Back to Creative Changes homepage

Copyright J.D.Middleton. 2nd October 1996.


'A critical appraisal of Freud's theory of the Libido and the aetiology of Neurosis'.

Freud's discovery of psychoanalysis has changed our attitudes to psychology, mental illness, religion, art and culture. Psychoanalysis is the theory and treatment of neuroses developed by Freud. It emphasizes the impact of early childhood sexuality and experiences which are stored in the unconscious and sometimes leads to the development of later emotional problems. His main treatment methods utilises free association of ideas, interpretation and transference.

Freud was born in Freiburg, Moravia-now Czechoslovakia- of Jewish parents. He was the first and favorite of Amalie's eight children. He studied at the university of Vienna and finished in 1881, his interests histology and neurophysiology. He wanted to be a scientist, not a Doctor.

He was influenced by Charcot the famous neurologist, (from whom he learnt his hypnotic skills) and Breuer's studies into hysteria.

He developed his methods of free association and interpretation of dreams, still methods used in psychoanalysis today.

His theories that the repression of infantile sexuality was the root cause of neuroses in the adult was highly controversial in his era. He worked mainly with female patients, neurotics and hysterics; but was mostly interested in male sexuality and found difficulties incorporating women into his theories of the libido.

His associates Jung and Adler parted company with him, Jung felt Freud had extended sexuality too far. Although Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, his work and it's emphasis on childhood sexuality has been increasingly criticised recently.

Freud abandoned using hypnosis as a treatment method, deciding some patients couldn't be hypnotised or that it effected only temporary cures. He then adopted the pressure technique and found that many patients reported repressed erotic feelings and incidents which appeared to have occurred in childhood and suggested they had been sexually abused as children. He concluded that such sexual seduction caused hysteria in later life when the emergence of adult sexual desires served to re-activate the early infantile trauma.

He based this conclusion on the idea that childhood seduction led to repression because a child cannot get genital sexual satisfaction of it's erotic drives like an adult. He later altered his seduction theory, finding he couldn't conclude analysis often, and admitting that his own neurotic tendancies suggested his father as guilty.

The free association technique surpassed the pressure technique. Freud found if conscious direction of thought is suspended and the patient is encouraged to report trains of thought without any interference by patient or analyst, then the latent, compulsive tendancies of the unconscious will be revealed.

Freud's theory of the Libido changed our way of looking at the mind. He postulated that everyone is born with a basic sex drive, or instinctual energy, called the libido. Sex has to do with more than procreation, is not just confined to adult life, but exists in infancy too. His wider interpretation of sexuality in the libido theory derives mostly from his ideas of sexuality in infancy. In his work using free association his patients kept going back to childhood.

Initially he attributed this to an oral sexual trauma but later took a different view. He believed that children up to the age of two, obtained much sexual satisfaction from sucking at the breast and later by biting. He felt that a child in this oral stage believed their lives centred around the mouth, with the child unable to distinguish between sucking and the pleasure it gives.

Freud concluded that, even though oral pleasure and nourishment needs might initially be one and the same, it very soon emerges that oral sensations can become sexually pleasurable in themselves and that such intrinsic pleasures are also related to adult sexuality. It soon is clear to see that many oral sexual activities, and many eating and drinking disorders are more comprehensible.

Freud felt that someone could be fixated at this stage if overindulged or deprived orally, and frustrated in their search for oral satisfaction. Showing fixation, means an adult shows personality characteristics that are related to an earlier stage of development.

The next stage which Freud outlined, occurring after two years is the 'anal stage', where the child learns voluntary control of it's bowels. Holding on, or letting go becomes deeply pleasurable. The excremental function is bound up with social ideas of order, cleanliness- and disgust. If toilet training was a trauma, wherein the ego is forced by parental pressure to give up pleasure in its own products, then the ego is likely to demand substitute satisfactions instead.

Thus if fixation occurs at this stage, he suggests that adults might show unusual rigidity, punctuality, orderliness or its opposite, sloppiness.

He outlined a third stage the 'Phallic stage', between two and six. Children discover the thing to be creative with. Masturbation, stimulation of the genital zone comes naturally but curiosity, anxiety and confusion about differences of sexual anatomy now begin.

The concept 'Phallic' is not exclusively masculine, it applies to infants of both sexes and infants of both sexes believe they can give their mothers a child, or produce one themselves anally. The phallic stage is thought to begin in a boy when his sexual interest becomes focused on his penis and he becomes sexually interested in his mother. His maleness discovered, he seeks to take over his fathers role. Thus seeing his father as a rival whom he wishes to push aside. He soon realises this is impossible and the child then tries to identify with his father.

Freud fitted girls into his system by describing an 'Electra '/'Oedipal' complex. Girls change their object of initial affection from mother to father as they move into the phallic stage. The girl then becomes disappointed that her mother has not endowed her with a penis. She tries to have one by seducing her father and fantasising about having his baby.

This electra complex ends as they fear the loss of their mother's love. This fear of retribution being less intense in girls than boys, results in the Oedipal attitudes being less strongly repressed in women, the father often remaining a sexually attractive object. Thus Oedipal conflict is resolved, and if things have progressed satisfactorily,

Freudian theory assumes both males and females move onto the next stage. If difficulties arise during this stage many problems can occur such as a lack of conscience or the adoption of inappropriate sex roles.

From six until puberty the sex drive seems to disappear, Freud called this the 'latency stage'. Sex drive goes underground. Infantile amnesia takes place, so total, that people can later deny their earliest sexual experiences. Then during adolescence, sexual feelings re-emerge, marking the start of the final stage, the 'genital stage', which continues to death. The focus now is on normal adult sexuality, namely sexual intercourse.

Perhaps one of Freuds's greatest achievements was his discovery of the power of the unconscious to direct behavior.

He described three levels of the minds operation; conscious, preconscious and unconscious.

The conscious mind is that which we are immediately aware of. The pre-conscious is what we can be aware of if we try to remember, not immediately to hand. The unconscious is that part of which we are not aware, under ordinary circumstances. Anything too painful or difficult which has occurred at anytime in our experience is safely stored here, and will not continually disturb us. Infantile desires, and needs are also stored here, away from conscious awareness to cover any conflict or pain which may disturb us if we were aware.

Freud felt most of our mental functioning was carried out on an unconscious level. He considered our conscious part the tip of an iceberg, and all the rest of our mental abilities and function would be submerged in the hidden part.

In order to fully understand a persons problems it is necessary to illuminate and expose what is unconscious. Because the unconscious distorts information it must be observed indirectly - via slips of the tongue, dreams and fantasies. Because this is such an easy concept to understand, namely there is a part we are unaware of directing our behaviour, it shows how readily his theory influences us.

Freud used a model containing the id, ego, superego, to describe the structure of personality. He described the id as the biological aspect of the personality - a mixture of instinctive desires, urges and needs all demanding instant gratification. It operates according to the pleasure principle and asks whether a courses of action will lead to pleasure or pain, not whether it is right or wrong, or even possible. Fortunately other aspects ensure the id does not have control, or be allowed free expression.

While the id operates largely unconsciously, the ego is mostly conscious. It develops out of the id as a buffer between the id and the real world. It is the rational part and operates on the reality principle. It asks whether a course of action is possible under the circumstances. It changes the forces form id, into a form that is morally in keeping with the society in which we live. Displacement occurs when a particular urge has to be blocked, the energy related to it could be displaced into something which would reduce the tension. Freud felt culturally creative pursuits are the result of the displacement of instinctive drives.

The superego represents the moralistic part of our personalities. It works mostly in the unconscious and includes the moral codes and standards acquired from parents as a result of identification. It controls us by punishing us when we fall short of these standards, we feel guilty; and rewards us if we live up to them , we feel proud.

Unfortunately the superego is harsh and demanding and hard to live up to. It results in many people feeling inferior and guilt ridden if it operates too powerfully. The ego then must compromise between the demands of the superego and id, allowing the id some of it's sought after gratification, but preventing overgratification of the wrong sort thereby satisfying the moralistic superego. It would seem to be a very delicate course.

Freud considered anxiety to be a danger signal to the ego. Although it may arise from realistic fears- seeing a snarling dog, it can also occur in neurotic anxiety, in which irrational impusles coming from the id threaten to break through and lose control. Because anxiety is unpleasant he suggested people develop a range of defence mechanisms to deal with it.

These are unconscious strategies people use to reduce anxiety by hiding the source from themselves and others. Repression is the primary defense mechanism. The id's unacceptable impulses are shoved back into the unconscious. It is the most straightforward way of dealing with anxiety; instead of dealing with the anxiety producing impulse on a conscious level, it simply gets ignored.

For instance, someone who hates his mother in law might repress feelings of hatred. These feelings would be stuck firmly within the id and recognising them would be far too anxiety provoking. This doesn't mean they have no effect, through dreams, symbols, jokes or slips of the tongue these feelings are indirectly expressed. If we look to these we can gain an understanding of what might be being hidden, creating the conflict and anxiety.

If repression fails to work, other defence mechanisms may come into play. Ego defence mechanisms work by distorting reality and deceiving the individual. The Ego keeps the peace between the Id and Superego.

Denial for instance, works to keep the individual safely from accepting a situation that is too painful to bear- an example is the process many go through when someone dear to them dies. The person pretends that they are still alive, for a period of time until they can accept the death.

Rationalization, another defence mechanism, happens when we distort reality by justifying what happens to us - we come up with reasons that protect our self esteem. For instance failing to get into a particular university and accepting a place at a polytechnic, we may say it's a better choice anyway because it is closer to home.

Projection is another defence mechanism, which involves projecting ourself by attributing unwanted thoughts and feelings onto someone else. For instance someone who finds it difficult to control their anger, may complain that their boss gets angry too easily.

In displacement, the original thought or feeling gets displaced from its original target onto someone else. For instance if someone is made redundant, they may not know who to be angry at, and may pick a scapegoat, such as a family member.

Freud thought finally that sublimation was a particularly healthy and socially acceptable defence mechanism. If we have an impulse that cannot be directly expressed, we let it emerge in a way that will not be too upsetting for others. For example, if we have aggressive tendancies we may take up an aggressive sport such as rugby or boxing.

Freudean theory proposes that all of us employ these defence mechanisms to some extent. Some people use up so much energy employing them, that everyday life seems impossible. If this happens a neurosis results, and is displayed as depression, Phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, or hysteria. Someone is said to suffer from a neurosis when they are in a state of unconscious conflict , but still in touch with reality.

At the beginning of his psychoanalytic work Freud developed the concept of 'actual neurosis' and a theory of anxiety based on the idea of a walled up libido. What he meant was that experiences in early childhood and difficulties, could determine whether a person suffered in later life. He even suggested that incomplete sexual release produced a biochemical imbalance which stimulated anxiety.

He felt there were two types of anxiety; real or objective anxiety and neurotic anxiety. Real anxiety stems from very real fears. Neurotic anxieties are powered by unacceptable thoughts and differ by the way in which the ego defends itself against the perceived anxiety.

Thus in phobias, Freud saw the operation of the mechanisms of projection and displacement, with the end result that a person consciously avoids a particular situation so as to not suffer a panic attack. Often the person knows they are being irrational but are helpless to do otherwise.

In contrast to the phobia which is tied to a situation, Free floating anxiety has no focal point. Thus a person does not know the reason for his anxiety. Even though Freud separated these two types of anxiety he emphasised that a neurotic personality is a result of the interaction between one human organism and the social forces that surround it.

Freuds theory of behaviour is elaborate and complicated, perhaps more so than any other psychoanalytic theory, and some of his ideas appear so far removed from common understandings of behaviour that they may appear difficult to accept.

Not only lay people are concerned about the validity of Freud's theories, but other professionals have been ready to criticise its inadequacies. One of the strongest criticisms is his lack of scientific data to support his theories. Although there are many individual assessments that seem to support his theory, there is a lack of definitive evidence showing that the personality is structured and operates along the lines Freud suggests, due partly that his conception of personality is constructed on unobservable abstractions. Furthermore, while it is possible to employ Freudian theory in after the fact explanations, it is very difficult to predict how certain developmental difficulties will be displayed in the adult.

For example if someone was fixated in the anal stage, he might, according to Freud, be very messy or very neat. His theory provides no way of determining the outcome of the early difficulty. It doesn't provide good science. Further Freud made his observations and derived his theory from a very limited population - primarily upper-class Austrian women living in the Victorian puritanical times of the early 1900's. During these times, sex was considered taboo and he could thus have been obsessed with sex himself. This is a common criticism, especially from feminists who feel he misunderstood women and was too strongly influenced by prevailing cultural influences.

Most criticisms concern the database of psychoanalysis. His information consisted of his poor memories of what patients said to him during a session which he did not write about until long after the session had ended.

Another major criticism was that he worked only with adults with emotional problems, not with normal people. This is a powerful argument when people compare the bulk of his work to that of other analysts like Jung.

Jung based his theories of the personality by working with people at all stages of life, and at all stages of health; both good and bad. It could be argued that Jung has developed a far more complete picture of the personality than Freud.

However despite all these criticisms , which cannot simply be dismissed, Freud's theory had an enormous impact on the study and understanding of the psyche, and on all of western thinking. Who has not heard of the term 'Freudian slip'. The idea of the unconscious anxiety and defence mechanisms and the notion that adult psychological problems have their roots in childhood experiences have coloured people's views of the world around them, and their understanding of the causes of their own behaviour and that of others.

Psychoanalytic theory initiated a powerful tool for treating psychological problems, before the advent of medications. For these reasons then, Freud's psychoanalytic theory remains a very significant contribution to our understanding of the personality, and Freud can be thought of as the father of psychoanalysis.

References Freud for beginners R. Appignanesi

A textbook of psychology Radford and Govier

The road less travelled M.Scott Peck

Freud Richard Wollheim

back to therapy pages

back to homepages Creative Changes