Psychoanalytic theory

Psychoanalytic theory is the theory of personality organization and the dynamics of personality development that guides psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology. First laid out by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, psychoanalytic theory has undergone many refinements since his work. The psychoanalytic theory came to full prominence in the last third of the twentieth century as part of the flow of critical discourse regarding psychological treatments after the 1960s, long after Freud's death in 1939.[1] Freud had ceased his analysis of the brain and his physiological studies and shifted his focus to the study of the mind and the related psychological attributes making up the mind, and on treatment using free association and the phenomena of transference. His study emphasized the recognition of childhood events that could influence the mental functioning of adults. His examination of the genetic and then the developmental aspects gave the psychoanalytic theory its characteristics.[2] Starting with his publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, his theories began to gain prominence.


Psychoanalytic and psychoanalytical are used in English. The latter is the older term, and at first, simply meant 'relating to the analysis of the human psyche.' But with the emergence of psychoanalysis as a distinct clinical practice, both terms came to describe that. Although both are still used, today, the normal adjective is psychoanalytic.[3]

Psychoanalysis is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as

A therapeutic method, originated by Sigmund Freud, for treating mental disorders by investigating the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in the patient's mind and bringing repressed fears and conflicts into the conscious mind, using techniques such as dream interpretation and free association. Also: a system of psychological theory is associated with this method.[4]

Through the scope of a psychoanalytic lens, humans are described as having sexual and aggressive drives. Psychoanalytic theorists believe that human behavior is deterministic. It is governed by irrational forces, and the unconscious, as well as instinctual and biological drives. Due to this deterministic nature, psychoanalytic theorists do not believe in free will.[5]

The beginningsEdit

Freud first began his studies on psychoanalysis in collaboration with Dr. Josef Breuer, especially when it came to the study on Anna O.[6] The relationship between Freud and Breuer was a mix of admiration and competition, based on the fact that they were working together on the Anna O. case and had to balance two different ideas as to her diagnosis and treatment. Today, Breuer can be considered the grandfather of psychoanalysis.[7] Anna O. was subject to both physical and psychological disturbances, such as not being able to drink out of fear.[8] Breuer and Freud both found that hypnosis was a great help in discovering more about Anna O. and her treatment. The research and ideas behind the study on Anna O. were highly referenced in Freud's lectures on the origin and development of psychoanalysis.

These observations led Freud to theorize that the problems faced by hysterical patients could be associated with painful childhood experiences that could not be recalled. The influence of these lost memories shaped the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of patients. These studies contributed to the development of the psychoanalytic theory.[9]

Personality structureEdit

Sigmund Freud maintained that the personality consists of three different elements, the id, ego, and the superego. The id is the aspect of personality that is driven by internal and basic drives and needs. These are typically instinctual, such as hunger, thirst, and the drive for sex, or libido. The id is also the unconscious and stems from our instinctive abilities. The id acts in accordance with the pleasure principle, in that it avoids pain and seeks pleasure. Due to the instinctual quality of the id, it is impulsive and often unaware of the implications of actions. The ego is driven by the reality principle. The ego works to balance the id and superego, by trying to achieve the id's drive in the most realistic ways. It seeks to rationalize the id's instinct and please the drives that benefit the individual in the long term. It helps separate what is real, and realistic of our drives as well as being realistic about the standards that the superego sets for the individual. Additionally, the Ego is how we view ourselves. This is conscious, but not always true. For example, someone could believe they are the best-looking person in the world, however, this is just an opinion they have and not everyone will agree with that belief. The superego is driven by the morality principle. It acts in connection with the morality of higher thought and action. Instead of instinctively acting like the id, the superego works to act in socially acceptable ways. It employs morality, judging our sense of wrong and right and using guilt to encourage socially acceptable behavior.[5][10] Furthermore, the Superego comes from the people around us. They affect what we believe in and how we view things, so this can be different depending on how you were raised and the culture you were around. The Superego is also responsible for finding the happy medium between the Id and Ego. The Id can sometimes be overly dominant when there are humanistic urges. The Ego can be very unrealistic in terms of how we view ourselves.

The unconsciousEdit

The unconscious is the portion of the mind of which a person is not aware. Freud said that it is the unconscious that exposes the true feelings, emotions, and thoughts of the individual. There are a variety of psychoanalytic techniques used to access and understand the unconscious, ranging from methods like hypnosis, free association, and dream analysis. Dreams allow us to explore the unconscious; according to Freud, they are "the 'royal road' to the unconscious".[11] Dreams are composed of latent and manifest content. Whereas latent content is the underlying meaning of a dream that may not be remembered when a person wakes up, manifest content is the content from the dream that a person remembers upon waking and can be analyzed by a psychoanalytic psychologist. Exploring and understanding the manifest content of dreams can inform the individual of complexes or disorders that may be under the surface of their personality. Dreams can provide access to the unconscious that is not easily accessible.[12]

Freudian slips (also known as parapraxes) occur when the ego and superego do not work properly, exposing the id and internal drives or wants. They are considered mistakes revealing the unconscious. Examples range from calling someone by the wrong name, misinterpreting a spoken or written word, or simply saying the wrong thing.[13]

Defense mechanismsEdit

The ego balances demands of the id, the superego, and of reality to maintain a healthy state of consciousness, where there is only minimal intrapsychic conflict. It thus reacts to protect the individual from stressors and from anxiety by distorting internal or external reality to a lesser or greater extent. This prevents threatening unconscious thoughts and material from entering the consciousness. The ten different defence mechanisms initially enumerated by Anna Freud[14] are: repression, regression, reaction formation, isolation of affect, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self, reversal into the opposite, and sublimation. In the same work, however, she details other manoeuvres such as identification with the aggressor and intellectualisation that would later come to be considered defence mechanisms in their own right. Furthermore, this list has been greatly expanded upon by other psychoanalysts, with some authors[15] claiming to enumerate in excess of one hundred defence mechanisms.

Psychology theoriesEdit

Psychosexual developmentEdit

Freud's take on the development of the personality (psyche). It is a stage theory that believes progress occurs through stages as the libido is directed to different body parts. The different stages, listed in order of progression, are Oral, Anal, Phallic (Oedipus complex), Latency, Genital. The Genital stage is achieved if people meet all their needs throughout the other stages with enough available sexual energy. Individuals who don't have their needs met in a given stage become fixated, or "stuck" in that stage.

Neo-analytic theoryEdit

Freud's theory and work with psychosexual development led to Neo-Analytic/ Neo-Freudians who also believed in the importance of the unconscious, dream interpretations, defense mechanisms, and the integral influence of childhood experiences but had objections to the theory as well. They do not support the idea that development of the personality stops at age 6, instead, they believed development spreads across the lifespan. They extended Freud's work and encompassed more influence from the environment and the importance of conscious thought along with the unconscious. The most important theorists are Erik Erikson (Psychosocial Development), Anna Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and Karen Horney, and including the school of object relations. Erikson's Psychosocial Development theory is based on eight stages of development. The stages are trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generatively vs. stagnation, and integrity vs. despair. These are important to the psychoanalytic theory because it describes the different stages that people go through life. Each stage has a major impact on their life outcomes since they are going through conflicts at each stage and whichever route they decide to take, will have certain outcomes.[16]


Some claim that the theory is lacking in empirical data and too focused on pathology.[17] Other criticisms are that the theory lacks consideration of culture and its influence on personality.[18][19]

The Psychoanalytic theory comes from Freud and is focused on childhood. This might be an issue since most believe studying children can be inconclusive. One major concern lies in if observed personality will be a lifelong occurrence or if the child will shed it later in life[20]

Application to the arts and humanitiesEdit

Psychoanalytic theory is a major influence in Continental philosophy and in aesthetics in particular. Freud is sometimes considered a philosopher. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the philosophers Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, have written extensively on how psychoanalysis informs philosophical analysis.[21][22][23][24]

When analyzing literary texts, the psychoanalytic theory could be utilized to decipher or interpret the concealed meaning within a text, or to better understand the author's intentions. Through the analysis of motives, Freud's theory can be used to help clarify the meaning of the writing as well as the actions of the characters within the text.[25]


  1. ^ Tere sa de Lauretis, Freud's Drive (Basingstoke 2008) p. 3
  2. ^ Tyson, Phyllis. (2002). The challenges of psychoanalytic developmental theory. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 50, 19–52.
  3. ^ "psychoanalytical, adj. (and n.)." and "psychoanalytic, adj." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 7 September 2015.
  4. ^ "psychoanalysis, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 7 September 2015.
  5. ^ a b Friedman, H. W., & Schustack, M. W. (2011). Personality: Classics theories and modern research. (5th Edition). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  6. ^ [1], Sigmund Freud: The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis.
  7. ^ [2], FreudFile: Joseph Breuer.
  8. ^ [3], FreudFild: Anna O. Case.
  9. ^ Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner. ""Psychology"". Second Edition. New York. Worth Publishers. 2009, 2011. p.12.
  10. ^ Silberman, Edward. "Review of Psycho-dynamic Therapy: A Guide to Evidence-Based Practice." Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes 75.3 (2012): 298–301. PsycINFO. Web.
  11. ^ Freud, S (1915). The Unconscious. XIV (2nd ed.). Hogarth Press, 1955.
  12. ^ Freud, S (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. IV and V (2nd ed.). Hogarth Press, 1955.
  13. ^ Modell, Arnold H. "Psychoanalysis, Neuroscience, and the Unconscious Self." Psychoanalytic review 99.4 (2012): 475–83.PsycINFO. Web.
  14. ^ Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Revised edition: 1966 (US), 1968 (UK))
  15. ^ Blackman, J. S. (2004). 101 Defenses: How the Mind Shields Itself, New York: Routledge.
  16. ^ Young, Kimball; Blum, Gerald S. (December 1953). "Psychoanalytic Theories of Personality". American Sociological Review. 18 (6): 714. doi:10.2307/2088147. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2088147.
  17. ^ Mahmood, Omar M., and Sawssan R. Ahmed. Psychological Testing and Assessment. New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, New York, NY, 2012. PsycINFO. Web.
  18. ^ Hoggard, Lori S., Christy M. Byrd, and Robert M. Sellers. "Comparison of African American College Students' Coping with Racially and Nonracially Stressful Events." Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 18.4 (2012): 329–39. PsycINFO. Web.
  19. ^ Giamo, Lisa S., Michael T. Schmitt, and H. R. Outten. "Perceived Discrimination, Group Identification, and Life Satisfaction among Multiracial People: A Test of the Rejection-Identification Model." Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 18.4 (2012): 319–28. PsycINFO. Web.
  20. ^ Behrendt, Ralf-Peter (17 April 2018). The Evolved Structure of Human Social Behaviour and Personality. doi:10.4324/9780429481703. ISBN 9780429481703.
  21. ^ Felman, Shoshana. Jacques Lacan and the adventure of insight: Psychoanalysis in contemporary culture. Harvard University Press, 1987.
  22. ^ Spector, Jack J. The aesthetics of Freud: A study in psychoanalysis and art. Lane, Allen, 1973.
  23. ^ Segal, Hanna. "A psychoanalytic approach to aesthetics." Reading Melanie Klein (1998): 203.
  24. ^ Glover, Nicky. Psychoanalytic aesthetics: An introduction to the British School. Karnac Books, 2009.
  25. ^ Lye, J. "Psychoanalysis and Literature". Retrieved 17 March 2013.

Further readingEdit


  • Brenner, C. (1973). An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis – Revised edition. New York: International Universities Press. ISBN 0-385-09884-7
  • Ellman, S. (2010). When Theories Touch: A Historical and Theoretical Integration of Psychoanalytic Thought. London: Karnac Books. ISBN 1-85575-868-7
  • Laplanche, J. & Pontalis, J. B. (1974). The Language of Psycho-Analysis. W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-01105-4

Online papersEdit


  • Freud, Sigmund 1900, Interpretation of Dreams (Chapter 2). Standard Edition.
  • Grünbaum, Adolf 1986. Precis of Foundations of Psycho-Analysis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 9 : 217–284.
  • Greenberg, J. and Mitchell, S.A. (1983). Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory. Cambridge MASS and London: Harvard University Press.
  • Klein, Melanie 1932. Chapter 2, The Psychoanalysis of Children. In The Writings of Melanie Klein Volume 2. London: Hogarth Press.
  • Klein, Melanie (1935), A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 16: 145–74. Republished: Hogarth Press.
  • Bion, W. (1957), 'On Arrogance', in Second Thoughts. London: Heinemann, pp. 86–92, 161–6.
  • Benjamin, J. (1990). An Outline of Intersubjectivity: the development of recognition. Psychoanalytic Psychology 7S:33–46.

External linksEdit