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Freudian Psychology

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Freudian psychology is based on the work of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). He is considered the father of psychoanalysis and is largely credited with establishing the field of talk therapy. Today, psychoanalytic and psychodynamic approaches to therapy are the modalities that draw most heavily on Freudian principles. Freud also developed influential theories about subjects such as the unconscious mind, the sources of psychopathology, the significance of dreams.

What Is Freud Known For?

Freud is known for his wide-ranging theories on matters such as the unconscious, dreams, infantile sexuality, libido, repression, and transference—all of which continue to influence the field of psychology to varying degrees. Trained as a neurologist, Freud conceived of the mind as the desire-centered id, the morally driven superego, and the ego (or "the I") in between, contributed to a new understanding of human psychological development and the treatment of psychological disturbance.

Other concepts that are popularly associated with Freud today include that of revealing "Freudian slips” in speech and Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex, in which a child harbors an unconscious sexual attraction to an opposite-sex parent.

How did Freud describe the unconscious?

The unconscious part of the mind was described as a well of powerful thoughts and feelings that people are not directly aware of but which have an important impact on everyday life. He believed that this concealed mental material contributed to the development of mental illness.

What are the id, ego, and superego?

Freud created a model of the mind featuring three parts: the id, ego, and superego. The id was the seat of primitive drives, including sexual and aggressive impulses. The ego included conscious processes as well as unconscious “defense mechanisms” erected to handle conflicts between the id and the demands of reality. The superego was considered the mental embodiment of society’s moral codes, which could result in self-blame and guilt

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Freud and Psychotherapy

The form of therapy that Freud pioneered, called psychoanalysis, has played a foundational role in the practice of therapy in general. As a theorist and a clinician, he illustrated the potential power of talking and making observations about one’s inner life in improving symptoms of mental illness. While later branches of psychotherapy—including contemporary psychoanalysis—differ from him on the details of theory and practice, they have nevertheless been influenced by Freud's work.

What is Freudian psychoanalysis?

Freudian psychoanalysis is both a method of treatment and a way of understanding the mind, based on Freud’s ideas. In his version of treatment, mental illness is thought to be largely rooted in the unconscious, and the psychoanalyst plays a part in bringing pathological mental processes into consciousness.

What are some of the techniques Freud used in therapy?

One of Freud’s major tools was free association, in which a patient talks freely about any thoughts that come to mind, thought to be a way to bring internal conflicts into awareness and address them. The relationship between therapist and patient was also considered key, and transference—projecting one's feelings about another person (such as a parent) onto the therapist—presented an opportunity to deal with those feelings. 

Freud’s Ideas Today

As psychology and psychotherapy evolved, the approach to therapy that Freud created slipped from prominence. Major ideas of his, such as his conceptualization of the unconscious, have been discounted by scientists as difficult or impossible to test empirically.

Nevertheless, psychologists continue to find wisdom and meaning in Freudian concepts, such as projection and other "defense mechanisms," and modern psychoanalytic therapists owe much to Freud’s methods, as do therapists who employ psychodynamic approaches.

Why are Freud’s theories important?

Freud’s concepts persist in the popular imagination and his work forms an important part of the history of psychology. Though many of his ideas have been reevaluated or rejected, others provided a basis for further psychological theory and modes of treatment.

What are some weaknesses of Freud’s theories?

While Freud drew on his own self-analysis, clinical cases, and other sources to develop his theories, they generally were not subject to empirical testing in the way that contemporary psychological theories are expected to be. Modern scientific evidence indicates the Freud overemphasized the role of early childhood experiences in the development of mental illness.

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