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“Overview of Psychoanalytic Theory,” by Professor Tharney, PSY101

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Union County College

Department of Psychology

Professor Thaddeus R. Tharney


It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand any other developmental theories (or their corresponding models of psychological functioning), without first assimilating and understanding Sigmund Freud’s theory, and his model of “psychodynamics“. All subsequent “psychodynamic theories” were strongly influenced by Freud’s work, and their views can be seen as modifications, expansions, or revisions of Freud’s earlier work. The “Learning Theory” and “Phenomenological” models are based on attempts to address the shortcomings and criticism of “Psychoanalytic Theory”.

In the fields of personality psychology, developmental psychology, and abnormal psychology, no other individual has stimulated more interest, critical thought, scholarly activity, and more clinical research, that Sigmund Freud. Freud used structural, developmental, and motivational constructs to describe the complexity of human personality functioning. Many of the developmental theorists, that will be discussed later, focus their criticism, elaborations, modifications or revisions of Freud’s work on one or more of these constructs. It is important for the beginning student in developmental psychology to distinguish between these types of constructs and thus appreciate how Freud relied on a complex integration of all three in order to explain personality development and psychological functioning. The psychoanalytic approach to personality assumes that ones personality is the end product of its own history; that past acquisitions continue to effect further psychological development; that study of the development of each aspect of the personality can provide information about man that cannot be obtained in any other way; and that personality develops in distinct “stages”.

Freud’s theory also states that in both normal and abnormal development, the major characteristics of personality are permanently established in early childhood, through each child’s pleasures and frustrations in various developmental stages. Freud used the term “fixations” to refer to childish traits that become permanent features of one’s later personality. These fixations result form the stunting of growth, as a result of either excessive frustrations or excessive indulgence of a child’s needs, during a particular phase of development. Reverting (either temporary or long term) to earlier, more childish, immature, or more primitive forms of thought, expressions or behavior, is referred to as “regression“.

According to Freud, certain regions of the body, at particular times, are of prominent psychological significance, and so are the specific pleasures that result from the satisfaction of needs associated with these regions which he referred to as “erogenous zones” of the body. Healthy gratification of these needs leads to normal development, while either indulgence of too much frustration leads to fixation. The result of fixation is a particular type of character which can be identified by a set of traits or a “personality syndrome“. Every person can be described by one or more of these character types, and depending on which traits assume a dominant role, whether the person will be normal or abnormal. Freud also believed that sexual instincts strongly influenced the development of personality and emotionality, and therefore, he spoke of human development in terms of “Psychosexual Stages“. It should be noted, however, that Freud equated “sexuality” with any “sensual” pleasure (i.e., thus using the term “sexuality” in a much more general way that it is commonly used). In addition to survival, sexuality is the other major motive in life.     

Freud’s developmental theory emphasizes the animalistic nature of the child. He contended that the child is more animal than human. Sensual interest, concerns and experiences and pleasures almost completely occupy the physical and psychological functioning of the infant and child. The “more human processes” such as higher mental functioning, more complex emotional states, learned interest, acquired attitudes, and the skills of social and interpersonal functioning, are not yet present. Freud held that all of child’s needs (including the need for loving care) are sensual (i.e., sexual), and therefore, the child is viewed as a highly sexual (sensual) animal, much like beast of the wild. Freud related the needs and functions of the child to the “erogenous zones” of the body: the oral region, the anal region, and the genital region. Consider, from a Freudian perspective, the nature of the physical stimulation and satisfaction that infants and children receive: feeding, changing, bathing, touching, rocking, patting, hugging, kissing, and physical movement and manipulation of the body.

While Freud also recognized the more typical types of learning (such as conditioning, associative learning, and even insight learning), he did not choose to address or add anything to these concepts, but adhere to his original developmental concepts (some of which may be considered learning principles) as a way of emphasizing that we must not forget that man is fundamentally animal, and that man’s “animal tendencies” should not be forgotten or rejected as “foreign” to human beings.

Developmental Constructs

Freud’s growth model of development states that in the normal developmental process there is continuing growth and development in personality and character, so that the adult is distinctly different from the child. In this view, traits and characteristics acquired in infancy and early childhood become permanent features of one’s personality, and once these personality components are established, they are highly resistant to change. While much of the personality and character structure are formed by the age of five or six years, it must also be noted that the full development of the personality continues through young adulthood. Specific traits and characteristics, whether normal or abnormal, are formed during each of Freud’s proposed five “Psychosexual Stages” and therefore the mature personality requires adequate development during all the stages (including the last stage). Therefore, the point is that although much of one’s personality is formed early in life, mature heterosexuality most certainly doesn’t occur in a six year old child. Freud believed that human personality develops is distinct stages early in life, and is often criticized for his strict “determinism” (his belief that personality becomes fixed in childhood years and cannot be changed b learning or maturation); and his failure to consider significant changes in the adult personality (other that by means of therapeutic intervention).

Freud’s developmental stages include the Oral Stage, the Anal Stage, the Phallic Stage, the Latency Stage, and the Genital Stage. In his view, first impressions and earliest experiences make the strongest impressions because they cannot be compared to previous experiences. These “prototypic” experiences are the most outstanding, complete, and perfect examples of something (i.e., people, situations, things, or events). Therefore, the purest form of anxiety (an utter sense of apprehension, isolation, and helplessness), the purest form of fear (utter dread and sense of terror), would occur early in life because the young child has not developed any defenses against such overwhelming emotions, and has nothing to compare such experiences to. Thus, early in childhood, emotions are not under control; motive and needs reach high intensities; perceptions are easily distorted; cognitive elaboration and rational evaluation have not yet developed; utilization of “defense mechanism” to facilitate adjustment is not yet possible; and the ability to control environmental circumstances and inner psychic reactions are still lacking. All of these factors make the early years of life difficult and extremely significant in emotional growth, personality development, and character formation.

The Psychosexual Stages

It would be helpful at this point to briefly turn our attention to describe the five psychosexual stages, the related personality characteristics that are associated with each, and the particular erogenous zones of the body specifically associated with the first three biologically base “pregenital stages“.

  1. The Oral Stage

    The oral stage encompasses the first 12 to 18 months of postnatal development and during this stage the mouth is the central focus of many of the infant’s physical and social activities, and the major source of pleasure, satisfaction, conflict, and frustration. This is the first of the biologically based stages and is further divided into two phases: the dependant (or incorporative)
    phase and the aggressive
    (or assertive)
    phase. In the order of their appearance, the principle modes of oral functioning are: sucking, spitting out, biting, chewing, and shutting the mouth so that nothing can be put in it. Thus the development sequence related to oral functions progresses from passive incorporation, through active participation, to rejection. Fixation can occur at any point in the sequence. A number of “oral character” traits have been distinguished in a bipolar fashion, and it should be noted that either extreme, hinders normal development, and an “intermediate” position is considered to be the most desirable (normal).

    The “Oral Character” Traits

    Theses traits include: passivity-manipulativeness (passive aggressive); admiration-jealousy (envy); optimism-pessimism; self confidence-self doubt (self belittlement); and gullibility-suspiciousness. Some individuals may be identified as a specific oral type character by singling out their most outstanding or pivotal traits (i.e. “oral dependent” or “passive aggressive” type oral character).

  2. The Anal Stage

    The anal stage extends from 18 months to about 3 to 3 ½ years, covering roughly the period of early socialization and toilet training. It is during this stage that the child becomes aware of, and derives pleasure sensations from, the expulsion and retention of bodily waste. This second of the biologically based stages is also divided in to two phases: the expulsive
    (or impulsive)
    phase and the retentive (or compulsive) phase, each constituting approximately half of this stage.

The anal stage is considered to be important in the continuing development of the ego because the child is beginning to develop feelings of independence and autonomy, and gradually developing conscious voluntary control over bodily functions in compliance with adult (societal) expectations. In addition, the child is acquiring attitudes toward its own body (and natural bodily functions); the basic life orientations of holding on and letting go; and the necessity of socially acceptable and socially cooperative behavior. Therefore, toilet training needs to be conducted cautiously in order to avoid indulgence or frustration during the process.

The “anal character” traits may be said to reflect characteristics ranging from
expulsive” sloppiness and disorganization (impulsivity), to “retentive” cleanliness and orderliness (compulsivity).

The “Anal Character” Traits

The “anal character” traits viewed in bipolar form includes: generosity-stinginess; messiness-neatness; expansiveness-constrictedness; acquiescence-stubbornness; obedience-defiance; punctuality-tardiness; rigidity-flexibility; meticulousness-dirtiness; organization-confusion; giving-withholding; and precision-vagueness. Individuals demonstrating clusters or groupings of these and other related traits, may be classified as either an “expulsive” (i.e., impulsive) or a “retentive” (i.e. compulsive) anal character type.

  1. The Phallic Stage

The phallic stage extends from about 3 years to 5½ years or 6 years of age, and is a period of development during which the genital region of the body becomes the primary source of pleasure, tension, “conflict and “anxiety“.

The preschool child demonstrates curiosity and inquisitiveness about sexuality and sexual differences. The parental reaction to the child’s preoccupation with genital region of the body during this stage should be neither too restrictive nor too liberal so as to avoid both frustration and indulgence. Since it is during this stage of development, that the child comes into contact with a growing number of people (i.e., the extended family and persons outside the family), the development aspects of the phallic stage involve the child’s emerging self-concept, self-referent feelings, self-assertion, and interpersonal relationships with others. It is also during this stage that the child begins to recognize, identify, and differentiate between, male and female roles, and subsequently begin to assume his or her appropriate role (i.e. sex appropriate behaviors, attitudes and characteristics). It is also during the latter part of this stage that the male children are said to experience the “Oedipus Complex” and the female children to experience the “Electra Complex” as a crucial part of normal development.

The Oedipus Complex

The Freudian concept of the Oedipus complex refers to the development of an emotional triangle within the family (mother, father, child) in which the male child develops an emotional attachment and a sexual attraction for his mother and feelings of competitiveness and rivalry for his father. The rivalry with the father figure leads to internal conflict within the child because the father becomes respected, revered and feared (due to the experiences of what Freud identified as “castration anxiety” (i.e. fear of the fathers aggressive potential). In the course of normal development, the male child engages in “Sex role identification” and by abandoning his attraction toward the mother and emulating his father, he assumes the masculine sex role characteristics that are considered sex appropriate for his gender. Abnormal development may result from inadequate, inappropriate or ineffective learning; rejection of the male role model; an inability or unwillingness to switch from the maternal figure to the paternal figure; etc.. The resulting consequences can range from sexual identity confusion, alternative sexual preferences, an inability to establish meaningful heterosexual relationships with woman of the same age, or overvaluing sexual prowess, etc.

The Electra Complex

Freud’s Electra Complex refers to the development of a similar emotional triangle within the family in which the girl develops an emotional triangle within the family in which the girl develops an emotional attachment and sexual attraction to the father figure and a corresponding rivalry with the mother over the father’s time, interest, attention and affection. Her attraction to the father and her love for her mother leads to the development of conflict. Her feelings of rivalry with the mother can be further complicated if she discovers that she has no penis (which can lead to what Freud identified as “penis envy” [i.e., causing an undervaluing of the female role and overvaluing the male role]).

Differences in the motivation for sex role identification between boys and girls are cited as the reasons for differences in the Superego development of males and females. In the case of male children it is frequently referred to as “defensive identification” and in female children as “anaclytic identification.”

The phallic character traits

The phallic character traits seen in bipolar fashion include: gregariousness-isolation; courage-timidity; happiness-sadness; brashness-bashfulness; vanity-self contempt; pride-humility; stylishness-plain simplicity; flirtatiousness-heterosexual avoidance; chastity-promiscuity.

  1. The Latency Stage

    The latency stage extends from 6 years of age to the onset of puberty (by about 12 years of age). Freud originally did not consider the latency period “genuine” psychosexual stage, but a period of dormancy during development which involved an elaboration of previously acquired traits and characteristics.

    Upon closer examination, however, it was determined that there was a great deal occurring during this period, but in a much more subtle and inconspicuous manner. This is believed to be because the changes are socially and interpersonally based (rather then biologically).

    Every child during this period, which spans the years covering most of elementary school, enters the peer group subculture of childhood, as they begin their educational experience. Over the course of the educational process, each child is separated from the home environment; relationship with their parents reduce in intensity; and greater periods of time are spent in contact with peers and other adult authority figures (teachers).

    During the early phase of this stage children demonstrate an almost exclusive preference for associations with the same age and sex peers, and an aversion to heterosexual relationships. Heterosexual interest, curiosity and attraction are avoided. The process of identification, shifts from parents to teachers (and other significant authority figures), and then to peers. Toward the end of this stage, physiological changes result in the early development of both primary and secondary sexual characteristics in preparation for the onset of puberty. These hormonal and anatomical changes occasion the resurgence of Oedipus or Electra complexes which are finally resolved at the conclusion of this stage when the child begins to become attracted to “substitute love objects” (members of the opposite sex).

  2. The Genital Stage

    The Genital Stage begins with the onset of puberty and last throughout adulthood. The outstanding characteristics of this stage are the elaboration, integration, consolidation and unification of the traits, qualities, and characteristics of the previous stages, and the full development of the sexual instinct. For Freud, this is the stage of mature heterosexuality (i.e., sexual maturity), and the genital region becomes the primary locus of sexual tension and sexual gratification. According to Freud, the use of the term “genital” or “genitality” in reference to this stage means not only sexual maturity, but personal, emotional and psychological maturity as well. This also means achieving competence is one’s social relationships, in vocational activity and in recreational pursuits.

    According to Freud the two most outstanding characteristics of psychological maturity are the capacity to love and the ability to work. In Freud’s view the ideal, mature, heterosexual adult is a “well socialized” social conformist. In this stage possible conflicts and fixations may result from an individual’s problematic relationships or occupations. Such difficulties may result from in maladjusted or abnormal traits including: indiscriminate love or hate; overly “sentimental” love (Freud stated that one is most unstable when they are in love); and the inability to work, or compulsive work.

    The preceding aspects of Sigmund Freud’s theory have been criticized because of his strict adherence to “psychic determinism(i.e. his strong belief that one’s personality becomes fixed in childhood and subsequently cannot change by either maturation or learning); Freud’s failure to consider changes in adult personality (a definite developmental shortcoming in this theory); and his ideas regarding infantile and childhood sexuality (sexual attractions, tension and desires), rather than family relationships and interpersonal situations being more influenced by such factors as learning, gender differences, competition, cooperation and identification (i.e. imitation and observational learning).

Development of Psychological Processes

Development of “The Ego Defense Mechanism”

Freud’s developmental concepts include other developmental processes beyond the psychosexual stages. For example, the Ego Defense Mechanisms are developmental in nature. The developing child acquires coping strategies to protect himself against anxiety, conflict, guilt, threat, and stress. Various forms of frustration and conflict play a significant role in the acquisition and formation of these mechanisms of adjustment. If there were no conflicts, and needs were never frustrated, these mechanism would never develop.


One such significant developmental concept is the process of Identification. It is a process by which the child assumes the traits, attitudes, characteristics and specific behaviors of significant others, and then incorporate these into their own personality structure. Identification and imitation can be differentiated, on the basis of the degree of conscious awareness involved, and the permanence of the learning.


Another significant developmental concept is displacement. It refers to either the substitution of one object for another, or the sublimation of primitive urges and impulses into socially and personally acceptable outlets of expression.


According to Freud substitution
occurs whenever an instinctual need is active, psychic energy is generated that is normally directed toward a particular object
(“Object Cathexis“) and the energy is discharged; if the object is not available a substitute object is sought.

It should be noted that when the object is not available, the energy remains as a psycho physiological tension (an uncomfortable motivated state), and a substitute object will relieve the tension, but to a lesser degree.

It should also be noted that the process of learning is involved in searching for better and better displacements. Since displacement does not usually relieve as much tension (as the original object), there is motivational power (in the form of frustrated psychic energy) to support efforts to learn better displacements.


In sublimation, the displacement process involves another form of learning in which new outlets for, socially and personally unacceptable, urges and impulses that are not permitted in their usual outlets.

In the process one channels primitive impulses (usually sexual or aggressive in nature) into personally acceptable and socially praiseworthy modes of expression.

It should be noted here that the healthy, mature individual is one who uses sublimation well and thereby satisfies both instinctual demands and societal restrictions at the same time. It was Freud’s contention that the fully healthy person is the fully sublimated person.


Another developmental concept is fixation, which refers to the formation of enduring traits as a result of a slowing, stunting, or arrestation of development in a particular stage. According to Freud, as the body and the psyche mature, certain needs become a prominent, and the mishandling of needs can cause them to become a permanent feature of one’s personality, from that point on. Since the needs exist in their original “infantile” or “childish” form, they can create a disturbing or maladaptive influence on the later growth and functioning of the personality. If that particular need is properly and adequately dealt with, at the appropriate stage of development, it will then become a normal trait or characteristic; if it is frustrated or over-indulged it will then become a abnormal trait which will evident itself in the form of either a deficiency or an excessive characteristic of the individual, later in their development. It is important to note that many “extreme” personality traits are an exaggerated form of “normal” traits which, because of faulty “management” or “problematic” experiences, become an impediment to appropriate maturation and psychological growth. The result of fixation may be regression.


The processes of regression may be viewed as reverting to earlier, less mature (i.e. more infantile or childish) patterns of functioning, in times when the individual is confronted with prolonged or inordinate psychological stress. If the individual is “overwhelmed” by the stress (and the stressful condition does not abate), then, according to Freud, the individual will regress to that stage of development where the greatest degree of fixation (or most significant fixation) occurred.

Development of the Libido

Freud termed the psychic (instinctual) energy needs associated with various regions of the body (erogenous zones), the Libido. The libido represents a combination of the major life (“Eros“) instincts which become invested in specific objects in the environment (object Cathexis). A particular type of “libidinal gratification” may come to assume a prominent role in an individual’s life. If the development of the child is normal and healthy, then the developing libido progresses in an orderly, predictable sequence, and investments and attachments undergo predictable changes. Initially, libidinal energy is centered on autocratic pleasure seeking, including stimulation of the mouth, followed by anal pleasures, and subsequently followed by autoerotic stimulation of the genital region.

Gradually the libido then becomes invested in preferred objects and other people. With further development, the libido becomes invested in forming attachments to playmates, then friends of the same sex, that a “best friend” or pal. With the maturation of the developing personality, the libido later becomes invested in heterosexual attraction, and the expression of the desire for love and intimacy with a person of the opposite sex. The fully mature individual possesses all of the previously mentioned libidinal investments and attachments, but in a well balanced manner. If fixation occurs, however, it may cause the libidinal energy to become inordinately focused (fixated) on one of the developmental levels. Upon arrival at heterosexual maturity, one might be expected to be in love with their spouse, enjoy at night out with friends, enjoy constructive pastimes, recreation, enjoy productive work, and maintain a degree of self-love which enables them to enjoy their own thoughts, emotions, activities and their own company.

Written by Joseph Eulo

May 28, 2008 at 4:55 am

Posted in PSY101 Handouts

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