these factors to find where the fault lies. By identifying the cause of the problem and remedying it, a person's behaviour would hopefully change for the better.

During the 1950s, a new theory was on the rise. The theory of Humanism. It was introduced and developed by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. The overall assumption of this theory was that humans had the freedom to decide their own lives, and they possessed in themselves the capacity and potential to grow past disturbances or dysfunctions (Dombeck, 2019). It is a more intrinsic approach to psychology and understand behaviour than extrinsic. One's progress depends on the person their capacity to grow. As a human being, one is born without sin. Society writes sin on people throughout the course of their lives, but in and of themselves, humans are inherently good. Humanism doesn't agree with the argument that human beings have original sin. Instead sin is only introduced to people later in life, and as one matures, they can grow past that sin to reach their full potential. If one looks at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right at the top is self-actualization, the desire to become the most that one can be, and that is what every person should aspire to. Humanist theorists believed that mental health or dysfunctions were caused by faulty development processes and immaturity (Dombeck, 2019). They argued that through therapy and growth one could change their behaviour and move past their disturbance. People are constantly striving to be the best they can be, some are just moving quicker than others or are more mature (Wong, 2014). Some have processes that are not functioning the way they should and are thus slowing this growth.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, psychologists began to realize that Western Psychology was not all inclusive, and that imposing it on other cultures, who don't necessarily have the same values or belief system that the Western world does, will do more harm than good. They thus had to come up with a different approach in order to help these people deal with their mental health issues in a way that is not contrary to their culture. Thus, African Psychology was born. African psychology is primarily culture-based with a huge focus on community. Ubuntu is the term used to describe this concept of self in relation to others. African psychologists argue that culture is motivational, and it affects or influences many of the choices one makes on a daily basis. This theory is based on the fact that everything is in balance with the universe, and is relies on harmony in spirit. Body, mind, and soul are all interconnected and need to be in unison with each other at all times in order for an individual to be healthy and experience wholeness. Mental illness has a spiritual connotation and it is often believed to be the cause of something supernatural such as possession.

In comparison to the psychoanalytical theory, African psychology is more others-orientated than self-focused. Freud argued that in order to survive one had to rely on one's self by making sure that one's ego was balancing the id and the superego correctly. By contrast, African psychology believes that while one has to maintain a balance between one's body, soul, and mind, they are ultimately part of a bigger picture. They need to be in harmony with the universe and with those around them in order to live a healthy and successful life. The states of consciousness according to psychoanalysis are one's conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious. This a mental approach while in African psychology a more spiritual approach is taken, focusing on soul and spirit rather than the mind. The soul governs the body instead of the mind.

Additionally, the humanism theory is also based on self and the potential one has in order to grow and mature. However, African psychology argues that one's identity should rather be found in the community, and not necessarily in one's self. It teaches that there is power and strength in numbers. Together people can accomplish more than if they try to solve a problem individually. This opposes the humanist approach which suggests that everything one needs to move past problem or to resolve a mental disorder is contained within themselves. One has to just be mature enough to move on from it.

Many times in the past, psychologists have tried imposing their Western ideas on the African culture and community. The result? Discrimination, confusion, and conflict.

Updated: Mar 11, 2022
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The psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. (2019, Nov 25). Retrieved from

The psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud essay
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