An Overview of Sigmund Freud's Theories

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Psychology students spend a fair amount of time learning about Freud's theory. Even those outside of the psychology field often have some awareness of Freudian psychoanalysis, the school of thought created by Sigmund Freud.

Knowing more about Freudian psychology, along with the key concepts in psychoanalysis—like the unconscious, fixations, defense mechanisms, and dream symbols—can help you understand the influence Freud's theories have had on contemporary psychologists.


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This video has been medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD.

Sigmund Freud's Key Theories

In this brief overview of Freudian theory, learn more about some of the major ideas proposed by Sigmund Freud.

Talk Therapy

One of Freud's greatest contributions to psychology was talk therapy, the notion that simply talking about problems can help alleviate them. It was through his association with his close friend and colleague Josef Breuer that Freud became aware of a woman known in the case history as Anna O.

The young woman's real name was Bertha Pappenheim. She became a patient of Breuer's after suffering a bout of what was then known as hysteria. Symptoms included blurred vision, hallucinations, and partial paralysis.

Breuer observed that discussing her experiences provided some relief from her symptoms. It was Pappenheim herself who began referring to the treatment as the "talking cure."

While Anna O. is often described as one of Freud's patients, the two never actually met. Freud often discussed her case with Breuer, however, and the two collaborated on an 1895 book based on her treatment titled Studies in Hysteria.

Freud concluded that her hysteria was the result of childhood sexual abuse, a view that ended up leading to a rift in Freud and Breuer's professional and personal relationship. Anna O. may not have actually been Freud's patient, but her case informed much of Freud's work and later theories on therapy and psychoanalysis.

Personality Driving Forces

According to Freud's theory, there are a few different factors that affect personality. They include cathexis and anticathexis, along with life and death instincts.

Cathexis and Anticathexis

According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, all psychic energy is generated by libido. Freud suggested that our mental states were influenced by two competing forces: cathexis and anticathexis.

Cathexis was described as an investment of mental energy in a person, idea, or object. If you are hungry, for example, you might create a mental image of a delicious meal that you have been craving.

In other cases, the ego might harness some energy from the id (the primitive mind) to seek out activities related to the desire in order to disperse excess energy from the id. Sticking with the same example, if you can't actually seek out food to appease your hunger, you might instead thumb through a cookbook or browse through your favorite recipe blog.

Anticathexis involves the ego blocking the socially unacceptable needs of the id. Repressing urges and desires is one common form of anticathexis, but this involves a significant investment of energy.

According to Freud's theory, there is only so much libidinal energy available. When a lot of energy is devoted to suppressing urges via anticathexis, there is less energy for other processes.

Life Instincts and Death Instincts

Freud also believed that much of human behavior was motivated by two driving instincts: life instincts and death instincts. The life instincts (Eros) are those that relate to a basic need for survival, reproduction, and pleasure. They include such things as the need for food, shelter, love, and sex.

Freud also suggested that all humans have an unconscious wish for death, which he referred to as the death instinct (Thanatos). Self-destructive behavior, he believed, was one expression of the death drive. However, he believed that these death instincts were largely tempered by life instincts.


In Freudian theory, the human mind is structured into two main parts: the conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious mind includes all the things we are aware of or can easily bring into awareness. The unconscious mind, on the other hand, includes all of the things outside of our awareness—all of the wishes, desires, hopes, urges, and memories that we aren't aware of, yet continue to influence behavior.

Freudian psychology compares the mind to an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg that is actually visible above the water represents just a tiny portion of the mind, while the huge expanse of ice hidden underneath the water represents the much larger unconscious.

There is some question as to whether the iceberg metaphor came from Freud himself or one of his biographers, as some researchers indicate that there was no mention of an iceberg in Freud's writings.

In addition to these two main components of the mind, Freudian theory also divides human personality into three major components: the id, ego, and superego.

  • The id is the most primitive part of the personality that is the source of all our most basic urges. The id is entirely unconscious and serves as the source of all libidinal energy.
  • The ego is the component of personality that deals with reality and helps ensure that the demands of the id are satisfied in ways that are realistic, safe, and socially acceptable.
  • The superego is the part of the personality that holds all of the internalized morals and standards that we acquire from our parents, family, and society at large.

Psychosexual Development

Freudian theory suggests that as children develop, they progress through a series of psychosexual stages. At each stage, the libido's pleasure-seeking energy is focused on a different part of the body.

The five stages of psychosexual development are:

  1. The oral stage: The libidinal energies are focused on the mouth.
  2. The anal stage: The libidinal energies are focused on the anus.
  3. The phallic stage: The libidinal energies are focused on the penis or clitoris.
  4. The latent stage: A period of calm in which little libidinal interest is present.
  5. The genital stage: The libidinal energies are focused on the genitals.

The successful completion of each stage leads to a healthy personality as an adult. If, however, a conflict remains unresolved at any particular stage, the individual might remain fixated or stuck at that particular point of development.

A fixation can involve an over-dependence or obsession with something related to that phase of development. For example, a person with an "oral fixation" is believed to be stuck at the oral stage of development. Signs of an oral fixation might include excessive reliance on oral behaviors such as smoking, biting fingernails, or eating.

Dream Analysis

The unconscious mind played a critical role in all of Freud's theories, and he considered dreams to be one of the key ways to take a peek into what lies outside our conscious awareness.

He dubbed dreams "the royal road to the unconscious" and believed that by examining dreams, he could see not only how the unconscious mind works but also what it is trying to hide from conscious awareness.

Freud believed the content of dreams could be broken down into two different types:

  • The manifest content of a dream included all the actual content of the dream—the events, images, and thoughts contained within the dream. The manifest content is essentially what the dreamer remembers upon waking.
  • The latent content, on the other hand, is all the hidden and symbolic meanings within the dream. Freud believed that dreams were essentially a form of wish fulfillment. By taking unconscious thoughts, feelings, and desires and transforming them into less threatening forms, people are able to reduce the ego's anxiety.

Freud often utilized the analysis of dreams as a starting point in his free association technique. When working with a client, he would focus on a particular dream symbol, then use free association to see what other thoughts and images immediately came to the client's mind.

Defense Mechanisms

Even if you've never studied Freud's theories before, you have probably heard the term "defense mechanisms." When someone seems unwilling to face a painful truth, you might accuse them of being "in denial." If they try to look for a logical explanation for unacceptable behavior, you might suggest that they are "rationalizing."

For instance, rationalizations for smoking might include "one cigarette won't hurt me" or "if I quit, I'll just gain weight."

Denial and rationalizing represent different types of defense mechanisms, or tactics that the ego uses to protect itself from anxiety. Some of the best-known mechanisms of defense include denial, repression, and regression, but there are many more.

Contemporary Views

While Freud's theories have been widely criticized, it is important to remember that his work made important contributions to psychology. It sparked a major change in how we view mental illness by suggesting that not all psychological problems have physiological causes.

Freud's belief that mental problems could be resolved by actually talking about them helped revolutionize psychotherapy.

Many contemporary psychologists do not give credence to Freud's ideas, but the theories remain important. And research has validated the effectiveness of various forms of talk therapy, such as one finding that psychodynamic therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy were both effective for treating anxiety in college-age students.

A Word From Verywell

To understand where psychology is today, it is essential to take a look at where we've been and how we got here. Freud's work provides an insight into an important movement in psychology that helped transform how we think about mental health and how we approach psychological disorders.

By studying Freud's theories and those that came after, you can gain a better understanding of psychology's fascinating history. Many terms such as defense mechanism, Freudian slip, and anal retentive have become a part of our everyday language. By learning about his work and theories, you can understand how these ideas and concepts became woven into the fabric of popular culture.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How did Freud develop his theory?

    After starting his career as a doctor at Vienna General Hospital, Freud entered private practice, specializing in the treatment of psychological disorders. It was during this time in private practice that Freud started to develop his theories.

    These theories were later refined through Freud's associations with Josef Breuer, a colleague and friend who was treating a patient with hysteria. Based on this case, Freud developed the theory that many neuroses originate from trauma that has transitioned from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind.

  • How did Erikson's theory differ from Freud's?

    While Freud's psychosexual theory is rooted in basic needs and physiological driving forces, Erikson's psychosocial theory places more emphasis on one's environment.

    Erikson's and Freud's theories also vary in terms of stages of development. For instance, the first stage of development according to Freudian theory is the oral stage, while the first stage of development according to Erikson's theory is trust versus mistrust.

    Another difference is the length of development, with Freud believing that most development occurs in early childhood and Erikson contending that people continue to develop well into their adult years.

  • What are some positive qualities of Freud's theory?

    Freud's theory has shaped the field of psychology, both in theory and treatment applications. It has also inspired others in the field to better understand the mind and how it develops, developing their own theories in turn. Without Freud, we might not have talk therapy, which research supports for helping people manage and treat mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

  • Why is Freud's psychosexual theory of personality so controversial?

    Freud's psychosexual theory is hard to test scientifically, leaving questions about its validity. Another concern is that the theory is based on case studies versus research. Some have issues with Freud's theory being focused more on male psychosexual development, offering very little insight into females.

    It also refers to homosexual preferences as a deviation of normal psychosexual development, though many psychologists today feel that sexual orientation is more biological in nature.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.