Freud's Theory Of Id: Psychology And The Unconscious Mind

By Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated May 14, 2019

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Have you ever wondered why you are the way that you are? What exactly defines somebody's personality? People have been trying to understand the human psyche for thousands of years. The human psyche is a compilation of conscious and unconscious systems that affect everything that we do.

Perhaps the most well-known psychologist to study the human psyche is Sigmund Freud. The father of psychoanalysis, Freud was a revolutionary in the field of psychology. Known for his theories on human development, sexuality, and the unconscious mind, not many others have contributed so much to the world of psychology.

In what is possibly his most important contribution, Freud explains that human personality is composed of three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. In Freud's theory of id psychology, he states that most of our nature is not from a conscious level, but instead on a preconscious and unconscious level. Freud believed that the conscious level of personality was only the tip of the iceberg.

Simply put, personality is the sum of the id, the ego, and the superego and their interactions with each other both consciously and unconsciously.

A Little Background

Born in Moravia, later becoming the Czech Republic, Freud entered the world in 1856. At just 17 years old, he went to medical school at the University of Vienna with a focus in neurology, later graduating with a medical degree in 1881. A year later, Freud started working as a doctor at Vienna General Hospital in 1882.

In 1886, Freud began his private psychiatry practice. It is here that he began using hypnosis in his work as an attempt to help his patients explore their memories and cope with their struggles. Soon after, however, Freud abandoned practicing hypnosis and instead began having his patients simply discuss their thought processes, free from any judgment.

Freud found that his patients received greater relief when they openly talked about whatever was on their mind at the time. Letting their mind wander while actively thinking out loud is known as free association. Free association was used to explore and understand the unconscious mind. This new approach to understanding the unconscious mind, uncovering repressed memories, and helping his patients find relief was coined psychoanalysis.

Believing that much of the personality was composed of unconscious systems, Freud went on to develop his theory on human personality. In this theory, a person's nature is explained as the synergy between the id, ego, and superego. These components develop over the first several years of a person's life.

The Id

The id is the first component of personality. In Freud's theory of id, psychology says that everybody is born with the id. It is the primal and instinctual component, and it is entirely unconscious.

The id serves to meet demands. It is the part of the psyche that does not care about consequences nor long-term fulfillment; it merely demands instant gratification. This includes needs such as hunger, thirst, and comfort. The id runs on the pleasure principle, meaning that it avoids discomfort at all costs.

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Think about a newborn baby. If the baby is hungry, they will cry until they are fed. If they are ill or uncomfortable, they will cry until they feel better. These survival instincts are present from birth, and they serve to protect and ensure the prosperity of the individual.

The id is present in all ages, though it later becomes better managed. Nevertheless, the id is still responsible for urges of aggression and selfish desires that are often unacceptable in the real world. As quoted by Freud,

"Naturally, the id knows no values, no good, and evil, no morality. The economic, or, if you prefer, the quantitative factor, which is so closely bound up with the pleasure dominates all its processes."

The Ego

The ego isn't instantly mature but develops over the first three years of life. This component of personality acts as a reality guide. The ego helps us understand that the actions that we take result in consequences. Instead of simply acting on every impulse to satisfy the id, the ego comes up with ways to logically and realistically meet the demands of the id without causing issues. This is known as the reality principle.

The ego is the primary reason we can delay gratification and instead work towards goals that do not pay off until a later time. It is the ego that allows us to plan for our future and commit to things such as going to school, working hard, and saving money. Going back to Freud's theory of id psychology, if the id was in complete control, there is no way we would be able to understand the future benefits that these actions will provide.

This part of the personality is also responsible for defense mechanisms. Unconsciously, our mind uses defense mechanisms to help protect ourselves from uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety. One common example of a defense mechanism is denial. Denial is used to protect the individual from feelings of anxiety or helplessness.

You often hear about this when people learn about the death of a loved one, and they refuse to accept that it has happened. Another example of denial is how many people dealing with substance abuse, and addiction doesn't believe that they have an addiction at first.

The ego steers the id to navigate realistically, and it also protects our minds from unpleasant feelings.

The Superego

The superego is the last component of the personality to develop. The superego is said to develop between the ages of three to five years old. It is with this component in which the child develops a sense of morality. The superego is what gives us our sense of right and wrong. It is said that the superego is our conscience and it is what gives us our drive for perfection.

While the superego develops naturally, the moral guidelines that we learn to accept and follow are directly influenced by our parents, guardians, and society. When we act against our superego and choose not to follow our moral guidelines, we often feel a sense of guilt. This guilt is a direct result of taking part in a taboo, and the superego causes it.

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Development Timeline

According to Freud, most of the personality is developed during childhood. In Freud's theory of id psychology, this includes the progression and formation of the id, ego, and superego. As the child grows and experiences different scenarios, the personality begins to emerge as they are taking in information from the world around them. The id, ego, and superego all interact and begin to shape the child's personality.

Freud's development stages from Journal Psyche.

"Oral (0 - 1.5 years of age): Fixation on all things oral. If not satisfactorily met there is the likelihood of developing negative oral habits or behaviors.

Anal (1.5 to 3 years of age): As indicated this stage is primarily related to developing healthy toilet training habits.

Phallic (3 - 5 year of age): The development of healthy substitutes for the sexual attraction boys and girls have toward a parent of the opposite gender.

Latency (5 - 12 years of age): The development of healthy dormant sexual feelings for the opposite sex.

Genital (12 - adulthood): All tasks from the previous four stages are integrated into the mind allowing for the onset of healthy sexual feelings and behaviors."

Personality Theory And Mental Illness

With personality consisting of the id, ego, and superego, sometimes not all three are balanced. For example, issues can arise when people are very impulsive and aggressive. According to Freud's theory of id psychology, impulsive behavior can be a sign of a dominating id. On the other hand, a dominant ego may cause somebody to get stuck in routines and make it hard for them to try new things. An overly strong superego can point to perfectionism and being judgmental.

Freud also believed that the modern world confines our basic instincts and restricts our most primal needs. He thought that the laws and cultural rules denied our id the pleasure that it needs. In Freud's theory of id psychology, the fear of social consequences and exile, along with the developed superego, leads us to live a reserved and stable life while not giving the pleasure demands of the id enough attention.

Freud's Personality Theory Today

Sigmund Freud's personality theory has been discussed and debated about since its introduction. There is no doubt that Freud made giant contributions to the world of psychology. Some argue that his theory of the id, ego, and superego is too universal, however. Some point to his arrogance and claim that his theory cannot describe every person.

Regardless, Freud's personality theory, as well as adaptations, have provided much of the groundwork for the advancement of modern psychology. Also, the overall idea that much of the personality and mind exists within an unconscious level is still considered to be an important component of mental health.

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If you or somebody you know is struggling with mental illness, contact us at BetterHelp to get matched with a trained counselor and receive help.


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