Sigmound Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) developed some of the most influential theories in modern psychology and psychoanalysis. His division of the mind into the conscious and unconscious components have driven research on the brain into very specific directions, and his contributions extend into the field of neuroscience, as well. By exploring the underlying motivations of our behaviors, Freud pioneered new levels of abstraction in human thought.

A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis is a great place to start if you would like a book by Freud. See bottom of page for a full list of suggested books on Freud.

Before diving into an introduction to Freud's thoughts on personality development, a few concepts must be clarified.

Freud's Conscious and Unconscious, Repression

For Freud, the mind is best conceptualized in two distinct components, the conscious and unconscious. The unconscious portion contains the thoughts we may potentially have, as well as the desires which dictate our behavior without our awareness. Zizek refers to this region as storing the "unknown-knowns" - the things we don't know that we know. Societal regulations force us to repress certain aspects of ourselves, and the unconscious serves as the storehouse for this collection. Many of our inner urges are too disturbing for the conscious mind (and society at large) to cope with immediately. Therefore, we sublimate these secrets into a region we cannot face directly.

The ego is responsible for repressing unconscious thoughts. Things that are too disturbing to face immediately are pushed out of awareness by the ego. However, the unconscious continues to exert influence on the behavior of the individual. This psychological pressure creates a continuous battle between the ego and unconscious portions of the psyche. The dynamics of this struggle are the target of much of Freud's psychoanalytic theories. He described the mind as composed of various components. Each component is responsible for one of the various functions the mind executes. The relations of these parts are the subject of much debate in psychoanalysis.

Freud and Motivation

Although notorious for his emphasis upon sexual desire as a motivating force, there are common misunderstandings. Sexuality and libido is not restricted for the simple desire for procreation and orgasm, it includes all bodily pleasures we seek or require. Libido should be conceptualized as the manifestation of instinct, fueling our natural bodily inclinations. Sex itself is emphasized because of the intense and direct conflict it creates between the individual and their social environment.

Freud's Ego, Superego, Id

Freud conceptualized three separate but interactive psychic parts. The id is the source of drives, including biological drives such as the sex and death drives (see below). The id also stores the repressions the superego passes from conscious experiences. Ideologies and beliefs guide our behavior, and these reside within the superego. The superego restricts the flow of unwieldy drives upon the conscious mind. The ego regulates the conscious mind's rational decision making processes, coping with the environment, and so on.

Dialectics and Psychoanalysis

As a clinician, Freud realized that many patients repeat their poor behavior despite a desire to stop. Many therapeutic methods were obviously ineffective. Furthermore, the pleasure principle (that an individual seeks to maximize his/her enjoyment and happiness) alone could not provide sufficient explanation.

Freud expanded upon his model of the unconscious to account for these inefficiencies. Masochism (the phenomenon of enjoying pain) and sadism (finding pleasure in delivering pain) are also poorly explained by his pleasure principle. The unconscious, Freud postulated, is comprised of three instincts (Bunnin and Yu 2004). The life instinct (Eros) pushes the individual to improve their skills, become better people, and succeed in life. Eros fuels personality development as it is conceptualized by authors like Dabrowski - allowing us to adopt more effectively to our social environment. The sex drive creates libidinal energy. This includes the desire for sex, but also creates desire for all bodily pleasures (good meals, massages, etc.). The death drive (Thanatos), pushes us towards rest - with the ultimate "rest" residing only in death. Although the superego tries to override the urges of Thanatos, the unconscious will often take control. These battles are frequent and ferocious. Think of the drug addict who must pass drug tests during probation. The death drive forces them to consume the drug, and the life drive forces them to "clean up" for their tests. The winner of this battle will determine the fate of the individual.

Freud eventually realized the profundity of this idea, and integrated it as a fundamental concept used to explain the other forces.

If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons — becomes inorganic once again — then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and, looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones’ (Freud, Freud, and Strachey 1991: 246).

From this perspective, we can see why Eros and Thanatos, in reality, cannot be separated. They are mutually dependent and psychic energy bounces between them. Libido is of course the source of this energy, and Freud articulated the intimacy of this force and its channels.

In (multicellular) organisms the libido meets the instinct of death, or destruction, which is dominant in them and which seeks to disintegrate the cellular organism and to conduct each separate unicellular organism [composing it] into a state of inorganic stability (relative though this may be). The libido has the task of making the destroying instinct innocuous, and it fulfills the task by diverting that instinct to a great extent outwards — soon with the help of a special organic system, the muscular apparatus — towards objects in the external world. The instinct is then called the destructive instinct, the instinct for mastery, or the will to power. A portion of the instinct is placed directly in the service of the sexual function, where it has an important part to play. This is sadism proper (Freud, Strachey, Freud, Rothgeb, Richards 1953: 163).

By moving self destructive forces away from the self and directing them toward the outer environment, libido curtails masochism and redirects the death drive toward sadism. This process doesn't need to result in harm towards another person or object. Many aggressive actions are actually encouraged by society, such as placing stress on other people to work harder. Because libido often guides the death instinct, the two share a dialectical rather than oppositional relationship.

Freud and Personality Development

How does Freud explain personality development? With all of the emphasis on seemingly negative drives, a developmental psychologist may wonder what makes us progress as individuals. One obvious insight is that the life drive pushes personal progress. Its need for harmony and balance within the nervous system creates incentive to do the things we deem acceptable as a society. From this perspective, it appears that personality development, for Freud, was driven by the desire for immediate resolution of the problems we face as human beings. This, picture, however, is incomplete. Think of the patient who repeats poor behavior. Or, think of the suicidal artist or work addict who constantly seeks to push the limit, never finding satisfaction, always feeling discomfort. Motivation is not a simple thing to understand.

Freud explained that libido is often sublimated into desexualized energy. This energy is invested in all kinds of other psychic efforts - both productive and destructive. In fact, Freud argued that it is this desexualized energy which pushes the individual to develop in all aspects of their lives. The mechanics of this process are outlined in the relations between the ego, id and superego. The ego manufactures and stores the "object-cathexes" sexual energy directs itself toward. The superego diverts this energy into non-sexual ambitions which are often more socially permissible.

The ego wants above all to be loved. [. . .] But it only becomes the id’s love object by diverting, or sublimating, part of the drive, and repressing the remainder. Ultimately, the id will not reward the ego for managing — and inevitably frustrating — its demands. When the superego emerges, as an incorporation of the father whose strength is to bolster the ego against the id (rather like the cannibal who ingests his enemy in order to appropriate his strengths), the superego also, paradoxically, serves to represent the id’s grievances to the ego (Faulkner 2005).

With the possibility of sublimation arises the independence of the death drive, which may now operate without dependence upon libido. The death drive may then motivate personality development by encouraging pusuit of sublimated cathexes. This is yet another motivation for the vast array of activities we engage in.

[…] the differentiation of the super-ego from the ego is no matter of chance; it represents the most important characteristics of the development both of the individual and of the species; indeed, by giving permanent expression to the influence of the parents it perpetuates the existence of the factors to which it owes its origin (Freud, Freud, and Strachey 1991: 458).

A long list of questions naturally arises. What level of control does the individual have in determining their motivations? What are the mechanics of the process of sublimation? Psychoanalytic theorists - especially Lacan - really dug into the details of these questions and have taken Freud's theories to a new level of sophistication.

Freud's Stages of Development

It is important to contrast Freud's concepts of motivation to the hierarchical models explained by authors like Dabrowski and Maharishi. Although Freud did mention how psychology develops within certain age ranges, this only happened in early childhood. The processes involved in adult development is not the focus of Freud's work. Rather, he theorized how early childhood experiences impacted behavior later in life. We all share certain psychic structures - the conscious, unconscious, ego, id, etc - but we are also all confined to these structures throughout our lives. Many authors hypothesize an ability to overcome the natural blockages in the mind, but Freud believed that our drives may only be redirected, rather than restructured. Freud emphasized how the events in early childhood affected how drives are directed later in life.

From the moment of birth to the age of two, the infant's desire is focused around the mouth and lips because they receive nourishment from the breast of the mother. As time passes, this drive seeks all the various forms of care the mother provides. Notoriously, Freud hypothesized that this love of the mother is the original manifestation of the sex drive. The Oedipus complex includes both the love of the mother and the hatred of the father, who prohibits access and competes for the mother's attention. (Freud, Freud, and Strachey 1991: 33).

The sadistic-anal phase emerges from age two to four. The child is directly confronted with the stark contrast between natural urges and societal norms when faced with the need for elimination (the final phase of digestion). This impulse must be delayed, else the child is punished or embarrassed. This is why toilet training is so important for Freudian psychologists. Excessive punishment may lead the child to withhold elimination, and this affects behavior later in life - miserliness and stubbornness, for example. If, however, the child is rewarded and supported through toilet training, creativity and productivity may result later on (Mendaglio 2008: 262).

Sex organs take the center stage from the age of four to seven. The phallic stage is marked by increased ego influence: Societal demands become more intense, and therefore more drives must be harnessed. The child begins to identify increasingly with the father as an attempt to appeal to the mother. Repression is necessary to cope with the deep seated hatred of the father's competition.

Finally, the genital stage is the final stage of Freud's model of personality development. In the genital stage, the individual continues to cope with balancing all of the aforementioned psychological forces (ego, id, superego, etc). Now, in puberty, the individual is fully sexually developed, and the sexual instinct manifests very strongly.


Freud's theories of personality development focus on how our natural psychic drives adjust due to societal regulations. Freud emphasized how events in early childhood dictated our behavior later in life. Adult development was not Freud's focus, and he rejected hierarchical models of personality development because they unfairly imposed societal norms upon the individual.

Works Cited

Bunnin, Nicholas, and Jiuan YU. "Eros (Freud) : The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy : Blackwell Reference Online." Blackwell Reference Online: Home. The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, 2004. Web. 28 May 2010.
Faulkner, Joanne. "Freud." An Internet Journal of Philosophy 9 (2005). University of Limerick Homepage. Web. 10 May 2010.
Freud, Sigmund, Anna Freud, and James Strachey. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." The Essentials of Psycho-analysis. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991. Print.
Freud, Sigmund, Anna Freud, and James Strachey. "The Ego and the Id." The Essentials of Psycho-analysis. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991. Print.
Freud, Sigmund, Anna Freud, and James Strachey. The Essentials of Psycho-analysis. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991. Print.
Freud, Sigmund, James Strachey, Anna Freud, Carrie Lee Rothgeb, and Angela Richards. "The Economic Problem of Masochism." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1953. Print.
Mendaglio, Sal. "The Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) and Other Approaches to Personality." Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential, 2008. Print.

Books by and about Freud

Freud - A Graphical Introduction by Maer and Simon. This is a very approachable introduction to Freud.

The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. This is mandatory reading for aspiring Freud scholars, or those interested in becoming an analyst.

Civilization and Its Discontents by Freud. Another definitive classic by Freud.

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