The Psychoanalytic Model

Learning Objectives

  • Describe Freud’s concept of the unconscious and explain how the three basic elements of personality interact
  • Explain the psychoanalytic concepts of psychosexual development and defense mechanisms

In contrast to the biological aspects of the biopsychosocial model of psychopathology, the next five models described focus mostly on psychological and social/cultural aspects of human beings that contribute to the development of mental disorders. Each of these models was developed in an attempt to investigate and explain aspects of human development, emotions, thoughts, personality, and behaviors that could lead to specific symptoms or disorders. The concepts within these models also suggest treatments or interventions that could reduce suffering and improve a person’s ability to adapt to their challenges in life. As we now know, all these models are incomplete, but they each provide different perspectives on psychopathology that can be helpful both in understanding various disorders or problems and that have led to a variety of treatment approaches. The psychodynamic model has a strong emphasis on human development and the effect of psychological processes we may not be consciously aware of.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is probably the most controversial and misunderstood psychological theorist. When reading Freud’s theories, it is important to remember that he was a medical doctor, not a psychologist, and his ideas were also related to the times and culture in which he lived. While Freud’s focus on biological drives led him to emphasize the impact of sociocultural factors on personality development (due to conflicts between these forces), his followers quickly realized that biology alone could not account for the diversity they encountered as the practice of psychoanalysis spread during the time of the Nazi Holocaust. The antisemitism which was prevalent during this period of time may also have led mainstream psychoanalysts to focus primarily on the universality of the psychological structures of the mind. Furthermore, there was no such thing as a degree in psychology at the time that he received his education, which can help us understand some of the controversy over his theories today. However, Freud was the first to systematically study and theorize the workings of the unconscious mind in the manner that we associate with modern psychology.

In the early years of his career, Freud worked with Josef Breuer, a Viennese physician. During this time, Freud became intrigued by the story of one of Breuer’s patients, Bertha Pappenheim, who was referred to by the pseudonym Anna O. (Launer, 2005). Anna O. had been caring for her dying father when she began to experience symptoms such as partial paralysis, headaches, blurred vision, amnesia, and hallucinations (Launer, 2005). In Freud’s day, these symptoms were commonly referred to as hysteria. Anna O. turned to Breuer for help. He spent two years (1880–1882) treating Anna O. and discovered that allowing her to talk about her experiences seemed to bring some relief of her symptoms. Anna O. called his treatment the “talking cure” (Launer, 2005). Despite the fact the Freud never met Anna O., her story served as the basis for the 1895 book, Studies on Hysteria, which he co-authored with Breuer. Based on Breuer’s description of Anna O.’s treatment, Freud concluded that hysteria was the result of sexual abuse in childhood and that these traumatic experiences had been hidden from consciousness. Breuer disagreed with Freud, which soon ended their work together. However, Freud continued to work to refine talk therapy and build his theory on personality.

Levels of Consciousness

To explain the concept of conscious versus unconscious experience, Freud compared the mind to an iceberg (Figure 1). He said that only about one-tenth of our mind is conscious or self-aware, and the rest of our mind is unconscious. Our unconscious refers to mental activity (emotional reactions, motivations) of which we are unaware and are unable to access (Freud, 1923). According to Freud, unacceptable urges and desires are kept in our unconscious through a process called repression. For example, we sometimes say things that we don’t intend to say by unintentionally substituting another word for the one we meant. You have probably heard of a Freudian slip, the term used to describe this. Freud suggested that slips of the tongue are actually sexual or aggressive urges, accidentally slipping out of our unconscious. However, speech errors such as this are quite common. Instead of seeing them only as a reflection of unconscious desires, linguists today have found that slips of the tongue tend to occur when we are tired, nervous, or not at our optimal level of cognitive functioning (Motley, 2002).

The mind’s conscious and unconscious states are illustrated as an iceberg floating in water. Beneath the water’s surface in the “unconscious” area are the id, ego, and superego. The area above the water’s surface is labeled “conscious.” Most of the iceberg’s mass is contained underwater.

Figure 1. Freud believed that we are only aware of a small amount of our mind’s activities and that most of it remains hidden from us in our unconscious. The information in our unconscious affects our behavior, although we are unaware of it.

According to Freud, our personality develops from a conflict between two forces: our biological aggressive and pleasure-seeking drives versus our internal (socialized) control over these drives. Our personality is the result of our efforts to balance these two competing forces. Freud suggested that we can understand this by imagining three interacting systems within our minds. He called them the id, ego, and superego (Figure 2).

A chart illustrates an exchange of the Id, Superego, and Ego. Each has its own caption. The Id reads “I want to do that now,” and the Superego reads “It’s not right to do that.” These two captions each have an arrow pointing to the Ego’s caption which reads “Maybe we can compromise.”

Figure 2. The job of the ego, or self, is to balance the aggressive/pleasure-seeking drives of the id with the moral control of the superego.

The unconscious id contains our most primitive drives or urges and is present from birth. It directs impulses for hunger, thirst, aggression, and sex. Freud believed that the id operates on what he called the “pleasure principle,” in which the id seeks immediate gratification. Through social interactions with parents and others in a child’s environment, the ego and superego develop to help control the id. The superego develops as a child interacts with others, learning the social rules for right and wrong. The superego acts as our conscience; it is our moral compass that tells us how we should behave. It strives for perfection and judges our behavior, leading to feelings of pride or—when we fall short of the ideal—feelings of guilt. In contrast to the instinctual id and the rule-based superego, the ego is the rational part of our personality. It’s what Freud considered to be the self, and it is the part of our personality that is seen by others. Its job is to balance the demands of the id and superego in the context of reality; thus, it operates on what Freud called the “reality principle.” The ego helps the id satisfy its desires in practical and socially acceptable ways.

The id and superego are in constant conflict because the id wants instant gratification regardless of the consequences, but the superego tells us that we must behave in ways that align with social and cultural expectations and demands. Thus, the ego’s job is to find the middle ground. The ego helps satisfy the id’s desires in a rational way that will not lead us to feelings of guilt. According to Freud, a person who has a strong ego, which can balance the demands of the id and the superego, has a healthy personality. Freud maintained that imbalances in the system can lead to neurosis (a tendency to experience negative emotions), anxiety disorders, or unhealthy behaviors. For example, a person who is dominated by their id might be narcissistic and impulsive. A person with a dominant superego might be controlled by feelings of guilt and deny themselves even socially acceptable pleasures; conversely, if the superego is weak or absent, a person might become a psychopath. An overly dominant superego might be seen in an over-controlled individual whose rational grasp on reality is so strong that they are unaware of their emotional needs, or, in a neurotic person who is overly defensive (overusing ego defense mechanisms).

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Stages of Psychosexual Development

Freud believed that personality develops during early childhood: childhood experiences shape our personalities as well as our behavior as adults. He asserted that we develop via a series of stages during childhood. Each of us must pass through these childhood stages, and if we do not have the proper nurturing and parenting during a stage, we will be stuck, or fixated, in that stage, even as adults.

In each psychosexual stage of development, the child’s pleasure-seeking urges, coming from the id, are focused on a different area of the body, called an erogenous zone. The stages are oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital (see Table 1).

Freud’s psychosexual development theory is quite controversial. To understand the origins of the theory, it is helpful to be familiar with the political, social, and cultural influences of Freud’s day in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. This era combined a climate of sexual repression with limited understanding and education surrounding human sexuality, and strongly defined sexual and social roles for males and females. These cultural forces heavily influenced Freud’s perspective. Given that sex was a taboo topic, Freud assumed that negative emotional states (neuroses) stemmed from suppression of unconscious sexual and aggressive urges. For Freud, his own recollections and personal interpretations of patients’ experiences and dreams were sufficient proof that psychosexual stages were universal events in early childhood.

Table 1. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
Stage Age (years) Erogenous Zone Major Conflict Adult Fixation Example
Oral 0–1 Mouth Weaning off breast or bottle Smoking, overeating
Anal 1–3 Anus Toilet training Neatness, messiness
Phallic 3–6 Genitals Oedipus/Electra complex Vanity, overambition
Latency 6–12 None None None
Genital 12+ Genitals None None

Oral Stage

In the oral stage (birth to one year), pleasure is focused on the mouth. Eating and the pleasure derived from sucking (nipples, pacifiers, and thumbs) play a large part in a baby’s first year of life. At around one year of age, babies are weaned from the bottle or breast, and this process can create conflict if not handled properly by caregivers. According to Freud, an adult who smokes, drinks, overeats, or bites her nails is fixated in the oral stage of her psychosexual development; she may have been weaned too early or too late, resulting in these fixation tendencies, all of which seek to ease anxiety.

Anal Stage

After passing through the oral stage, children enter what Freud termed the anal stage (one to three years). In this stage, children experience pleasure in their bowel and bladder movements, so it makes sense that the conflict in this stage is over toilet training. During this stage of development, children work to master control of themselves. Freud suggested that success at the anal stage depended on how parents handled toilet training. Parents who offer praise and rewards encourage positive results and can help children feel competent. Parents who are harsh in toilet training can cause a child to become so fearful of soiling that they over-control and become fixated at the anal stage, leading to the development of an anal-retentive personality. The anal-retentive personality is stingy and stubborn, has a compulsive need for order and neatness, and might be considered a perfectionist. If parents are too lenient in toilet training, the child may fail to develop sufficient self-control, become fixated at this stage, and develop an anal-expulsive personality. The anal-expulsive personality is messy, careless, disorganized, and prone to emotional outbursts.

Phallic Stage

Freud’s third stage of psychosexual development is the phallic stage (three to six years), corresponding to the age when children become aware of their bodies and recognize the differences between boys and girls. The erogenous zone in this stage is the genitals. Conflict arises when the child feels a desire for the opposite-sex parent, and jealousy and hatred toward the same-sex parent. For boys, this is called the Oedipus complex, involving a boy’s desire for his mother and his urge to replace his father, who is seen as a rival for the mother’s attention. At the same time, the boy is afraid his father will punish him for his feelings, so he experiences castration anxiety. The Oedipus complex is successfully resolved when the boy begins to identify with his father as an indirect way to have the mother. Failure to resolve the Oedipus complex may result in fixation and development of a personality that might be described as vain and overly ambitious.

Girls experience a comparable conflict in the phallic stage—the Electra complex. The Electra complex, while often attributed to Freud, was actually proposed by Freud’s protégé, Carl Jung (Jung & Kerenyi, 1963). A girl desires the attention of her father and wishes to take her mother’s place. Jung also said that girls are angry with the mother for not providing them with a penis—hence the term penis envy. While Freud initially embraced the Electra complex as a parallel to the Oedipus complex, he later rejected it; yet it remains as a cornerstone of Freudian theory, thanks in part to academics in the field (Freud, 1931/1968; Scott, 2005).

Latency Period

Following the phallic stage of psychosexual development is a period known as the latency period (six years to puberty). This period is not considered a stage because sexual feelings are dormant as children focus on other pursuits, such as school, friendships, hobbies, and sports. Children generally engage in activities with peers of the same sex, which serves to consolidate a child’s gender-role identity.

Genital Stage

The final stage is the genital stage (from puberty on). In this stage, there is a sexual reawakening as the incestuous urges resurface. The young person redirects these urges to other, more socially acceptable partners (who often resemble the other-sex parent). People in this stage have mature sexual interests, which for Freud meant a strong desire for the opposite sex. Individuals who successfully completed the previous stages, reaching the genital stage with no fixations, are said to be well-balanced, healthy adults.

Defense Mechanisms

Freud believed that feelings of anxiety result from the ego’s inability to mediate the conflict between the id and superego. When this happens, Freud believed that the ego seeks to restore balance by reducing anxiety through various protective measures known as defense mechanisms (Figure 3). The ego, usually conscious, resorts to these unconscious actions or behaviors to protect itself from becoming overwhelmed. Thus, when we use defense mechanisms, we are unaware that we are using them. Further, they operate in various ways that may distort reality. According to Freud, we all use ego defense mechanisms; they are a normal part of life, but defense mechanisms can also backfire if the underlying conflict is never resolved.

A chart defines eight defense mechanisms and gives an example of each. “Denial” is defined as “Refusing to accept real events because they are unpleasant.” The example given is “Kaila refuses to admit she has an alcohol problem although she is unable to go a single day without drinking excessively.” “Displacement” is defined as “Transferring inappropriate urges or behaviors onto a more acceptable or less threatening target.” The example given is “During lunch at a restaurant, Mark is angry at his older brother, but does not express it and instead is verbally abusive to the server.” “Projection” is defined as “Attributing unacceptable desires to others.” The example given is “Chris often cheats on her boyfriend because she suspects he is already cheating on her.” “Rationalization” is defined as “Justifying behaviors by substituting acceptable reasons for less-acceptable real reasons.” The example given is “Kim failed his history course because he did not study or attend class, but he told his roommates that he failed because the professor didn’t like him.” “Reaction Formation” is defined as “Reducing anxiety by adopting beliefs contrary to your own beliefs.” The example given is “Nadia is angry with her coworker Beth for always arriving late to work after a night of partying, but she is nice and agreeable to Beth and affirms the partying as cool.” “Regression” is defined as “Returning to coping strategies for less mature stages of development.” The example given is “After failing to pass his doctoral examinations,Fernando goes home to play online video games the rest of the night” “Repression” is defined as “Suppressing painful memories and thoughts.” The example given is “LaShea cannot remember her grandfather’s fatal heart attack, although she was present.” “Sublimation” is defined as “Redirecting unacceptable desires through socially acceptable channels.” The example given is “Jerome’s desire for revenge on the drunk driver who killed his son is channeled into a community support group for people who’ve lost loved ones to drunk driving.”

Figure 3. Defense mechanisms are unconscious, protective behaviors that work to reduce anxiety.

While everyone uses defense mechanisms, Freud believed that overuse of them may be problematic. For example, let’s say Aaron Snyder is a high school football player. Aaron’s id feels sexually attracted to males. His culturally shaped superego-driven conscious belief is that being gay is immoral and that if he were gay, his family would disown him and he would be ostracized by his peers. Therefore, there is a conflict between his conscious beliefs (being gay is wrong and will result in being ostracized) and his unconscious urges (attraction to males). The idea that he might be gay causes Joe to have feelings of anxiety, possibly overwhelming his ego or ability to balance this internal conflict. How can he decrease his anxiety? Joe may find himself acting very “macho,” making gay jokes, and picking on a school peer who is gay. This way, Joe’s unconscious impulses are further submerged, and his anxiety is reduced because he “fits in.”

There are several different types of defense mechanisms. For instance, in repression, anxiety-causing memories from consciousness are blocked. As an analogy, let’s say your car is making a strange noise, but because you do not have the money to get it fixed, you just turn up the radio so that you no longer hear the strange noise. Eventually you forget about it. Similarly, in the human psyche, if a memory is too overwhelming to deal with, it might be repressed and thus removed from conscious awareness (Freud, 1920). This repressed memory might cause symptoms in other areas.

Another defense mechanism is reaction formation, in which someone expresses feelings, thoughts, and behaviors opposite to their inclinations. In the above example, Aaron made fun of a homosexual peer while himself being attracted to males. In regression, an individual acts much younger than their age. For example, a four-year-old child who resents the arrival of a newborn sibling may act like a baby and revert to drinking out of a bottle. In projection, a person refuses to acknowledge her own unconscious feelings and instead sees those feelings in someone else. Other defense mechanisms include rationalization, displacement, and sublimation.

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Freud’s Theories Today

Empirical research assessing psychodynamic concepts has produced mixed results, with some concepts receiving empirical support and others not faring as well. For example, the notion that we express strong sexual feelings from a very early age, as the psychosexual stage model suggests, has not held up to empirical scrutiny. On the other hand, the idea that there are dependent, control-oriented, and competitive personality types—an idea also derived from the psychosexual stage model—does seem useful.

Many ideas from the psychoanalytic perspective have been studied empirically. Luborsky and Barrett (2006) reviewed much of this research; other useful reviews are provided by Bornstein (2005), Gerber (2007), and Huprich (2009). For now, let’s look at three psychodynamic hypotheses that have received some empirical support:

  • Unconscious processes influence our behavior as the psychodynamic perspective predicts. We perceive and process much more information than we realize, and much of our behavior is shaped by feelings and motives of which we are, at best, only partially aware (Bornstein, 2009, 2010). Evidence for the importance of unconscious influences is strong enough that it has become a central element of contemporary cognitive and social psychology (Robinson & Gordon, 2011).
  • We all use ego defenses and they help determine our psychological adjustment and physical health. People really do differ in the degree that they rely on different ego defenses—so much so that some researchers now study each person’s “defense style” (the unique constellation of defenses that we use). It turns out that certain defenses are more adaptive than others: rationalization and sublimation are healthier (psychologically speaking) than repression and reaction formation (Cramer, 2006). Denial is, quite literally, bad for your health because people who use denial tend to ignore symptoms of illness until it’s too late (Bond, 2004).
  • Mental representations of self and others do indeed serve as blueprints for later relationships. Dozens of studies have shown that mental images of our parents, and other significant figures, really do shape our expectations for later friendships and romantic relationships. The idea that you choose a romantic partner who resembles mom or dad is a myth, but it’s true that you expect to be treated by others as you were treated by your parents early in life (Silverstein, 2007; Wachtel, 1997).

While many of Freud’s ideas have not found support in modern research, we cannot discount the contributions that Freud has made to the field of psychology. It was Freud who pointed out that a large part of our mental life is influenced by the experiences of early childhood and takes place outside of our conscious awareness; his theories paved the way for others. More modern versions of some of Freud’s ideas are described as psychodynamic theories or models while Freud’s approach and forms of treatment are described as psychoanalytic. Psychodynamic theorists and clinicians that expanded on, updated, or altered some of Freud’s basic ideas still maintain a strong focus on unconscious motivations and emotions and how they influence behavior as well as the importance of early development. Some of the founders of later psychodynamic approaches were initially followers of Freud and include Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, Alfred Adler, and Mary Ainsworth.

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Think It Over

  • What are some examples of defense mechanisms that you have used yourself or have witnessed others using?


anal stage: psychosexual stage in which children experience pleasure in their bowel and bladder movements

conscious: mental activity (thoughts, feelings, and memories) that we can access at any time

defense mechanism: unconscious protective behaviors designed to reduce ego anxiety

displacement: ego defense mechanism in which a person transfers inappropriate urges or behaviors toward a more acceptable or less threatening target

ego: aspect of personality that represents the self, or the part of one’s personality that is visible to others

genital stage: psychosexual stage in which the focus is on mature sexual interests

id: aspect of personality that consists of our most primitive drives or urges, including impulses for hunger, thirst, and sex

latency period: psychosexual stage in which sexual feelings are dormant

neurosis: tendency to experience negative emotions

oral stage: psychosexual stage in which an infant’s pleasure is focused on the mouth

phallic stage: psychosexual stage in which the focus is on the genitals

projection: ego defense mechanism in which a person confronted with anxiety disguises their unacceptable urges or behaviors by attributing them to other people

psychoanalytic model: the personality theories and form of treatment developed by Sigmund Freud

psychodynamic model: modern versions of Freud’s original concepts originated by his followers still focusing on unconscious processes and development

psychosexual stages of development: stages of child development in which a child’s pleasure-seeking urges are focused on specific areas of the body called erogenous zones

rationalization: ego defense mechanism in which a person confronted with anxiety makes excuses to justify behavior

reaction formation: ego defense mechanism in which a person confronted with anxiety swaps unacceptable urges or behaviors for their opposites

regression: ego defense mechanism in which a person confronted with anxiety returns to a more immature behavioral state

repression: ego defense mechanism in which anxiety-related thoughts and memories are kept in the unconscious

sublimation: ego defense mechanism in which unacceptable urges are channeled into more appropriate activities

superego: aspect of the personality that serves as one’s moral compass, or conscience

unconscious: mental activity of which we are unaware and unable to access