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Sigmund Freud—His Life, Work, and Theories

Kim has her BA in psychology, with a double minor in sociology and child development. She also has an associate in media communications.

What's Behind the Man?

When I was studying psychology, I found Freud to be more than interesting.  What was the true rational behind his theories?  Why did he think the way he thought?  Was there a deeper meaning behind his work?  What do you think?

When I was studying psychology, I found Freud to be more than interesting. What was the true rational behind his theories? Why did he think the way he thought? Was there a deeper meaning behind his work? What do you think?

Sigmund Freud Theories and Legacy

When you look back at what Sigmund Freud accomplished during his life, you must admit it is quite amazing. Even if you disagree with his theories, one should give credit where credit is rightly due. To have started an era in the field of psychology when the world around him was, for all intents and purposes, falling apart is a feat in itself.

Who Is This Sigmund Freud You Speak Of?

When I think of the field of psychology, I think of many things. I think of words like personality, and concepts like nature versus nurture. I also think of theories that revolve around the unconscious and conscious minds and ideas that deal with human development. Psychology is such a broad field in today’s society that one needs to study everything from neuroscience to theories of personality in order to truly understand the human mind. Surprisingly so, there once lived a physician named Sigmund Freud who realized this same important connection between the human mind and its body. He became fascinated with ideas such as the relevance of one’s unconscious self and dream interpretation. Freud even created processes such as free association and psychoanalysis as a way of determining what is truly behind our thoughts. It is for this and many other reasons that Freud has been dubbed one of the founding fathers of psychology by most individuals. Freud challenged his fellow colleagues to think outside the box in a way that psychologists had and have never done so before. His ideas were extreme to some but revolutionary to others. Whether you disagree with Freud’s views or not, you must at least agree with the notion that he brought about a whole new field in the world of psychology.

In order to understand how and why Freud came to be what he was, you must first know where he came from. Born on March 6, 1856, in the town of Freiberg, Austria, Sigmund “was the first of eight children born to his mother, Amalie, [and father Jakob], in the course of 10 years” (Hergenhahn, Olson 2011 p.22). As the eldest child, Freud was witness to many things that his siblings were not, and felt the emotional pain and confusion that often only the eldest child feels. For example, at the age of 2, Freud lost a brother who was only 7 months old at the time (Hergenhahn, Olson 2011 p.22). As painful as that may have been, given Freud’s age, one can only assume that Freud had little memory of his brother. However, at 2 years old, a child’s “ego” is starting to form, according to Freud himself, and ”the thinking part of the personality begins to develop” (Boyd, Bee 2006 p.24). With this said, this trauma may have formed Freud’s view on certain ideas, such as repression and defense mechanisms, before he even realized it. But this isn’t the only defining incident in Freud’s childhood that helped to shape his soon-to-be theories on personality. Some other major factors that impacted an infamous and controversial theory of Freud’s were his close relationship with his mother and distant relationship with his father. His mother, Amalie, was 20 years younger than his father, Jakob. She was also his third wife. The span in age difference between Freud’s parents and the previous lives and relationships held by his father created more than just confusion for a young Freud. “Jakob had two sons by his first wife (Sally Kanner) and was a grandfather when Sigmund was born” (Hergenhahn, Olson 2011 p.22). At one point during his childhood, Freud’s “playmate was the son of his half-brother” (Hergenhahn, Olson 2011 p.22). Slightly awkward, right? It has been theorized that this dysfunctional family life was the groundwork for Freud’s theory, the Oedipus complex, which states: “when children reach the phallic stage (after age 3), they discover their genitals and develop a marked attachment to the parent of the opposite sex while becoming jealous of the same-sex parent” (Morris, Maisto 2006 p.331). If I were to make an educated guess, I would say that Freud had a lot of resentment towards his father for having children from two previous marriages, and this made him feel even more protective and attached to his mother.

It is because of these childhood experiences that Sigmund Freud was able to develop two of his most outstanding theories as contributions to the field of psychology. His first major contribution was the development of one’s personality into three sections: the id, the ego, and the superego. Freud believed that every person, starting at birth, went through “a series of psychosexual stages” that consequently could be tied into their unconscious and conscious behaviors (Boyd, Bee 2006 p. 24). First, there was “the id contain[ing] the libido (the motivating force behind most behavior) and operate[ing] at an unconscious level; the id is a person’s basic sexual and aggressive impulses, which are present at birth” (Boyd, Bee 2006 p. 24). The ego is more like a “psychic mechanism that controls all thinking and reasoning activities,” and normally appears around the ages of 2 or 3 (Morris, Maisto 2006 p. 329). Lastly, showing up at the end of early childhood (around age 6), “the superego’s goal is to apply the moral values and standards of one’s parents or caregivers and society in satisfying one’s wishes” (Plotnik 2005 p.436). So how do these three sections of the personality tie in together according to Freud? According to Freud, each of these three sections of the mind had a purpose in a person’s daily functions. The ego represented the “reality principle” and controlled the barriers between the conscious and unconscious self (Plotnik 2005 p.436). The id, or the “pleasure principle,” was “totally unconscious” and there to keep the person from being in any kind of real pain, without any sort of regard to morals and values (Plotnik 2005 p.436). And with the superego, everything was all about morals, and the constant battle one has within their conscious and unconscious mind over what is right and wrong. Ironically, Freud believed that, together, these three sections of a person’s personality gave balance to the mind. It was only when one aspect, such as the id, was stronger than the other two that serious mental illness could arise. However, according to Freud, “interactions among the id, ego, and superego would [and could] result in conflicts” (Plotnik 2005 p.436).

Another of Freud’s theories on personality that I feel made a major impact on psychology is his five psychosexual stage theory. “According to Freud, every child goes through certain situations, such as nursing, bottle feeding, and toilet training, that contain potential conflicts between the child’s desire for instant satisfaction or gratification and the parents’ wishes, which may involve delaying the child’s satisfaction” (Plotnik 2005 p.439). The five stages consisted of: (1.) The Oral Stage: From birth to 18 months, the infant is completely dependent upon others to fulfill their needs and, according to Freud, “relieve sexual tension by sucking and swallowing” until the teething occurs, and it is replaced by chewing and biting; (2.) The Anal Stage: Happening between 18 months and 3 ½ years, the child’s sexual focus changes from the mouth to the anus, as they begin to do things such as toilet training; (3.) The Phallic Stage: Occurring any time after the age of 3, this is when the child notices they have genitals; this is also when the child discovers their new found ”attachment for the parent of the opposite sex” and rivalry/jealousy for the parent of the same sex; this is the stage of the Oedipus complex (named after the Greek mythology tale); (4.) The Latency Stage: Starting around 5 or 6 and ending at the age of 12 or 13, this is the stage when children lose their interest in sexual gratification, and only play with their own kind (i.e. “boys play with boys, and girls play with girls”); and lastly (5.) The Genital Stage: This is what Freud called a “sexual reawakening,” as an adolescent begins to feel sexual impulses again and learns how to relate them to relationships as they turn into an adult (Morris, Maisto 2006 p.330-331). This is probably the one theory that got Freud into the most controversial trouble. Many professionals and everyday citizens couldn’t understand how Freud could theorize that an infant or a child had sexual impulses. However, to Freud, these impulses were just a matter of biology, and it was the way the mind reacted to these biological impulses that Freud found fascinating. Because Freud’s psychosexual stages were so controversial, it prompted a movement by many to defunct his theories. This rebellion of sorts brought about a new generation of psychologists and even created a new group of Freudian followers called neo-Freudians. Neo-Freudians basically agree with all of Freud’s general principles of personality, except his “emphasis on biological forces, sexual drives, and psychosexual stages” (Plotnik 2005 p.440). Either way, Freud’s out-of-the-box view on child development created a movement in a way no one else has since.

A Shocking and New Perspective

As previously mentioned, Freud went somewhere in personality development that no one else has ever been. His ideas on psychosexual development and the divisions of the mind showed that we are all essentially the same at the core/biologically. However, Freud knew that environmental influences played a key role in one’s personality. In other words, even though we all have an id, an ego, and a superego, it is what we are exposed to that determines the outcome of our personality and in turn, makes us different from one another. In addition, all of us have inner conflicts between these divisions in our minds. But, some of us have greater inner conflicts, which create a greater imbalance between these divisions. When an imbalance like this occurs, according to Freud, all of us are equipped to defend our unconscious mind with a set of certain defense mechanisms that will “use self-deception or untrue explanations to protect the ego from being overwhelmed by anxiety” (Plotnik 2005 p.437). In essence, Freud believed the unconscious mind was equipped and prepared at all times to protect the conscious mind from numerous possible traumas. These defense mechanisms are called: rationalization (the covering up of the truth with excuses), denial (refusal to acknowledge a clear source of anxiety), repression (“blocking” feelings into one’s unconscious mind), projection (“falsely and unconsciously” placing feelings onto another), reaction formation (the substituting of behavior for another), displacement (transference of feelings from one person or object to another), and sublimation (displacing forbidden desires into socially acceptable ones) (Plotnik 2005 p.437).

Even though Freud felt all humans came equipped with the same basic personality principles, and he thought that all of us went through the same psychosexual developmental stages, Freud knew that the way each human mind diagnosed and dissected unconscious thoughts was unique to its own. “To live rationally one must come to understand the workings of his or her own mind. Freud (1955b) cautioned that ‘consciousness is incomplete and not to be relied on,’ (p. 143) and he noted that we mistakenly behave as if all the information of which we are conscious is comprehensive and accurate” (Hergenhahn, Olson 2011 p.51). Freud used two different approaches to tap into the unconscious mind: psychoanalysis and dream interpretation. Both of these Freudian methods were developed to show how different individual human behavior is and to also develop a healthy way of getting the mind to deal with thoughts it usually does not want to think about. Psychoanalysis along with free association was initially Freud’s idea of possibly curing hysteria. He thought by allowing the patient to freely let go of all thoughts that come to their mind, rather than just medicating and further suppressing those thoughts, Freud could actually treat and get to the root of the illness (maybe even cure it). Freud and others soon realized that there was more to his psychoanalysis approach, and soon it caught on as a popular form of treatment for forms of other mental illnesses and disorders. “To live rationally one must come to understand the workings of his or her own mind. To live rationally one must come to understand the workings of his or her own mind.To live rationally one must come to understand the workings of his or her own mind. It is this sense of depth that distinguishes psychoanalytic views from most other psychologies” (Billig 1999 p.12). Psychoanalysis was a way for Freud to connect the unconscious thoughts with the conscious mind and make them more “comprehensive and accurate,” while healing the patient at the same time (Billig 1999 p.12).

On the other hand, Freud’s dream interpretation theory was solely a way of finding out and bringing unconscious thoughts to the surface. “Freud thought ‘The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’” (Hergenhahn, Olson 2011 p.46). Freud was so fascinated by the connection between our dreams and our unconscious that he wrote an entire book about it called The Interpretation of Dreams. Symbolism played a key role in Freud’s dream interpretation. In the book, Psychoanalysis & Symbolism, two Freudian positions are discussed in depth (Petocz 1999). When I first looked at this book, I asked myself, "How much does symbolism really play a role in Freud’s work?" Honestly, I was very surprised to find out how much emphasis Freud put on symbolism when it comes to personality and his theory on dream interpretation. There are both Freudian Narrow (FN) and Freudian Broad (FB) positions. FN “restricts the use of the term ‘symbol’ to a special technical sense” (i.e. unconscious, universal, phylogenetically inherited code), while on the other hand FB is “much less restricted, in which the term ‘symbol’ usually refers to any unconsciously produced defensive substitute” (Petocz 1999). In a dream, you use an FB, such as a bright red car to make sense of a FN, such as an unknown person with no face. This kind of symbolism made up by the unconscious allows the mind to freely and safely work through a problem while at rest in a dream. Freud talks a lot about why people do the things they do, and the impact it has on their minds. Curiously enough, it appears that both FB and FN positions carry over into Freud’s dream analysis theory. “The core of the dream is clear: (self-) reproaches and wishes. His ultimate conclusion was that the dream was a wish fulfillment, namely not to be the cause of someone else’s pain and ailments. This also makes clear what he understood by wish: an attempt to reduce unpleasure and (thereby) experience pleasure” (Westerink 2009). This all simply means that the dream state was a way for the mind to work out problems that the conscious mind wasn’t willing or able to deal with. According to Freud, dreams never meant exactly what you thought they meant, and thereby could never be interpreted through direct translation. If you were falling off a building in your dream, it didn’t necessarily translate into you dreaming about your fear of heights. Instead, a dream about falling could mean you are dealing with “some great struggle,” or are “suffering a loss of a friend” (Miller 1994 p.228).

How Did His Theories Impact Medicine?

In general, Freud’s theories have been accepted by the medical community. His psychoanalysis approach, although not commonly used today, had given way to different forms in behavioral and cognitive therapy. As quoted by a very popular website, “Don’t throw Freud out with the Bathwater” (Psych Files). “Too many people dismiss Freud because he had a few controversial ideas, but many of Freud’s ideas were very influential and can, with a little attention, be seen in everyday life” (Psych Files). I honestly think it is a shame that just because one of Freud’s ideas was a bit too tongue-in-cheek for his time that some people aren’t able to give him credit where credit is due. It is unfortunate that when I mention the name Freud to friends, they ask me “Isn’t that the weird guy who only talked about sex and the whole mother/father thing?” I just wish some people could see beyond the surface of that one theory into the many fascinating theories discovered by Freud. If people just did, they would be able to see just how useful some of Freud’s theories truly are. For example, Freud’s concept of free association and psychoanalysis allows an individual to release emotions they normally bottle up. I am a perfect example of that. Most of the time when I get home from work, I work out vigorously to release stress and, at the same time, verbally release all anger I may have. Since I live alone and do this in a controlled fashion, this isn’t a problem. Another one of Freud’s theories that I find to be useful is his divisions of the mind (the id, the ego, and the superego). Having an awareness of your own mind and the inner conflict you may or may not have is very important to your mental health. I believe by understanding this Freudian theory I have a better grip on how I am and how my unconscious self interacts with my conscious self.

In conclusion, I feel Sigmund Freud has done a great deal for the field of psychology and for theories of personality. I see his influence in my everyday work and school life. Although I am obviously well past the psychosexual stages, I see the importance behind them in my college education. As a psychology major, I have now taken so many psychology courses that I have lost track, but in each and every psychology course, Freud’s name was mentioned in the assigned textbook at least once. His theories on the divisions of the mind were always the precursor to the theories of other psychologists. Because of this, Freud’s theories have taught me how to deal emotionally with the stresses and imbalances in my life. It is much easier for me to acknowledge the defense mechanisms I have now that I know what they are. Overall, I see Freud as a mentor and someone to look up to in this field. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with all or even some of his views, he was a brilliant mind and he gave his life and education to help others understand what they didn’t know about their own mind.


Billig, M. (1999). Freudian Repression : Conversation Creating the Unconscious. Port Chester, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved on August 29, 2011 from

Boyd, D., Bee. H. (2006). Adult Development. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Haynal, A. (2008). “Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis. London: Oct 2008. Vol. 89, Iss. 5; pg. 1089, 5 pgs. Retrieved on August 29, 2011 from

Hergenhahn, B. & Olson, M. (2011). An introduction to theories of personality (8th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall.

Miller, G. (1994). A Dictionary of Dreams. New York, NY: Smithmark Publishers.

Petocz, A. (1999). Freud, Psychoanalysis & Symbolism. Port Chester, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved on August 29, 2011 from

Morris, C., Maisto, A. (2006). Understanding Psychology 7th Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Plotnik, R. (2005). Introduction to Psychology 7th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

The Psych Files (2007). “Episode #5: In Defense of Defense Mechanisms.” Retrieved on August 29, 2011 from

Westerink, H. (2009). Figures of the Unconscious : Dark Trace : Sigmund Freud on the Sense of Guilt. Leuven, BEL: Leuven University Press. Retrieved on August 29, 2011 from