Psychoanalytic theory of Personality

Sigmund Freud Psychoanalytic theory of Personality

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the founder of psychoanalysis. He was a physician, and developed the Psychoanalytic theory of Personality in the course of his clinical practice. Freud used free association (a method in which a person is asked to openly share all the thoughts, feelings and ideas that come to her/his mind), dream analysis, and analysis of errors to understand the internal functioning of the mind.

Difference between Psychoanalytic & Psychodynamic theories of Personality

Psychoanalytic theory refers to the perspective and theoretical ideas that were originated by Sigmund Freud while Psychodynamic theories refers to the ideas and perspective that came from Sigmund Freud and his followers.

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g., Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Alfred Adler, Anna Freud, and Erik Erikson. Summarily, Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers.

Freud’s Psychoanalytic theory of Personality

According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, personality develops through a series of stages, each characterized by a certain internal psychological conflict. Unsuccessful resolution of conflicts results in abnormal behaviour.

Analysis of forgetting, mispronunciations, jokes and dreams provide us with a means to approach the unconscious. Freud developed a therapeutic procedure, called psychoanalysis. The basic goal of psychoanalytic therapy is to bring the repressed unconscious materials to consciousness, thereby helping people to live in a more self-aware and integrated manner.

Levels of Consciousness:

Freud proposed that psychological forces operate at three levels of awareness:

Conscious level:

  • The thoughts, feelings, and sensations that one is aware of at the present moment.

Preconscious level:

  • The second level is preconscious, which includes mental activity of which people may become aware only if they attend to it closely.

Unconscious level:

  • It consists of thoughts, feelings, wishes, drives etc. of which we are not aware.
  • However, it influences our conscious level of activity.

Freud thought that unconscious material often seeks to push through to the conscious level in a disguised manner. It may be in a distorted manner and or it may take a symbolic form. Interpretation of dreams and free association were used for analysis of the three levels of awareness.

Structure of Personality

According to Freud’s theory, the primary structural elements of personality are three, i.e. id, ego, and superego. They reside in the unconscious as forces, and they can be inferred from the ways people behave.


  • It is the unconscious, irrational part of personality.
  • It is the primitive part immune to morality and demands of the external world.
  • It operates on the pleasure principle and seeks immediate satisfaction.


  • It is involved with the workings of the real world.
  • It operates on the reality principle.
  • It is the conscious, and rational part of personality that regulates thoughts and behaviors.
  • It teaches the person to balance demands of external world and needs of the person.

Super Ego:

  • It is the internal representation of parental and societal values.
  • It works as the voice of conscience, that compels the ego to consider not only the real but also the ideal.
  • It judges one’s behaviors as right or wrong, good or bad. Failing up to moral ideals bring about the shame, guilt, inferiority and anxiety in the person. 

Personality Development

On the basis of case-history of patients, Freud reached at a conclusion that personality development occurs through a sequence of psychosexual stages and hence proposed a five-stage theory of personality development (also called psychosexual theory).   

According to him, problems encountered at any stage may arrest development, and have long-term effect on a person’s life. In these stages the Id’s pleasure seeking tendency focuses on different areas of body.

StageFocus Centre
(0-18 months)
Pleasure centers in the mouth and leads to activities of sucking and biting etc.
(18-36 months)
Pleasure centers on bowel and bladder elimination.
(4 to 6 years)
Pleasure centre is genitals. Touching and fondling of genitals give pleasure
(7 to puberty)
Children repress their sexual impulses and channelize them into socially acceptable activities such as sports, arts.
(From the onset of puberty)
Pleasure zone is the genital. Maturation of sexual interests.

Defense Mechanisms

The Ego has to perform a difficult duty of mediating between the instinctual demands of Id and moral position of Super Ego. The Ego tries to solve the problem and if a realistic solution or compromise is not possible it indulges in distorting thoughts or perception of reality through certain processes called defense mechanisms. To defend or safeguard ourselves, we use technique called defense mechanism. These are also called Adjustment Mechanisms. Some of the key mechanisms are given below:

DenialFailure to recognize or acknowledge the existence
of unpleasant event/information as I do not know,
I have not seen etc.
DisplacementEmotional impulses are redirected toward one
other i.e. substitute person/object
ProjectionAttributing own unacceptable urges to others
RationalizationJustifying our actions or feelings through socially
acceptable explanations
Reaction FormationThinking or acting in a way that is the extreme
opposite of unacceptable urges
RegressionRetreating to behaviour characteristic of an
earlier stage of development
RepressionExclusion of anxiety producing thoughts, feelings
or impulses from consciousness
SublimationSexual urges are channelized into productive,
nonsexual activities

Strengths of Freud’s Psychoanalytic theory

  • Freud was the first person to highlights the importance of childhood in mental health and this is an idea extensively used today
  • Psychoanalytic theory has given rise to one of the first “talking cure,” psychoanalysis, on which many psychological therapies are now based.

Limitations of  Psychoanalytic theory of Personality

  • Freud’s approach places too much emphasis on the psychological factors, without considering the biological/genetic factors that influence and contribute to mental health problems.
  • Simplifying the human mind into the id, ego, and superego and the five psychosexual stages make the approach reductionist.

Freud’s theory provides one conceptualization of how personality is structured and how these different elements of personality function. In Freud’s view, a healthy personality results from a balance in the dynamic interaction of the id, ego, and superego. Over the years, Freud attracted many followers who adapted and modified his psychoanalytic theories to create new theories of personality.

  • Alfred Adler was the first to explore and develop a comprehensive social theory of the psychodynamic person and coined the idea of the “inferiority complex.” He also believed in the importance of social connections, seeing childhood development as emerging through social development rather than via the sexual stages outlined by Freud.
  • Erik Erikson is influential for having proposed the psychosocial theory of development, which suggests that an individual’s personality develops throughout the lifespan based on a series of social relationships—a departure from Freud’s more biology-oriented view.
  • Carl Jung followed in Adler’s footsteps by developing a theory of personality called analytical psychology. One of Jung’s major contributions was his idea of the collective unconscious, which he deemed a “universal” version of Freud’s personal unconscious, holding mental patterns, or memory traces, that are common to all of us.
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