Sigmund Freud: Psychology And The Influence Of Psychoanalysis

By Margaret Wack|Updated August 2, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Who Was Sigmund Freud?

Sigmund Freud, often known as the father of psychoanalysis, is one of the most important figures in the early development of the field of psychology. An Austrian neuroscientist, he was one of the most important thinkers of the early twentieth century and pioneered many psychological concepts, including the idea of the unconscious, repression, psychoanalysis and talk therapy.

Freud was active during the early twentieth century and was a notable figure in both Europe and America. He resided in Vienna for most of his life, along with his wife and children, where he practiced psychoanalysis and wrote prolifically on a variety of topics including psychology, literature, and religion. Freud gained a dedicated following, with many other scientists and intellectuals influenced by his work. Fleeing the rising power of the Nazis, Freud immigrated to London in 1938, where he continued to write and practice. After suffering cancer in his jaw, he passed away in 1939. Source:

While scientists no longer considers all of his ideas to be accurate, Freud had a significant lasting impact on the fields of psychology and psychiatry, particularly in the area of psychotherapy. Freud's influence also extends more broadly to Western culture as a whole, including the fields of philosophy, literary criticism, and religious studies, with many of his ideas deeply permeating the fabric of our society.

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Early Life

Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in Freiburg, Moravia, a small town then part of the Austrian Empireto Jewish Ukrainian parents. Freud and his family moved to Leipzig, and then later to Vienna. Freud was a brilliant student, studying literature, biology, and medicine, and graduated with a degree in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1881.

Freud read widely as a young student, and his later theories are thought to have been influenced by various contemporaneous scientists and researchers, as well as by prominent continental philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Freud was also a dedicated reader of Shakespeare, whose literary influence can be detected in many of Freud's works.


Freud worked for several years as a doctor at Vienna General Hospital, before setting up a private practice to focus specifically on psychological disorders. Freud was a groundbreaker in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis, pioneering the scientific study of the mind, repressed thoughts and memories, and the influence of sexual development on a psychological disorder.

A prolific writer, Freud published numerous books and essays throughout his career, including The Interpretation of Dreams, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id, and Civilization and its Discontents. As he continued to develop and refine his thought, he garnered renown both in Europe and in the United States, as well as a wide array of students, including Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and many other prominent scientists and thinkers of the early twentieth century.

Freud was a practicing psychoanalyst for much of his career, often treating high-profile patients, and writing about their symptoms using pseudonyms. Freud's treatment included therapies such as free association, during which patients were encouraged to speak freely in a stream of conscious style with direction from Freud, as well as the interpretation of dreams, in which Freud listened to accounts of remembered dreams and subsequently analyzed their unconscious significance.

Freud And Psychoanalysis

One of Freud's most important contributions to the field of psychology was the development of the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. Some of the major tenets of psychoanalysis include the significance of the unconscious, early sexual development, repression, dreams, death and life drives, and transference.

In terms of practical treatment, psychoanalytic sessions often feature a process of free association, where patients discuss thoughts, feelings, memories, and dreams, and the psychoanalyst attempts to uncover elements of their unconscious thoughts and desires. One of the key components of psychoanalysis is the idea that many psychological disorders stem from childhood trauma and repressed sexuality. The task of the psychoanalyst is often to uncover these buried experiences and feelings, to reduce the tension between the conscious and unconscious minds.

The Unconscious

One of the significant concepts in the study of psychoanalysis is unconscious. According to Freud, certain ideas, thoughts, and memories are repressed and made unavailable to the conscious mind. When this happens, they don't simply disappear, but instead, reside in the unconscious, and continue to affect the mind as a whole.

In particular, the unconscious is often home to repressed memories of childhood trauma, as well as to repressed sexual urges. These memories and desires often come into conflict with a patient's conscious desires and ideas, the result of which is often a psychological disorder according to Freud.

The Id, Ego, And Superego

According to Freud, the human mind could be divided up into three distinct parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the unconscious seat of many human impulses, desires, and drives. The id is present from birth and involves the satisfaction of basic needs, including hunger, thirst, and libido.

The super-ego is the component of the mind that makes moral decisions regardless of practical circumstances. The super-ego often reflects cultural rules, including those taught by parents, and involves ideas such as right and wrong, guilt, shame, and judgment.

The ego attempts to balance the conflicting desires of the id and super-ego. In doing so, the ego often engages in various defense mechanisms, including repression, rationalization, and projection to regulate the conflicting ideas and impulses of the id and super-ego.

Sexuality And Development

In Freud's theory of sexual development, people possess sexual drives from infancy onwards. These drives progress through various stages, including oral, anal, and phallic stages. According to Freud, psychological disorder is often represented by regression to one of these earlier stages of development.

One of Freud's most famous theories about sexual development is the Oedipus complex. Named after the protagonist of Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex, who unknowingly murders his father and sleeps with his mother, the complex refers to the idea that children experience unconscious sexual desire toward the parent of the opposite sex.

Freud And Dreams

According to Freud, dreams are a form of thought that disguise and ameliorate the more disturbing aspects of the unconscious. For this reason, dreams are often veiled in symbolism and imagery that is difficult to interpret on a literal level. While Freud characterizes dreams as a sort of wish fulfillment, the manifest content of the narrative of the dream often seems unrelated, while the latent content of unconscious desires is difficult to uncover. During psychoanalytic sessions, dreams can often be discussed to analyze them for possible unconscious thoughts, feelings, and desires.

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Freud's Legacy

Freud widely popularized the practice of psychotherapy throughout the western world, including talk therapy in general, as well as psychoanalysis in particular. Freud's students, including Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Jacques Lacan, and many others continued to develop theories of psychoanalysis after his death, often diverging from Freud's legacy to create their own respective theories and disciplines.

While Freud was enormously influential in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, many of his ideas are contested by contemporary psychologists, who argue that scientific evidence does not always bear them out. In particular, Freud's ideas about women, homosexuality, repression, and sexual development are often called into question by psychologists and scientists who believe these ideas are not scientifically accurate.

Freud also had a lasting influence in fields outside of psychology and science, including philosophy, literary criticism, and religious studies. In particular, Freud had a significant impact on continental philosophy, with philosophers including Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Derrida all having written on or been influenced by Freud. Freud has also had a lasting effect on literary criticism, with Freudian interpretations offering a significant lens through which to analyze and interpret literary texts. While Freud's influence has waned somewhat in the field of psychology, his intellectual contributions to literary theory and comparative literature continue to have a significant place in the field.

Freud Today

One of Freud's most lasting contributions to the field of psychology is the popularization of talk therapy. Due to Freud and his students and followers, therapy became a popular and effective way to treat a variety of psychological disorders. Although some of Freud's more extreme ideas have fallen out of fashion, the central focus of his practice is still widely implemented, including dialogue between patient and therapist, along with a concerted effort to understand and improve one's mental states. While this "talking cure" isn't a perfect fit for all patients, it can have a significant impact on those looking to improve their mental health and learn more about themselves.

Whether you need help understanding yourself better, need professional advice, or are simply looking for someone to talk to, therapy could be a great choice for mental health support. Get in touch today to learn more about BetterHelp's online therapy services!

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