Psychoanalytic Perspective: Exploring the Human Mind through Childhood Analysis

psychoanalytic perspectiveSince the dawn of time human beings have been attempting to develop means of explanation for the actions of others as well as the internal mechanisms that direct and control the way we all think. However, it wasn’t until fairly recently on Earth’s timeline that individuals began to construct psychological theories through the exploration of events that occurred throughout an individual’s childhood. In the sections to follow, we will discuss the psychoanalytic perspective, including a definition of the theory, major theorists, important elements, stages of development, and defense mechanisms.

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What is the Psychoanalytic Perspective?

The psychoanalytic perspective, most frequently associated with the renowned psychologist, Sigmund Freud, is a psychological theory that revolves around the unconscious mind and how an individual’s childhood experiences have shaped it. Freud constructed the theory as an explanation for mysterious phenomena such as the meaning behind dreams, slips of the tongue, and behavioral reflex reactions to stressful situations. The unconscious is a primary focus in psychoanalytic theory due to its typical development in youth and the ways in which it influences nearly every aspect of an individual’s life. The unconscious mind also holds repressed memories and unexpressed urges that make their way into the conscious mind through a variety of different means, further explained in the defense mechanisms section below. However, before taking a look at the various methods the human mind employs to protect itself, let’s explore a few important key theorists who influenced the psychoanalytic perspective.

Major Theorists

  • Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, as described in the above section, was the most influential figure in psychoanalytic theory in that he was the first to develop and employ the perspective on his patients. In Freud’s version of the psychoanalytic perspective, the influence of sexual instincts and childhood were at the forefront of explanations for confusing or troubling behavior.

  • Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson expanded upon Freud’s original model in order to incorporate most socially directed elements, such as interaction, and explain how personality is shaped over the course of a lifetime. He also brought to consideration factors, such as the identity crisis, and proposed theories as to how they can influence a personality to develop one way or another.

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Elements of Psychoanalytic Perspective

  • Id

The “Id” refers to the innate instincts and urges that are present in every human being from birth. During the first few years of life, an infant’s personality is entirely made up of the Id, which causes the child to act in ways that are directed towards immediate gratification. If an infant is in pain or uncomfortable, he or she will scream and cry regardless of what time it is or how much inconvenience the child will be causing its caretakers. Instant gratification and the pleasure principle are the focus of the Id, which functions in the unconscious mind and may be said to act as the “devil on your shoulder”.

  • Superego

The “Superego”, which functions as the direct opposite of the id, works to force an individual to conform to societal norms and standards. The superego, which could be termed the “angel on your shoulder” acts as a moral guide and is frequently targeted in spiritual settings. When young children are taught about their conscience, the part of the brain that distinguishes right from wrong, they are actually learning about their superego. Contrary to the id, the superego is developed through social interaction and can form differently from one individual to the next depending on the frequency of rewards granted for acting in ways that conform to societal norms and punishment inflicted for deviant behavior.

  • Ego

The “Ego”, the only of the three elements that functions in the conscious mind, works to balance and compromise between the demanding id and superego. Adhering to the angel/devil metaphor mentioned above, the ego acts as the individual between the two, attempting to decide which advice to take. Ideally, a mentally stable individual will find a method of satisfying both parties through the means of a compromise.

Stages of Development

1. Oral Stage

The oral stage, which takes place from birth to two years of age, occurs when an infant’s libido is centered around the mouth area, which causes toddlers and babies to constantly put items in their mouths, regardless of whether or not the item could pose harm to the soft gum tissue. Individuals who do not properly move past this phase exhibit overeating and/or smoking habits in adulthood.

2. Anal Stage

The anal stage begins once a child reaches two years of age and continues approximately until his or her fourth birthday. During this time, the libido switches from the mouth to the anus when the child begins to develop the skills to hold in and release defecation at will. Typically, the anal stage is triggered by potty training. If this stage is not properly resolved, it can result in an anal explosive character (someone who is messy and careless in adulthood) or an anal retentive character (someone who is extraordinarily neat and orderly in adulthood). 

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3. Phallic Stage

The Phallic Stage begins after a child’s fourth birthday when he or she discovers gender. Male children are said to experience the Oedipus complex, while female children experience the Electra complex.

  • Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus complex, as theorized by Sigmund Freud is named after a Greek hero who unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother. This occurs when a male child begins to experience sexual feelings towards his mother and envious feelings toward his father.

  • Electra Complex

The Electra complex, much like the Oedipus complex, is named after an incestuous Greek myth involving a daughter developing sexual feelings towards her father. However, when a young girl enters into the phallic stage, (according to Freud) she experiences a phenomenon called “penis envy”, which means the daughter feels jealous that she, herself, was not born with a penis.

4. Latency Stage

The latency stage refers to a period of sexual absence between the ages of 7 and 11. During this time, boys and girls begin to form same-sex groups and shy away from closeness with members of the opposite sex. It’s also around this time that young girls act as though members of the opposite sex have “cooties”.

5. Genital Stage

The genital stage occurs once an adolescent begins puberty, typically around the age of 12, and lasts for the remainder of the individual’s life. During this phase the libido becomes focused in the genital region, which causes individuals to seek out sexual partners and concentrate more on reproductive means than during previous stages.

Defense Mechanisms

  • Repression

Repression, one of the most frequently used defense mechanisms, involves individuals pushing the troubling event or circumstance out of the conscious part of the brain in order to prevent it from causing a great deal of sorrow or despair.

  • Denial

Denial, a regularly expressed sentiment in cinematic representations, as well as everyday life, involves the individual not accepting the reality of a circumstance and instead going about his or her life as if it had not occurred.

  • Displacement

After a stressful event or circumstance transpires, displacement occurs when the individual is unable to direct his or her anger at the cause of the unfortunate event and instead takes it out on a less threatening target, such as a spouse or pet.

  • Projection

Projection occurs when an individual in incapable of dealing with the way he or she feels about a person or event and expresses sentiments that other individuals feel that way instead. For example, a scorned lover may express that his or her ex still has feelings for them, when, in reality, the opposite is true.

  • Reaction Formation

This defense mechanism involves an individual acting in ways that run contrary to the way he or she actually feels. Grade school boys who pull the hair of the girl they have a crush on instead of acting kindly frequently express reaction formation.

  • Regression

Regression involves individuals reverting back to behaviors commonly put to use in their childhood, such as thumb sucking or hair twirling, in order to cope with a difficult situation or stressful circumstance.

  • Rationalization

Rationalization, the healthiest of defense mechanisms, occurs when an individual copes with a traumatic event by focusing the good that it has brought to their life and discovering how the setback can actually become beneficial.

  • Sublimation

Sublimation, the only defense mechanism that involves conscious thought, occurs when an individual redirects frustration towards something productive. For example, a man who experiences frustration from setbacks in the workplace environment may begin to work out on a daily basis in order to express the anger in a constructive manner.

For more information about general concepts and factors in the study of the human mind, check out this course on the psychology of learning or this blog post on the goals of psychology.