Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)


Sigmund Freud’s work, which founded the psychoanalysis treatment approach, has been a basis of critique concerning its modern applicability. This essay considers Freud’s life, its influence on his work, and the relevance of such work in the 21st century. Freud’s early life, such as his relationship with his mother, formed a basis for the inquiries embedded in his theories. His consideration of his father to be a rival for his mother’s love was, for instance, reflected in his psychosexual stages theory. The psychosexual stages theory establishes the need for parents to manage their children’s sex and aggression behavior, since such form the basis for personality development. Despite the profound influence his work has had on the theories developed later, some of his assumptions on human nature such as psychic energy do not offer much evidence for the development of psychoanalysis in the 21st century. Other concepts, such as anxiety resulting from aspects that one is unaware of still bear relevance in exploratory psychotherapy.

Keywords. Sigmund Freud, Psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic psychology.

Sigmund Freud’s work has received significant critique, especially regarding its applicability in the 21st century. Freud was an Australian neurologist, whose work launched the field of psychoanalysis as a treatment approach for neurotic ailments (Hartmann, 2009, p. 2333). Born on May 6, 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, Freud was the first of the eight children born to his parents (Hartmann, 2009, p. 2333). Following economic adversity, Freud’s family relocated to settle in Vienna in 1860 from where Freud attended school and spent most of his life. Freud’s father was a Jewish merchant with poor financial means. He married Amelia, his second wife and Freud’s mother, a lively lady 20 years his junior (Boeree, 2009).

From an early age, Sigmund demonstrated his high intellect, which was acknowledged by his parents by their dedication to take him to school despite their meager earnings (Boeree, 2009). As he excelled in his school subjects, his parents provided all the education they could afford. Freud was a sensitive child especially to his father’s criticism. He was ashamed of his father for not defending himself when others would chastise him for being Jewish; he perceived this as a weakness (Grubin, 2002). He also considered his father to be a competitor for his mother’s love, a perception that resulted into deep-seated issues for him later in life but formed a foundation for the theories he formulated later.

Sigmund’s relationship with his mother was special. Grubin notes that as Freud examined his feelings for his mother, “He came to realize that, as a boy, he wanted to marry his mother, and saw his father as a rival for her love” (Grubin, 2002). He always enjoyed his mother’s affectionate and unconditional love. Such unconditional love from her mother would make Freud observe later: “When you were incontestably the favorite child of your mother, you keep during your lifetime this victor feeling, you keep feeling sure of success, which in reality seldom doesn’t fulfill” (Chiriac, 1998). Through his life, his mother was the one constant thing that he could depend upon for inspiration.

Freud’s foray into the medical field started in in 1873, when he enrolled at the University of Vienna to study medicine (Hartmann, 2009, p. 2333). In 1881, he completed his doctorate, worked at the Viennese university’s institute of physiology subsequently and eventually achieved his habilitation in 1884 (Hartmann, 2009, p. 2333). In 1885, Freud became a lecturer at the same university, a period during which, on a study tour to Paris, with Jean-Martin Charcot, an eminent neurologist, he evaluated hypnosis-based treatment approach for hysteria; the failure of this approach provided the impetus for Freud’s work on psychoanalysis (Hartmann, 2009, p. 2333; Grubin, 2002).

Following failure of the hypnosis-approach for treating hysteria, Freud started developing a psychoanalytic approach founded on the concept of free association. According to this concept, and as perceived by Freud, by-passing the conscious barriers allowed one to enter a state of deeper truth that would enable the identification of unconscious conflicts that caused neurotic symptoms (Hartmann, 2009, p. 2333). One of such by-passes was through dreams, which Freud elaborated on in his 1900 seminal publication: “The Interpretation of Dreams.” In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud advanced his belief that dreams offered a way through which one could access the unconscious, but that a dream was not synonymous to the unconscious (Rodriguez, 2001, p. 397). To decipher the meanings of dreams, one had to be part of the dreaming process, thus analysis of the dream had to take place by the dreamer taking an active role, as a subject, rather than the object of analysis (Rodriguez, 2001, p. 397). This was the basis of Freud’s psychoanalytic approach, that the client needs to participate in the therapy as subject, providing insight to the therapist by verbalizing his or her unconscious thoughts.

In 1923, Freud constructed his psychosexual theory, which emphasized that parents’ management of their children’s sex and aggression drives in early childhood shaped such children’s personality development (Boeree, 2009). According to Freud, the disparity and development of the id, ego and the superego, determines an individual’s personality since they determine how such an individual behaves in a particular situation (Boeree, 2009). The id represents the unconscious psychic energy that functions to meet the basic survival, reproduction and aggression instincts. Its principle is to seek immediate satisfaction whenever it is not constrained by the moderating effects of the ego, and the restraining impulses of the super ego (Boeree, 2009).

A child’s ego develops following ones encounters in the real world. The ego moderates the activity of the id, since, by acting on the reality principle, it seeks to avoid impulsive demands in an attempt to achieve satisfaction at the least painful cost (Boeree, 2009). The ego strives to ensure that an individual takes actions consciously, thus requires the individual’s actions to involve judgments that determine the right course of action based on aspects such as memories of consequences from previous actions (Boeree, 2009). The ego serves as a moderating aspect between the demands of the id (impulsive) and those of the superego (restraining/ perfectionist), while considering the actual demands presented by the individual’s external environment (Cherry, 2011). The perfectionist nature of the superego implies that it seeks to take actions that have no negative costs.

Whenever the ego fails to moderate the demands of the id and the superego, the individual feels anxious. According Freud, anxiety is an unspecific fear, whose lack of specificity makes it hard to manage (Boeree, 2009). Whenever anxiety becomes overwhelming, Freud postulated that the ego initiates various defensive mechanisms, which manifests in such aspects as denial (refusal to experience the external events), repression (motivation to forget the external events) and displacement (redirecting the impulse to an alternative target) (Boeree, 2009).

Freud’s work in psychotherapy was influenced by the relationship he had with his mother and father. Although revolutionary for his time, the concepts based on a biological perspective, such as psychic energy, assumed to explain human nature do not offer relevant approaches to developing psychotherapy. (Frank, 2008). However, the treatment based approaches that majored on the concept of aspects such as anxiety resulting from reasons that the sufferers are not aware of, still bears some relevance for exploratory psychotherapy (Frank, 2008). However, such approaches may not be practical in clinical therapy since they would require the therapist to help the patients relive their “neurotic ways of being” (Frank, 2008, p. 377). Reliving such ways could take years to perfect.


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Rodriguez, L. S. (2001). The interpretation of dreams [1900]. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 35(3), 396-403, doi:10.1046/j.1440-1614.2001.0907a.x

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