Archive for November, 2011

A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Your Life Cycle Stages

The Pioneer Work of Sigmund Freud

Part II

Freud’s Theory of the Conscious and Unconscious Mind

Psychoanalytic theory of the conscious and unconscious mind is often explained using an iceberg metaphor. Conscious awareness is the tip of the iceberg, while the unconscious is represented by the ice hidden below the surface of the water. Many of us have experienced what is commonly referred to as a Freudian slip. These misstatements are believed to reveal underlying, unconscious thoughts or feelings. Freudian slips can also apply to conscious thoughts and feelings as well. Quite often these feelings, whether conscious or unconscious, are ambivalent feelings. Consider the following example:

James has just started a new relationship with a woman he met at school. While talking to her one afternoon, he accidentally calls her by his ex-girlfriend’s name.

If you were in this situation, how would you explain this mistake? Many of us might blame the slip on distraction or describe it as a simple accident. However, a psychoanalytic theorist might tell you that this is much more than a random accident. The psychoanalytic view holds that there are inner forces outside of your awareness that are directing your behavior. For example, a psychoanalyst might say that James misspoke due to unresolved feelings for his ex or perhaps because of misgivings about his new relationship.

The founder of psychoanalytic theory was Sigmund Freud. While his theories were considered shocking at the time and continue to create debate and controversy, his work had a profound influence on a number of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and art.

The term psychoanalysis is used to refer to many aspects of Freud’s work and research, including Freudian therapy and the research methodology he used to develop his theories. Freud relied heavily upon his observations and case studies of his patients when he formed his theory of personality development.

Before we can understand Freud’s theory of personality, we must first understand his view of how the mind is organized.

According to Freud, the mind can be divided into two main parts:

  1. The conscious mind includes everything that we are aware of. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about rationally. A part of this includes our memory, which is not always part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily at any time and brought into our awareness. Freud called this ordinary memory the preconscious.
  2. The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges [including fantasies], and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict that is yet to be revealed to those around us. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences. Parenthetically, we may be consciously aware of our fantasies; however, many of these consciously circulating thoughts and feelings may not necessarily generate conflict that would create anxiety. Fantasies in the conscious reahlm can indeed be very pleasant experiences. However, the superego [see concept below] still keeps a close check on those who want to act out their fantasies.

Personality Development

According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, personality is composed of three elements. These three elements of personality are known as the id, the ego and the superego. They work together to create complex human behaviors.

The Id

The id is the only component of personality that is present from birth. This aspect of personality is entirely unconscious and includes all of the instinctive and primitive behaviors. According to Freud, the id is the source of all psychic energy, making it the primary component of personality.

The id is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state of anxiety or tension. The Id doesn’t necessarily try to resolve the tension.

For example, an increase in hunger or thirst should produce an immediate attempt to eat or drink. The id is very important early in life, because it ensures that an infant’s needs are met. If the infant is hungry or uncomfortable, he or she will cry until the demands of the id are met. By age 3 or 4 a child will begin to delay gratification, i.e., the demands are seen as not having to achieve immediate satisfaction. Immediately satisfying these needs is not always realistic or even possible. If we were ruled entirely by the pleasure principle, we might find ourselves grabbing things we want out of other people’s hands to satisfy our own cravings. This sort of behavior would be both disruptive and socially unacceptable. According to Freud, the id tries to resolve the tension created by the pleasure principle through the primary process which involves forming a mental image of the desired object as a way of satisfying the need.

The Ego

The ego is the component of personality that is responsible for dealing with reality. According to Freud, the ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world. The ego functions in all aspects of the mind: the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mind.

The ego operates based on the reality principle, which strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon impulses. In many cases, the id’s impulses can be satisfied through a process of delayed gratification–the ego will eventually allow the behavior, but only in the appropriate time and place. Or, the ego allows for the behavior of the id in a disguised or sublimated form in addition to delay.

The ego also discharges tension created by unmet impulses through the secondary process, in which the ego tries to find an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id’s primary process.

The Superego

The last component of personality to develop is the superego. The superego is the aspect of personality that holds all of our internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from parent(s) as well as society–our sense of right and wrong. The superego provides guidelines for making judgments. According to Freud, the superego begins to emerge at around age five.

There are two parts of the superego:

  1. The ego ideal includes the rules and standards for good behaviors. These behaviors include those which are approved of by parental and other authority figures. Obeying these rules leads to feelings of pride, value and accomplishment.
  2. The conscience includes information about things that are viewed as bad by parents and society. These behaviors are often forbidden and lead to bad consequences, punishments or feelings of guilt and remorse.

The superego acts to perfect and civilize our behavior. It works to suppress all unacceptable urges of the id and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather that upon realistic principles. The superego is present at many levels of the mind including the conscious, preconscious and unconscious.

The Interaction of the Id, Ego and Superego

With so many competing forces, it is easy to see how conflict might arise between the id, ego and superego. Freud used the term ego strength to refer to the ego’s ability to function despite these dueling forces. A person with good ego strength is able to effectively manage these pressures, while those with too much or too little ego strength can become too unyielding or too disrupting.

According to Freud, the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, the ego, and the superego.

Freud’s Concept of Defense Mechanisms

The concept of defense mechanisms can be attributed to Sigmund Freud. Later, Anna Freud also made great use of these concepts in her work in child psychiatry and child psychology. What is a defense mechanism? A defense mechanism is a strategy used to cover up or change unconscious desires and wishes that may be inappropriate or difficult to express.

In psychodynamic psychotherapy for PTSD, bringing about change in symptoms or behavior requires getting in touch with and “working through” those painful unconscious feelings. To do this, a therapist will assist the patient in recognizing the defense mechanisms being used, what they are being used for (to avoid painful feelings in the unconscious mind often stemming from a traumatic experience) and connecting with and appropriately releasing those feelings and thoughts that were previously being avoided.

Because of anxiety provoking demands created by the id, superego and reality, the ego has developed a number of defense mechanisms to cope with anxiety. Although we may knowingly use these mechanisms, in many cases these defenses work unconsciously to distort reality.

While all defense mechanisms can be unhealthy, they can also be adaptive and allow us to function normally. The greatest problems arise when defense mechanisms are overused in order to avoid dealing with problems. In psychoanalytic therapy, the goal may be to help the client uncover these unconscious defense mechanisms and find better, more healthy ways of coping with anxiety and distress.

Researchers have described a wide variety of different defense mechanisms. Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud described ten different defense mechanisms used by the ego.

Defense Mechanisms and Ego Anxiety

Most notably used by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic theory, a defense mechanism is a tactic developed by the ego to protect against anxiety. Defense mechanisms are thought to safeguard the mind against feelings and thoughts that are too difficult for the conscious mind to cope with. In some instances, defense mechanisms are thought to keep inappropriate or unwanted thoughts and impulses from entering the conscious mind.

In this blogger’s opinion, the concept of defense mechanisms demonstrated the absolute creative insights of Sigmund Freud. Why do I feel this way? Because I see them operate on a daily basis in myself and everyone I come in contact with. Where people with low or non-existent ego strength is concerned [unable at all to deal with ego anxiety], they often become victims of suicide, or have a complete mental breakdown where they must be institutionalized.

For example, at a less extreme level, if you are faced with a particularly unpleasant task, your mind may choose to forget your responsibility in order to avoid the dreaded assignment. In addition to forgetting, some other defense mechanisms include rationalization, denial, repression, projection, rejection and reaction formation.

The term “defense mechanisms,” or ways that we protect ourselves from things that we don’t want to think about or deal with, got its start in psychoanalytic therapy, but it has slowly worked its way into everyday language. Think of the last time you referred to someone as being “in denial” or accused someone of “rationalizing.” Both of these examples refer to a type of defense mechanism.

In Sigmund Freud’s topographical model of personality [if you recall earlier], the ego is the aspect of personality that deals with reality. While doing this, the ego also has to cope with the conflicting demands of the id and the superego The id seeks to fulfill all wants, needs and impulses while the superego tries to get the ego to act in an idealistic and moral manner.

What happens when the ego cannot deal with the demands of our desires, the constraints of reality and our own moral standards? According to Freud, anxiety is an unpleasant inner state that people seek to avoid. Anxiety acts as a signal to the ego that things are not going right.

Freud identified three types of anxiety:

  1. Neurotic anxiety is the unconscious worry that we will lose control of the id’s urges, resulting in punishment for inappropriate behavior.
  2. Reality anxiety is fear of real-world events. The cause of this anxiety is usually easily identified. For example, a person might fear receiving a dog bite when they are near a menacing dog. The most common way of reducing this anxiety is to avoid the threatening object.
  3. Moral anxiety involves a fear of violating our own moral principles.

In order to deal with this anxiety, Freud believed that defense mechanisms helped shield the ego from the conflicts created by the id, superego and reality.

Defense Mechanisms in General


Denial is probably one of the best known defense mechanisms, used often to avoid conscious fears and describe situations in which people seem unable to face reality or admit an obvious truth (i.e. “He’s in denial.”). Denial is an outright refusal to admit or recognize that something has occurred or is currently occurring. Drug addicts or alcoholics often deny that they have a problem, while victims of traumatic events may deny that the event ever occurred.

Denial functions to protect the ego from things that the individual cannot cope with. While this may save us from anxiety or pain, denial also requires a substantial investment of energy. Because of this, other defenses are also used to keep these unacceptable feelings from consciousness.


Repression is another well-known defense mechanism. Repression acts to keep information out of conscious awareness. However, these memories don’t just disappear; they continue to influence our behavior. For example, a person who has repressed memories of abuse suffered as a child may later have difficulty forming relationships.

Sometimes we do this consciously by forcing the unwanted information out of our awareness, which is known as suppression. In most cases, however, this removal of anxiety-provoking memories from our awareness is believed to occur unconsciously.


Have you ever had a really bad day at work and then gone home and taken out your frustration on family and friends? Then you have experienced the ego defense mechanism of displacement. Displacement involves taking out our frustrations, feelings and impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. Displaced aggression is a common example of this defense mechanism. Rather than express our anger in ways that could lead to negative consequences (like arguing with our boss), we instead express our anger towards a person or object that poses no threat (such as our spouse, children or pets).



Sublimation is a defense mechanism that allows us to act out unacceptable impulses by converting these behaviors into a more acceptable form. For example, a person experiencing extreme anger might take up kick-boxing as a means of venting frustration. Freud believed that sublimation was a sign of maturity that allows people to function normally in socially acceptable ways.




Projection is a defense mechanism that involves taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might instead believe that he or she does not like you. Projection works by allowing the expression of the desire or impulse, but in a way that the ego cannot recognize, therefore reducing anxiety.


Intellectualization works to reduce anxiety by thinking about events in a cold, clinical way. This defense mechanism allows us to avoid thinking about the stressful, emotional aspect of the situation and instead focus only on the intellectual component. For example, a person who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness might focus on learning everything about the disease in order to avoid distress and remain distant from the reality of the situation.


Rationalization is a defense mechanism that involves explaining an unacceptable behavior or feeling in a rational or logical manner, avoiding the true reasons for the behavior. For example, a person who is turned down for a date might rationalize the situation by saying they were not attracted to the other person anyway, or a student might blame a poor exam score on the instructor rather than his or her lack of preparation.

Rationalization not only prevents anxiety, it may also protect self-esteem and self-concept. When confronted by success or failure, people tend to attribute achievement to their own qualities and skills while failures are blamed on other people or outside forces.


When confronted by stressful events, people sometimes abandon coping strategies and revert to patterns of behavior used earlier in development. Anna Freud called this defense mechanism regression, suggesting that people act out behaviors from the stage of psychosexual development in which they are fixated. For example, an individual fixated at an earlier developmental stage might cry or sulk upon hearing unpleasant news.

Behaviors associated with regression can vary greatly depending upon which stage the person is fixated at:

  1. An individual fixated at the oral might begin      eating or smoking excessively, or might become very verbally aggressive.
  2. A fixation at the anal stage might      result in excessive tidiness or messiness.


Reaction formation

Reaction formation reduces anxiety by taking up the opposite feeling, impulse or behavior. An example of reaction formation would be treating someone you strongly dislike in an excessively friendly manner in order to hide your true feelings. Why do people behave this way? According to Freud, they are using reaction formation as a defense mechanism to hide their true feelings by behaving in the exact opposite manner.

Other Defense Mechanisms

Since Freud first described the original defense mechanisms, other researchers have continued to describe other methods of reducing anxiety. Some of these defense mechanisms include:

  • Acting out – The individual copes with stress by engaging in actions rather than reflecting upon internal feelings.
  • Affiliation – Involves turning to other people for support.
  • Aim inhibition – The individual accepts a modified form of their original goal (i.e. becoming a high school basketball coach rather than a professional athlete.)
  • Altruism – Satisfying internal needs through helping others.
  • Avoidance – Refusing to deal with or encounter unpleasant objects or situations.
  • Compensation – Overachieving in one area to compensate for failures or inadequacy in another. Control freak.
  • Humor – Pointing out the funny or ironic aspects of a situation.
  • Passive-aggression – Indirectly expressing anger or just opposition.

While defense mechanisms are often thought of as negative reactions, some of these defenses can be helpful. For example, utilizing humor to overcome a stressful, anxiety-provoking situation can actually be an adaptive defense mechanism.



I spent a great deal of time in one of my undergraduate psychology classes several decades ago studying Sigmund Freud. Freud was a practitioner of psychoanalysis, theoretical scientist, and an author producing many books. I suggested before that Sigmund Freud was one of the greatest theoretical minds of the 20th Century; it’s absolutely true.

Criticizing Freud for lack of hypothesis testing is a mistake and it misses what science as a concept is really all about. Science is composed of four major components, although they may differ somewhat as to their relative importance to the scientific process of discovery. These components include: theory development (explanations with or without confirmation by testing) formal hypothesis testing, and the most important aspect of all science—observation. Observation is the cornerstone of all science. Part of observation is a fourth component, i.e. accidental or fortuitous findings (Think of Flemming’s discovery of penicillin, or Alexander Graham Bell’s experiments). All four components comprise the enterprise of science. All four components contribute to scientific discovery.

As most people know, Albert Einstein is regarded as the greatest scientist of the 20th century with his theories of special and general relativity. Yet, he left mostly to others to confirm his theories. Steven Hawking has never experimentally tested his ideas (except conceptually through mathematics) about Black Holes. Yet, some think he is the greatest living scientist alive today. Earlier in this blog I reported on an important quote from Freud himself on these notions of accepting tested probability statements as “truth.” Probability statements are not truth. What they consist of are stepping stones necessary for reaching agreement in theory development. Truth is what we agree it is—nothing more and nothing less. Once the testing is done someone must still put together the findings within a theoretical framework, meaning the scientific process is never ending. All science is conditional and all theories are subject to revision.

The greatest scientists however have never been those who simply test other’s hypotheses, but rather those who invent explanations for the behavior in question before the confirmations. The exception to what I’ve just said is Edward Hubble who used the telescope to confirm his own hypothesis that the universe is not static, but has been expanding since the “Big Bang.”

All I’m saying is that for an activity to be scientific it will involve one or more of these major components described above. Once again, there is hypothesis development (theories) and hypothesis testing (like in a laboratory or with statistics) or observation of raw data before theories or testing, and there are also accidental, serendipitous, or fortuitous discoveries as part of observation.

For example, digging up a brand new ancestor in the evolutionary line would require re-evaluation of existing theories on human evolution. That is, how does the new information fit with existing knowledge or theories on evolution? This might be followed by laboratory testing of the human remains. Presumably new theories would need to be generated that might alter our current understanding of human evolution based on the new find.

Often times those who develop explanations of human behavior (or the cosmos) leave such testing to others. Freud approached his work without statistical testing of large groups. He did conduct case studies and came away, through astute observation and insight, development and refinement of original concepts (or hypotheses to be tested) about human behavior.

Not everything Freud proposed (his later ideas about the death drive or instinct) has curried favor with the public or those in the scientific community. Freud believed very strongly in man’s contradictory tendency toward self-destruction as well as self-preservation. For Freud, it manifested itself outwardly at society in terms of aggression. There is great complexity in many of Freud’s concepts.

Given society’s collective aggression toward others (international conflict and the potential for human annihilation with a nuclear war) there is pause to wonder if man might not harbor a self-destructive instinct. Perhaps one day someone will find a way to empirically find such an instinct, or perhaps not. Perhaps the drive toward self-destruction doesn’t arise in the human psyche, but is the sociological nature or consequence of group interaction, cultural values, and sometimes unpredictable historical events. Only time will tell if Freud was on to something few of us really understand.

In this author’s opinion there are other reasons Freud’s work had obstacles to acceptance besides lack of extensive empirical research. I believe people often hated or despised Freud because his ideas conflicted with their puritanical social ideas of what is appropriate or moral behavior, for example the Oedipus complex or childhood sexuality. Our Victorian roots as a society are still with us, although often disguised as something else.

I think that Freud’s work is also rejected because it might have gotten close to the truth of why collectivities, such as groups, behave, particularly with reference to use of defense mechanisms. That is, groups use defense mechanisms as well as individuals [denial, rationalization, etc]. For example, some groups collectively use the sugar-coated notions of religion to deal with their internalized fear of the finality of death.  And governments engage in defense mechanisms, all the time, by denying their own culpability in generating armed conflict with other nations.

Final Thoughts


Ironically, as said before in Connections, it was a movie about Freud I saw in 1962 (with Montgomery Cliff as Freud) that motivated me to consider psychology as a major in college. In many ways I have Sigmund Freud to thank for my career. From my standpoint, his legacy is definitely assured in the scientific literature on human behavior.

Next time in Part III—I will describe eleven written works of Sigmund Freud including: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Civilization and Its Discontents, The Ego and the Id, The Future of an Illusion, The Interpretation of Dreams, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, On Narcissism, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Studies of Hysteria, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Totem and Taboo.


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