What Is Fixation? Psychology, Definition, And The Evolution Of Perspectives

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever felt so focused on one thing that shifting your attention to anything else felt impossible? Or have you ever been so stuck in one emotion or state that you believed you couldn't move past it? If so, you may have been experiencing fixation.

"Fixation" can mean feeling stuck and not knowing how to move forward. It may feel like you're a metaphorical vehicle with functional fixedness, stuck in thick mud, where the engine can't get you to move forward or backward. It can feel that you need a stronger force to get you out of the rut and onto a smoother, more level path. 

Many of us experience fixation on an emotional and psychological level. Learning about the theories behind fixation may offer insight into how to manage it when it happens.

Feeling like you’re emotionally stuck in one place?

The psychology of fixation

The concept of fixation dates to Freudian research. In his research, Freud claimed that people get stuck in one stage of psychosexual development. The psychological definition of fixation relates to having attachments to people or things that persist from childhood to adulthood. 

Freud believed that persistent fixations were due to unresolved issues in previous psychological stages of personality development. In other words, we may become preoccupied or fixated on things because we get stuck somewhere in our growth and development.

He also believed that certain stages of development were characterized by different types of fixation. For instance, his concept of the Oedipus complex and Electra complex—where young children compete with their same sex parent for their opposite-sex parent’s affection—are based on fixation.

The evolution of perspectives on fixation

Several psychologists have suggested theories on why fixation happens and what it means. 

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud theorized that fixations cause individuals to focus on energies that create pleasure at an earlier stage of psychosocial development. He believed that we must resolve an issue or conflict in one stage of development before moving on to the next stage. 

However, Freud claims that when individuals are focused on creating pleasure, they may not want to move past the fixated stage to mature and focus on other energies.

Freud identified three types of fixations, including the following: 

  1. Oral
  2. Anal
  3. Phallic

Oral stage 

Freud stated that if someone couldn't get through an oral stage with a resolution, they would become fixated on it. The fixation could cause them to continue to seek oral pleasures such as nail biting, gum chewing, or excessive drinking. Once they can resolve this stage, they may move on to the next stage.

Anal stage 

Freud described the second stage of psychosexual development as the anal stage. This stage may be centered on children learning to control their bowel movements. Freud surmised that people stuck in the anal stage could become anal-retentive or anal-expulsive. 

According to Freud's theory, anal retention may result from children whose primary caregivers took a harsh approach to potty training. The trauma they felt may have caused them to be overly obsessed with being tidy and orderly. 

On the other hand, people who are anal-expulsive may have had potty-training experiences that were lax, which turned them into adults who are messy and disorganized.

Phallic stage 

For the final stage, Freud determined that a phallic fixation was when children were apt to identify more closely with a same-sex parent. He theorized that people stuck in the phallic stage might become conceited, pleasure-seeking, or sexually aggressive.

The psychosexual stages 

Freud also believed that children focused their energy on different areas of the body during various psychosexual stages. For example, during the anal stage, he believed children might gain satisfaction after successfully controlling their bladder and bowel movements. 

According to Freud, children need to complete one stage before moving to the next stage, or they'll become stuck. Freud also generalized fixations. He claimed that if a particular stage of psychosexual development left a dominant impression on our personality, we could develop fixations.

Resolving fixations, according to Freud

In resolving psychosexual conflicts, Freud determined a substantial amount of energy from the libido is required. For people who expended a large amount of their energy in trying to resolve a point in their development, the stage they focused on would likely leave a stronger impression on that individual's personality.

These are Freud's views, and many psychologists today disagree with his methods. However, other researchers have also explored fixation psychology.

Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein focused her work on paranoid-schizoid and depressive behaviors. She connected parts of her work to the notion of fixation. She saw fixation as a pathological issue. Because these memories have been blocked, she believed people could become fixated on these events because they have not experienced any resolution.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson was another well-known researcher who attributed various areas of his work to fixation. Erikson believed that our fixations at earlier developmental levels could help us understand our problems later in life. Erikson also connected fixation to libido theory, believing that libido helps us organize things mentally.

Eric Berne

Eric Berne was a Canadian psychiatrist who developed theories around the transactional analysis. These theories are based on the notion that our behavior and social relationships reflect the interactions between parental or adult rationale and the childlike personality traits we see in early childhood development. 

Berne suggested that particular games, scripts, and physical symptoms were based on various zones and modes learned in early life. 

Heinz Kohut

Heinz Kohut primarily studied the concept of narcissism. Other researchers have explored the role of fixation concerning aggression and criminality.

What are the treatments of fixation?

Fixation psychology suggests that the general mode of therapy is to replace invasive and unwelcome thoughts with healthier thought patterns. As a result, many treatments for fixations can involve helping an individual identify unhealthy or unhelpful thought patterns.

Treatment for oral fixations 

It may be uncommon for children to have oral fixations, such as trouble stopping sucking, biting, chewing, and putting things in their mouths. Children may need specialized help if oral fixations persist. 

Babies often use oral fixations to calm themselves or to explore the world around them. Oral fixations long past infancy may include side effects like drooling, poor eating, and unhealthy oral hygiene habits. They may also have weight concerns, social issues, or trouble separating from their primary caregivers.

For children living with oral fixations, it may be a good option to ask for an evaluation from an occupational or speech therapist to rule out developmental delays as the cause and seek appropriate treatment.

Treatment for fixated thoughts 

For older children, teens, and adults, fixations may take on the form of persistent thoughts. For adults, treatment often focuses on practicing exercises to help control thoughts. 

Several strategies may help guide thoughts into healthier patterns, and a qualified counselor could help adults find the best strategies for improved mental health.


Mindfulness is a research-based therapeutic process that may guide us to understand how our mind and body feel in the moment. This exercise may gradually train us to be more aware of what we're feeling or thinking to recognize unhealthy or unproductive thoughts and feelings before they become problematic. 

Feeling like you’re emotionally stuck in one place?


Distraction is an approach you may take without any additional help or resources. It can frequently be done in a daily routine. 

Grabbing your "to-do" list and getting started on one of the projects can be a valuable place to start. You could read a book, go to a movie, or take a short trip somewhere you have always wanted to go. 

Once your mind has switched gears, you may be able to stop fretting about issues you can't control. However, once the thought or feeling becomes noticeable, you may have difficulty distracting yourself. As a result, this approach may work better when coupled with methods like mindfulness.


You may decide to think about some of the things that you like about yourself or your life. You can write them down or say them out loud. 

Affirmations can take the form of quotes, statements, affirmations, prayers, poems, or songs. This exercise can help you focus on positive areas of your life and shift your focus away from the object of your fixation. Studies show that affirmations may positively impact your mental health, especially if your fixation is related to school or work stress. 


If the weather's nice, you may decide to go outside and take a walk. There can be numerous things to focus on as you walk. For example, you might notice the birds chirping, the sound of leaves rustling, the laughter of children playing, or the feeling of the sun warming your body.  

If the weather isn't in your favor, you could do a quick treadmill workout or put on some tunes and start dancing. Focusing on the outside may make it easier to change your mood on the inside.

There's also the bonus that exercises release chemicals that trigger the reward center in the brain, which may make you feel happier. 

When times are trying, and circumstances are bothering you, it may be tempting to overthink things. Replaying things in your mind over and over can feel distressing. You may feel that you are constantly faced with situations out of your control. 

By replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy activities, it may be easier to eliminate fixations so that you can enjoy an improved state of mind.

Get professional support 

The above methods are approaches that you may choose to employ with little outside help. They can benefit people with mild fixations but may not resolve the cause of the fixation. For individuals with severe fixations, the above steps may not be enough.

An online therapist can assist in gaining clarity on where fixations stem from and how to overcome signs of fixation. Receiving professional support online for psychological care has even been beneficial in treating anxiety and depression, according to a 2020 study.

Internet-based therapy may have several advantages for participants. One benefit is that it can be an easily available form of mental health care. Another benefit is that online therapy is typically more affordable than traditional, in-person therapy.

Online platforms such as BetterHelp can connect you with licensed professionals. When matched with a therapist, you can partake in phone and video calling and messaging. 


Fixations may feel distracting or prevent us from feeling we can reach our goals. However, with some support from a mental health professional or by using coping mechanisms, it may be possible to reduce past fixations and enjoy a fulfilling, healthy life. Consider contacting a counselor if you're ready to reach out for support.

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