Psychosexual Theory

Freud's Psychosexual Theory of Human Development

Sigmund Freud was a Viennese neurologist who lived between 1856 to 1939. He formulated his Psychosexual theory of human development central to his analyses of his emotionally disturbed patients’ life histories.

Seeking to relieve their nervous symptoms and anxieties, Freud relied heavily on such methods as hypnosis, free association (a quick spilling out of one’s thoughts), and dream analysis, because they gave some indication of unconscious motives that patients had repressed (that is, forced out of their conscious awareness).

In his analyses of the motives and the events that had caused their repression, Freud concluded that humans are driven by powerful biological drives that influence behavior patterns. He believed that drives are the source of psychic energy; that they operate from birth and promote personality development.

Freud maintained that humans are biological creatures who possess basic sexual and aggressive instincts that must be satisfied; yet society dictates that many of these drives must be restrained. According to Freud, the ways in which parents manage these sexual and aggressive drives in the first few years of their child’s life play a major role in shaping their children’s personalities.

Three Components of Personality

Freud’s psychosexual theory specifies three components of personality—the id, ego, and superego—that develop and gradually become integrated in a series of five developmental psychosexual stages.

1.   The Id

Id is the psychoanalytic term for the inborn component of the personality that is driven by the instincts. The id is present right from birth. Its sole function is to satisfy inborn biological instincts, and it will try to do so immediately.

According to Freud, in the first months of life the infant is motivated entirely by id or instinctual forces, as fussing and crying until their needs are met when they are hungry or wet. Again, contact with the environment modifies the id; maturation is achieved through both frustration and gratification of the id, provided always that frustration is not excessive.

2.   The Ego

The ego is the conscious, rational component of the personality. It reflects the child’s emerging abilities to perceive, learn, remember, and reason. Its function is to find socially approved means of gratifying instincts, such as when a hungry toddler, remembering how she gets food, seeks out her parent and says “cookie.”

The ego begins to develop when the infant is about six months old. As their egos mature, children become better at controlling their irrational ids and finding appropriate ways to gratify their needs. Development of the ego is assisted by the increasing perceptual, cognitive, and language ability of the child (Brenner 1955).

3.   The Superego

The superego is the seat of the conscience of the personality. It includes the ego ideal, which is the self as one would like to be. The superego develops between the ages of 3 and 6 as children internalize (take on as their own) the moral values of their parents (Freud, 1933).

It is the emergence of the superego at about age six that leads to the feeling of guilt. Shame is an earlier experience that results from one’s failure to live up to the ego ideal. Shame is rarely felt unless one’s unacceptable behavior is discovered by others. Guilt is an internal experience caused by failure to conform to the standards of the superego, and it is felt even when one’s inner thoughts and desires are unknown to others.

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According to Freud, these three components of personality inevitably conflict. In the mature, healthy personality, a dynamic balance operates:

  • The id communicates basic needs
  • The ego restrains the impulsive id long enough to find realistic methods of satisfying these needs, and
  • The superego decides whether the ego’s problem-solving strategies are morally acceptable.

The ego is “in the middle”; it must strike a balance between the opposing demands of the id and the superego while accommodating the realities of the external world.

Freud also described three levels of mental activity:

Of the three, the unconscious is by far the largest. Memories and feelings that are unacceptable to the individual are pushed out of awareness into the unconscious by means of a mental process called repressionOpens in new window.

Unacceptable memories and feelings are ego-alien, or ego-dystonic, and produce anxiety unless they are repressed. Acceptable memories and feelings are ego-syntonic and do not produce anxiety. The preconscious level contains material not immediately available but subject to recall if one tries. The conscious level is the smallest and contains material that is accessible and easily remembered.

Psychosexual Developmental Stages

Freud proposed that each person, beginning at birth, undergoes a uniform, predetermined sequence of psychosexual stages and that each developmental stage is related to a particular psychosexual conflict. In psychoanalytic theory, a conflict is explained as a wish for something and a simultaneous fear of the consequences if that wish is fulfilled.

For example, a person who is in conflict about dependency might want to depend on others but fear the loss of freedom that dependency often brings.

Individuals can progress from one psychosexual phase to another, can be fixated in one phase without advancing further, or can progress and later regress to an earlier developmental phase. Within each phase, specific body orifices (mouth, anus, or genitals) are the objects of erotic interest and instinctual energy.

The table that follows briefly describes each of Freud’s five stages of psychosexual development, chronologic ages, and related conflicts, as formulated by Freud.

AgeRelated ConflictDescription
OralBirth to 1yrDependencyThe sex instinct centers on the mouth, as infants derive pleasure from such oral activities as sucking, chewing, and biting. Feeding activities are particularly important. For example, an infant weaned too early or too abruptly may later crave close contact and become over-dependent on a spouse.
Anal1 to 3yrsControlVoluntary urination and defecation become the primary methods of gratifying the sex instinct. Toilet training produces major conflicts between children and parents. The emotional climate parents create can have lasting effects. For example, children punished for toileting “accidents” may become inhibited, messy, or wasteful.
Phallic (Oedipal)3 to 6yrsCompetitionPleasure is now derived from stimulating the genitals. Children develop an incestuous desire for the opposite-sex parent (called the Oedipus complex for boys and Electra complex for girls). Anxiety stemming from this conflict causes children to internalize the sex-role characteristics and moral standards of their same-sex parental rival.
Latency6 to 11yrsMasteryTraumas of the phallic stage cause sexual conflicts to be repressed and sexual urges to be rechanneled into school work and vigorous play. The ego and superego continue to develop as the child gains more problem-solving abilities at school and internalizes societal values.
Genital12yrs onwardIntimacyPuberty triggers a reawakening of sexual urges. Adolescents must now learn how to express these urges in socially acceptable ways. If development has been healthy, the mature sex instinct is satisfied by marriage and child rearing.

In Greek mythology, Oedipus was a ruler who unknowingly killed his father, wed his mother, and suffered for his misdeeds. According to Freud, the Oedipal romance is enacted in every family during the phallic phase of childhood. For all infants the mother is the first love object. As the child matures, the parent of the opposite sex becomes a love object and the parent of the same sex becomes a rival in the mind of the child.

This oedipal conflict was called Oedipus complex for boys and the Electra complex for girls. The task of the boy is considered to be less complicated because for him the mother can remain the primary love object, but girls must cope with the transformation of mother from love object into rival.

Freud believed that anxieties stemming from such rivalry conflicts would build until children felt compelled to renounce their incestuous desires and to identify with their same-sex parental rival. This identification process was said to be the primary mechanism by which children acquire “masculine” or “feminine” identities and a strong internalized conscience, or superego.


Sexual feelings for one parent and resentment for the other create a fear of punishment in the child. Freud called this fear of impending punishment castration anxiety, and out of this fear emerges the superego, the conscience or censor of the personality.

Freud believed that because girls have no penis, they suffer less castration anxiety. The effect is to prolong the Oedipal conflict in girls and to make the female’s superego less strict and punitive than the male’s, according to Freud.

Freud described several causes and manifestations of anxiety. He attributed castration anxiety, which surfaces during the Oedipal conflict, to unacceptable erotic wishes and saw superego anxiety as arising from internalized guilt. Separation anxiety is triggered first by the trauma of birth and later by separation from beloved persons, places, and possession.

The concept of separation anxiety helps explain the difficulties many people experience when they must relinquish familiar surroundings and friendships. Extreme forms of separation anxiety are felt by persons dealing with death, either with their own or that of loved ones.

Anaclitic separation anxiety is caused by early loss of the mothering figure. When this happens in the first year of life, the child may react by withdrawing and by failing to thrive, behaviors considered by some theorists to be a form of depression (Engel 1964).

Signal or anticipatory anxiety is based on the memory of early experiences that had produced anxiety. Repetitions or recollection of the early experiences reactivate feelings of anxiety. Freud believed that anxiety is generally useful because it calls into play defenses that help control irrational impulses and reactions (Brenner 1955).

Freud considered the ego to be a defensive structure that mediates between the excessive demands of the id and the excessive restrictions of the superego. It was Freud’s daughter, Anna (1953), who formulated a comprehensive list of defense mechanisms employed by the ego. They are treated in another literature hereOpens in new window

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