Freudian Perspectives and Psychoanalytic Approaches to Personality

When thinking of psychology, the layperson may not be quite sure what is meant. Of course, the common first thought is of psychic abilities. That a qualified psychological practitioner, or even the amateur psychology student, the common misconception is that they can read minds. Of course, this is about as true as is a fantasy novel with fairies, unicorns and vampires. That meaning, you can believe it all you want, that is not to say that it is true.

So then, quite reasonably it may come as a shock to find that one of psychology's many areas of interest lies around the personalities which we all posses. What makes a personality? Are there any particular components which need to be met for a personality to be deemed such? Must one have personality traits? Are these interchangeable or fixed? Psychology has made numerous theories around personalities.

Psychoanalysis is term unlikely alien even to those uneducated in psychology. Freud is a household name so regularly used that despite other's achievements, he is still the face of modern psychology. Thankfully, Freud had a theory around personality, which stemmed the beginning the psychoanalytic personality theories, and thus stems personality theory in general.

Freud was one of the earliest thinkers of personality. Following from his Victorian predecessors, he used the simple model of unconscious and conscious thoughts. Although the pre-Freudian view was that people kept experiences in a series of unconscious thoughts, and ultimately it was only the present which was forming the conscious thoughts of an individual – and that abnormal psychology and mental health focused on those who were significantly more plagued by the 'unconscious' thoughts of the past – Freud objected to this view in a manner so profound, it not only started a new theory surrounding personality, but a brand new school of thought throughout psychology itself.

Freud thought things to be more complex than simply the conscious present and unconscious past. So much so he suggested three forms of mind: The Conscious mind (the things of which we are explicitly aware e.g. Academic knowledge), the Preconscious mind (things of which we are not explicitly aware, are based between the fully unconscious and the conscious and are temporarily kept within the unconscious thought, however can be accessed by the conscious mind and exploited by the individual. e.g. things kept in long term memory), and finally he believed in the unconscious mind (the thoughts of which we are unaware.)

The unconscious, he claimed, was made that way due to acts of repression. This simply means that socially aware people (with a developed Superego – see later) will use psychological defence mechanism (below) in order to push aside psychologically harming or socially unacceptable experiences or desires. However, these are never truly forgotten and will remain with the person throughout the life course.

Freud did not wish to emphasise these as clear cut, standard and unarguable states of mind. There is much interlink between them. Things in the unconscious can be accessed as much as those things in the conscious or preconscious domains. They simply need accessing in a different way (see Freudian dream therapy). These can be altered also by the extent to which repression is enforced around that thought or desire. So, unconscious thoughts can become conscious thoughts with reduced amounts of repression placed upon them, just as conscious thoughts can become unconscious with increased repression.

Surrounding the Freudian technique of dream therapy – in which Freud used people's dreams as a point of therapeutic discussion in order to help access their more unconscious thoughts which were potentially harming their psychological states. He came up with two premises surrounding the assessment of dreams and accessing of unconscious thought.

For these it is important to note that although some regard psychology as a form of science – which due to the empirical nature and statistical methods used, it arguably is - many of the more prominent psychologists have argued also that as a science concerned with people, some interpretation is to be allowed due to the naturally subjective nature of human participants. This is clear within Freud's proposals.

Firstly, the key thing to note is the term 'manifest content'. This is the subjective information produced from the dreamer (or patient). The raw data of the qualitative study. This is the direct experience provided from the dream recollection. However, it is termed subjective as it has been edited by the dreamer in order to meet the levels of social desirability expected from the dreamer. As many of you will know, for a therapeutic relationship to work, honesty and objectivity must be reached. Essentially, the perfect form of therapeutic relationship would arguably be one which did not possess human presence. Rather two beings unable to lie or edit their experiences . As this will not happen, there is a need for interpretation conducted by a trained therapist. Thus enter Freud's second key term for the analysis of dream content. 'Latent content' refers to the interoperated message of the dream. This is the information which the dreamer will often imply by way of codes but will not refer to explicitly. This then is the key to the unconscious thoughts.

This is where Freud's theories begin to make the stereotypical notion of Freud's work. The psycho-sexual presence of the unacceptable unconscious mind.

Freud claimed that there although dreams are always personal – as everyone's experiences are different. There are some common codes which have explicit meanings found within dreams, it is these that one must identify in order to gain full understanding of the latent content within dreams. (e.g. ladders = sex). Thus a demonstration of dream would look something like this:

Climbing a ladder (Manifest content) = Sexual Intercourse (Latent Content)

As you can see, the person talking about climbing a ladder in their dream will have the psychoanalytic therapist translate the true meaning of the dream to be about sex.

To help this point, Freud developed two proposed way's of thinking. Primary process thinking (related more to the unconscious) is the irrational mind activity often present in dreams. This emphasises the realism of things which are impossible. So, in a dream one may possess something which they truly want, but that in reality is a complete impossibility. This serves as a justifier of the pleasure principle, which simply emphasises that people have a need to obtain what they desire. This is then controlled by repression and the reality principle stated in the secondary process thinking. This refers to the logical, organised and more acceptable thoughts which accompany the conscious mind.

Now you have been provided with a more detailed understanding of the Freudian perspective and psychoanalysis, I move swiftly onto the personality development of an individual, starting from the child's earliest days. Again, I forewarn that this contains some of Freud's more stereotypical ideas.

Freud argued that children, when born, have desires which are purely animalistic. These desires must be met with speed. They serve as survival and progression reactions. They address hunger, pain and reproduction. Children score high in possession of the pleasure principle and low in the possessions of the reality principle. As an interesting – but not entirely relevant point – he claims they also posses thanatos (the death principle). This helps to form the proposed structure of personality he suggests.

The first of these is the id. Naturally possessed from the moment of birth, this is the pleasure principle in its full. This is seen when babies want and have no acceptance of a delayed response. It is the instinctive need to gain something which is wanted when it is wanted. Following this, the ego develops. This is a slightly more rational based desire. Although desires are still strong, and the child will still adopt a way to obtain their wants, delayed responses and different strategies are used. They learn the techniques which should be used to gain the wanted item and are using more logical, rational and human approaches to obtaining their desires. Finally the superego develops. This is similar to a conscience. Although it is an adult feature, it still allows for the wanting, however it facilitates people to be more able to accept rejection and failure and to cut losses over wanted items. It is socially, politically and environmentally influenced and is not simply instinctive. Of course, as these develop we become more reliant on our rational thoughts (provided by the ego and superego) however, no category dissolves and id will always fight for control. This has appropriately been called 'intra-psychic conflict'.

Freud outline 5 stages to personality development, starting from the earliest moments of a child’s life. They address psycho-sexual issues as well as the development of personalities. These stages are as follows:

The Oral Stage (from birth to one year) – Can be observed as a period when children will place almost anything within their mouth. This stage is important for personality development as it allows the expectancies of the child to form. Cathexis can develop in this period, this is simply where the child will become over attentive those who meet their pleasure demands. However, an over-indulgence of this can theoretically lead to an oral-receptive character later in the child's life (this is someone regarded as being preoccupied with demands and must have their needs met). Under indulgence leads to an oral-aggressive character (someone who exploits others for gain).

The Anal Stage (from 18 months to three years) – This is commonly the period surrounding a child's toilet training. However, issues in handling this can again lead to two proposed personality types. Anal-retentive character (overly orderly, stingy, stubborn and delays gratification of others), or anal expulsive character (resists the rules and authority of others, untidy and disorganised individuals).

The Phallic Stage (from 3 to 5 years) – Development of penis envy (girls) or castration anxiety (boys). Freud also argues for the development of the Oedipal Complex at this point. Here he says that boys develop sexual beliefs about their mothers, thus see their fathers as a sexual challenger. Whatever your beliefs around this, it is suggested that this is where the development of sexuality also begins. Issues with the development at this stage is different for males and females. Males may become promiscuous, or alternately may develop more feminine sexual desires and thus grow more liking of men. Females may develop more feminine sexual desires such as the desire of children and the liking of men, alternately like males they may develop more masculine desires, and thus grow more liking of women.

The Latency Stage (5-12 years) – A brief gap in development from childhood before puberty.

The Genital Stage (12 years+) - The stages tie together and thoughts become more mature. Personality characteristics are displayed more. However, the remaining unresolved issues from previous stages return, particularly those surrounding the Oedipus complex and the oral stage. Freud claims that the displaying of a lack of sexual desire by this point is abnormal (and can be a strong indicator of the persons sexuality).

As mentioned earlier, adults form psychological defence mechanisms which allow for these personality characteristics – controlled by the unconscious mind – to be controlled and presented in more socially acceptable ways. This is particularly true of those with a more normal development, and thus absence of significant mental health problems and may differ in cases where the individual suffers from an abnormal psychological balance. These deference mechanisms also control the intra-psychic conflict between the id, ego and superego. These mechanisms are as follows:

  • Repression
  • Denial
  • Projection
  • Reaction Formation
  • Rationalisation
  • Conversion Formation
  • Phobic Avoidance
  • Displacement
  • Regression
  • Isolation
  • Undoing
  • Sublimation

However, despite the outstanding contributions which Freud has undoubtedly made to psychology and psychological sciences (including psychiatry) some points of evaluation should be noted. The work was more qualitative, and though reliable, his subjects were his own patients suffering from complex sometimes undefined problems. This makes empirical testing for the validity of his theories hard, if not virtually impossible. Although he gathers enough evidence and has strong cases to serve as a reliable and somewhat valid explanation(s) the issue of retesting will always be a problem.

Points can be awarded around the applicability of the theory. Although Freud's work focused on primarily unhealthy (psychologically) participants, his work can be applied to both normal and abnormal populations. Something which is often exceptionally rare within psychological fields, as only minor adjustments are needed and comprehensive explanations are provided. This means that most concerns can be explained using psychoanalysis. The work also continues to develop as time continues, more theorists are interested in this perspective and some of psychology's more prominent names (Jung and Adler) have adopted psychoanalytical approaches to their work.

Freud also contributed quite significantly to the current structure of the mental health system. Introducing talking therapies as important and placing emphasis of uncovering the secrets of the unconscious mind. This means he has had a significant overall contribution and benefit in the fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology.

Thus, it is safe to confirm that despite the sketchy ethical implications and the sometimes over sexualised nature of Freud's work. One can confirm it is seemingly of more benefit than error in the discipline of psychology. Particularly when one considers the extensions to the work which have happened as a result of Freud's thinking. However, these will be emphasised in future articles.

For information as to where information was drawn from, please do not hesitate to ask.

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