Archive for October, 2011

A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Your Life Cycle

The Pioneer Work of Sigmund Freud


Part I



This Blog has an erudite, lofty title but it really is just a review of basic concepts and basic approaches taken by one of the greatest theoretical giants of the 20th Century—Sigmund Freud.


This Blog is written in three parts because Freud’s contributions to psychoanalysis were so many including: Psychosexual Stages of
human development, the conceptual framework for understanding conscious and unconscious behavior, and the importance of understanding defense mechanisms as a way of averting or avoiding problems of anxiety or conscious feelings of guilt. Freud was a prolific writer.

Part I will emphasize the pioneer work of Sigmund Freud, who is the father of psychoanalysis, as it relates to his theory of life cycle stages. Part II will present his discoveries on conscious and unconscious behavior and the defense mechanisms we all share in common, although their use may differ from individual to individual. Part III will present a detailed synopsis of Freud’s major works.


Indirectly, I have to say that when I was young, Sigmund Freud had an impact on my future academic career. How did this occur? During my
freshmen year of high school, I began reading books on psychology. I knew about the work of Abraham Maslow, Sigmund Freud, B. F. Skinner and, what psychology was all about long before I entered college. This opened up a new world to me. The pioneer work and importance of Sigmund Freud’s theories were described in great detail in many of the books I read. And, I was impressed by what I read; I
was intrigued by the field of psychology.

Later, when I was a sophomore in college (age 19) I was beginning to have to make decisions about my career one day. I knew back then,
as did every other college student, the major I chose would be extremely important as to what career would likely unfold. During college I liked to go to the movies. Back then I was dating my pretty and highly intelligent 18 year old girlfriend who also had a similar interest in outstanding movies of an intellectual or socially relevant nature. I took her to see Lawrence of Arabia and David and Lisa, the latter being a psychiatric-oriented movie—but that’s another story. One night early in our relationship I took her on a date to see (this was 1962) a movie, titled Freud. It starred Montgomery Cliff. This was, of course, a dramatic interpretation of Freud’s life, but nonetheless it was a turning point for me. My decision was made—I’d major in psychology.

Based on that decision I went on to earn 24 undergraduate units in psychology and an additional 12 units in sociology. In graduate school I
would later go in the direction of public administration and criminal justice, but I built my foundation of knowledge from that early decision to study psychology; I have never regretted that decision. In terms of career choices, I ended up being a social scientist, criminologist, and criminal justice administrator, collectively for 32 years. Amazing how small decisions early in life can later influence making bigger ones.


The Theories of Sigmund Freud

The Scientific Process

The work of Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, marked the beginning of a modern, dynamic psychology by providing the first well-organized explanation of the inner mental forces determining human behavior. While Freud brought us concepts like the Id,
Ego and Superego, the importance of the unconscious mind in human behavior, and a terminology of significant “defense mechanisms,” Freud also created a theory of human and personality development, with an emphasis on the psychosexual nature of human behavior. Part I explains what some of these concepts are all about. Sigmund Freud wasn’t just a very bright man—Freud was a conceptual genius who used the cornerstone of all science to help him in that conceptual process; that cornerstone of science is known as observation. Observation has led to more discoveries in science than any other process. However, the process of scientific discovery and validation is more complex
than observation alone. That is, there is an interrelationship between four major elements of science.

Interrelationships form in the process of science between observation, theory development and a third element known as hypothesis testing. Hypothesis testing, of course, does not occur in a scientific vacuum, because someone already has a theory or observation in the first place. This creates the context in which someone formulates a hypothesis later to test. Hypothesis development itself might precede observation or theory, but the more likely scenario is the other way around. But, as we all know, scientific discovery is more than the orderly process of three major elements. There is an added feature to the business of science that also contributes to scientific discovery. Scientific discovery sometimes occur through rather fortuitous or serendipitous events [we call them accidental discoveries]. In this author’s opinion Freud used primarily observation as his basic method of scientific inquiry. This in turn often led to his theoretical development or explanations for human behavior. And, it may be that accidental discovery may have played a role in some of his discoveries (I mean by this he likely saw or observed something unexpectedly in his patients that helped him formulate a particular theory).

However, Freud left to others the business of hypothesis testing. I surmise this would have been very difficult for him to perform given the small number of patients he saw. However, lack of quantitative hypothesis testing in his work in no way diminishes the important work of this theoretical genius. This is because valuable empirical evidence can result from case studies in producing very valid qualitative data on the nature of human behavior. Both qualitative and quantitative measures are important to scientific discovery. Truth is often talked about in many circles as something that is absolute in nature. Problem is there is no such thing as “absolute truth.” Truth in reality is what we agree it is, nothing more and nothing less. All scientific knowledge is conditional and always subject to change. Results in science based on degree of outcome probability is not truth; probability statements and statistical significance are best understood as stepping stones in the process of  building a consensus of agreement regarding the meaning of findings. Also, creating operational definitions for variables from complex concepts is always difficult work.

One way (although perhaps debatable) of going about the business of testing Freud’s concepts (however complex) is to develop proxy
measures for some of his supposedly un-measurable variables. Case in point: the Libido. If one defines Libido as sexual interest, sexual drive, or sexual energy one can create measures to tap into this variable. If I were trying to assess Libido I would use a combination of physical and psychological measures to tap into creating a proxy measure for Libido. In men, it might be testosterone level and a “pencil and paper” test of attitudes about their sexual life. Time and space does permit me the luxury of a full explanation of this. Therefore, I will continue to describe Freud’s contributions and what I believe his legacy to be. But rest assured some of the criticisms of Freud’s work may be unfounded based on a lack of understanding as to what the scientific process is really all about.

Sigmund Freud’s Legacy

Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud (6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939), was an Austrian neurologist who founded the
discipline of psychoanalysis. Freud is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind and the mechanism of repression, and for creating the clinical method of psychoanalysis for investigating the mind and treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient  and a psychoanalyst. Freud postulated that sexual drives were the primary motivational forces of human life, developed therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association, discovered the phenomenon of transference in the therapeutic relationship and established its
central role in the analytic process; he interpreted dreams as sources of insight into unconscious desires. He was an early neurological researcher into cerebral palsy, aphasia and microscopic neuroanatomy, and a prolific essayist, drawing on psychoanalysis to contribute to the history, interpretation and critique of culture. 

The Growth of Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud was the very first psychoanalyst. Many of his insights into the human mind, which seemed so revolutionary at the turn of the 20th century, are now widely accepted by most schools of psychological thought. Although others before and during his time had begun to recognize the role of unconscious mental activity, Freud was the preeminent pioneer in understanding its importance. Through his extensive work with patients and through his theory building, he showed that factors which influence thought and action exist outside of awareness, that unconscious conflict plays a part in determining both normal and abnormal behavior, and that the past shapes the present.

Although his ideas met with antagonism and resistance, Freud believed deeply in the value of his discoveries and rarely simplified or exaggerated them for the sake of popular acceptance. He saw that those who sought to change themselves or others must face realistic difficulties. But he also showed us that, while the dark and blind forces in human nature sometimes seem overwhelming, psychological understanding, by enlarging the realm of reason and responsibility can make a substantial difference to troubled individuals and even to civilization as a whole.

Like any other field of inquiry, the ideas of psychoanalysis did not “freeze” with the work of the field’s founder a century ago. Building
on the foundational ideas and ideals of Freud and his contemporaries, psychoanalysis has continued to grow and develop as a general theory of human mental functioning, while always maintaining a profound respect for the uniqueness of each individual life. Ferment, change, and new ideas have enriched the field, and psychoanalytic practice has adapted and expanded. But psychoanalysts today still appreciate the persistent power of the irrational in shaping or limiting human lives, and they therefore remain skeptical of the quick cure, the deceptively easy answer, the trendy or sensationalistic. Like Freud, they believe that psychoanalysis is the strongest and most sophisticated tool for obtaining further knowledge of the mind, and that by using this knowledge for greater self-awareness, patients can become free from incapacitating suffering, and improve and deepen human relationships.

Psychoanalysis it is said may have a double identity. It is a comprehensive theory about human nature, motivation, behavior, development and experience. And, it is a method of treatment for psychological problems and difficulties in living a successful life.As a general theory of individual human behavior and experience, psychoanalytic ideas enrich and are enriched by the study of the biological and social sciences, group behavior, history, philosophy, art, and literature. As a developmental theory, psychoanalysis contributes to child psychology, education, law, and family studies. Through its examination of the complex relationship between body and mind, psychoanalysis also furthers our understanding of the role of emotions in health as well as in medical illness.

APsaA’s publication, “About Psychoanalysis,” is a valuable reference tool. The psychoanalytic framework stresses the importance of understanding: (1)   that each individual is unique, (2)   that there are factors outside of a person’s awareness (unconscious thoughts, feelings and experiences) which influence his or her thoughts and actions, (3)   that the past shapes the present, and (4) human beings are always engaged in the process of development throughout their lives.

Personality basically established by Age Five

According to Sigmund Freud, the main features of personality are mostly established by the age of five. Early experiences play a large role
in personality development but personality is not static; Many factors, mostly of a social nature, continue to influence human behavior later in life.



Freud’s theory of psychosexual development is one of the best known, but also one of the most controversial. Freud believed that personality develops through a series of childhood stages during which the pleasure-seeking energies of the id become focused on certain erogenous areas. This psychosexual energy, or libido, was described as the driving force behind behavior. If these psychosexual stages are completed successfully, the result is a healthy personality. If certain issues are not resolved at the appropriate stage, fixation can occur. A fixation is a persistent focus on an earlier psychosexual stage. Until this conflict is resolved, the individual will remain “stuck” in this stage. For example, a person who is fixated at the oral stage may be over-dependent on others and may seek oral stimulation through smoking, drinking, or eating.

It’s important to let the reader know that Freud was assisted in his theory of psychosexual theory development by Karl Abraham and
Saxhfa Ferenz, two other Freudian psychoanalysts. They developed “character types” of individuals at the oral, anal, and phallic stages of development. I need to make clear that the following psychosexual stages outlined in Freud’s theory, although delineated within a certain time frame, often overlap. For example, the oral stage often goes beyond the first year of life. How long this developmental stage will last depends on the weaning process itself. Because of this, a longer oral stage would most likely impact the onset of other stages. Below I describe what happens if fixation occurs at any of the stages of psychosexual development.

The Oral

Age Range: Birth to 1 Year

Erogenous Zone: Mouth

During the oral stage, the infant’s primary source of interaction occurs through the mouth, so the rooting and sucking reflex is especially important. The mouth is vital for eating, and the infant derives pleasure from oral stimulation through gratifying activities such as tasting
and sucking. Because the infant is entirely dependent upon caretakers (who are responsible for feeding the child), the infant also develops a sense of trust and comfort through this oral stimulation. The primary conflict at this stage is the weaning process–the child must become less dependent upon caretakers. If fixation occurs at this stage, Freud believed the individual would have issues with dependency or aggression. Oral fixation can result in problems with drinking, eating, smoking or nail biting.

The Anal

Age Range: 1 to 3 years

Erogenous Zone: Bowel and Bladder Control

During the anal stage, Freud believed that the primary focus of the libido was on controlling bladder and bowel movements. The major conflict at this stage is toilet training–the child has to learn to control his or her bodily needs. Developing this control leads to a sense of
accomplishment and independence. According to Freud, success at this stage is dependent upon the way in which parents approach toilet training. Parents who utilize praise and rewards for using the toilet at the appropriate time encourage positive outcomes and help children feel capable and productive. Freud believed that positive experiences during this stage served as the basis for people to become competent, productive and creative adults. However, not all parents provide the support and encouragement that children need during this stage. Some parents’ instead punish, ridicule or shame a child for accidents. According to Freud, inappropriate parental responses can result in negative outcomes. If parents take an approach that is too lenient, Freud suggested that an anal-expulsive personality could develop in which the individual has a messy, wasteful or destructive personality. If parents are too strict or begin toilet training too early, Freud believed that an anal-retentive personality develops in which the individual is stringent, orderly, rigid and obsessive.

The Phallic Stage

Age Range: 3 to 6 Years

Erogenous Zone: Genitals

During the phallic stage, the primary focus of the libido is on the genitals. At this age, children also begin to discover the differences between males and females. Freud also believed that boys begin to view their fathers as a rival for the mother’s affections. The Oedipus complex describes these feelings of wanting to possess the mother and the desire to replace the father. However, the child also fears that he will be punished by the father for these feelings, a fear Freud termed castration anxiety. The term Electra complex has been used to describe a
similar set of feelings experienced by young girls. Freud, however, believed that girls instead experience penis envy. Eventually, the child begins to identify with the same-sex parent as a means of vicariously possessing the other parent. For girls, however, Freud believed that penis envy was never fully resolved and that all women remain somewhat fixated on this stage. Psychologists such as Karen Horney disputed this theory, calling it both inaccurate and demeaning to women. Instead, Horney proposed that men experience feelings of inferiority because they cannot give birth to children. Of course, in the case of both Freud and Karen Horney, where is the empirical evidence?

Speaking only as a man I have to say that most men don’t feel inferiority because they cannot give birth. Quite the contrary. What they do feel is relief and appreciation of the fact they were born as a male. What most men really feel is relief that they don’t have to go through the trials and tribulations of both pregnancy and the extreme pain of giving birth. Karen Horney may simply have been over-reacting to the rather bold statements coming from Sigmund Freud. If Karen Horney truly believed what she was saying, then would she have also hypothesized that women who couldn’t conceive or experience motherhood would also feel inferior to women who could? This is where researchers might start to generate empirical research into the assumptions that have been made regarding this aspect of psychosexual development. Perhaps some enterprizing researcher can send me a comment that outlines the currrent status of research on this topic. Those who frequent my blog would also appreciate being so informed.

The Latent

Age Range: 6 to Puberty

Erogenous Zone: Sexual Feelings Are Inactive

During the latent period, the libido interests are suppressed. The development of the ego and superego contribute to this period of calm. The stage begins around the time that children enter into school and become more concerned with peer relationships, hobbies and other interests.

The latent period is a time of exploration in which the sexual energy is still present, but it is directed into other areas such as intellectual pursuits and social interactions. This stage is important in the development of social and communication skills and self-confidence.

The Genital Stage

Age Range: Puberty to Death

Erogenous Zone: Maturing Sexual Interests

During the final stage of psychosexual development, the individual develops a strong sexual interest in the opposite sex. This stage begins during puberty but last throughout the rest of a person’s life. Where in earlier stages the focus was solely on individual needs, interest in the welfare of others grows during this stage. If the other stages have been completed successfully, the individual should now be well-balanced, warm and caring. The goal of this stage is to establish a balance between the various life areas.


of Freud’s Psychosexual Stage Theory

There have been several criticisms of Freud’s Psychosexual Stage Theory. In many cases such criticisms have been unwarranted. Freud himself offered an explanation why empirical research is not the “all-end-all” of scientific inquiry. But first here are some criticisms:

  • The theory is focused almost entirely on male development
    with little mention of female psychosexual development.
  • His theories are difficult to test scientifically.
    Concepts such as the libido are impossible to measure, and therefore cannot be
    tested. The research that has been conducted tends to discredit Freud’s theory.
  • Future predictions are too vague. How can we know that a
    current behavior was caused specifically by a childhood experience? The length
    of time between the cause and the effect is too long to assume that there is a
    relationship between the two variables.
  • Freud’s theory is based upon case studies and not
    empirical research. Also, Freud based his theory on the recollections of his
    adult patients, not on actual observation and study of children.

Freud’s quote follows that addresses some of these criticisms:

It is a mistake to believe that a science consists in nothing but conclusively proved propositions, and it is unjust to demand that it should. It is a demand only made by those who feel a craving for authority in some form and a need to replace the religious catechism by something else, even if it be a scientific one. Science in its catechism has but few apodictic precepts; it consists mainly of statements which it has developed to varying degrees of probability. The capacity to be content with these approximations to certainty and the ability to carry on constructive work despite the lack of final confirmation are actually a mark of the scientific habit of mind.


 — Freud

In another month Part II of this three part series will be presented. At that time I will report my conclusions on the work of Sigmund Freud. Although I’m not a psychoanalyst I do have something to say about the scientific process and how Sigmund Freud’s work fits into that process. All I can say now in that regard is that Sigmund Freud, although relying heavily on observation of a limited number of patients, was
nonetheless a theoretical genius, whose legacy is assured in the canons of scientific literature. Looking outward to the universe, theoretical scientists like Hubble, Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking come to mind. However, Freud’s work was mostly about looking inward to the human mind and behavior.

Looking the other way, inside the mind of man, there is no one who has ever surpassed Freud’s scientific theoretical achievements where human behavior is concerned.

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