Is Freudian Psychology Still Relevant?

Updated December 20, 2018

Reviewer Tanya Harell

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When Sigmund Freud developed his psychoanalytic theories, he came up with profound ideas that had never been considered in the same way before. His theories helped lay the groundwork for modern psychology. Yet, today, most psychologists find fault with those ideas and cast doubt on whether Freudian psychology is relevant anymore at all. Still, Freud's theories have had a major impact and can still be seen behind many of the current psychology trends.

Who Was Sigmund Freud?

Sigmund Freud is considered the father of modern psychoanalysis, or sometimes, the father of psychiatry. He was originally a medical doctor, a physiologist, and a neurologist. He worked with Joseph Breuer and others as he developed the theories that would come to be known as Freudian psychology.

Along with his impactful theories, Freud was also a practicing psychoanalyst. He worked with clients, trying to help them resolve their mental conditions through psychoanalysis. He took detailed notes of these sessions, developing a large body of writing that includes case studies and psychoanalytical theories.

What Is Freudian Psychology?

The best way to understand why Freudian psychology still matters today is to start by discovering what it is, starting with a Freudian psychology definition. Freudian psychology is the set of theories and practices that came out of Sigmund Freud's work in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Freudian theories include:

  • a three-part model of the psyche
  • the stages of development
  • infantile sexuality
  • the levels of consciousness
  • the interpretation of dreams
  • the mind as an energy system
  • defense mechanisms
  • psychopathologies
  • Freudian slips

Freud put his theories into practice as he analyzed his patients, attempting to uncover the sources of their mental problems and resolve them.

Model Of The Human Mind

As a neurologist and psychiatrist, Freud was interested in breaking down the structure and functions of the mind into distinct parts. He created several theories that defined these structures and function. Although they aren't physically related to structures of the brain, they do describe different qualities and systems of thinking.

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Theory Of The Unconscious

In his theory of the unconscious, Freud identified three different levels of thinking. The conscious level is the level where you're aware of what you're thinking.

On the preconscious level, that information is available to you easily, though simple recall. When something is in your preconscious thought, you might not be thinking of it right at this moment, but if you need that information, you can bring it quickly into your mind.

Unconscious thoughts, also called subconscious thoughts, are those that are hidden from you. Because they're a part of your history, and you were once aware of them, they remain a part of who you are. They show up in dreams or cause psychopathologies or neurotic behavior. Much of Freud's work was designed to uncover his patients' unconscious thoughts so that they could evaluate them, process them consciously, and move beyond them.

The Id, Ego, And Superego

Another aspect of thought structure identified by Freud was the id, ego, and superego. He saw these three parts of the unconscious mind as a battleground of sorts, where the reasonable, rational ego moderated the desires of the ego and the judgments of the superego.

The id is the part of the thinking that's based on instinctual drives and sexual desires. The id is the part of the mind that wants what it wants, regardless of the consequences or morality of it.

The superego is often viewed as the conscience. It's the part of your mind that tells you what you should do, what's morally right, or what's prudent. While your id is telling you to go for what you want, your superego is warning you that what you're doing may harm you or others.

The ego is the self. It is the part of your thinking that sorts out the desires of the id and the judgments of the superego to decide what actually to do in the situation.

Stages Of Development

Because Freud believed that people's suffering came from their childhood, he developed a complex theory of child development to explain how different mental problems happen. He came up with seven stages of development that, according to Freudian psychology, every person goes through unless they become stuck at some point.

  • Oral stage - birth through 1.5 years old - fixation on oral, often related to breastfeeding. If stuck in this phase, the person will have bad oral habits later in life, such as extended thumb-sucking or smoking.
  • Anal stage - 1.5 years old to 3 years old - related to toilet training.
  • Phallic stage - 3 to 5 years old - developing healthy alternatives to the sexual attraction they feel to opposite-sex parent.
  • Latency stage - 5 to 12 years old - the goal of this stage is to develop healthy dormant sexual feelings for the opposite sex.
  • Genital stage - 12 years old through adulthood - previous four stages are integrated to allow for healthy sexual feelings and behaviors.

These stages were Freud's ideas of infantile sexuality. To Freud, sex was simply anything that allowed someone to feel pleasure. He assumed that all pleasure-seeking in childhood, especially in early childhood, helped develop the person's later sexual feelings and behaviors. Depending on early experiences, the person would grow into an adult with normal, perverted, or neurotic sexual desires, feelings, or behaviors.

Freudian Defense Mechanisms

Freud suggested that when the ego is threatened, it calls defense mechanisms into play on an unconscious level. Freud came up with at least twelve distinct defense mechanisms:

  • Compensation - when you strengthen one attribute to hide another attribute.
  • Denial - when you refuse to face reality.
  • Displacement - when you take out your bad feelings on someone else.
  • Identification - when you attach yourself to something or someone you consider positive.
  • Introjection - when you confirm your feelings to what others want, so you can gain approval.
  • Projection - when you see your faults in the behavior of someone else.
  • Rationalization - when you use seemingly logical but ultimately false justifications to excuse your mistakes.
  • Reaction formation - when you fantasize that you're different.
  • Regression - when you return to behavior that was more appropriate at a much younger age.
  • Repression - when you hide disturbing thoughts, feelings, or information from your conscious mind.
  • Ritual and undoing - when you use habits to override the negative.
  • Sublimation - when you put the energy that seems negative into doing something that seems more acceptable.

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The Mind As An Energy System

Freud was one of the first great thinkers who saw the mind as a source of energy. Freud saw the body as the energy source for all mental processes. He recognized that humans could only have a limited amount of energy but realized that the energy people do have behind all their behavior.

According to Freud, the purpose of human behavior was to relieve tension. In Freudian psychology, the id supplies the energy of the mind through its sexual and aggressive impulses. Freud's mental energy theories saw cathexis, the concentration of sexual energy on one object or person, as the source of neurosis. To release this sexual tension, Freud used psychoanalysis, his talking cure, to achieve catharsis.

What Is A Freudian Slip In Psychology?

There's a concept called Freudian slip psychology students and experts often joke about with each other. Freud's idea was that everything you might say was chosen, consciously or unconsciously. So, what might seem like a mistake had an actual or metaphorical meaning for you. For example, if you made a simple verbal mistake, in Freud's view, you would be revealing your secret thoughts.

Dream Interpretation

Freud spent an enormous amount of time and energy interpreting dreams. In his view, dreams were a vivid key to what was happening in his patients' unconscious. He interpreted them metaphorically. In fact, he had a long list of dream symbols that he noticed coming up often when patients described their dreams.

Freud believed that dreams relied on metaphors because they happened when the id was active coming up with desires while the superego was censoring those thoughts. Freud believed that if he helped the patient understand their dreams, he would help them overcome neuroticism.

Psychopathologies

Freud was fascinated with what he called "psychopathologies." In his theories and practice, he saw psychopathologies happening in everyday life. These were thought mistakes in speech, writing, memory, and actions. Notice that he saw these problems as mistakes, not as intentional wrongdoing.

How Did Freud Conduct Psychoanalysis?

When Freud conducted his psychoanalysis sessions, he had a special way of setting the stage. He had the patient lie down on a couch and relax. He said as little as he could, letting the patient deal with their problems with minimal guidance. He often used free association, prompting the patient to move from one association to the next. He analyzed their dreams for them based on their metaphorical content.

Why Modern Psychologists Question Freudian Psychology

There are two main objections to Freudian psychology today. One is that Freud's focus on sex seems outrageous to many modern psychologists and psychiatrists. Certainly, sexual feelings are present for all people, but there are many other important feelings, both during childhood and later, as adults.

The other objection is that Freud's theories are geared toward males and give male preference. His work on hysteria showed women in a hugely unfavorable light. The sexism in Freud's work is strong and certainly notable. However, modern psychoanalysts avoid Freud's extreme and pervasive views about the importance of sex to human development and the human psyche.

How Freudian Psychology Still Affects The Field

The fact that people are still interested to find out "What is Freudian psychology?" indicates that there is something in it that may still be relevant to the modern world. In fact, many psychology theorists and researchers have used Freudian psychology terms and ideas as a basis for current theories and study.

Counselors still use the idea of defense mechanisms as well as the exact mechanisms defined by Freud. Most recognize that not all thoughts are in the forefront of the mind, otherwise known as the conscious. His thoughts on the mind as an energy system encouraged research into the electrical features of the brain in neurology and psychiatry. Finally, Freud's work on id, ego, and superego is often used to help people understand themselves better.

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If you are experiencing mental health problems and don't know where to turn, a psychoanalyst may be able to help you. However, counselors with many different specialties can also help with mental conditions and problems with daily functioning. You can contact BetterHelp.com to get set up for affordable, convenient online therapy. No matter which treatment methods your counselor uses, whether Freudian psychology or newer methods, you can do the necessary work to become healthier, happier, and more satisfied with your life.


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