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Freud vs Erikson

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Sigmund Freud’s Theory of psychoanalysis and psychosexual personality development and has been considered one of the most influential and controversial theories of our time. Many students of Freud did not fully embrace his theories which led to a wave of theories coined neopsychoanalytic. Neo-analytical psychology attempted to build on Freudian theory while breaking free from the constrains sexual development as a sole influence on personality. One such theorist is Erik Erikson who believed personality development was driven by a person’s interactions with their social and cultural environments. In this paper we will examine some of the key elements of these two theories and try to understand the key differences and improvements made by Erikson contributing to a more holistic view of the person.

Moving Freudian Theory Forward with Erikson’s Neo-Analytical Theory Whether you agree with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality development or not there is no denying that his contribution to personality development has been one of the most significant of our time. Freud’s theory, which focused on sexual development in childhood as the foundation for personality development was considered by many as extreme during the Victorian era, which was a time when sexuality was not widely spoken of (Insight Media, Inc, 2009). This caused a divide in the world of psychology between either followers of Freud or non-followers. This strong emphasis on sexuality and biological bases for development were also considered dirty or pornographic by his critics (Insight Media, Inc, 2009). There were however, many theorists that followed Freud who agreed with some of his concepts, while taking a different approach to attempt to improve upon his theory. This approach is commonly referred to as the neo-analytic or ego-perspective approach (Friedman & Schustack, 2012).

One neopsychologist that accepted Freud’s ideas and built on them while taking a non-sexual approach is Erik Erikson. Erikson looked at personality development from a psychosocial perspective in an attempt to improve on the limitations of Freud’s theory. Erikson believed an individual’s environment and social factors including one’s own desire to be a part of a group are the primary factors that influence personality development (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). Both Erikson and Freud recognized the importance of the unconscious mind on personality development and that the centre of development revolves around a form of conflict or crisis (Atalay, 2007).

Further, when this conflict is not resolved appropriately this resulted in the individual experiencing some form of emotional distress (Atalay, 2007). Both theories believe that personality develops as an individual moves through predetermined stages beginning from birth. Although taking different approaches there are similar concepts in their stages of development and while Freud believed that an individual’s personality was essentially developed by age six Erikson felt that an individual’s personality develops across their lifespan. In this paper we will review the key elements of both Freud and Erikson’s’ theories while comparing the differences and similarities. Consciousness

Freud believed that there were three levels of consciousness within the human mind and that human behaviour and personality derived from the constant and unique interaction of three levels which he defined as the conscious, preconscious and unconscious(Friedman & Schustack, 2012). The conscious mind includes thoughts, memories and emotions that an individual is aware of in the moment. The preconscious is referred to as the available memory (Boeree, 2009). An individual may not necessarily be experiencing particular thoughts and emotions however they can be easily brought into the conscious mind (Boeree, 2009).

The unconscious which Freud felt was the largest part of the mind includes all the things that an individual is not easily able to bring into awareness, including their drives and instincts as well as unpleasant emotions such as pain and suppressed memories of trauma (Boeree, 2009). Freud felt that all of our drives and motivations stemmed from the unconscious mind which included our most basic desires such as food and sex (Boeree, 2009). Freud also felt that dreams were an integral part of the unconscious and provided insight into internal conflict that an individual could not otherwise consciously access (Friedman & Schustack, 2012).

Freud further divided the structure of the mind and personality into three sections including the id, the ego, and the superego (Boeree, 2009). According to Freud the id is present at birth and is the source of all psychic energy, making it the primary component of personality (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). The id comprises our instincts and drives and operates on the pleasure principal. Its sole responsibility is to satisfy an individual’s desires to reduce inner tension (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). The ego operates with the conscious mind and is responsible for dealing with reality and ensuring that the desires of the id are expressed and satisfied in an acceptable manner. According to Friedman & Schustack, throughout an individual’s life the id is constantly struggling with ego and the constrains of reality (2012). The last structure of an individual’s personality to develop is the superego, which he felt was developed around age five (Boeree, 2009). While the ego works within reality to satisfy the desires of the id, it faces challenges and obstacles from our parents and societal rules which we then internalize to assist in making judgments that will guide future decisions (Boeree, 2009).

These learnings are stored within the superego which is divided into two parts including the ego ideal and the conscious. The ego ideal includes rules for good behaviour that are rewarded in society and result in feeling such as pride and accomplishment (Boeree, 2009). The conscious holds information about what is not acceptable in society and the punishments as well as warnings for them which if not followed result in feelings such as shame and guilt (Boeree, 2009). The superego operates primarily in the preconscious and unconscious (Boeree, 2009). Although Erikson accepted the Freud’s concept and structure of the id, ego and superego he believed that the ego was more than just a mediator between the id and superego and was actually the driving force of personality development (Boeree, 2006).

Erikson focused more on present interactions, thoughts and emotions occurring in the conscious mind to form identity. That is not to say that he discounted the unconscious completely as he still believed it had an influential role in behaviour (Hoare, 2013). Studies have since shown that environmental factors can unconsciously influence an individual’s behaviour giving further credit to Erikson’s theory of the external factors that influence identity consciously and unconsciously (Hoare, 2013).

He believed the ego’s role was to develop that sense of identity which is why he is referred to as an ego psychologist (Boeree, 2006). As a result of this Erikson believed that identify formation occurred through the ego’s development throughout an individual’s lifespan (Boeree, 2006). Contrary to Freud who believed identity was formed by age five or six and he underplayed the social influences such as going to school on personality development (Insight Media, Inc, 2009). Freud’s narrow view of the biological influences on personality limited the ability of personality growth beyond childhood

(Friedman & Schustack, 2012). Erikson on the other hand was more open to personality shifts throughout the lifespan which helped explain changes in personality during adulthood in times such as child rearing or becoming a grandparent. According to Erikson a strong ego which allows an individual to successfully move through his proposed stages of developments results then in a strong sense of identity (Markstrom, Berman, Sabino, &Turner, 1998).

Stages of development
Freud proposed five stages of psychosexual development that starts from birth until puberty which create the core of an individual’s personality. These stages include the oral stage from birth to about 18 months focuses on pleasures received through the mouth such as eating, suckling, and biting (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). The anal stage from 18 months old until three years old focuses on the pleasure felt from letting it go or holding it in. Next is the phallic stage starts around age four and last until ages six or seven. Its focus was on pleasure derived from genitalia and masturbation (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). Freud also introduced the Oedipus crisis at this stage which he explained that children become attached or in love with the opposite sex parent and see the same sex parent as a threat (Boeree, 2009). The child then unconsciously wants to kill the threat or same sex parent to maintain the bond with the other parent (Boeree, 2009). It’s at the end of the phallic stage that Freud believed the superego and personality are essentially developed (Boeree, 2009).

The fourth stage in Freud’s theory is the latency which extended until age 12 and he believed this was a period of calmness in terms of sexual development (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). He believed that this was a result of sexual energies being channeled into other activities such as going to school and making friends but did not feel these activities played a significant role in personality development as it could not be explained by sexuality (Insight Media, Inc, 2009). This is considered a major weakness in Freud’s theory, one in which Erikson tries to resolve with psychosocial approach (Insight Media, Inc, 2009). The final stage is the genital stage which begins at puberty and focuses on the sex drive and heterosexual relations (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). If an individual successfully passed though the previous stages by achieving the desired pleasure then the individual would begin a normal adult life consisting of hetero sexual relations, marriage and child rearing (Friedman & Schustack, 2012).

Any deviation from the perceived norm such as remaining single or homosexuality Freud believed was unnatural and was the result of a deficit within a previous stage of psychosexual development (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). Since Freud believed that success at each stage is achieved when pleasure is obtained, if pleasure was not obtained and the individual is fixated at a particular stage then this resulted in emotional distress and anxiety that could be carried throughout an individual’s life (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). Therefore any neurosis or distress experienced throughout life can be traced backwards to a conflict in childhood within one of the stages mentioned (Hoare, 2005). In contrast Erikson’s eight stages of development focus on the environmental, social, and cultural influences across a person’s life span.

Erikson believed contrary to Freud that our personalities evolved moving forward including into adulthood and regardless of the conflict or outcome of a particular stage it is not fixed and can be changed by later experiences (Hoare, 2005). As a result of Erikson’s theory that our personalities are continuously evolving he believed that a child can have just as much influence on their parents personality development as the parents have on the development of their child’s personality (Boeree, 2006). Freud’s stages are also explained from a predominantly male perspective of sexual development which does not account for important differences in female development and it has been argued that it makes his theories less usable (Review of three contributions, 1917).

Although Erikson mirrored Freud’s stage approach including the order of each stage which follows biological growth he did not feel that it was biology itself that determined the personality development but rather our interactions with the environment during these periods (Atalay, 2007). Erikson titles each of his stages with the positive label of what was trying to be achieved and the negative result if not achieved i.e. trust versus mistrust (Atalay, 2007). The success or lack thereof of moving through each stage of development contributes to an individual’s ego strength which will assist through the remaining stages in development (Markstrom, Berman, Sabino, &Turner, 1998). If a stage is not successfully moved through either by experiencing too little or too much of the positive this leads to what Erikson refers to as a crisis similar to Freud it leads to either maladaptive malignant tendencies (Boeree, 2006).

Each stage has particular psychosocial tasks to be completed. Erikson went into further detail to say that each stage has an optimal time for completion (Boeree, 2006). Contrary to Freud who explained personality by studying the abnormalities of the human mind, Erikson felt that mental health was better understood by studying what a normal healthy human mind looked like (Hoare, 2005). This can be considered an improvement over Freud as how do we know what is unhealthy if we do not first know what healthy looks like to compare it to. Erikson strived to regard the person as a whole and by identifying the positive and balance required to be healthy which gives us an indication on what to strive for.

The first four stages of Erikson’s theory of personality development correspond in age, and biological sexual development to Freud’s first four stages however as stated earlier they are driven by environmental and social influences. The first stage is trust versus mistrust which, starts at birth until age one and the task to develop is trust without totally discounting mistrust which could lead to maladaptive behaviours (Boeree, 2006). Children have to learn to trust their caregivers if they are supportive and loving and provide for their needs (Boeree, 2006). The second stage is autonomy versus shame and doubt which lasts from approximately 18 months to three years. The task is to achieve autonomy by learning to be self-sufficient and controlling their bodies (Boeree, 2006). A balance of positive but firm reinforcement by caregivers will minimize feelings of shame and doubt (Boeree, 2006).

The third stage which lasts until around age six is labeled initiative versus guilt and the task is to learn to initiate ideas and interactions with their environment which generates a sense of purpose for the child (Boerre, 2006). Erikson does include Freud’s concept of the oedipal experience in this stage however, he does not put it at the core but as one component of this stage (Atalay, 2007). He believed that the oedipal complex was resolved in the same way as other parts of this stage, through positive encouragement of parents to move away from their attachment to the same sex parent and initiate new relationships and experiences (Atalay, 2007). The fourth stage is referred to as industry versus inferiority where the child learns to develop a sense of self competency within a system primarily through learning and school (Boerre, 2006).

The fifth stage of Erikson’s development is identity versus role confusion and this has been considered his most influential stage within psychology and personality development (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). It is at this stage that an adolescent experiments with different roles while trying to develop a sense of identity based on the outcomes of previous stages. Success at this stage results in a clear sense of self (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). This is vastly different than Freud’s genital stage where he believed the development is set at this point and there is no experimenting or developing further, you have either developed normal sexuality or not by this stage.

Erikson’s last three stages that move through adulthood are completely new territory and not influenced by Freud’s developmental theory as were the previous stages (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). These stages may fluctuate in timelines as events that occur in adulthood may differ in timelines for individuals such as having children (Boeree, 2006). In the sixth stage of intimacy versus isolation the young adult is learning to have more in-depth intimate relationships with others and being a part of something greater (Boeree, 2006). Success in this stage is learning to love (Boeree, 2006). In the seventh stage during middle adulthood is generativity versus stagnation. This stage often comes with child rearing and extending that love into the next generation (Boeree, 2006). If successful this capacity to love others will carry though for the remainder of your adult life (Boeree, 2006). The final stage which occurs in late adulthood is ego integrity versus despair. This involves coming to terms with your life and choices you made good and bad; accepting the path you walked lends to wisdom (Boeree, 2006). Failure to do so results in disdain and feelings of despair (Boeree, 2006).

Although Erikson accepted Freud’s concepts in many areas and utilized them as a basis for his own theory he did not accept Freud’s narrow view that the biology of sexuality was the only influential factor on personality development. The weaknesses in Freud’s theories may be more obvious in today’s modern culture however, it’s evident that while Erikson was formulating his approach he recognized that sex could not fully explain all the stages nor did it explain shifts in personality moving forward throughout a person’s life. Freud deemphasized the importance of how an individual interacts with their social and cultural environmental which Erikson tried to improve upon and considered these influences as the primary forces driving personality development. Further contrary to Freudian view Erikson argued that environment does not solely exist as an external component around a person it also exists within the person and becomes part of their psyche (Hoare, 2013).

Through Erikson’s contribution of a psychosocial lens across the lifespan he accounts for a more holistic view of the person and paves the way for a continuous biopsychosocial model of development (Hoare, 2005). Another key difference and one could argue improvement by Erikson was his focus on understanding normal healthy behaviour as a way to inform what is abnormal versus Freud’s focus on abnormal behaviour to inform what is normal (Hoare, 2005). Understanding the balance required between the positive and negative constructs for the healthy development of identity is a concept still used in modern psychology today.


Atalay, M. (2007). Psychology of crisis: an overall account of the psychology of Erikson. Ekev Academic Review, 11(33), 15-34.
Boeree, C.G. (2006).Erik Erikson. Personality Theories. Retrieved from: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/erikson.html
Boeree, C.G. (2009).Sigmund Freud. Personality Theories. Retrieved from: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/freud.html
Friedman, H.S. & Schustack, M. W. (2012). Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Hoare. C. (2005). Erikson’s general and adult developmental revisions of Freudian thought: “Outward, Forward, Upward”. Journal of Adult Development, 12(1), 19-31. doi: 10.1007/S10804-005-1279-0
Hoare, C. (2013). Three missing dimensions in contemporary studies of identity: The unconscious, negative attributes, and society. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 33(1), 51-67. doi: 10.1037/a0026546

Insight Media, Inc. (2009). Neo-analytic in Personality Disorders. New York, NY: Jamie Dyce Insight Media, Inc. (2009). Sigmund Freud in Personality Disorders. New York, NY: Jamie Dyce

Kauders, A. (2013). Truth, truthfulness, and psychoanalysis: The reception of Freud in Wilhelmine Germany. German History, 31(1), 1-22
Markstrom, C.A., Berman, R.C., Sabino, V.M., Turner, B. (1998). The ego virtue of fidelity as a psychosocial rite of passage in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Child & Youth care Forum, 27(5), 337-354.

Review of ‘Three contributions to the theory of sex’. (1917). Psychological Bulletin, 14(9), 324326. doi: 10.1037/h0066109

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