T he term “psychoanalysis” is commonly used in three different senses: a form of treatment for mental illness, a method for investigating the workings of the mind (the psychoanalytic method), and a branch of psychological or behavioral science. The term was coined by Sigmund Freud, who devised, developed, and applied the method over a period of fifty years and who is responsible for the major part of the theoretical formulations called psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis began as a method of treating mentally ill patients, and the theoretical formulations which Freud first made on the basis of his clinical experience concerned psychopathology. However, in the course of his work Freud came to recognize that there are close similarities between psychopathology and certain aspects of normal mental functioning. Thus by 1900 it was clear that psychoanalysis had definite contributions to make to the psychology of dreams, of jokes, and of various slips and errors of everyday life, which Freud proposed to call normal or everyday psychopathology. These were momentous discoveries which proved to be fruitful as well. Even more momentous was the discovery of the vital importance of childhood sexuality in both normal and pathological mental development, a discovery which was contained in a monograph published in 1905 and entitled Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

The subsequent development of psychoanalytic theory, based on the application of the psychoanalytic method to an increasingly large number of cases, seems to justify the claim that it constitutes by far the most important contribution to the psychology of man that has been made up to this time. Psychoanalysis has been described epigrammatically as human nature viewed as conflict. And indeed it appears to be the case that many of the most important aspects of human mental development and functioning are intimately related to conflicts which have their origins in childhood and in particular in the sexual conflicts of childhood. This statement is as true of character traits and attributes which we class as normal as it is of those aspects of behavior which we class as symptoms of mental illness.

This, then, is the most important and the most unexpected contribution of psychoanalysis to normal psychology: the vital significance of instinctual conflict in normal as well as pathological mental functioning and development. Closely allied to this is the importance in mental life of unconscious mental phenomena, that is, of mental processes of which the subject himself has no conscious knowledge. In fact, the conflicts just mentioned, which play such an important part in mental life, are largely unconscious in later childhood and adult mental life. It may be noted parenthetically that in psychoanalytic terminology at present “unconscious” usually means “accessible to consciousness only with difficulty, or not at all,” while “preconscious” means “readily accessible to consciousness, though not conscious at the moment.” However, current psychoanalytic usage is not wholly consistent with respect to the meanings of “unconscious” and “preconscious,” since their meanings have varied somewhat in the course of the development of Freud’s theories concerning the mental apparatus.

A third contribution of psychoanalysis to normal psychology is its demonstration of the continuity or determinism of mental life. If one depends on simple introspection for one’s knowledge of what goes on in the mind, there appear to be many gaps and discontinuities in the current of mental life. It often happens that an idea comes to consciousness which bears no apparent connection with what one was consciously thinking a moment before. Similarly, behavior may bear no apparent connection to conscious volition or conscious thoughts. If, however, one is able to apply the psychoanalytic method, one is in a position to adduce evidence for the existence of unconscious mental processes that fill in the gaps and discontinuities which appear to be present in mental life if one judges only by the data of conscious introspection.

Finally, in addition to demonstrating the causal relationship between the present and the immediate past in mental life, the application of the psychoanalytic method has made it possible to establish relationships between current modes of thought and behavior, on the one hand, and various crucially important experiences and conflicts of early childhood, on the other. The emphasis on the relationship between the present and the more remote past in mental life, which is so characteristic of psychoanalytic psychology, is often referred to as the genetic point of view.

In summary, we may repeat that psychoanalysis, which began as a theory of psychopathology, has gradually developed into an important part of general psychology. The application of the psychoanalytic method has contributed more to our understanding of the important aspects of human mental functioning and development than has any other method of observation or experiment.

April 5, 2017
Carl Gustav Jung

Carl Gustav Jung

Psychoanalysis Carl Gustav Jung center no-repeat;center top;; auto center Heading arl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology. His work has […]
April 5, 2017
Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud center no-repeat;center top;; auto center Heading igmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology […]

Assumptions and method

As a behavioral science, psychoanalysis is primarily concerned with the inner life of man. It assumes that man’s thoughts and ideas, his plans and fantasies, and his fears and daydreams are legitimate objects of study. It also assumes, as does biological science in general, that man is an animal. For the psychoanalyst, psychology is a branch of biology. The importance of somatic or organic influences on mental functioning is always borne in mind, particularly with relation to the instinctual drives, which, according to psychoanalytic theory, are assumed to be the basic motivational forces in mental life.

Free association

The method of psychoanalysis is often referred to, rather inexactly, as free association. The subject, who usually lies on a couch facing away from the observer or analyst, is instructed to communicate freely to the analyst, without reserve or editing, whatever thoughts occur to him, as well as whatever physical or bodily sensations intrude upon his consciousness. The analyst may, and often does, suggest that the patient associate to some particular idea or experience that he has communicated in this way. For example, he may suggest that the subject associate to one or another part of a dream which he has related. In addition, he may intervene with what are usually called interpretations in psychoanalytic terminology; that is, he may point out to the subject evidences of conflict, often unconscious conflict, within the subject’s mind. At other times, the analyst may attempt to reconstruct the nature of childhood experiences and fantasies which are important determinants of present behavior or mental activity. [SeeDreams.]

From these very brief examples it should be clear that the term “free association” is far from a satisfactory description of the psychoanalytic method, although it does point to certain essential elements of the method. Indeed the assumption that underlies the application of the psychoanalytic method is that if conscious control of one’s thoughts is given up, the direction of one’s thoughts, far from being free, will then be determined even more clearly than before by other motivational forces within the mind which are not subject to conscious volition and which are in many instances unconscious. To be more precise, the application of the psychoanalytic method reveals more clearly the presence and the consequences of inner conflict, conflict of which the subject himself often has little or no knowledge. Since, by the nature of things, the recognition of such conflict within oneself gives rise to shame, guilt, anxiety, or other unpleasant emotions, there is generally a strong resistance to revealing the presence of such conflict to another individual or even to oneself. In human mental life the most important things of all are often those which one least wants to tell. A conscious determination not to be influenced by one’s reluctance to speak of certain things is only partially helpful. The reluctance itself is in fact lifelong and to a large extent unconscious. It is for this reason that the satisfactory application of the psychoanalytic method is generally possible only in a therapeutic situation. Fortunately for our scientific curiosity, though unfortunately for each of us personally, there is enough that is neurotic even in the most normal of us so that any psychoanalysis soon becomes a therapeutic one, even though it may have been originally undertaken merely out of scientific curiosity or as part of a course of training.

Behavioral observation

In addition to listening to what the subject tells him of what is going on in his mind, the analyst observes the subject’s behavior during the entire time when it is accessible to his observation, neglecting no aspect or detail of it. It should be obvious that evidence of strong emotions, for example, tears, laughter, blushing, or anger, will be as important to the analyst as is the verbal content of what his subject tells him. Just as important are the subject’s tone of voice, his incidental gestures, and his behavior both before he lies down on the couch and after he rises from it.

In general, the psychoanalytic method may be described as a descriptive method as opposed to a quantitative one, a naturalistic approach as opposed to an experimental one. It is not apparent a priori that the psychoanalytic method is a reliable one. Its reliability is attested by the regularity with which observations can be confirmed or repeated by the same analyst on the same subject, by the same analyst on different subjects, and by different analysts on different subjects.

Other methods of study

Although the application of the psychoanalytic method has been and remains the chief source of data as far as psychoanalysis is concerned, it must not be supposed that it is the only one. In recent years in particular, the method of direct observation of children over a period of months or years of their development has come to occupy an increasingly important place in the field of psychoanalytic research. Other observations of human behavior also have contributed data of various sorts, in particular the observation of the behavior of mentally ill patients in clinical settings other than the psychoanalytic treatment situation. Finally, mention should be made of the importance of the study of the various products of man’s imagination. These include such examples of collective or folk creativity as myths, legends, religion, fairy tales, and, to a certain degree, the entire range of man’s social institutions or systems. Equally important are the products of individual creativity, such as works of literature or the visual arts, and closely allied to this is the study of individual history or biography. In the psychoanalytic literature, studies of this sort are generally referred to as applied psychoanalysis. The explanatory value of psychoanalytic theory in these various areas of human activity affords a valuable, if subsidiary, additional confirmation of the validity of the primary observations which are obtainable by the application of the psychoanalytic method—and of the theories which are primarily based upon those observations. [SeeFantasy; Literature, article onthe psychology of literature.]

The instinctual drives

Psychoanalytic theories of the mind are often divided into two major parts, the first of which comprises those aspects of the theory that have to do with the instinctual drives and the second those aspects that have to do with what Freud called the mental apparatus. Although this division has the disadvantage of being excessively schematic, it does have the advantage of somewhat simplifying the problem of presenting an extremely complex subject. We shall therefore adhere to it, and begin our presentation with a discussion of the instinctual drives.

As the term “drive” implies, the instinctual drives are assumed to be forces within the mind which impel it to activity. They are the driving forces of mental life. In addition to their impulsive quality, they have certain other characteristics, namely, a source, an object, and an aim. The source of an instinctual drive is assumed to be some bodily part or bodily process. The object is the person (or thing) which is necessary for the satisfaction of the drive. The aim is the particular activity or action by means of which satisfaction is achieved. The capacity of an instinctual drive to impel the mind to activity is accounted for by assuming that in mental life an instinctual drive possesses energy. This energy is assumed to be quantitatively variable, to be increased at times of instinctual tension or need and to be discharged in the process of instinctual gratification. The quantity of instinctual energy which is associated with a particular memory or idea is referred to as the cathexis of that mental element. [SeeDrives; Instinct; Motivation.]

Erotic and aggressive drives

Instinctual drives are divided into two major groups or types. The first is called the erotic or libidinal drive and the second the aggressive drive. The relationship of the erotic drive to bodily parts and processes is much clearer than is that of the aggressive drive, and the erotic drive in general has been more thoroughly studied and is better understood than the aggressive one. The principal sources of erotic drive tension or need in the body are referred to as erotogenic zones. The most important of these appear to be the mouth and related structures, the anus, and the genitalia. In the normal course of development it appears that the oral manifestations of the erotic drive are of particularly great importance during the first year of life, the anal ones during the next year and a half, and the phallic ones thereafter. However, the sexual life of childhood is not dominated exclusively by any one erotogenic zone or by any single aim, as is normally the case in adult life after adolescence. On the contrary, the sexual wishes and satisfactions of childhood are characterized by their diversity and manifold quality rather than by uniformity. What is normally characteristic for childhood sexuality, therefore, would be called perverse in adult life.

Since the somatic sources, if any, of aggression (the aggressive drive) are less clear than those of the erotic drive, it is not possible to describe phases of development of the aggressive drive in childhood in the same way that one can describe the erotic drive. It appears that there is a close relationship between manifestations of the aggressive and the erotic drives throughout life, however—a fact which is explained by assuming a degree of fusion between the two drives. It follows therefore that the oral, anal, and phallic phases of childhood sexuality are characterized by aggressive as well as by erotic wishes, fantasies, and behavior, so that it is proper to speak of oral, anal, or phallic aggressive impulses.

An important characteristic of the aggressive drive is its differentiation with respect to its object. Freud was led to the assumption of a special aggressive drive in the first place by his recognition of the very great importance in mental life of selfinjurious and self-destructive tendencies. It is clearly of utmost importance to any individual whether his aggressive impulses are directed toward himself or toward the mental representations of other persons and objects. It must not be assumed however that self-directed aggression is to be considered always pathological. On the contrary, it plays an important, indeed an essential role in normal mental life, for example, in the functioning of the superego, as well as a very important one in abnormal mental life. [SeeAggression, article onPSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS.]

The instinctual drives are of particular importance with respect to the emotional or affective life. In general, an intensification of instinctual need, or an increase in instinctual energy striving for discharge, is experienced as a source of pain and discomfort. A discharge of instinctual energy, that is, the gratification of an instinctual wish or need, which leads to a diminution in tension, is experienced as pleasurable.


The following summary statement may be of some value in helping to avoid certain misunderstandings concerning the current status of the psychoanalytic theory of the instinctual drives. The fact is that some aspects of that theory are considered to be much better validated than others. For example, it seems certain that any qualified observer who is in a position to apply the psychoanalytic method to the study of human mental life must agree that the sexual life of man begins long before puberty. The fact of infantile sexuality (childhood sexuality) appears to be incontrovertible. Equal validity would appear to accrue to the importance of sexual and aggressive wishes, as well as conflicts concerning those wishes, in the whole of mental development and functioning throughout life. Validating evidence is much less adequate concerning such aspects of instinctual-drive theory as the concepts of instinctual energy, cathexis, fusion, and related concepts of a quantitative nature. We may add, parenthetically, that in the psychoanalytic literature the quantitative aspect of instinctual-drive theory is frequently referred to as its economic aspect.

The psychic apparatus

The primary purpose of the psychic apparatus is assumed to be the regulation, control, and discharge of instinctual energy. It tends to function according to the pleasure principle, that is, in such a way as to achieve the pleasure of gratification which results from a discharge of instinctual energies. Formulated more generally, it may be said that the avoidance of discomfort or pain, which is associated with instinctual tension, and the achievement of pleasure, which is associated with gratification, is a basic tendency or regulatory principle of the psychic apparatus.

Psychoanalytic theories concerning the psychic apparatus are firmly based on the fact that the adult organization and functioning of the mind is the result of a period of gradual evolution and development during the course of the many years of childhood. In the last analysis, this is due to biological factors, that is, to the fact that the human infant is born into the world in a largely undeveloped state, both with respect to mental and physical functioning. As a result, during the first several years of its life, it is dependent on its parents for its very survival, as well as for the gratification of its instinctual needs. The offspring of no other mammal is so dependent on its parents for such a long period of time as is the human, and this fact is of profound importance in the mental life and development of man.

Structure of the psychic apparatus

In its mature form or organization the psychic apparatus is divided into three groups of related functions.

The id. That group of psychic functions which represents the instinctual drives in mental life and plays the role of stimulating or impelling the psychic apparatus to activity is called the id. The id is the part of the psychic apparatus which is in closest or most direct communication with the somatic processes of an instinctual nature, and it has often been referred to for that reason as the vital or somatic stratum of the psychic apparatus.

The ego. The ego is that part of the psychic apparatus which comprises the group of functions that have to do with the individual’s relationship to his environment. Ego functions include such gradually developing capacities of the mind as sensory perception, memory, thought, and voluntary motor control. These functions cannot appear before the neuromuscular apparatus which is a prerequisite for them has matured. The development of ego functions, therefore, is a result of interaction between maturation of the nervous system and various experiential factors. What is particularly characteristic of the psychoanalytic theory of the psychic apparatus, however, is the following additional consideration. Ego functions appear to serve primarily the purpose of gratification of instinctual drives. They are, so to say, the executants of the wishes or urges which are the mental representations of the drives. There is thus from the very beginning the most intimate connection between the functioning and, indeed, the development of the mental capacity to cope with the external environment, on the one hand, and the instinctual needs and wishes of each individual, on the other.

The superego. The third group of functions that constitute the psychic apparatus is known as the superego. These functions develop into a more or less coherent unity rather late in childhood, probably not before the sixth or seventh year. In general they are that group of mental functions which have to do with the moral prohibitions and ideals of the individual.


It is of particular importance to bear the following fact in mind in considering the psychoanalytic theory of the psychic apparatus: The functional groupings of id, ego, and superego which are assumed to constitute the mental apparatus are sharply differentiated from one another only in situations of inner conflict. Indeed, the very divisions reflect the characteristic varieties of conflict within the mind as they can be observed by means of the psychoanalytic method. Thus, one frequent type of conflict is between an instinctual wish on the one hand and those aspects of mental activity on the other which have to do with the individual’s relationship to those about him, that is, between a wish of the id and various ego functions. Characteristically, in later life at least, the moral prohibitions (superego) are arrayed on the side of the ego against the id. Other frequently observed conflicts are between the so-called ego functions, on the one hand, and the self-punitive or self-destructive aspect of the moral demands of the mind (superego), on the other. Thus, in these typical situations of conflict, one can distinguish properly between groups of functions that have to do with instinctual demands, those that have to do with the external world, and those that have to do with moral prohibitions and ideals. In other situations, however, where there is no such inner conflict, there is no sharp line of division or cleavage that enables us to distinguish clearly between or among the three systems, or structures as they are often called, of the psychic apparatus. If ego functions are acting as executants of the drives without conflict, one can no longer distinguish clearly what is ego from what is id. All one sees is a harmoniously functioning whole. The same is true when superego demands or prohibitions are in harmony with the instinctual needs or wishes of the individual and with the demands of his environment. [SeeConflict, article onPSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS.]

The id

The id is that part of the mental apparatus which functions to impel the mind toward the gratification of the instinctual drives. The impulsive aspect of mental life is that which is most directly associated with the id.

Since the controlling and adaptive aspects of mental functioning, which are subsumed under the concept of the ego, are only developed gradually during the course of infancy and childhood, the id gives the impression of being the most archaic as well as the most infantile part of the psychic apparatus. In many senses it is correct to say that it represents the mind of the child that lives on in the mind of the grown man. Those processes which we assume constitute the id proceed according to the pleasure principle with little or no concern for the restrictions or demands either of external reality or of morality. These are the aspects of mental functioning which poets and philosophers in the past have referred to as demonic.

The functioning of the id is characterized by an insistent or imperious demand for gratification, that is, for discharge of mental energy. This mode of mental functioning is called the primary process in psychoanalytic terminology. As we have just noted, its essential attribute is a persistent striving for prompt and complete discharge of instinctual energy, that is, for prompt and full gratification. In keeping with this basic tendency, there is a propensity to substitute one or another instinctual object or instinctual aim for the primary one. Such substitution is called displacement, the reference being to the displacement of instinctual energy from one to another mental element. In addition to displacement, there may occur convergence of various instinctual cathexes on one particular aim or object which, because of its availability, or for other reasons, permits more ready and complete discharge of energy. Such a phenomenon is called condensation. These two related phenomena of displacement and condensation are typical and characteristic of mental phenomena which proceed according to the primary-process mode of discharge.

The ego

The ego is that group of mental functions which has to do primarily with the relation of the individual to the external environment. These functions operate as the executants of the instinctual drives and may thus be considered to mediate between the inner needs of the individual and his environment.

Some of the functions that are grouped together as the ego appear to be directly related to the form and functioning of the nervous system, as, for example, sensory perception and the control of voluntary muscular activity, while others, such as the ability to distinguish between subjective and objective reality (originally called reality principle), are more complex and more obviously related to experiential or learning processes in the course of development.

From a subjective, psychological point of view, the single most important object in an infant’s environment is his own body. His experiences of gratification and distress, and consequently his wishes and memories, are all centered about this unique object. Other objects of the environment, for example, his mother, although they may be of the greatest importance as far as his physical survival is concerned, do not compare with his own body in the first months and years of life as far as their psychological significance to him is concerned. These relationships are reflected in psychoanalytic theory by the statements, first, that the ego is first and foremost a body ego, and, second, that the infant’s instinctual orientation is at first largely a narcissistic one, that is, at first largely directed toward himself.

The proper development and organization of various ego functions as the infant grows appear to be intimately dependent upon a satisfactory balance between the instinctual gratifications which are supplied by the persons in his environment and the frustrations imposed by them. Proper mothering and, later, proper fathering as well are essential to proper development of the psychic apparatus and, more broadly, of the personality as a whole. The particular details of this complex interrelationship have been the object of many clinical and developmental studies. In psychoanalytic terminology, the most general formulation to express this relationship is that satisfactory object relationships promote the proper development of ego functions, while unsatisfactory ones impede their development.

Identification and ego development

Among the more obvious reasons why satisfactory object relationships are of importance in the development of ego functions is the fact that many ego functions develop by means of identification with the persons in the child’s or infant’s environment. This is most clearly apparent with respect to the acquisition of language, an accomplishment which is of the utmost importance for the individual’s capacity to adapt satisfactorily to his environment. However, it is true to an important extent for other ego functions as well. In psychoanalytic terminology, identification may be defined as the tendency to become like an object of one’s environment in one or more ways. It is also used to describe the end result of such a tendency. Identification appears to be intimately and necessarily connected with the objects of one’s instinctual wishes. The child identifies or tends to identify with those persons in his environment with whom he has a strong emotional tie. He wishes and tends to be or become like those whom he loves and hates most intensely. [SeeIdentity, Psychosocial; Imitation.]

Delayed gratification

The most general characteristic of the ego, one which is of fundamental importance in the development of most, if not all, of its other functions, is the capacity to postpone instinctual gratification, that is, to delay the discharge of instinctual energy. In psychoanalytic terminology, instinctual energy whose discharge is thus delayed is referred to as bound energy, in contradistinction to free energy. The introduction of delay into the process of instinctual discharge or gratification represents a modification of the pleasure principle and a deviation from the tendency to immediate discharge of instinctual energy, which, as noted above, is characteristic of the primary process. It is an essential capacity of the ego to impose delay or postponement of the gratification of an instinctual wish. This capacity permits a more efficient exploitation of the environment in the service of the individual’s search for gratification. The fact that the flux of mental energies which is characteristic of ego functions differs from that which characterizes the functioning of the id led Freud to the formulation that whereas the id functions according to the primary process, the ego functions according to the secondary process.

Defense mechanisms and anxiety

In addition to its capacity to delay the discharge of instinctual energies, the ego also includes among its functions those mental mechanisms which are referred to as defenses. It will be recalled from the introduction that the study of the consequences and nature of intrapsychic conflict occupies a central position in psychoanalytic theory. It is impossible to understand these conflicts without a thorough discussion of the mode of operation of the ego’s defenses, which is part and parcel of the psychoanalytic theory of anxiety. Because of their centrally important position in mental functioning, therefore, the topics of ego defenses and of anxiety will be treated rather more extensively than the other ego functions.

Freud based his theory of anxiety on the assumption that whenever the mental apparatus is subjected to an influx of stimuli which exceeds the capacity of the apparatus either to discharge or to bind the energies of the stimuli, a traumatic state develops. The affect which accompanies this traumatic state is anxiety. In early infancy and childhood, the capacity of the mental apparatus to bind stimuli and to discharge them is normally much less than it is later on in life. For this reason traumatic states accompanied by anxiety appear relatively frequently in early life. In particular, such traumatic states develop in the infant when an instinctual need arises in the absence of the object, usually the mother, necessary for the gratification of that need, that is, for the discharge of the instinctual energy connected with it. As the infant grows and as its ego functions develop, particularly the functions of memory and of sensory perception, it comes to recognize the absence of its mother (absence of the need-satisfying object) as a prelude or signal that traumatic anxiety may develop. In other words, the infant learns by experience of the danger that when its mother is absent an instinctual need may arise which the infant itself cannot satisfy and which will give rise to anxiety on the basis just described. What happens then is that the danger situation is reacted to with anxiety. This type of anxiety, which is connected with danger or, later, with the anticipation of danger, is called signal anxiety, since it is in effect a signal that a traumatic state may develop. When signal anxiety does develop it sets into operation the pleasure principle, according to which the mind functions in such a way as to avoid pain or discomfort. Thus it becomes necessary that the instinctual need or wish, which might give rise to a traumatic state in the absence of the mother, be prevented from developing into an urgent need. The various ways by which this can be accomplished are referred to in psychoanalytic terminology as the defenses or defense mechanisms of the ego. We shall discuss them in more detail presently.

In normal childhood development there is a regular sequence of danger situations which are associated with signal anxiety. The first of these is the one described above, which is referred to as loss of the object. The situation which next comes to be recognized by the infant as a danger is the possibility of loss of love or affection of the parent on whom it is dependent for instinctual gratification. This is referred to as loss of love. The term “separation anxiety” is often used to indicate anxiety related to either or both of these typical dangers. The third typical danger of childhood, which is characteristic of the phallic or Oedipal phase of instinctual development, is the fantasy of castration in the little boy or of analogous genital injury in the case of the little girl. The term “castration anxiety” designates anxiety related to this danger. The fourth danger, which appears only after the formation of the superego, an event to be described below, has to do with superego disapproval or prohibition. It is sometimes referred to as superego anxiety but more often simply as guilt. In psychoanalytic terminology, the term “guilt” is often used to refer as well to the need for self-punishment and also to the various associated phenomena of remorse, penance, and retribution.

It should be noted that the typical danger situations just described do not simply succeed one another in the sense that the first disappears from prominence in mental life as the second develops. On the contrary, as each new source of anxiety appears in the child’s mental life, the earlier ones continue to exist alongside of the new, and all the danger situations are important in everyone, though to varying degrees in each, depending on the life experiences of the individual and possibly on his constitutional endowment as well. [SeeAnxiety.]

In considering the defense mechanisms, it is important to recognize that the ego may use anything which is available to it as a defense against an instinctual wish or an unconscious need for self-punishment which arouses anxiety. Thus, for example, a diversion of attention may serve a defensive purpose, or muscular immobility may be used to defend against the possibility of being sexually or aggressively active. It may even happen that one instinctual derivative is gratified at least partly as a defense against the emergence of another. Thus, homosexual fantasies or even homosexual activity may appear as defense against dangerous heterosexual wishes, or vice versa. In order to avoid possible misunderstanding in this connection, it must be emphasized that, in general, instinctual wishes are reacted to as dangerous in adult life because they were conceived to be so in early childhood. It frequently happens that an adult vigorously defends himself unconsciously against the emergence of a dangerous instinctual wish which, as an adult, he considers either entirely permissible and natural or even trivial and unimportant. Thus it is fairly accurate to say that mental conflict in adult life derives from childhood or, to use psychoanalytic terminology, infantile sources. [SeeDefense mechanisms.]

Repression. While bearing in mind that the defensive activities of the ego may be extremely varied, we may mention and define briefly several defense mechanisms which are referred to frequently in psychoanalytic literature by specific names. The one which was first identified and has been most extensively discussed is called repression. In psychoanalytic terminology, repression signifies an active forgetting of the memories and other ideational representations of a dangerous wish, whether instinctual in origin or self-punitive. Repressed memories are no longer accessible to consciousness. Since they remain cathected with psychic energy, however, they are constantly striving for some sort of expression in conscious mental life and behavior, however remote from the original wish that expression may be. Thus a repressed wish or need may exert a considerable, even a decisive, influence in the mental life of an individual. The counterforce which is required to keep such a powerful urge repressed is referred to as a coun-tercathexis.

Reaction formation. Another important defense mechanism is reaction formation. In reaction formation one mental tendency is emphasized in order to prevent the emergence of its opposite. Thus, for example, dangerous aggressive wishes may be kept in check by the development of a character trait of kindness and gentleness. In the same way, the reverse may happen, that is, an individual may be bold and vigorous in his overt behavior partly in order to defend himself against a dangerous tendency to be submissive or passive. Similarly, cleanliness may appear as a reaction formation against dirtiness, particularly against coprophilia, etc. The most dramatic reaction formations are those in which love appears as a reaction formation against hate, or vice versa.

Isolation. The term “isolation,” though sometimes used in different senses, generally refers to what is more precisely called isolation of affect. In this defense mechanism, a wish or impulse is allowed to appear directly in consciousness but devoid of emotional significance. It seems to the individual “just an idea” rather than a desire or wish. Isolation, as used in this sense, is closely related to defensive intellectualization in general.

Identification as a defense. Identification, a phenomenon of mental life which we have seen to be of general significance in mental development, especially of the ego functions, often plays a defensive role. In psychoanalytic literature much emphasis has been put on the important part played by identification in connection with separation anxiety. However, it also plays a vitally important role in connection with castration anxiety in childhood and is of particular significance in superego formation.

Projection. The term “projection” refers to that phenomenon whereby an individual attributes to others wishes or impulses which in fact are his own but which would give rise to anxiety or guilt if he acknowledged them as such. Projection as a defense plays a particularly important part in the psychopathology of paranoid conditions, but it is of considerable significance in normal mental life as well. Prejudices of all sorts—for example, those directed against an enemy in time of war—are often closely dependent on projection.

Denial and undoing. The term “denial” is used to refer to a certain defensive attitude toward one or several aspects of the external world. One may fail to perceive an event in one’s environment in order to avoid the guilt or anxiety that would result if the event were perceived. Fairy tales and daydreams in general make considerable use of denial. The misperceptions of the environment that play such a large role in many psychoses are mainly related to the defensive use of denial in those conditions.

The term “undoing” refers to actions which are performed in order to undo or render harmless unconscious wishes or fantasies which are considered dangerous. They represent a kind of unconscious magical penance.

Regression. Regression is a mental tendency or capacity which often serves a defensive function. The dangers associated with Oedipal wishes or fantasies, for example, may be avoided by regressing to anal or oral wishes. This process is known as instinctual regression. Regression may also affect various of the ego functions in a defensive way. In general, if regression is permanent and not merely temporary, the greater its degree and the more extended its role in mental life and the more severe the distortion of personality or the mental illness that results.

The Oedipal phase and superego formation

At the age of two and a half or three the child normally enters into a phase of psychosexual development called the Oedipal period or phase. This lasts for about two and a half or three years and corresponds approximately with what we have earlier referred to as the phallic phase of libidinal development. The violent intrapsychic conflicts which are caused by the sexual wishes of the Oedipal period are of crucial importance in mental development and later mental functioning. They profoundly influence character development in general and are responsible for superego development and organization in particular. In addition, they form the basis or groundwork for the vast majority of whatever neurotic symptoms may appear in later life. [SeeDevelopmental psychology; Personality, article onpersonality development.]

Freud used the term “Oedipal” to designate this period of mental development because of the similarity between certain of the wishes that characterize it in the little boy and the legend of Oedipus as recounted in Sophocles’ play. The little boy in the Oedipal period normally is passionately enamored of his mother, wishes to marry her, and to displace his father in his mother’s bed. The corresponding wish to marry her father and take her mother’s place is equally characteristic of the little girl in the Oedipal period. Thus, the sexual wishes of the Oedipal period revolve around the fateful themes of incest and parricide.

In fact, however, the wishes and conflicts of the Oedipal period are somewhat more complex than the name would indicate. In his psychosexual life, man is clearly bisexual. This is nowhere more evident in the normal human being than during the years of early childhood. In the usual family constellation the little boy of the Oedipal period has sexual feelings toward both parents and jealously murderous wishes toward each, although normally the heterosexual wishes and the jealousy connected with them considerably outweigh the homosexual ones. The same is true for the little girl during her Oedipal period.

For a variety of reasons, not all of which are clearly understood, the Oedipal boy fears castration, specifically the loss of his penis, in connection with his incestuous and parricidal wishes, and the little girl during the same period fears some analogous genital injury. In the case of the girl, the conflict of feelings is complicated by an awareness that she has no penis, a fact which she regularly interprets as a sign of inferiority. Because of the castration anxiety aroused by their instinctual wishes, children of both sexes attempt to control their Oedipal wishes with a great variety of defensive reactions. [SeeSexual behavior, article Onsexual deviation: psychological aspects.]

Among the most important of these for the future development and functioning of the child’s mind are the reactions which give rise to what is called the superego. This group of mental functions may be defined as comprising those functions of the mind which are concerned with either moral prohibitions or exhortations. The functions which have to do with exhortation are sometimes referred to as the ego ideal. Activity of superego functions results either in a limitation of behavior to morally acceptable modes of instinctual gratification or to that particular state of unpleasant inner tension which is variously referred to as guilt or remorse and which leads to acts of penitence, of reparation, of self-punishment, and—in the most extreme instances—to self-injury or self-destruction.

Identification and the superego

The principal mental mechanism involved in superego formation is identification. Normally, the little child identifies with the prohibiting and punishing aspects of the parent who is his chief rival. By making the latter’s threats and prohibitions his own, he defends himself against the fantasied danger of castration. He thus achieves a considerable degree of control over the instinctual wishes which for him constitute an overwhelming danger. At the same time, however, this identification results in an appreciable degree of permanent limitation of opportunities for instinctual gratification. Thus, superego formation normally results in a considerable degree of interference with the operation of the pleasure principle, or at the very least it considerably complicates its operation.

It follows from what has been said that the core of every individual’s morality and, consequently, the invariant elements that one would expect to find at the center of the moral code of every human society, consist of a prohibition against incest, particularly between parent and child, and against parricide. One may add that for many, or perhaps most, individuals, one of the results of superego formation is a considerable degree of guilt over genital masturbation, since this is usually the physically gratifying activity which accompanies the sexually exciting wishes of the Oedipal period. It is also interesting to note that the threats and punishment associated with superego functioning in early childhood, and persisting unconsciously into later life, follow the principle of lex talionis. It would appear that the mind of the child, like the mind of the primitive, follows the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

It seems correct to say that the major share of superego formation is the result of the fateful conflicts of the Oedipal period. It should be noted, however, that a considerable degree of superego formation occurs gradually during the ensuing years of childhood. Some of the identifications with teachers and with childhood heroes, whether historic or contemporary, contribute their share to the growing child’s superego. It is also true that even in adult life, substantial changes may take place in superego functioning, sometimes in a dramatic way, as for example in cases of religious conversion. Freud also emphasized the changes in superego functioning that are characteristic of mob psychology. According to Freud, identification with a group leader—for example, with a political dictator—may produce as considerable an alteration in the superego functioning of many of his followers as results from religious conversion. [SeeMass phenomena; Moral development.]

Latency and adolescence

The institution and organization of the superego normally result in a considerable subsidence of instinctual conflict beginning at about six years of age. Although this subsidence is by no means complete, still the whole picture of a relative quiescence of psychosexual activity and conflict during the years between six and twelve is in considerable contrast to the turbulence and conflict so characteristic of the Oedipal period, which precedes it, and of adolescence, which follows it. Freud proposed to call this interim period a period of latency. When the physical, particularly the sexual, changes of adolescence begin, there is a recrudescence of sexual wishes and sexual conflicts. The course of these adolescent stirrings and conflicts is to a considerable degree predetermined by the defenses already established during the Oedipal period. Thus, to a greater degree than is usually appreciated, the psychosexual development of adolescence and early adult life is a recapitulation of childhood psychosexual development. [SeeAdolescence.]

The foregoing is an extremely brief summary of psychoanalysis as a general science of behavior. Because of its brevity, it is inevitable that the reader may often be misled in attempting to understand a subject which is at once so complex and so extensive. This is not, however, the most serious source of difficulty to the reader. A much greater difficulty is likely to arise from two rather different sources. The first of these is a lack of familiarity and experience with the use of the psychoanalytic method. As mentioned in the introduction, the data concerning human behavior which are available only by application of the psychoanalytic method are, generally speaking, quite foreign to the experience of anyone who has not had an opportunity to apply it. Lack of such opportunity, therefore, makes it difficult for one to form an adequate judgment concerning the validity of many psychoanalytic propositions. The second source of difficulty results from what astronomers call the personal equation. In the case of childhood sexuality, the personal equation is very great indeed. Each adult individual, as a result of having passed through the conflicts of the Oedipal period himself, has stubborn defenses within himself against his own childhood wishes. Even to recognize their existence in others is likely to arouse considerable guilt and anxiety. It is much more comfortable— that is, less frightening—to minimize the importance of childhood sexuality in human mental life or to deny its significance altogether. It is no accident, as Freud pointed out, that every adult has an extensive amnesia for the events of early childhood. Most individuals can overcome their inner conflicts over childhood sexual wishes only with the help of personal psychoanalytic treatment. For this reason, a personal analysis is a usual prelude to psychoanalytic practice, that is, to the systematic, usually therapeutic, application of the psychoanalytic method.

The unavoidable limitations which, until now, have been imposed by the above facts on the acceptance of psychoanalysis by many social and behavioral scientists are unfortunate. The fact is that psychoanalysis can supply to the social and behavioral scientist, as to the student of art and literature, a more profound, more complex, and more accurate knowledge of the nature of man— his needs, his fears, his conflicts, and his motives —than is available from any other source. Such knowledge is frequently important and often vital. It should properly be part of the education of all who deal professionally with man and his works.

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