Sigmund Freud was an Austrian psychology pioneer who changed the way we think about the human mind and sexuality forever.
Freud’s ideas around repression, projection, defense mechanisms and more, still influence the psychology and personal development field to this day.
Here’s a look at Freud’s 12 most important and influential ideas.
Freud’s 12 key ideas
1) Life is a basic struggle between sex and death
Freud believed we have a basic conflict inside us between sex and death.
Our two deepest drives are to have sex and reproduce and to rest forever in death.
Freud believed that our libido is always at war with the “nirvana principle” or desire for nothingness.
Freud’s more complex theories on our ego, id, and superego as well as conscious and unconscious mind all stem from this basic theory.
According to Freud, it’s just in our deepest nature that part of us wants to die and part of us wants to have sex.
2) Childhood sexual development affect everything in life
Freudian theory says that the most important things which form your later adult personality and psychological issues happen as a kid.
According to Freud, babies and kids go through psychosexual development in five stages where the youngster feels focused on the sensations of that area of the body. They are:
- The oral stage
- The anal stage
- The phallic or clitoral stage
- The latent stage when sex energy temporarily subsides
- And the genital stage when interest is directly on the genitals and their sexual and waste excretion functions
Any interruption, obstacle, or distortion of these stages leads to repression and problems, according to Freud.
If a stage of development isn’t completed or is associated with guilt, abuse or repression, the developing individual will be “stuck” in that stage.
Later adult behaviors may be associated physically and psychologically with the frustrated development phase.
For example, someone stuck in the anal stage may be anal retentive or anal expulsive, according to Freud.
Anal retentive people may have been overly controlled and shamed during potty training and could grow up with obsessive and organization fixations as adults.
Anal expulsive individuals may not have received enough potty training and may grow up to feel overwhelmed by life and very disorganized.
3) Most of our deep motivations and drives come from our unconscious
Freud believed that we’re largely driven by our unconscious.
He compared our minds to an iceberg, with the most important parts and hidden depths below the surface.
Our unconscious drives almost everything we do, but we’re generally not aware of it and push down its signs and symptoms when they bubble up.
As psychology professor Saul McLeod writes:
“Here lie the processes that are the real cause of most behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.
The unconscious mind acts as a repository, a ‘cauldron’ of primitive wishes and impulse kept at bay and mediated by the preconscious area.”
4) Psychological problems come from repressed desire or trauma
Freud’s view was that civilization itself requires us to repress our true and primal desires.
We push down unacceptable desires or compulsions and try to overcome trauma in various ways that ultimately result in various forms of mental illness, Freud argues.
Failure to deal with repressed desire and trauma leads to perversion, neurosis and derangement, and is best treated by psychoanalysis and dream interpretation.
Our unconscious desires are strong and our id wants to do whatever is necessary to fulfill them, but our superego is committed to ethics and following the greater good.
This conflict leads to all sorts of psychological mayhem.
One of the chief repressed desires, according to Freud, is the Oedipus Complex.
5) The Oedipus Complex is true for everyone but varies by gender
Freud’s infamous Oedipus Complex argues that all men want to have sex with their mother and murder their father on a deep unconscious level and that all women want to sleep with their father and get rid of their mother.
The main roadblocks to satisfying this desire are the moral effect of the superego and the fear of a punishment.
For men, subconscious castration anxiety drives much of their fearful and avoidant behavior.
For women, subconscious penis envy motivates them at a primal level to feel insufficient, anxious, and inadequate.
Freud was familiar with criticisms even in his day that his theories were overly shocking and sexual.
He dismissed this as people simply being unwilling to accept the hard truth about the hidden – and sometimes ugly – depths of our psyches.
6) Cocaine can be one of the best treatments for mental illness
Freud was a cocaine addict who believed that the drug could be a miracle cure for psychological problems.
Cocaine caught Freud’s eye – or nose, as it were – in his 30s, when he read reports of how cocaine was being successfully used in the military to energize and motivate soldiers to go the extra mile.
He began dissolving cocaine in glasses of water and found it gave him a big energy boost and put him in a spectacular mood.
Freud began giving nose candy to friends as well as his new girlfriend and wrote a paper praising the “magical substance” and its supposed ability to heal trauma and depression.
Not everything was sunshine and roses, however.
Freud’s attempt to use cocaine to get his friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow off his unhealthy dependence on morphine didn’t work out quite as expected since Marxow got hooked on coke instead.
Freud’s enthusiasm started to cook as the dark side of cocaine entered the news more and more, but he still took it himself for headaches and depression for a number of years more.
Freud’s theory of the curative effects of cocaine are widely dismissed and mocked today, although one can see similar classes of drugs such as ketamine now being advocated for depression and mental illness relief.
7) Freud believed talk therapy works better than hypnosis
Freud entered medical school in Vienna in his 20s and did important work researching brain function and neuropathology.
He made close friends with a doctor by the name of Josef Breuer who was also interested and involved in neurology.
Breuer said he had worked successfully with hypnosis to lead to positive outcomes for patients suffering from severe anxiety and neurosis.
Freud was enthusiastic, and this interest in hypnosis increased after he studied under the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris.
However, Freud eventually decided that free association talk therapy was more productive and beneficial than hypnosis.
“He found that hypnosis didn’t work as well as he had hoped.
He instead developed a new way to get people to talk freely. He would have patients lie back on a couch so that they were comfortable and then he would tell them to talk about whatever popped into their head.”
8) Freud believed we are all fundamentally at war with ourselves
Freud’s concept of our human identity was split into two main halves: the conscious and unconscious.
Our unconscious part he called the id: a needy and demanding aspect of ourselves that doesn’t care about ethics or respecting others.
The id wants its desires fulfilled and will do almost anything to get that.
Then there is the ego, a kind of gatekeeper to the id that checks its wilder impulses and desires and tries to logically decide which fits with our identity and mission. The ego has strong desires too but balances them with realism.
Then there is the superego, a moral part of our psyche which many have basically understood to be the conscience.
Individuals who are mentally well the ego finds a way to referee successfully between the id and superego. It keeps us on a steady track to surviving in life and avoiding catastrophic situations.
But when our ego gets overwhelmed by our inner conflict it often results to what Freud called defense mechanisms.
These include displacement (putting anger or sadness onto someone else that you experienced in a different situation), projection (accusing or lashing out at someone with the behavior you’re accusing them of), and denial (just denying reality because it’s painful).
As philosophy and psychology writer Sheri Jacobson puts it:
“Freud stated that in healthy individuals the ego is doing a good job in balancing out the needs of these two parts of the psyche, however in those where one of the other parts is dominant the individual struggles and problems develop in the personality.”
9) Dreams provide a peek behind the curtain of the unconscious
Freud considered dreams to offer a rare peek behind the curtain into our unconscious.
While we usually repress down things which are too painful or desires which are unconscious, dreams give it a chance to emerge in various forms including symbols and metaphors.
“Freud believed the content of dreams could be broken down into two different types. The manifest content of a dream included all of the actual content of the dream—the events, images, and thoughts contained within the dream.”
10) Freud believed he was correct and wasn’t interested in other opinions
Freud had a high opinion of himself.
He regarded opposition to his theories as coming from those who were mainly not intelligent enough to understand or too repressed o admit he was right.
In his article for Live Science explaining why Freud is mostly wrong and outdated, Benjamin Plackett discusses Freud’s unscientific approach.
“He started out with a theory and then worked backward, seeking out tidbits to reinforce his beliefs and then aggressively dismissing anything else that challenged those ideas…
Freud passed himself off as a scientist. He was very sensitive to objections and would simply laugh at an objection and claim the person making it was psychologically ill.”
Don’t agree with what I write in this article? You must be suffering from acute neurosis.
Seems like a party trick that would get old pretty fast, but maybe it played well in 19th Century Vienna.
11) Freud thought women were weak and dumber than men
Freud has often been criticized in modern psychology for his views on women.
Despite being influenced and surrounded by many independent-minded and groundbreaking female thinkers and individuals, Freud maintained a sexist and patronizing view of women throughout his life.
“Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own,” Freud wrote in 1925.
That might as well be an angry MGTOW post from a man who hates women and sees them as toxic, worthless objects that are best avoided.
Come on, Sigmund. You can do better, man.
Well actually you can’t, you’re dead…
But we can do better.
Freud’s ideas of women being weak, mentally inferior props who sort of absorb trauma like a sponge and need to be treated like pets is patronizing at best.
12) Freud may have had a secret theory which he hid from the world
One aspect of Freud’s beliefs that is not well known is that many experts believe his Oedipus Complex theory was not his original theory.
In fact, it is believed that Freud discovered sexual abuse of young women was very common among his female patients.
This discovery led to enormous scandal in the community, so some believe that Freud therefore “universalized” his theory in order not to make it seem targeted onto his local community or a judgment of his particular patients.
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“It has been alleged that Freud did make a genuine discovery which he was initially prepared to reveal to the world.
However, the response he encountered was so ferociously hostile that he masked his findings and offered his theory of the unconscious in its place…
What he discovered, it has been suggested, was the extreme prevalence of child sexual abuse, particularly of young girls (the vast majority of hysterics are women), even in respectable nineteenth century Vienna.”
Freud in retrospect: should we take him seriously?
Many of Freud’s theories are widely discredited and not taken seriously.
But at the same time, he’s still a giant of the study of the human mind and sexuality whose ideas continue to be taught in universities around the world.
Why do we learn about Freud if he’s wrong about so many things? This video provides a lot of good insights about the value in Freud’s work despite its oversights and inaccuracies.
Even though psychology has moved on from Freud, he’s still important to grapple with if we want to understand psychology and therapy today.