Sigmund Freud

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Who was Sigmund Freud?

Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud, often known as the father of psychoanalysis, is one of the most important figures in the early development of the field of psychology. Sigmund Freud, born in Moravia, Austria, (today part of the Czech Republic, was a neuroscientist, he was one of the most important thinkers of the early 20th century and pioneered many psychological concepts, including the unconscious, repression, psychoanalysis, and talk therapy. Freudian theory is still one of the foundational elements of psychotherapy.

Sigmund Freud was active during the early 20th 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, and he practiced psychoanalysis and wrote prolifically on a variety of topics, including psychology, literature, and religion. In his early years, Freud was a protégé of Josef Breuer, he even named his daughter, Anna Freud, after Breuer’s wife. Freud gained a dedicated following, with many other scientists and intellectuals influenced by his work, he visited the United States only one time, exploring New York City before delivering lectures at Clark University. 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.

While scientists may no longer consider 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.

Learn more about Freud’s theories and psychoanalysis

Early life

Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856, to Jewish Ukrainian parents, Amalia and Jakob Freud, in Freiburg, Moravia, a small town then part of the Austrian Empire. In his early childhood, Freud and his family moved to Leipzig and 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 spent several years working as a doctor at Vienna General Hospital before setting up a practice to focus specifically on psychological disorders. Freud was a groundbreaker in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis or what is now known as the Freudian therapy, pioneering the scientific study of the mind, repressed thoughts and memories, and the influence of sexual development on a psychological disorder.

A prolific writer in his everyday life, 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 Freud continued to develop and refine his thought, he garnered renown both in Europe and in the United States, and he had a wide array of students who would become well-known in the field of human psychology, including Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and many other prominent scientists and thinkers of the early 20th century. At his home, he developed the Wednesday Psychological Society, the first society of psychoanalysts in the world, where professionals would meet to discuss the psychological thinking of the day. 

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, and 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 well-known contributions to the field of psychology was the development of the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. Freud suggested some of the major tenets of psychoanalysis of mental processes include the significance of the unconscious, early sexual development, repression, dreams, transference, and death instinct and life drive.

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

The unconscious

One of the significant concepts in the study of psychoanalysis is the unconscious mind. Freud believed that certain ideas, thoughts, and memories may be repressed and made unavailable to the conscious mind. When this happens, they may not simply disappear but instead reside in the unconscious, and they may continue to affect the mind as a whole.

In particular, Freud postulated that the unconscious may be home to repressed memories of childhood trauma, as well as to repressed sexual urges. These memories and desires can come into conflict with a person’s conscious desires and ideas, the result of which may be a psychological disorder, according to Freud. The famous concepts of defense mechanisms, like displacement, denial, regression, sublimation psychology, etc. were also identified by Freud.

The id, ego, and superego

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

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

Freud theorized that the ego attempts to balance the conflicting desires of the id and superego. In doing so, the ego often engages in various defense mechanisms, including repression, rationalization, and projection, to manage the conflicting ideas and impulses of the id and superego.

Sexuality and development

In Freud's theory of psychosexual development, people possess sexual drives from infancy, called infantile sexuality, onward. 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. This complex is named after the protagonist of Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus Rex 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 can disguise and ameliorate the more disturbing aspects of the unconscious. For this reason, dreams are often veiled in symbolism and images that are difficult to interpret on a literal level. While Freud’s theory characterizes dreams as a sort of wish fulfillment, the manifest content of a dream’s narrative often seems unrelated, and the latent content of unconscious desires can be difficult to uncover. During psychoanalytic sessions, dreams can often be discussed to analyze them for possible unconscious thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Learn more about Freud’s theories and psychoanalysis

Freud's legacy

Freud developed ideas that 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 may not be 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, including philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Derrida. 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 work and influence may have 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 in part 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 ideas may have fallen out of fashion, the central focus of his practice is still widely implemented, including dialogue between client and therapist, along with a concerted effort to understand and improve an individual’s mental state. While this "talking cure" may not be 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.

Nowadays, talk therapy can be made available online, and research shows online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy for several mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression. Also, online therapy tends to be more affordable than traditional therapy, and you can receive therapy from home or anywhere with an internet connection.


Sigmund Freud was born in the Czech Republic and is well known for his theories of the mind, including the Oedipus complex, his interpretation of dreams, and many other psychological theories, many detailed in one of his most famous writings: The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. He earned a degree in medicine from the University of Vienna and is considered to be one of the most influential psychologists of his day, together with other notable psychological figures of his day, including his daughter Anna Freud, Carl Jung, and Josef Breuer, who each developed their own unique theory of psychology.
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