Sigmund Freud is perhaps the most famous, controversial and charismatic thinker of 20th century psychology.

His theories and his work have left an important mark on the way in which explanations of childhood development, personality, memory, sexuality or therapy have been given for decades. Many psychologists have been influenced by his work, while others have developed their ideas in opposition to him.

Today, scientific psychology is developing outside the ideas of Sigmund Freud. However, that does not detract from the historical value of this researcher. We will now review his life and work.

Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, a method that aims to treat mental illness. Freudian psychoanalysis is a theory that attempts to explain the behavior of human beings and is based on the analysis of unconscious sexual conflicts that originate in childhood. This theory holds that instinctive impulses that are repressed by consciousness remain in the unconscious and affect the subject. The unconscious is not observable by the patient: it is up to the psychoanalyst to make such unconscious conflicts accessible through interpretation of dreams, failed acts and free association .

The concept called “free association” is a technique that seeks to have the patient express, during the therapy sessions, all his ideas, emotions, thoughts and images as they are presented to him, without restrictions or order. After this opening, the psychoanalyst must determine which factors, within these manifestations, reflect an unconscious conflict.

Sigmund Freud’s relationship with Charcot and Breuer: Origin of Psychoanalysis

To understand his theory, you have to know that it all started in Paris, where Sigmund Freud was on a scholarship. There he spent a lot of time with Jean-Martin Charcot , a famous neurologist who studied hypnotic phenomena, and thus began his interest in suggestion and the study of hysteria. After the scholarship, Freud returned to Vienna and shared Charcot’s theories with other doctors, but they all rejected him except Josef Breuer , a friend of his.

In addition, Breuer played a very important role in Sigmund Freud’s life as a father figure , advising him on the different aspects of the career they shared, supporting him financially to establish his practice as a private physician, creating the cathartic method and writing with him the inaugural work in the history of psychoanalysis.

The famous case of Anna O.

The case of Anna O . (her real name was Bertha Pappenheim) marked a before and after in the career of a young Freud . Anna O. was a patient of Breuer’s who was suffering from hysteria, but they both took care of her problem. The patient was a young woman who became ill in the autumn of 1880. When she was 21 years old, her father fell ill unexpectedly and was forced to take care of him. So much attention was given to her father that the great carelessness she gave herself led to anemia and weakness. But these problems, which soon put her to bed, were followed by even more alarming ailments: paralysis, a severe speech disturbance and other symptoms that appear after her father’s death, and for which she is diagnosed as hysterical.

Breuer’s treatment focused on inducing the patient into a hypnotic state and persuading her to recall the circumstances prior to the first appearance of each of the symptoms she suffered. When she came out of the hypnotic trance, these hysterical symptoms disappeared one by one. The doctor carried out this treatment twice a day, and Anna O. used to call it “cure by words”. Breuer named it method cathartic . In the case of Anna O. it was concluded that she had been sexually abused in her childhood by a relative, and although the therapy seemed to be working, a sexual transference between the patient and the doctor appeared. Then there were problems with a false pregnancy of the patient, who was in love with her therapist, and Breuer left, harassed by his wife’s jealousy.

Breuer and Hysteria

Breuer concluded that the patients who showed the symptoms of hysteria had no physical ailments but that, in fact, their symptoms were the result of the permanent action of certain traumatic experiences of the past and that they had been repressed, although not forgotten, and furthermore, that by releasing these repressed thoughts, exteriorizing them and consciously accepting them, the symptoms disappeared. At first Breuer did not make his findings public, but he shared them with Freud. Freud used this method, but he left hypnosis aside and instead established the procedure of “free association”.

Later, the relationship between Breuer and Freud began to decline due to several discussions in the scientific field. Breuer adhered to a classical scientific conception that did not accept the total separation between physiology and psychology, while Freud advocated the creation of a whole new theoretical system for psychology and absolute independence from any other medical branch. On the other hand, Breuer conceived the cathartic method with hypnosis, but without the adoption of “free association” or other modifications and extensions suggested by Sigmund Freud. The friendship was finally broken a year after a joint publication.

The Unconscious Mind

Sigmund Freud developed a topographical map of the mind in which he described the characteristics of the structure and functioning of the mind. In this model, the conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg . In the unconscious mind rest many of our primitive impulses and desires that are mediated by pre-consciousness .

Freud discovered that some events and desires caused so much fear and pain to his patients, that remained locked in the dark subconscious , affecting behavior in a negative way. This happened because of the process he called “repression”. In his theory he gives much importance to the unconscious mind, since the objective of psychoanalysis is to make conscious what is bothering in the unconscious.

The psychic instances

Later, Freud developed a model of the mind that was composed of the ELLO, the I and the SUPER-YO, and called it the “psychic apparatus”. Both the ELLO , the ME and SUPER-YO are not physical areas, but hypothetical conceptualizations of important mental functions.

  • The ELLO operates on the unconscious level. It responds to the principle of pleasure and is composed of two types of biological instincts or impulses which it calls Eros and Thanatos . Eros, or life instinct, helps individuals to survive; it directs life-sustaining activities such as breathing, eating or sex. The energy created by life impulses is known as libido. In contrast, the Thanatos, or death instinct, is a series of destructive forces that are present in all living beings. When the energy is directed towards others, it is expressed in aggression and violence. Freud thought that the Eros has is more powerful than the Thanatos, as it makes it easier for people to survive rather than self-destruct.
  • The I (or ego) develops during childhood. Its aim is to satisfy the demands of IT within social acceptance. In contrast to the THING, the SELF follows the principle of reality and operates in the conscious and subconscious.
  • The SUPER-YO (or superego) is responsible for ensuring that moral standards are followed, so he acts on the principle of morality and motivates us to act with socially acceptable and responsible behaviour. The SUPER-EGO can make a person feel guilty for not following the rules. When there is a conflict between ELLO and SUPER-YO objectives, the Ego acts as a mediator. The ME has defense mechanisms to prevent anxiety from these conflicts. These levels or instances overlap, that is, they are integrated and in this way the human psychism functions. This is a process that goes from the moment a person is born.

When one is born is all ELLO, his needs for food, hygiene, sleep and contact must be satisfied immediately, because he does not have the capacity to wait, that is to say he is governed by a principle of pleasure, he is impatient. Little by little he learns to wait, he perceives that someone is encouraging him, he distinguishes situations, that is the moment when the “I” emerges and as he grows he continues with his learning.

Among these learnings he distinguishes that there are things that he cannot do and others that he can do, then it is when the SUPER-YO begins to be formed. A child’s behavior is guided by the indications of the adults who give him or her prizes or punishments according to whether or not he or she responds to the rules or indications that they give.

The defense mechanisms

Freud tells us about the defense mechanisms, such as the techniques of the unconscious, which are in charge of minimizing the consequences of too intense events. In this way, through these mechanisms, the individual is able to function normally. It is a response of the Ego, which defends itself both from the excessive pressure of the IT, when it demands the satisfaction of the impulses, and from the excessive control of the SUPER-EGO; thanks to them, the Ego also protects itself from the presence of past experiences of a traumatic type.

Defense mechanisms are incorrect ways of resolving psychological conflict and can lead to disorders in the mind, behavior, and in the most extreme cases to the somatization of psychological conflict and the physical dysfunctions that express it. These are some of the defence mechanisms:


It refers to the redirection of an impulse (usually an aggression) towards a person or an object. For example, someone who is frustrated with their boss and kicks their dog.


It is similar to displacement, but the impulse is channelled into a more acceptable form. A sexual drive is sublimated towards a non-sexual end, aiming at socially valued objects, such as artistic activity, physical activity or intellectual research.


It’s the mechanism Freud discovered first. It refers to the Ego erasing events and thoughts that would be painful if kept at the conscious level.


It refers to individuals who attribute their own thoughts, motives or feelings, to another person. The most common projections can be aggressive behavior that provokes a feeling of guilt, and sexual fantasies or thoughts.


It is the mechanism by which the subject blocks external events from forming part of the consciousness and treats obvious aspects of reality as if they did not exist. For example, a smoker who refuses to face the fact that smoking can cause serious problems for his health.

If you want to know more about this topic, you can visit the article “Defense mechanisms”

Stages of Freud’s theory

The time in which the author of the psychosexual theory lived, and in which the strong repression of sexual desires was common, especially in the female sex, Sigmund Freud understood that there was a relationship between neurosis and sexual repression. Therefore, it was possible to understand the nature and variety of the illness by knowing the sexual history of the patient.

Freud considered that children are born with a sexual desire that must be satisfied, and that there are a number of stages, during which the child seeks pleasure from different objects. This is what led to the most controversial part of his theory: the theory of psychosexual development.

Oral stage

It begins at birth and continues for the first 18 months of life. This stage focuses on pleasure in the mouth, that is the erogenous zone. The child sucks on everything he finds because it is pleasant for him and so he knows his environment. Therefore, in this phase the child already experiments with his sexuality. If the adult, for example, forbids him to suck his finger, hand, etc. he is obstructing the possibility of exploring himself and his surroundings. This can lead to future problems for the child.

Anal stage

The anal phase of development occurs between 18 months and three years of age. At this stage the child and his parents’ concern revolves around the anus, the stage of sphincter control. The child’s sexual enjoyment is in the bowel movement. He feels that he is giving away a production of his body, a part of himself, and that is why it is so important to him.

This is a very important stage and it is essential that sphincter control is done progressively, without pressure. Poor management of this stage will have negative repercussions on future behaviour.

Phallic stage

The phallic phase of Sigmund Freud’s theory begins at age three and extends to age six. At this stage the genitals are the object of pleasure and interest in sexual differences and genitals appears, so it is very important not to repress and manage this stage properly, as it could obstruct the ability to research, knowledge and general learning. Freud assures that males begin to experience sexual feelings towards their mothers and see their fathers as competitors, so they fear being castrated, a process that results in the Oedipus Complex. Later, children identify with their fathers and repress feelings towards their mothers to leave this phase behind.

Latency stage

Freud’s latency phase develops between the age of six and the onset of puberty. It coincides with the school years and for a long time it was mistakenly believed that sexuality was dormant. What happens is that during this period the child’s interest is focused on knowing, learning and researching. A good management of the previous stages contributes very favorably to school success.

Genital stage

This phase occurs at puberty, and once again, the focus is on the genitals. Individuals are curious about genital sexuality and it is essential that they find in their parents and in the adult world an openness and willingness to talk about sex and to clarify and answer their questions.

Dream analysis

Freud considered dreams important in order to explain what was happening in the unconscious, because while we dream the defenses of the Self are not present. Because of this, much repressed material becomes conscious, although in a distorted way. Remembering fragments of dreams can help uncover buried emotions and memories. Therefore, dreams play an important role in the unconscious mind and serve to give clues as to how it operates.

Sigmund Freud distinguished between manifest content (what is remembered from the dream) and latent content , the symbolic meaning of the dream (what it tries to say). The first is superficial and the second is manifested through the language of dreams. The author of the “Theory of the interpretation of the dreams” mentions that all the dreams represent the accomplishment of a desire on the part of the dreamer, even the nightmares. According to his theory, the “censorship” of dreams produces a distortion of their content. So what may seem a set of meaningless dream images, through analysis and its method “deciphering”, may actually be a set of coherent ideas.

Curiosities about Freud’s life

Recently we published this article that can be helpful to complement your knowledge about the figure of the Austrian psychoanalyst:

“10 facts about the life of Sigmund Freud”

Legacy of this great thinker

Freudian ideas made a great impact, and his work brought together a large group of followers. Among them were Karl Abraham, Sandor Ferenczi, Alfred Adler, Carl Gustav Jung, Otto Rank and Ernest Jones. Some, like Adler and Jung, moved away from Freud’s principles and created their own psychological conception.

There is no doubt that psychoanalysis has been revolutionary for psychology and has served as the basis for the development of a great number of psychological theories and schools. In its beginnings, and even today, it has been a doctrine that has awakened great passions, both for and against . Possibly one of the main criticisms, refers to the lack of objectivity in the observation and the difficulty of deriving specific verifiable hypotheses from this theory, but however much it is criticised, in the development of psychology, there is a before and after of this famous character.

Bibliographic references:

  • Arlow, B. (1964), Psychoanalytic Concepts and the Structural Theory. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1996). Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification. London: Routledge.
  • Chapman, C.N. (2007). Freud, Religion and Anxiety. Morrisville.
  • Edmunson, M. (2007). The Death of Sigmund Freud. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Grünbaum, A. (1984). The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique. University of California Press.
  • Neu, J. (2003). Freud’s Guide. Translation Mario Santana. Madrid: Akal Cambridge.
  • Webster, R. (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press.