Many people ridicule Sigmund Freud and write his theories off as ridiculous. His critics claim his ideas are ‘unfalsifiable’ meaning that they can’t be disproved and so aren’t scientific (you can’t disprove that the Loch Ness Monster exists – that doesn’t mean they have scientific merit, but at the same time it doesn’t mean he doesn’t…). They also lambast him for being obsessed with sex, his answer to that would probably be ‘aren’t we all?’. And that’s really the point…
Unfortunately, the bad press surrounding Freud and his ideas has lead many people to ignore the good points he made; and there are plenty of those. Without Freud for example we would never have the concept of the unconscious mind, of Freudian slips or of dream interpretation. Of course some parts of his theories are a little off, but then considering their age that is surely to be expected? The key is not to ignore Freud then, but to read his ideas so that you can see how they can be used to help you understand yourself, but to take them with a pinch of salt and an analytical mind. If you are thinking of seeing a therapist then different approaches will work for different people, after reading this you can decide if psychoanalysis is for you.
One of the key concepts of Sigmund Freud’s approach to psychology (or the ‘psychodynamic approach’) is that the psyche is split into three separate entities. These entities are the ‘id’, the ‘ego’ and the ‘superego’, with the first and last being largely unconscious. The id is the childlike, animalistic side of our personality that’s driven by its sex drive and desire for gratification, food and warmth. This is then kept in check by the ego and the superego, with the superego being the opposite of the id – a highly controlling and anxious entity that seeks to act in a socially acceptable manner, almost like a conscience. The ego is then trapped somewhere in the middle.
Most of our anxiety and trouble then arises from trying to find a balance between these impulses; our superego trying to suppress and control our unacceptable desires and protect the ego. For this reason these desires and urges can be forced into our unconscious to stop them damaging us, though unresolved these issues can emerge in a variety of other forms such as psychological disorders. For example a phobia might exist if it reminds the patient of one of their anxieties.
These processes of ‘burying’ unwanted thoughts and experiences are known as defence mechanisms, many of which have become common parlance. One form of defence mechanism is repression, where our thoughts and memories are locked away and so forgotten unless you specifically try to access them. This makes a useful plot device in many a crime drama. Another defence mechanism is reaction formation, where you convince yourself you don’t feel a certain way by acting in the complete opposite way. Another is ‘projection’ where you project your issues onto a third party, such as a friend or even a minority group and so focus your energies on them. ‘Sublimation’ is a similar process whereby you take out your frustrations on someone or something else, perhaps bighting a friend’s head off or kicking the cat. ‘Catharsis’ is the act of punching a punching bag or screaming into a pillow to release tension.
These defence mechanisms are things we’ve all seen in others and would probably put our hands up to doing ourselves from time to time. They are just one example of a clearly accurate description by Freud, with much evidence backing up their existence. While our anxieties are largely suppressed then, there are still ways they can reveal themselves. A psychodynamic therapist can then use some of these to attempt to get to the source of a patient’s problems so enabling them to deal with them and move on.
A Freudian slip refers to any times we accidentally say what we really mean rather than what we were trying to say. Freud claims that there is ‘no such thing’ as an accident, and while this may be an extreme interpretation it does indeed often seem to be the case. In Freud’s eyes even tripping over and hurting yourself can be an unconscious ploy for attention or to get out of work.
Most famously though, Sigmund Freud described our unconscious desires as coming out in our dreams which he described as the ‘royal road to the unconscious’. This lead to the development of many pop-psychology books claiming to be able to interpret the meaning of your dreams. However this is actually an incorrect interpretation of Freud, who described the symbols in our dreams as being unique to us. For example, a pen might represent a penis for one person (Freud believed many of the images in our dreams to be phallic), creativity and expression for another, or just a pen depending on what the patient associates with it. It is then up to the patient and the analyst to together discover the meaning of the dream.
Dream interpretation is often then used in combination with ‘free association’. The idea behind free associate is to get the patient to react to a word by quickly saying the first thing it brings to mind. By going through this process you can then get closer and closer to what’s going on in the patient’s unconscious.
Another method used by psychotherapists to learn what’s going on in a patient’s unconscious is known as ‘projection’. Like the defence mechanism of the same name, here the patient is shown an ambiguous image such as an ink blot, then asked to say what they see. As the ink blot can be interpreted in a variety of ways, their answer it is hoped will provide clues into their unconscious processes and any issues on their mind.
Even art can be interpreted by a psychoanalyst as an expression of the unconscious whether deliberate or not on the part of the artist and arguably all art is a form of catharsis, or expressing things you can’t normally. Freud believed for instance that it was no coincidence that the Eiffel Tower resembled a giant phallus and believed for this reason that it was a ‘typically French’ monument…
Therapists can also aim cause the patient to project onto them, or to sublimate them for another person. This is the reason that the psychotherapist remains mostly faceless, sitting behind the patient out of sight and speaking minimally without reacting to what the patient’s saying. The other purpose for the couch set up is that Freud hoped it would recall for the patient memories of being in the cot. It is then hoped unresolved issues with the subjects’ parents might affect the relationship between them and the therapist giving some insight into childhood traumas or parental issues.
This is significant as issues that affect us in adult life are said to have developed in childhood specifically through our complex interactions with parents. These developmental points are also said to be what forms our personalities, with our personalities supposedly fully formed by adulthood.
As Sigmund Freud saw it, as we develop there are several ‘psychosexual’ stages that we go through. These are the ‘oral’, ‘anal’, ‘latency’ and ‘genital’ stages, where the child seeks stimulation from of these areas. For example, Freud believed that during the anal stage children derive enjoyment from excretion. It is then said that should if the child should experience serious trauma at this age they will become ‘fixated’, retaining the characteristics they had at that age. For example, an ‘anal’ personality might develop if the parents are too strict with their potty training, resulting in a personality that is strict with tidiness and gets anxious if something is out of place. Again ‘anal personality’ is a term that’s found its way into our every day vocabulary.
The most famous and controversial of these stages however is the ‘oedipal stage’. Here the child is said to begin to have sexual feelings for their opposite sex parent. Boys want to replace the Farther as head of the family and as husband to their mother. However, at the same time they supposedly fear and respect the father and believe they will castrated if they continue. Through this process they identify with the Father and this is how the superego is created.
While these concepts seem a bit far removed from reality, if we were to replace the word ‘sexual’ with something less extreme then there may be some value in the ideas still. Children do for example feel jealous of parents, just perhaps not because of sexual desire. Similarly while children do like to experiment at a young age, its probably not for sexual gratification. Perhaps then Sigmund Freud simply needs reinterpretation, as he has a lot of useful ideas as well as not so useful ones.