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Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development

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This essay will outline the main concepts that surround Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, showing how it can help us understand our clients presenting issues. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian physician. His most vital contribution to the study of psychology and human behaviour was his belief of the “dynamic unconscious”. This view was that the unconscious mind played an important role in determining how an individual behaved. Freud put forward the principle of multiple determinations, which suggests that every psychic event is determined by the simultaneous action of several others. He saw the unconscious mind as the actual source of mental energy, which determined behaviour. He based his belief on the results of trials with hypnosis. When he was able to produce and remove symptoms of hysteria in his entranced patients. Freud used the term ‘psychoanalysis’ to label his theories and techniques. He was the first person in his field that began the use of non medical methods to deal with human conditions. It was during his neurological practice with hysterical patients that he first noticed that his patients were relieved from their symptoms by simply recollecting and talking about painful childhood experiences.

Freud went on to spend much of his life developing an intricate and controversial theory on personality development. Continuing this theory, it is thought that individual’s behaviour is the direct result of the influences of all past experience. These influences would have an even greater effect if they were from childhood. Freud believed that these first experiences formed solid foundations on which the developing client would structure the rest of their life. The adult personality was directly formed in childhood, according to the experience and treatment as a child. If the experiences in childhood were happy and balanced, then the child could develop into a normal, well balanced and adjusted adult. Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality and its psychological affects centres around the concepts of fixation, regression and repression. He asserted that at different stages of infancy, energy is directed towards different physical zones of the body and psychologically these zones become important and fuelled with emotion. In normal development, energy is withdrawn from one zone and redirected toward another, however if problems occur at a particular stage then a certain amount of energy is left behind and fixation occurs. In later life when an individual has emotional difficulties he/she will regress to this stage of development.

Repression is the banishment of painful, emotionally charged instinctual thoughts or memories into the unconscious. It is the process of repression into the unconscious, which may occur at various stages of development, creating a lasting impact on an individual. Freud stated that babies were innately perverse, i.e. any part of the body could be used by the libido. However his study of thumb sucking led him to assert that the first erogenous zone is the mouth and lips and that thumb sucking could be traced to the child remembering the pleasure obtained during breast-feeding. The mouth is also the first organ for aggression i.e. crying and yelling. Freud asserted that breast feeding and weaning were the first lessons taught and had a particular influence at an unconscious level. A baby is very dependent and can do little for him/her. If baby’s needs are properly fulfilled it can move on to the next stage. If unfulfilled, then mistrust develops – whereas being overly-fulfilled baby will find it hard to cope in a world that doesn’t meet all his/her needs. Such experiences create either highly dependent/independent people. Freud believed that if repression occurs at this stage then individuals may feel disgust at food and develop eating disorders. He said: ‘The repression extends to the nutritional instinct owing to the dual purpose served by the labial zone’ Freud (1953 p. 99). Orally fixated people may also become verbally aggressive (children may bite) or be passive and dependent.

The first challenges to Freud’s theory, apart from the widespread dismissal of it from the general public, came from Carl Jung. Jung’s basic challenge was that infantile sexual trauma is not the exclusive cause of adult neurosis. He writes in a letter to Freud dated 5th October 1906: ‘It seems to me that though the genesis of hysteria is predominantly, it is not exclusively, sexual’ Storr (1983 p. 46). Jung argues that all people experience childhood sexual trauma but do not develop neurosis in adult life and therefore it is the fixation in the present that is characteristic of the neurotic. Jung suggests that the problem of the present halts the adaption to life events; causes build up of libido (energy), which then finds an outlet by regression to a primitive or infantile state. Other analysts further criticised Freud’s biological emphasis and stated that cultural and sociological factors play a significant part in the causation of neurosis. A further criticism of Freud’s theory centres around his work on seduction. Freud originally believed that the events related to him by his parents of early childhood sexual encounters were acts of incest. He later asserted that these events did not occur but were just fantasies.

However he did accept that acts of child abuse did occur. Having worked in Children centres as a Nursery Nurse, I now understand this, where incest and child abuse was found in the families of the children I worked with. The psychodynamic approach places great emphasis on the years of childhood, investigating how the client comes to terms with and resolves any conflict conjured in this early period of life. It continues to help the client to understand and overcome this conflict. Freud was the first psychologist who allowed great emphasis to the relevance of those early years. According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, he believed that this was composed of three main fundamentals – known as the id, the ego and the superego, these three elements work together to create complex human behaviours. The Id is the only component of personality that is present from birth; this aspect of the personality is entirely unconscious and bares the instinctive and primitive behaviours. Freud conveyed that the Id is the source of all psychic energy, making it the primary component of personality. The Id is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification and satisfaction of all desires, wants and needs. If these are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state of anxiety or tension. The Id is very important early in life, because it ensures that an infant’s needs are met.

The Ego is the component of personality that is responsible for dealing with reality. According to Freud the ego develops from the Id and ensures that the impulses of the Id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world. The ego functions the conscious, preconscious and the unconscious mind. The ego’s functions are based on the reality principle, which strive to satisfy the Id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate way. The ego realises that if we follow our desires, we may be excluded by others and this would have a negative impression, it attempts to satisfy the “inner child”, through a realistic and acceptable way. The Superego works to suppress all the unacceptable urges of the id and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather that upon realistic principles. Freud claimed that the little voice like a parent, which comes to most of us when we are about to do something wrong is the superego. With so many conflicting forces, it is easy to see how conflict might arise between the id, ego and the superego. Freud used the term ego strength to refer to the ego’s ability to function despite these duelling forces. A person with good ego strength is able to effectively manage these pressures and maintain a state of “dynamic equilibrium”.

Those with too much or too little ego strength can become too unyielding or too disrupting. Freud states that the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, ego and the superego. It has also been argued that his work is sexually and socially unbalanced. This because his theory was less developed more for women and focused mainly on the mother and son relationship. Culturally another major flaw with this theory is that it fails to take into account people who do not grow up in the environment Freud declared was necessary for healthy psychological development (Rubin & McNeil 1987, p. 201). Freud’s therapy has been more influential than any other, and more influential than any other part of his theory. There are many aspects of it that help us to strongly understand a clients presenting issue. The therapy session creates a relaxed atmosphere to enable the client to feel free to open up and express absolutely anything. This is to encourage the unconscious conflicts to surface. A similarity between Freudian therapy and dreaming exists however the obvious difference is that in therapy, there is the therapist, who is trained to recognize certain clues to problems and their solutions that the client would overlook. Resistance is an example of this which suggests to Freudian therapists that the client is nearing something in his free associations that he unconsciously finds threatening. In Freud’s view, we are somewhat less resistant to our unconscious and we will allow a few things, in symbolic form, of course, to come to awareness. These wishes from the id then provide the therapist and client with more clues. The key concepts of Freud’s theory still remain applicable to the field of adult counselling as it is obvious that much of human behaviour is unpredictable and often determined by irrational forces and unconscious motivations.

The main objective of psychoanalysis as therapy is to bring to the surface the contents of the unconsciousness. This will help to reveal the areas of internal conflicts and developmental fixations of the client. Consequently this will then the help therapist understand the presenting issues and more appropriately advise. Conflict can occur between the individual and the environment as well as within the structures of individual psyche as Ego is set in difficult conditions “trying to satisfy, and survive in the face of, the often powerful conflicting demands of the id, the superego, and the outside world” (Fall, Holden, Marquis, p.42). To continue Freud’s theory, psychosexual stages can help to understand a clients presenting issue by concentrating on the clients childhood. Freud believed that the development of a child’s personality is based on biological drives and the drives evolve through a number of biologically determined stages. He believed that the strongest drive was the libido of sexual instinct, and he maintained that infants and young children are capable of sexual pleasure, however the word “sexual” in some cases can be taken too literally, a better fit would be the word “sensual” as Freud is describing and referring to the physical pleasure from any area of the body, rather than simply the genitals.

The Oral Stage (Erogenous Zone: Mouth) – during this stage the child’s primary source of interaction occurs through the mouth. Only the ID is present in a newborn and the sucking reflex is particularly important. The infant is totally dependent on the carer to ensure that he/she is fed and develops a sense of trust and comfort through the oral stimulation. The mouth is vital for eating and so the physiology of this sucking/feeding/drinking action ensures survival. The child receives pleasure from the oral stimulation through gratifying activities such as the tasting of foods. Freud suggests this stage takes place from birth to around 18 months. Conflict at this stage could come with the weaning process. Freud believed that if disturbance occurred during this stage then an individual could develop personality traits such as aggression, impatience, greediness and dependence. An oral fixation could include problems with eating habits, drinking, nail biting, smoking or thumb sucking. The Anal Stage (Erogenous Zone: Bowel and Bladder Control) – This stage sees the child gaining his/her first experience of some element of control by the focus on eliminating waste by controlling his or her bodily needs. The child here experiences pleasure from emptying their bowels which is demanded by the ID.

However random elimination brings displeasure to the parents and/or carer. So if the child refrains from eliminating at random he/she is then denying the ID which until now has been the sole motivator. This creates conflict in the child, and the result is that the EGO is developed. Freud says that this happens between the ages of 15 months to about 3 years. Freud suggests that success at this stage is very dependent on how the parent manages the potty training. Parents that use reward charts, praise and encourage the appropriate use of the toilet will receive positive outcomes, helping the infant to feel accomplished and productive. He also believed that positive experiences during this stage would result in competent, productive, creative individuals. If parents chastise, ridicule or are lenient on a child, then an anal-expulsive personality can develop. This is where an individual has a messy, wasteful or destructive personality. Parents or carers are too strict with or start too early, an anal-retentive personality could develop.

I have 2 children – my eldest is extremely untidy and never knows where anything is and my youngest is very tidy and although ad-hoc with his items, remembers where he has placed/left them. Does make me recall the potty-training days and how I managed them. The Phallic Stage – (Erogenous Zone: Genitals) – This stages focuses on the infant becoming aware of their genitals and discovering the differences between males and females. Children take an increasing interest in their genitals and show curiosity in others bodies. Freud thought that at this stage boys began to rival their fathers for their mother’s affection. The Oedipus complex describes the feelings as wanting to possess their mothers and replace their Fathers. However, they also feared being punished by their fathers for these feelings in a term that Freud named Castration Anxiety. Apparently girls also experienced a similar kind of feeling – the Electra complex. This is a psychoanalytic term used to describe girl’s romantic feelings towards her Father and anger towards her mother.

According Freud, a young girl is usually attached to her mother initially until she discovers she does not have a penis; she resents her mother (blaming her for her “castration”) and attaches herself to her Father. She then begins to identify and relate to her mother again, out of fear of losing her love. Another term for the Electra complex is ‘penis envy’. Freud implies that major disturbance faced during this stage is the conflict of the Oedipal/Electra conflict. Conflicts if unresolved could result in homosexuality, problems with authority, rejection of appropriate gender roles. Latency Stage (Inactive Sexual Feelings) – During this period sexual feeling is suppressed. The Ego and the Superego help and contribute to calm this period. Sexual energy is still present; however it is being focused and directed into other things such as forming friendships, hobbies and academia. An individual disturbed during the latent stage may result in having little or no sexual response. Freud suggests this happens from around 5 years of ages until puberty.

Genital Stage (Erogenous Zone: Maturing Sexual Interests) – During this stage, we see the re-emergent of the earlier drives and desires, with a strong interest in the opposite sex. This stage begins during puberty and lasts for the rest of the person’s life. Interest in the welfare of others grows during this stage. If the other stages have been completed successfully then the individual should be a well balanced member of society. The purpose and goal of this stage is to establish balance in all life areas. If too much libidinal energy (libido, described as driving force) has been used up in the first three stages then this could result in an individual not reaching maturity, cannot see past their own body, their own needs and their own parents to greater responsibilities that might involve others. So, Freud believed that if any of these stages (that were able to overlap or be experienced at the same time) were disturbed then an individual would be stuck in a particular phase later in life causing them problems, everyday nuances or neurosis.

Freud’s theory, although extremely controversial, have had a great influence on the field of psychotherapy: “most of the current models of counselling and psychotherapy have been inspired either by the work of Freud or by a reaction against his ideas“(Errington & Murdin, in: Feltham, Horton, 2006, p.251. There are indeed elements of his theory that are considered as absurd and shocking. However, it is important to remember that Freud was the first to highlight the existence of the unconscious mind, presented the idea of the human psyche as a dynamic structure and described psychological defence mechanisms. Freud was the pioneer in using “the talking cure“in treating his neurotic patients and introduced human sexuality to the world of science. The works of Freud inspired many theorists to develop ideas or create the new theoretical concepts some which are the complete antithesis to his approach. I believe that interaction with the environment and psychological functioning of the individual can evoke problems which can be brought up to counselling sessions.

When problems occur, Freud’s ideas can be helpful in understanding the sources of the anxiety within the clients, unconscious motivations they are often driven with, difficulties in creating and maintaining proper relations with others as well as intimate relationships . Freud’s ideas also help therapists understand problems regarding sexual identity and compulsive behaviours. The sheer variety of complex problems where Freud’s ideas can be applicable while dealing with human conditions shows the importance of his contribution to psychotherapy and makes his concepts fundamental to understand by every professional counsellor. Freud’s theory, although extremely controversial, have had a great influence on the field of psychotherapy: “most of the current models of counselling and psychotherapy have been inspired either by the work of Freud or by a reaction against his ideas” (Errington & Murdin, in: Feltham, Horton, 2006, p.251).

References and Bibliography
Benson (1999) The Psychodynamic Perspective Psychology review, Vol. 6 no.1 1999 Corey, p.62) Theory and practice of counselling and psychotherapy, USA: Thomson Learning. Errington, M. and Murdin, L. in: Feltham, C. and Horton, I. (2006) The sage handbook of Counselling and Psychotherapy, London: Sage Publications. Fall, K., Miner Holden, J. & Marquis, A. (2004) Theoretical models of counselling and psychotherapy, USA: Brunner-Routledge. Freud, S. (1927) The Ego and The Id, London: Hogarth Press.

Gross, R. (2005) Psychology. The science of mind and behaviour. London: Hodder Arnold. Flanagan (1994)
Rubin & McNeil (1987) Psychology: Being Human, Harper & Row, New York www.personalityresearch.org/papers/
Reber, A. S. and Reber, E. S. (2001) Dictionary of Psychology. England: Penguin Books.

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