Sigmund Freud

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Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist who is widely regarded as the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating mental disorders and understanding human behaviour through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. Freud developed a comprehensive theory of the mind that encompassed the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious, as well as the dynamic interactions among them. In this article, we will explore the life and works of Sigmund Freud, we will understand his ideas and how they influenced modern thinking.

Life Summary

Freud was born in Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire, to Jewish parents. He moved to Vienna with his family when he was four years old and lived there until 1938, when he fled to London to escape the Nazi persecution.

Freud studied medicine at the University of Vienna and became interested in neurology and hypnosis. He worked as a physician at the Vienna General Hospital and later opened his own private practice, specializing in nervous disorders.

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Freud’s work had a profound impact on psychology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, literature, art and culture in the 20th century and beyond. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of modern times. As he famously said: “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing” (Freud, 1925/1961, p. 23).

Freud’s theories were controversial and often met with criticism and hostility from the medical and scientific establishment, as well as from the public. However, he also attracted a loyal group of followers and disciples, who formed the psychoanalytic movement. Some of his most influential students and colleagues were Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, Ernest Jones, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein.

Theory of psychoanalysis

Freud developed his theory of psychoanalysis based on his observations of his patients and his own self-analysis. He was interested in the unconscious motives and conflicts that shape human behaviour and personality. He believed that many psychological problems were rooted in repressed childhood traumas, especially sexual ones, that could be uncovered through techniques such as free association and dream analysis (Simply Psychology, 2023).

Freud also used his own dreams and personal experiences as sources of insight into the workings of the mind. For example, he analysed his famous dream of Irma’s injection, which revealed his feelings of guilt, anxiety, and resentment towards some of his colleagues and patients (, 2018). He also explored his own childhood memories, such as his Oedipus complex, which he generalized as a universal stage of psychosexual development (Simply Psychology, 2023).

Freud’s observations of his patients also influenced his theory of psychoanalysis. He noticed that many of them had similar patterns of symptoms, such as hysteria, phobias, or obsessions, that could not be explained by organic causes. He also discovered that some of them had experienced sexual abuse or seduction in their early years, which led him to formulate his controversial seduction theory, later abandoned in favour of the notion of infantile sexuality (Simply Psychology, 2023).

Freud also listened to their wishes and desires, their feelings of love, hate, shame, guilt, and fear, and how they coped with these emotions (Simply Psychology, 2023). For instance, he observed that some of his patients used defence mechanisms, such as repression, denial, projection, or rationalization, to protect themselves from unpleasant realities or impulses (Simply Psychology, 2023). He also recognized that some of them had transference reactions, that is, they transferred their feelings for significant others from their past onto him as their analyst (Psychology Today Australia, 2023).

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The ego, the id and the superego

Freud’s concept of the ego is one of the most influential ideas in psychology. The ego is the part of the personality that mediates between the demands of the id, the superego and reality. The ego tries to balance these conflicting forces and maintain a sense of self and identity. Freud described the ego as “not master in its own house” (Freud, 1961, p. 19), meaning that it is often overpowered by the id or the superego. However, he also stated that “where id was, there ego shall be” (Freud, 1933, p. 80), implying that the ego can grow and develop through psychoanalysis. The ego uses various mechanisms of defence to protect itself from anxiety and guilt, such as repression, denial, rationalization and projection (Freud, A., 1946).

Freud also introduced the theory of the id, which he described as “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality” (Freud, 1933, p. 103). The id is the source of our instinctual impulses, such as sex, aggression, and hunger, that seek immediate gratification regardless of social norms or moral values.

The id operates according to the pleasure principle, which means that it strives to avoid pain and increase pleasure at all costs. Freud (1923) wrote that “it is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world” (p. 25). The ego is the rational and realistic part of the personality that mediates between the demands of the id and the realities of the external world.

The ego follows the reality principle, which means that it tries to satisfy the id’s impulses in a realistic and socially acceptable way. Freud (1933) also compared the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse: “The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it” (p. 104). The ego, however, is not always in control of the id, and sometimes has to compromise or give in to its urges.

According to Freud, the superego is the part of the personality that represents the internalized ideals and moral standards of society. It is often in conflict with the id, which seeks immediate gratification of impulses, and the ego, which mediates between the id and reality. The superego can be seen as a “harsh master” that imposes guilt, shame, and anxiety on the ego when it fails to live up to its expectations (Freud, 1923/1961, p. 25). Some of the quotes that illustrate Freud’s concept of the superego are:

“The poor ego has a still harder time of it; it has to serve three harsh masters, and it has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three…The three tyrants are the external world, the superego, and the id.” (Freud, 1917/1961, p. 144)

“Where id was, there ego shall be.” (Freud, 1933/1964, p. 80)

“Nothing can be hidden from the superego. Not even thoughts.” (Freud, 1932/1964, p. 67)

Other Freudian concepts

Freud also introduced the concepts of:

The unconscious

According to Freud, the unconscious mind is a vast and influential part of the psyche that contains repressed ideas, primitive impulses and hidden memories that shape our personality and behaviour (Freud, 1915/1953). Freud used the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate the relationship between the conscious, preconscious and unconscious mind, where only the tip of the iceberg (the conscious mind) is visible, while the rest (the preconscious and unconscious mind) is submerged beneath the surface of awareness (Freud, 1923/1961).

Freud argued that the unconscious mind is inaccessible to introspection, but can be revealed through dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes and free association (Freud, 1900/1953; Freud, 1901/1960; Freud, 1905/1960). He also believed that the unconscious mind is governed by the pleasure principle, which seeks immediate gratification of instinctual drives regardless of reality or morality (Freud, 1911/1959). Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind has been influential in psychology, psychotherapy and cultural studies, but has also been challenged by critics who question its scientific validity and ethical implications.


repression is a defence mechanism in which people push difficult or unacceptable thoughts out of conscious awareness. According to Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, repression is the root of people’s “neuroses”, such as stress, anxiety, and depression (Psychology Today, n.d.).

He believed that people repressed memories that were too difficult to confront, especially traumatic memories, and expelled them from conscious thought (Verywell Mind, 2023). Freud (1922) distinguished between two stages of repression: primal repression, which involves the unconscious exclusion of the instinctual impulses from consciousness, and repression proper, which affects the mental derivatives of the repressed impulses (Wikipedia, n.d.).

He illustrated this concept with the example of a patient who repressed his sexual desire for his sister-in-law and developed a phobia of trains as a result. The train symbolized his repressed wish to travel to see his sister-in-law, but also his fear of being discovered by his brother (Freud, 1922).


Transference is a psychoanalytic concept that refers to the projection of past emotions, either positive or negative, onto someone else in the present, especially the therapist (Freud, 1920). Freud initially considered transference as a hindrance to the therapeutic process, as it distorted the patient’s perception of reality and created resistance to accessing the unconscious (Freud, 1895).

However, he later recognized that transference could also be a valuable tool for understanding and resolving the patient’s unresolved conflicts and traumas from childhood (Freud, 1912). For example, Freud (1914) described a case of a patient who transferred his feelings of love and admiration for his father onto his therapist, and also his feelings of guilt and resentment for killing him in his fantasies. By analysing this transference, Freud helped the patient to overcome his ambivalence and to achieve a more mature and realistic relationship with both his father and his therapist.

Transference can take different forms depending on the nature and intensity of the emotions involved, such as erotic, positive, negative, or narcissistic transference. Transference can also vary in its degree of awareness, from conscious to unconscious. It is not limited to therapy, but can occur in any interpersonal relationship where there is a significant emotional attachment or expectation (Psychology Today, n.d.).

However, transference is particularly important in therapy because it offers an opportunity to explore and modify the patient’s patterns of relating to others, and to foster a genuine therapeutic alliance based on trust and respect (Simply Psychology, 2023).


According to Freud, resistance is the phenomenon of repressing unconscious drives or conflicts that interfere with the conscious awareness of the patient. Resistance can manifest as uncooperative behaviours, avoidance, denial, or rationalization during psychoanalytic sessions.

Freud considered resistance as a sign of some past trauma or unresolved issue that needed to be brought to light and worked through to achieve emotional healing and behavioural change. He wrote: “The greater the resistance, the more extensive must be the hidden suffering and the more important the repressed part of the emotional life” (Freud, 1914/1959, p. 150). Resistance can also be seen as a form of self-protection or defence mechanism against the anxiety or pain that may arise from confronting one’s unconscious material.

As Freud (1926/1959) explained: “The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, and what he cannot remember may be precisely the essential part of it… He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of… remembering it as something belonging to the past” (p. 154). Therefore, resistance is both an obstacle and a clue for psychoanalytic work, as it indicates the presence and direction of the unconscious forces that need to be explored and integrated.

Free association

Free association is a technique that was popularized by Sigmund Freud, with the idea that if people talk without censoring themselves, they will uncover meaningful (and often repressed) thoughts, feelings, and memories (Verywell Mind, 2021). Freud thought that exposing people’s resistances and then analysing them was a fundamental part of healing. He also thought the only way to do that was through free association (Exploring your mind, 2018).

He asked his patients to “be absolutely honest, and never leave anything out because, for some reason or other, it is unpleasant to tell it” (Freud, 1913/1958, p. 135). Freud also remarked that his patients’ accounts were not as unintentional as they seemed; rather, they closely reproduced their memories and new impressions since their latest meeting with him (Freud, 1895/1954, p. 281). Free association is not an easy task; it requires a lot of effort and courage from the patient. As Ferenczi (1926/1955) said: “The patient is not cured by free-associating, he is cured when he can free-associate” (p. 217).

Dream interpretation

Freud’s concept of dream interpretation is based on the idea that dreams are the expression of a repressed wish that the conscious mind cannot acknowledge. Dreams are composed of two types of content: the manifest content, which is the actual imagery and events of the dream, and the latent content, which is the hidden psychological meaning of the dream.

Freud argued that by analysing the manifest content, one can uncover the latent content and reveal the unconscious conflicts and desires that shape one’s personality and behaviour. Freud used various methods to interpret dreams, such as free association, transference, and symbol interpretation.

Free association is a technique where the dreamer says whatever comes to mind in relation to the dream elements, without censoring or rationalizing. Transference is a process where the dreamer projects their feelings and desires towards significant others onto the analyst or another person in the dream.

Symbol interpretation is a method where the dreamer identifies the symbolic meaning of certain objects, actions, or characters in the dream, based on a general or personal code of symbols. Freud considered dream interpretation to be the “royal road” to the unconscious, as it reveals the hidden workings of the mind that are otherwise inaccessible (Freud, 1900/2010).

The Oedipus complex

The Oedipus complex is a psychoanalytic concept proposed by Sigmund Freud, who believed that children develop unconscious sexual and aggressive desires towards their opposite-sex parent and wish to eliminate their same-sex parent. Freud based his theory on the Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.

Freud wrote: “His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him” (Freud, 1900/1955, p. 262). According to Freud, the Oedipus complex occurs during the phallic stage of psychosexual development (ages 3-6), when the child’s libido (life force) is focused on the genitals.

The child takes both of its parents, and more particularly one of them, as the object of its erotic wishes (Freud, 1905/1962, p. 222). The resolution of the Oedipus complex depends on the child’s identification with the same-sex parent and the internalization of parental values and norms. Freud’s original examples of the Oedipus complex are applied only to boys or men; he never fully clarified his views on the nature of the complex in girls (Wikipedia, n.d.).

The libido

Freud’s concept of the libido is one of the central ideas in his psychoanalytic theory. He defined the libido as “the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude… of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love'” (Freud, 1920/1955, p. 121). The libido is the source of human motivation, creativity and vitality, but also of conflict, repression and neurosis.

Freud initially associated the libido mainly with sexual desire, but later expanded it to include all forms of life-affirming and constructive activities (Britannica, 2023). He also contrasted the libido with the death instinct (Thanatos), which drives destructive and aggressive impulses.

According to Freud, the libido operates through different stages of psychosexual development, from infancy to adulthood, and is influenced by various factors such as biological drives, social norms and unconscious conflicts (Verywell Mind, 2022). Freud’s concept of the libido has been criticized for being too vague, speculative and sexist, but it has also inspired many researchers and thinkers to explore the role of emotions, instincts and hormones in human behaviour (BPS, n.d.).

The defence mechanisms

Freud’s concept of the defence mechanisms refers to the psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings (Simply Psychology, 2023). According to Freudian theory, defence mechanisms involve a distortion of reality in some way so that we are better able to cope with a situation (Simply Psychology, 2023).

Freud believed that we need defence mechanisms to protect ourselves from feelings of anxiety or guilt; which arise because our id or superego becomes too demanding, and our ego therefore employs unconscious mechanisms to deal with the conflict and problems (Harper, n.d.).

Some examples of defence mechanisms are denial, repression, projection, rationalization, displacement, sublimation and regression. Freud’s daughter Anna Freud further developed and classified the defence mechanisms in her book The ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936). She wrote: “The ego resorts to defence measures because it cannot cope with the demands of the three sources of danger: the id, the super-ego and the external world” (Freud, 1936/1966, p. 7).

Weaknesses and criticisms of Freud’s concepts and theories

Freud’s concepts and theories have been widely influential in psychology, but they have also faced many criticisms and limitations. Some of the main weaknesses of Freud’s approach are:

It is not empirically supported. Many of Freud’s ideas, such as the Oedipus complex, the id, ego, and superego, and the defence mechanisms, are difficult to test or falsify (Crews, 1998; Open Textbooks HK, 2015).

It is sexist and biased. Freud based his theories on his male patients and his own experiences, and he ignored or distorted the perspectives of women. He also assumed that women were inferior to men and suffered from penis envy (Verywell Mind, 2021).

It is deterministic and pessimistic. Freud believed that human behaviour was largely determined by unconscious forces and childhood experiences, and that people had little control over their own lives. He also viewed human nature as driven by aggressive and sexual impulses that had to be repressed by society (Sage Advices, n.d.).

It is not sensitive to diversity. Freud generalized his theories to all people, regardless of their cultural, social, or historical backgrounds. He did not consider how different factors, such as race, class, gender, or religion, might influence personality and behaviour (, n.d.).

These criticisms suggest that Freud’s concepts and theories are inadequate to explain the complexity and diversity of human psychology.

Freud’s close circle of followers, known as the neo-Freudians, initially shared his interest in the unconscious and the role of childhood experiences in shaping personality. However, they later diverged from his theory and developed their own models, often influenced by their personal and cultural backgrounds. Some of the main disagreements that caused the fragmentation of Freud’s circle were:

The nature and importance of the libido. Freud believed that the libido was a sexual energy that drives human behaviour and motivates the stages of psychosexual development. Some of his followers, such as Alfred Adler and Karen Horney, rejected this idea and argued that the libido was more general and could be expressed in various forms of striving for superiority, security, or social interest (Adler, 1927; Horney, 1939).

The role of culture and society. Freud focused on the individual’s inner conflicts and the influence of biological instincts. He also viewed human nature as essentially aggressive and selfish. Some of his followers, such as Carl Jung and Erich Fromm, emphasized the impact of culture and society on personality development and proposed a more positive and optimistic view of human potential. They also introduced concepts such as the collective unconscious, archetypes, and the social unconscious to explain how people are shaped by their historical and cultural contexts (Jung, 1933; Fromm, 1941).

The status of women. Freud was accused of being sexist and misogynistic in his theory of female sexuality and development. He suggested that women suffer from penis envy, have a weaker superego, and experience an unresolved Oedipus complex. Some of his followers, especially Horney and Anna Freud, challenged these assumptions and offered alternative perspectives on female psychology. They argued that women’s problems are not caused by biological inferiority but by social and cultural oppression. They also highlighted the importance of female identity, autonomy, and creativity (Horney, 1967; Freud, A., 1936).

These are some examples of how Freud’s close circle disagreed with his theory and created their own theoretical models. They illustrate how psychoanalysis evolved and diversified over time, reflecting different perspectives and influences.


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