Who was Sigmund Freud? The Basics of Psychoanalytic Theory

Developer of psychoanalysis and commonly referred to as the founder of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud was born in the Czech Republic in 1856. His experience with psychology began when he was introduced to a physiology professor by the name of Ernst von Brucke. With Ernst’s help, Freud was given a grant study with researchers and psychiatrists who were interested in hypnosis and hysteria. During this time, Freud developed an addiction to cocaine, which he kept for the rest of his life. His narcotics addiction may have influenced his interest in the mind, either physically or by intriguing him through his own psychological experience.

Once Freud graduated from Vienna University in 1881, he and his wife, Martha Bernay, would go on to establish a neuropsychiatry practice, which he would eventually abandon. Freud was then appointed Professor of Neuropathology at Vienna University in 1902, where in 1906, him and several other men including Carl Jung and Alfred Adler joined to form the Psychoanalytic Society, which would eventually fail due to political issues. Afterwards, in 1909, Freud was invited to give his first international presentation of his theories in Stanley Hall, Massachusetts at Clark University. In 1933, Nazis publicly burnt many of Freud’s books, and in 1938 when the Nazis annexed Austria, Freud left Vienna for London. Freud still maintained his position at Vienna University until a year before his death, in 1938. Freud died of jaw cancer in 1939 after over 30 operations. His passion led him to some major (controversial) discoveries into how the mind works.

Freud’s most controversial work revolved around his desire to investigate psychosexual tendencies. He lived in a sexually repressive Victorian society in which the repression often led to neurotic illnesses. Freud used the term sexual broadly, applying to mostly anything that causes satisfaction or stimulation. Freud believed that throughout the stages of childhood development, people advance through different sexual desires. He suggested that if these desires aren’t satisfied in the developmental phase, it would lead to personality issues as an adult. 

Freud’s research into the human mind and behavior began with his revolutionary hypothesis of Bertha Pappenheim’s condition; Bertha, his patient under the advisement of Josef Breuer, exhibited symptoms of hysteria. She was successfully treated by recalling forgotten memories of traumatic events in her past. This is the case that cultured Freud’s interest in investigating the human mind.

Freud proposed that physical symptoms often surface due to deeply repressed internal conflicts. Essentially, he proposed that many of our physical illnesses are rooted in psychological issues. Freud thereafter proposed that there are three levels to the human mind, and went on to explain that the conscious mind (what we’re constantly aware of) is only the tip of the iceberg, whereas the unconscious mind is home to all of our primitive wishes and impulses. Freud proposed that the unconscious mind represses extremely painful or frightening information or experiences, where the root of many illnesses would arise. This was the beginning of Freud’s insight into the mind. 

Once Freud established his topographical analysis of the unconscious mind, he delved deeper into the psyche and eventually developed a more structural model on the entities that comprised the id, ego, and superego. The id is the most primitive psychological body of the mind; it’s inherently the biological manifestation of basic human survival instincts. The ego is the psychological body that attempts to satisfy the needs of the id by compromising postponing satisfaction to comply with social norms. The superego is the third body, which controls the id’s impulses and persuades the ego to satisfy the id’s needs in a moral way, striving for perfection. The ego is in a constant struggle between the id and the superego, wanting to fulfill needs but also needing to postpone or alter the needs to meet moral standards or societal standards. To avoid unpleasant feelings such as anxiety or guilt, our ego employs different defense mechanisms. Freud separated the id into human survival instinct, and human death instinct.

The ego is the mind’s attempt to satisfy the id’s needs in a socially acceptable way, operating in both the conscious and subconscious as opposed to the id which is entirely subconscious based. The superego ensures that moral standards are followed. When the superego and the id are in conflict, the ego utilizes suppression mechanisms to resolve the conflict. Some of the mechanisms that Freud described are repression, denial, projection, displacement, regression, and sublimation. Freud’s hypothesis of the human psyche pioneered modern insight into human behavior. 

The first defense mechanism discussed by Freud, and one of the most important, is repression. Repression is used to avoid making disturbing or threatening thoughts conscious. The issue with repression is that it’s ineffective in the long term; pushing memories or unpleasant thoughts into the unconscious often has a trailing conscious influence on thoughts and feelings, which manifests itself in the person’s social interactions.

Another Freudian defense mechanism is displacement. Displacement describes the behavior in which unpleasant feelings are expelled unhealthily through aggressive behaviors such as domestic abuse or violence. I don’t believe any example of displacement could be productive, and any that I can think of would fall into the category of the next type of defense mechanism, sublimation. 

Sublimation is displacement through constructive, rather than destructive, behavior. Discussing unpleasant memories tends to help alleviate the undesirable feelings that accompany them. Narrating the memories that we typically repress acts as a coping mechanism. I enjoy tackling issues that trouble me on my laptop, maybe because through writing as a sublimative coping mechanism, I can reread what I’ve written and feel good about writing it. If sublimative behavior was encouraged more in society and taught to young children in elementary schools (or maybe in high schools, where it’s definitely needed), we might see a healthy change in behavioral trends across the board. 

Freud’s work on the psyche was cut short with his death, but his daughter proved successful in continuing his legacy with her further publications into the defense mechanisms of the ego. Understanding the basics of psychology could prove to be helpful to social problems such as domestic abuse and violence; if everybody understood the basic underlying psychological systems- something you could learn with minimal time devoted- they might be less inclined to destructive behavior such as through displacement, and more conscious about their actions and feelings. 

Although Freud is often called the pioneer of modern psychology, his work wasn’t entirely scientific or valid. He based much of his research off of case studies involving Vienna women and only worked with a single child, so it’s largely a stretch to say his research was groundbreaking. What he did succeed at though, is introducing the idea that the unconscious exists and dictates much of our behaviors in childhood as well as throughout adulthood, and that mental illnesses may arise from mistreatment in childhood, etc. To say that Freud’s work was necessary to kick start psychological research would be correct, but his work was highly controversial and unscientific in its nature.


Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). (2014, January 1). Retrieved May 27, 2020, from

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Retrieved from

Sigmund Freud. (2014). The website. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from

By abdullahkinan

24, college student, cars, science, blah blah

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