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Evaluate the extent to which Freud’s theory of psychosexual development

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    Theory of Psychosexual Development

    In this essay I will be examining Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development. In order to understand fully I will begin by exploring his theories regarding the tri-partite structure of the human mind. I will be looking at the functions of the Id, Ego and Super-Ego and also those Ego Defence mechanisms that Freud describes as essential to human growth and survival. Once I have demonstrated comprehensive understanding, I will then examine his Theory of Psychosexual Development. In this part of the essay I will be exploring how his ideas relate to an understanding of neurotic behaviour in adults. Following on from this I will examine the advantages and disadvantages of Freud’s theory which will be discussed in my final evaluation.

    The Tri-Partite Mind
    Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) the” Father of Psychoanalysis” was a Neurologist, Medical Doctor, Psychologist and influential thinker of the early twentieth century. He is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind, repression and his concept of the dynamic unconscious. He stipulated that it is the unconscious mind that determines human behaviour. He also believed that the sexual drive was the dominant motivation of human life. Freud developed the theory that the human mind operates as a complex energy-system. He explains; The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious; what I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied. Trilling. L The Liberal Imagination (1979)

    This was a radical departure from contemporary beliefs and his new concept became a therapeutic frame of reference for the understanding of human psychological development. It became the foundation for understanding and treating abnormal mental conditions. Freud was fascinated by the unconscious mind saying; “Properly speaking, the unconscious is the real psychic; its inner nature is just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly reported to us through the data of consciousness as is the external world through the indications of our sensory organs.” Freud. The Interpretation of Dreams (1900)

    Freud distinguished three structural elements within the mind, which he called Id, Ego, and Super-Ego. He believed that the human mind has both conscious and unconscious areas and in this sense the mind can be viewed as a dynamic energy-system. He saw the unconscious mind as being the source of mental energy which determined behaviour. He based these findings on the results of his use of hypnosis where he found that he was able to produce and remove symptoms of hysteria. In his theory he proposed that the unconscious part of the mind is dominated by what he referred to as the “Id”. The Id contains the instinctual sexual drives which require satisfaction. This is a primitive part of the personality and as such is not concerned with social rules. It seeks only pleasure and self-gratification.

    Its function is to meet the most basic needs, without thought for others. The Ego inhabits the conscious mind. The conscious mind relates to the outside world and is used to govern and maintain reality. With reality comes responsibility and therefore the Ego monitors cause and effect. In this way consequences of actions are realised and evaluated. This means that the Ego is a conscious self and is largely created by the dynamic tensions and interactions between the Id and the Super-ego, which is the third part of the mind. The Ego performs the task of reconciling the conflicting demands with the requirements of external reality. Freud describes this; It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world. Freud. The Ego and the Id (1923)

    The third part of the mind is the Super-Ego. This develops as greater awareness of the rules and conventions of society, begin to influence. The Super-Ego contains a social conscience which is directed towards socially acceptable behaviour. It employs socially-acquired control mechanisms which have been internalized. These are usually imparted in the first instance by the parents. Braking systems such as guilt and shame begin to evolve in order to ensure safety of the individual. A healthy mind is able to balance the demands of the Id with the moral compass of the Super-Ego, whilst responding effectively to the reality of any given situation. In opposition to this an unhealthy mind dominated by, say, the Id has strong impulses towards instant gratification, destructive behaviours and immorality. This type of behaviour can lead to conduct disorders in childhood and psychopathy in adults. If the Super-Ego is in ascendant then a person would be repressed, judgemental and driven by rigidly moral standards. In adulthood this can lead to anxiety disorders, phobias and obsessive thinking.

    Ego Defences
    Freud identified three types of anxiety. Neurotic anxiety occurs when fear of loss of control of the Id’s urges, results in punishment for inappropriate behaviour. Reality anxiety is a fear of external events which in extremis can lead to phobias. Lastly there is moral anxiety. This is a fear of violating those moral principles and values established by the 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 accepting their repressed desires but also causing them to become socially incapable of enjoying a happy and healthy life. Defence mechanisms are employed by the mind in order to protect the individual from threatening situations. These methods distort reality in a way that protects the Ego from distress therefore allowing the person to cope with life’s experiences.

    Each defence mechanism exerts an unconscious and powerful influence on the behaviour of the individual. However there is a down side to this, as these mechanisms do not offer long-term solutions. Sometimes overuse creates a different set of psychological problems. In recognition of this, Freud saw that most human behaviour was therefore “abnormal”. He suggested that all humans suffer as a direct result of unconscious dynamic conflicts. Therefore it is perfectly “normal” to experience anxiety and that being abnormal was, in fact, quite normal. Freud postulated the theory that early childhood traumas are driven underground or repressed within the unconscious. Children do not have the wisdom or experience to deal with confusing and upsetting situations and this process of repression helps to protect the fragile Ego. However whilst these memories are pushed into the realm of the unconscious, they find an outlet in dreams, irrational behaviour and depression. This process of repression is designed to prevent harmful and distressing thoughts from becoming real or conscious. It can be so effective that an individual will be utterly unaware of their existence. Freud believed that the mind employed many forms of defensive behaviours. He saw that individuals who could not acknowledge their own unacceptable faults or desires sometimes’ Projected’ these onto someone else.

    For instance a person who was feeling great anger would instead accuse a fellow human of being angry. In an extreme form this can become paranoia. Denial is another mechanism which enables the mind to remain blind to the reality of a situation. In this way an individual can refuse to believe in the existence of uncomfortable emotions. Individuals also employ Regression as a means of avoiding reality. Regression occurs when the mind reverts to child-like behaviours. These behaviours were useful for getting needs met as a child and are frequently used in troubling situations. Again an individual may have no conscious awareness of doing this. Displacement results in diverting emotions onto someone else, again because the emotions cannot be safely expressed as criticisms of the Self cause huge anxiety. Sublimation occurs as an outlet for unconscious drives. These take the form of socially acceptable behaviours like sport. An individual can perform aggressively whilst engaging in sport and not be criticised but praised for their competitiveness.

    Theory of Psychosexual Development
    Freud developed his Theory of Psychosexual Development to explain the evolving stages each person experiences as they travel through life. He discovered that each problem in later life can be directly linked to the stage at which the unresolved conflict happened. Each stage is represented on a physical level because the sexual energies of the Id are focused on the erogenous zones. Freud called this psychosexual energy the life force or libido. The Oral Stage (0-18 months)

    In the beginning an infant’s main source of pleasure is experienced through the mouth. It is used for sucking food by breast or bottle feeding and exploring the outer world by differing tastes and textures. The primary conflict at this stage occurs with the process of weaning. Insufficient breastfeeding or too much pleasure at the breast can lead to ‘fixations’ later in life. An orally- receptive personality is dependent and trusting. In opposition an orally- aggressive personality seeks domination. Those individuals who are orally fixated may find solace and gratification by smoking, thumb-sucking, pencil chewing, overeating and nail-biting. The Anal Stage (18-36 months)

    During this stage pleasure is derived from expelling and/or withholding faeces. This stage is focused on controlling bowel and bladder movements, which is a growth towards independence. The area of conflict arises during the process of toilet training. Freud believed that the parental approach was critical in determining the outcome. Over-strict parenting accompanied by shaming and humiliation can lead to an anal-retentive personality which is frugal, stringent, rigid and possessive. Over-lenient parenting produces an anal-expulsive character which is messy, thoughtless and wasteful. The Phallic stage (3-6 years)

    Whilst moving onto this stage children begin to focus on their genital areas. Complementing this is a greater awareness of the opposite gender parent. This stage is resolved when a deeper bond is formed with the same gender parent. However super-ego fixations are caused by a lack of identification with an adult. Fixations at this stage result in the phallic personality type. These people are self-assured, vain and impulsive. Conflicts during this period can lead to a crisis of sexual identity and resentment of authority figures. In male children the Oedipus complex occurs when an unconscious rivalry develops with the father for the attentions of the mother. This cannot be resolved until desire to possess the mother is replaced by identification with the father. Female children experience penis envy at this time. Resolution comes when a desire to reproduce becomes more dominant. The Latency Stage (6 years – Puberty)

    As suggested by the name, sexual development moves into a stage of latency. Male and female children have little or no sexual development. Focus is directed towards learning social and communicative skills. The Genital Stage (Puberty)

    This stage begins with puberty and lasts the remainder of the individual lifetime. Sexual interest in the opposite sex now becomes predominant. There is also an increased awareness of the larger community and the individuals place within society. Compassion and empathy play a greater role as the needs of society are more effectively balanced with those of the individual.

    The work of Freud was responsible for bringing about a greater understanding of unusual or abnormal behaviours. He radically changed the view of sexuality making it an acceptable topic of conversation and a natural part of a healthy, happy life. The psychodynamic approach is also credited with highlighting the importance of childhood and the 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 up-dating of his original views.

    Carl G. Jung (1875 –1961) who was a pupil of Freud’s, disagreed with certain aspects of his theories in particular his focus on sex. He went on to develop his own theories known as analytical psychology. He was to say later, Freud said that the goal of therapy was to make the unconscious conscious. He certainly made that the goal of his work as a theorist. And yet he makes the unconscious sound very unpleasant, to say the least: It is a cauldron of seething desires, a bottomless pit of perverse and incestuous cravings, a burial ground for frightening experiences which nevertheless come back to haunt us. Frankly, it doesn’t sound like anything I’d like to make conscious!

    Jung C.G Mysterium Coniunctionis (1955-56)
    Erich Fromm (1900 – 1980) was also to reject Freud’s view that the drives of the human being are purely biological. He believed that freedom of choice and free-will play a crucial role in development. He saw that conflicts arose as a result of the fear or uncertainty which that freedom entailed. He states;

    Freedom is the fundamental condition for any growth.
    Fromm E. Escape from Freedom (1941)
    Feminists are particularly critical of the work of Freud, largely 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. Pulitzer Prize-winner Natalie Angier has this to say, Women never bought Freud’s idea of penis envy: who would want a shotgun when you can have an automatic?” Angier N. Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999)


    Freud was revolutionary in the way he looked at the psyche and his was the first model to establish talking therapy as an acceptable form of treatment. Many schools of thought have been greatly influenced by his work, namely Jung, Adler and Fromm. Psychoanalysis seeks to bring repressed memories and traumatic memories into conscious awareness. It also facilitates insight into the conflicts and anxieties that are the underlying causes of abnormal behaviour. Further to this, and it can often help relieve neurotic symptoms, such as phobias or anxiety. Freud’s concept of psycho-dynamism illustrates that some evidence can be gathered from free association, dreams, slips of the tongue and transference and that these help to interpret conscious thoughts, feelings and behaviours, which are powerfully influenced by unconscious factors.

    What is especially attractive about the theory is that it seems to offer long sought-after and much needed causal explanations for conditions which have been a source of a great deal of human misery. Scientifically the validity of Freud’s theory of psycho-sexual development is brought in to question due to the fact that every genuine scientific theory must be testable, and therefore falsifiable, at least in principle. This has proved to be hugely controversial. Many practitioners are critical of this and further doubts arise because some of Freud’s ideas were based on case studies or clinical observations, rather than empirical, scientific research. However in fairness, Freud was working at a time when the methodology of the social sciences was unheard of and therefore his “research” was limited and biased. 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. Without experimental evidence, Freudian theories often seem weak. Critics have also pointed out that Freud’s theoretical models arise from a homogenous sample group, almost exclusively upper-class Austrian women living in the sexually repressed society of the late 19th century. An interesting development has emerged as a result of this which has been the subject of much debate and speculation. It has been suggested that what Freud discovered in his clinic was an extreme prevalence of child sexual abuse, particularly of young women. He did in fact offer an early “seduction theory” of neuroses, which met with fierce animosity, and which he quickly withdrew and replaced with the theory of the unconscious.

    Whilst there is no denying that Freud is of great historical significance and brought about many ground breaking theories and ideas some of which still hold relevance today, many over time have been discredited. One of the problems is that it is difficult to specify what counts as a cure for a neurotic illness as opposed to an alleviation of the symptoms. In general, the efficiency of a given method of treatment is usually clinically measured by means of a control group. Such clinical tests as have been conducted indicate that the proportion of patients who have benefited from psychoanalytic treatment does not diverge significantly from the proportion who recover spontaneously or as a result of other forms of intervention. So, the question of the therapeutic effectiveness of psychoanalysis remains an open and controversial one. Therefore I am suggesting that it should not be the sole model on which to rely for any understanding of a client’s presenting issue.


    •Freud. S The interpretation of Dreams (1900) (Translation A.A Brill 1913) New York; Macmillan •Freud. S The Ego and the Id (1923) The Hogarth Press Ltd. London, 1949. •Trilling.L The Liberal Imagination. Essays on Literature and Society (1979) Re-print of 1950 ed. New York; Harcourt •Jung, C. G. (1955–56). The Conjunction, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Collected Works, XIV, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. •Angier.Natalie Women: An Intimate Geography (1999) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt •Fromm E Escape from Freedom, (1994) Henry Holt & Company Inc; Owl Book ed

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