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

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated April 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Researchers and philosophers have worked to understand the human psyche for thousands of years. Many have concluded that the human mind consists of conscious and unconscious systems that affect relationships, behavior, and mental health. One of the most well-known psychologists to study the human psyche was Sigmund Freud. Freud, often referred to as the father of psychoanalysis, studied unconscious thought, human development, and sexuality within his psychoanalytic theory.

Freud suggested that human personality might be composed of three parts: id, ego, and superego. In Freudian theory, he stated that the subconscious has a direct influence on human nature. The id operates on the pleasure principle and seeks immediate gratification of basic urges. The ego, influenced by the reality principle and reality testing, balances the id's desires with moral and social constraints. The superego represents moral values and the ego ideal. Freud believed that overall personality was the sum of the id, ego, and superego and their interactions, both in conscious awareness and unconsciously, shaping personality development and behavior in socially acceptable ways.

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Freud's Background 

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

In 1886, Freud began his psychiatry practice. He began using hypnosis to help his patients explore their memories and cope with their struggles. Soon after, Freud abandoned practicing hypnosis and had his patients discuss their thought processes through psychoanalysis. In the process, they would lie down on a couch and state any random thoughts that came to mind without analyzing them. Freud would help the client conclude these thoughts and what they might mean about the subconscious. 

Freud found that his patients received more significant relief when they openly talked about anything that came to mind. Letting their minds wander while thinking out loud was called free association. Free association was used to explore and understand the unconscious mind. Freud's approach to uncovering repressed memories and helping his patients find relief is now referred to as psychoanalysis. 

Believing that much of the personality was composed of subconscious systems, Freud developed his theory on human personality. This theory explains a person's nature as the synergy between the id, ego, and superego. These components are said to develop over the first several years of a person's life.

The Id

The id is the first component of personality in Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory. In Freud's concept, everybody is born with the id. It is the primal and instinctual component, and he believed it was entirely unconscious. The id is the part of the psyche that does not care about negative consequences or long-term fulfillment and demands instant gratification. It may include hunger, thirst, and comfort and runs on the pleasure principle, meaning it may avoid discomfort at all costs.

Consider a newborn. If the baby is hungry, it will often cry until it is fed. If it is ill or uncomfortable, it might cry until it feels better. Although this aspect may develop in infancy, Freud believed the id follows all individuals through life, including adulthood. It may be responsible for aggression and selfish desires.

Freud suggested that the id operates on primary process thinking, which seeks to have its basic urges satisfied immediately without considering reality or moral values. In contrast, the ego, another component of personality, is influenced by the external world and utilizes secondary process thinking to balance the id's impulses with social and moral constraints.

Freud said, "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

Freud claimed that the ego develops over the first three years of life. This component of personality may act as a guide. The ego could help individuals understand how their actions result in consequences. Instead of acting on every impulse to satisfy the id, the ego may develop ways to logically and realistically meet the id's demands without causing harm. This school of thought is known as the reality principle and Freud's concept of the ego operating based on it.

The ego is the primary reason we might delay gratification and work toward long-term goals. It could allow us to plan for our future and make commitments, such as going to school, working hard, or saving money. If the id were in complete control, we might not be able to understand the ramifications of our actions. Freud compared the ego to a skilled diplomat, carefully navigating and negotiating between the powerful forces of the id, which is driven by primitive instincts, including death instincts, and the moralistic superego, which represents societal values and ideals.

This part of the personality is also considered responsible for defense mechanisms. One typical example of a defense mechanism is denial. You may often hear about denial regarding grief when someone might struggle to accept that a loss occurred. These defense mechanisms are essential for the way the ego operates to manage internal and external conflicts and maintain psychological balance.

The Superego

The superego is considered the third and final component of the personality. It may be the final to develop between the ages of three and five. With this component, a child develops a sense of morality. The superego is what gives them a sense of right and wrong. Freud believed the superego is the conscience and gives humans a drive for perfection.

While the superego may develop naturally, caretakers and society often influence the moral guidelines you learn to accept and follow. You might feel shame or guilt if you act against your superego and choose not to follow your moral guidelines.

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Developmental Timeline

Freud suggested that personality is developed during childhood. Freud's theory of id psychology includes the progression and formation of the id, ego, and superego. As the child grows and experiences different scenarios, their personality may begin to emerge as they take in information from the world around them. The id, ego, and superego all interact, and those around them may interpret the child's personality.

At the time Freud wrote his theories, those who were not heterosexual or cisgender were not addressed, so his theory may not take into account the experiences and development of all individuals. Journal Psyche outlined several of Freud's proposed developmental stages, including the following: 

  • Oral (0 - 1.5 years of age): The oral stage involves fixation on oral habits. If not satisfactorily met, there might be a likelihood of developing negative oral habits or behaviors. 
  • Anal (1.5 to 3 years of age): This stage was primarily related to developing healthy toilet training habits, eating, and gut health. 
  • Phallic (3 - 5 years of age): The phallic stage involved the healthy discovery of sexuality in young children. Freud believed this involved attraction to parents of the "opposite gender." However, many psychologists may disapprove of this theory. 
  • Latency (5 - 12 years of age): The latency phase was said to be about developing healthy dormant sexual attraction toward others. 
  • Genital (12 - adulthood): The final phase was said to be a combination of the previous four stages, allowing for the onset of healthy sexuality and behaviors. 

Although Freud reported hearing about sexual attraction early in childhood, studies note that these claims were false, and psychoanalysis may have some flaws in modern psychology. Some theorists believe that these stories could have instead been about sexual assault, as many children are faced with this trauma.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

If you're a teen or child experiencing or witnessing abuse of any kind from a families or caregiver, reach out to the Child Help Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 or use the online chat feature.

Personality Theory And Mental Illness

With personality consisting of the id, ego, and superego, Freud believed that disbalance in the three areas could be a factor in developing mental health concerns. According to Freud's theory of id psychology, impulsive behavior might signify a dominating id, where the pleasure principle directs our actions. 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, inhibiting personality development. An overly strong superego could point to perfectionism and being judgmental.

Freud also believed that the modern world confines our basic instincts and restricts our primal needs. He thought that the laws and cultural rules denied our id the pleasure it required, hindering it from satisfying basic urges. In the context of what Freud called the constant struggle between the id, ego, and superego, the fear of social consequences and exile, along with the developed superego, may lead us to live a reserved and stable life while not considering our desires. This imbalance could contribute to mental distress and the development of psychological disorders.

Freud's Personality Theory Today

The personality theory of Sigmund Freud has been discussed and debated since its introduction. Although Freud's practices led to the development of talk therapy, some argue that his theory of the id, ego, and superego is too universal. Additionally, the theories make no mention of anyone in the LGBTQ+ community. 

Regardless, some of Freud's theories and adaptations have provided the groundwork for the advancement of modern psychology. The idea that much of the personality and mind exists on an unconscious level may still be considered an essential component of mental healthcare. 

Getting Treatment

If you are experiencing a mental health condition or want to talk about specific concerns, consider counseling. Many types of therapies are available in the 21st century, including online counseling. Through this form of modern therapy, you can communicate with your counselor by video, phone, messages, and live chat.

Science shows that online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is as effective as face-to-face therapy. You can participate from your home or anywhere with an internet connection from a personal device. If you're interested in trying treatment, consider signing up through an online platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. 


Freud's psychoanalytic theory suggests that the interplay between the id, ego, and superego helps the personality develop and shape an individual's behavior and mental processes throughout their life. Although Freud's theories may be disproved today, many of his initial findings and theories are used to understand human psychology on a more profound level. 

If you're interested in learning more about the therapy process or getting support for yourself or someone in your family, consider reaching out to a counselor. In the 21st century, you can try talk therapy, behavioral therapy, art therapy, or hundreds of other treatments. Talk to your doctor if you're unsure which is best for you.

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