Three Major Concepts of Psychoanalytic Theory – A Brief Summarization

Sigmund Freud was most noted for his five stage theory of human development. This theory originated through his observation and thorough documentation of adults’ recollections of memories during therapy sessions and was conceptualized by Sigmund Freud himself. Freud began his work in the 1880’s, and by the end of the 1890’s, his theory began to take on more of the formal attributes of its five stages. The theory was in response mainly to patients with hysterical symptoms who had reported sexual traumas that occurred early in their lives and the subsequent repression, or subconscious “pushing away”, of these sexual traumas as well as other uncomfortable thoughts of previous life events. Although a comprehensive review of all of the underlying assumptions regarding Freud’s theory of personality theory and the massive quantity of information that he wrote during his lifetime that would be virtually impossible to sum up, even over a period of many years are far beyond the scope of this project, some of the major assumptions will be discussed. However, with respect to the overall knowledge base and for the benefit of greater understanding of the five stage theory, it is my opinion that, prior to discussion of his stage theory of personality development, it is essential that his theories of the division of the mind and his components of personality are mentioned as these two major concepts are intricately intertwined with his five stage theory.

One major concept and underlying assumption of Freud’s theory subdivides the human mind into three distinct categories. According to his theory, the components of the mind include the conscious, pre-conscious and sub-conscious areas (Freud, 2002 revised ed.). As is implied by the title, the conscious mind consists of those things of which we are currently aware and to which we are currently attentive. The conscious mind also includes our current thinking processes, behaviors and environmental awareness. Hence, it can be obviously concluded that the conscious mind constitutes the major part of our current awareness. This concept can be validated as most people have, on occasion, heard statements from others such as, “I have a clean conscious”, or “I was not conscious of that at the time”, in casual conversations. Also according to Freud’s Theory, the preconscious mind consisted of all those things of which we are aware, but currently are not attentive (Freud, 2002 revised ed.). He further conceived that we can choose to pay attention to these and deliberately bring them into the conscious mind. Finally, with respect to the pre-conscious mind, Freud believed that we can control our awareness to a certain extent, from focusing in very closely on one conscious act to a wider awareness that seeks to expand consciousness to include as much of preconscious information as possible. At the subconscious level, the process and content are out of direct reach of the conscious mind. The subconscious thus thinks and acts independently (Freud, 2002 revised ed.). One of Freud’s key findings was that much behavior is driven directly from the subconscious mind. This has the alarming consequence that we are largely unable to control our behavior, and in particular that which we would sometimes prefer to avoid. More recent research has shown that the subconscious mind is probably even more in charge of our actions than even Freud had realized Murphy, 2001).

Three major components of personality were included in Freud’s massive, overall theory. These components include the Id, the Ego and the Super ego. The Id contains our primitive drives and operates largely according to the pleasure principle, whereby its two main goals are the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (Freud, 1962). Freud goes on to say that it has no real perception of reality and seeks to satisfy its needs through what he called the primary processes that dominate the existence of infants, including hunger and self-protection. Unlike the Id, the Ego is aware of reality and operates using the reality principle. The reality principle implies that the Ego recognizes what is real and understands that behaviors have consequences. This includes the effects of social rules that are necessary in order to live and socialize with other people. It uses secondary processes such as perception, recognition, judgment and memory that are developed during childhood. The dilemma of the Ego is that it has to somehow balance the demands of the Id and Super ego with the constraints of reality (Freud, 1962). The Ego controls higher mental processes such as reasoning and problem-solving, which it uses to solve the Id-Super ego dilemma, creatively finding ways to safely satisfy the Id’s basic urges within the constraints of the Super ego. The Super ego contains our values and social morals, which often come from the rules of right and wrong that we learned in childhood from our parents and are contained in the conscience. The Super ego has a model of an ego ideal which it uses as a prototype against which to compare the ego and towards which it encourages the ego to move. The Super ego is a counterbalance to the Id, and seeks to inhibit the Id’s pleasure-seeking demands, particularly those for sex and aggression.

Now we turn to what is the most famous aspect of Freudian theory, the five stages of human development. This theory sprung from Freud’s observations of adults’ recollections in therapy of their lives (Freud, 2003 revised ed.). He stated in this work that children were not directly observed. Although Freud’s theory has been roundly criticized for its lack of scientific character, it does stand however as a grand metaphor for describing personality. The stages of development include the Oral Stage which is the first stage. This stage begins at birth and generally ends at approximately 2 years of age. In the oral stage, infants and toddlers explore the world primarily with their most sensitive area, i.e., their mouths. They also learn to use their mouths to communicate. The next stage is the Anal Stage. This stage usually begins around 2 years of age and last for about a year. In the anal stage, children learned to control the elimination of bodily wastes. The Phallic Stage is the next stage. It generally begins at around 3 years and last until about age 5. The Phallic Stage is probably the most controversial of all of the stages because of the strong sexual underlying principles with respect to opposite parents at such an early age in life. To further explain, the controversy comes from Freud’s description of the Oedipus and Electra complexes, with their attendant concepts of castration anxiety and penis envy, respectively. The Oedipus Complex refers to a son’s sexual attraction to his mother while the Electra Complex implies just the opposite. Those complexes lead, according to Freudian theory, to normal differentiation of male and female personalities. The defense mechanism of repression was invoked to explain why no one could remember the events of this stage. In this stage, Freud also theorizes that children discover their sexual differences and inequalities. The phallic stage is followed by a Latency Period in which little new development is observable. In this stage, boys play with boys, and girls with girls, typically. Sexual interest is low or non-existent. The final stage is the Genital Stage. It started around 12 years of age and ends with the climax of puberty. Sexual interests re-awaken at this time. However, the sexual interests that come about during this period are appropriate and are toward genuine partners rather than opposite parents.

It is my assertion that an arbitrary and somewhat capricious character can easily be concluded from Freud’s theoretical framework. As it did with me, the importance of the divisions of the mind and the major components of personality with respect to decision making processes and appropriate progression through each stage of development should also become apparent. To further explain, a person’s level of awareness of self and surroundings should be directly proportional to a successful transition from birth to adulthood. The earlier in life this awareness begins should also increase the likelihood of successful personality development. Freud’s assumptions about the function of social work are not clear, but it does appear that a firm understanding of his major concepts would be very useful to have when working in applied social settings. That is to say, with respect to applications in real time social work practice situations for example, it would be most advantageous to know if a person has successfully and functionally developed as an adult, if they have a keen sense of awareness or if repression of past memories are factors. I truly believe that the aforementioned applications are also the major strengths of Freud’s theory. As previously mentioned, Freud’s work was so extensive that it is difficult, albeit not impossible, to determine its efficacy in most cases. The way I see it is that in most cases Freud was successful. Although it can not be accurately or adequately quantified as compared to applied behavior analysis, for example, it appears that the application of his concepts could be beneficial to most anyone.


American Psychological Association. (2002). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). Washington, DC

Freud, S. (1962). The Ego and The Id (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud). N.Y., New York. W.W. Norton and Company

Freud, S. (2002 revised ed.). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. N.Y., New York: Basic Books

Freud, S. (2003 revised ed.). An Outline of Psychoanalysis. N.Y., New York: Penguin Classics

Murphy, Joseph (2001). The Power of the Subconscious Mind. N.Y., New York: Bantam