Freud’s Theory of Personality

Freud's Theory of Personality

The discovery of the unconscious is considered one of the most important discoveries of psychoanalysis. Freud distinguishes three instances of personality according to the topographical model (Freud, 1916-17): conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. These can be clearly distinguished through psychoanalytical experience gained in the course of working with clients. It is easily observable that clients are conscious of what they are communicating at a certain moment, however they are not conscious of many other information from personal life that they usually know, but are not in the focus of their consciousness at the given moment. Distinguishing between what we are currently conscious of and what we are not represents a purely descriptive approach to the concept on unconscious. This way, we only describe what is currently in our consciousness and what is not. However, dynamic approach is far more important for psychoanalysis. Freud discovered that there are forces in the psyche that hinder the revealing of certain contents and therefore these contents remain relatively permanently unconscious. These forces Freud called psychic defense (or censorship) because they protect a person from unpleasant, painful and unacceptable feelings. Repressed contents tend toward reaching the consciousness and they are successful if unconscious processes succeed in camouflaging them, i.e. disguising them. In that case, the disguised repressed contents manifest themselves through dreams, slips in speech, symptomatic actions and the like. Clashes between the repressed contents and the psychic defense reflect the dynamics of psychological conflict and therefore the unconscious in Freud's theory is called the dynamic unconscious. So, according to the topographical model, Freud differed the conscious part of personality that consists of psychic processes we are aware of at the given moment, the preconscious part that consists of content temporarily out of consciousness (descriptive unconscious) and the unconscious part of personality that contains the repressed content (dynamic unconscious).

Once he became interested in the problem of narcissism, Freud devised a new model of personality called the structural model (Freud, 1923). According to this model, three personality instances are Id, Ego and Superego. The id is a part of the personality defined by heritage and therefore it represents a primitive basis of one's personality. The id is guided by urges (sexuality, hunger, thirst, the need for sleep...) that seek immediate gratification. Therefore, Freud says that the pleasure principle guides the Id. Since the category of time does not exist for Id, urges and the pleasure principle seek immediate gratification. Logic that we are accustomed to does not apply to Id. Unconscious psychological processes that operate within the Id are so-called primary processes and they are the basis of dream work. For the primary processes there is no contradiction, thus diametrically opposite tendencies can exist simultaneously.

The Ego is a part of the personality that develops through contact with reality. Therefore, Ego is primarily based on the ability of observation and, with time, other mental processes (memory, learning, thinking) that Freud called secondary processes. Through an active attitude towards the environment, Ego learns about the world and itself, makes a distinction between itself and the other (Ego and non-Ego), and gradually develops into a personality with an identity. Acknowledging the reality means accepting the category of time, thus Ego learns to postpone the gratification of urges. Freud called this the reality principle. It is extremely important for Ego to be stable, because it is positioned on the "crossroad" between the demands placed before him by the urges, and the limitations set by the environment, especially through the social norms of behavior. In order to preserve its stability and the experience of self-esteem, ego uses defense mechanisms (unconscious processes) in order to avoid unpleasant feelings in times when the gratification of urges is frustrated (hindered). Another function of defense mechanisms is to assist the development of the Ego. In early childhood, Ego uses primitive, while later on it starts using more mature defense mechanisms.

Superego is a part of the personality that develops under the influence of social environment. Moral and other norms that society prescribes are primarily transmitted through parental education. Through identification, the child adopts social norms and they become an integral part of its personality expressed through the Superego. With the development of Superego, the need for external control over one's behavior is decreased, because an internal control operating through the feeling of guilt is established.

We should keep in mind that the presented personality structures are models, which means that they are theoretically designed representations that help us explain and understand the psychic phenomena. Today, both models are equally implemented in psychoanalysis, because they contribute to examining different phenomena from two different angles.

Freud believed that urges are the main drives of human personality. The very term indicates that something is urging us, forcing us to do something. The term urge belongs to the inner or psychic reality and should not be confused with the concept of instinct which belongs to the external reality, in other words, to the physiological processes of the body. Urges belong to the unconscious reality of psyche manifested in the consciousness as psychic desires. The pleasure principle expresses itself by pursuing the fulfillment of desires.

Freud initially distinguished two basic types of urges: urges for self-preservation (hunger, thirst, sleep) and urges for reproduction (sexual urge). Sexual urges are particularly important for the development of the psyche and they gradually develop during childhood. Freud called the energy of sexual urge the libido. Freud distinguished two types of libido. Object-libido refers to the energy directed towards the object that brings the gratification of the urge, while narcissistic libido refers to the energy directed toward the Ego as a kind of self-love. Later, Freud classified the above mentioned urges as Eros, and opposed it to the destructive urge or death drive. Eros represents the instinctive need for merging, linking, while destruction represents instinctive need for separation, disentanglement.

Conflicts are also among important drivers of human personality. They occur due to the contradiction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle (Freud, 1911). Within the topographic model, the creation of conflict is located between the desire (as a representative of the urges) and the psychic defense mechanisms (psychic force that opposes the fulfillment of desires, e.g. moral prohibitions). Within the structural model, it is expressed as a conflict between instances of personality (e.g. between Id and Ego, or between Ego and Superego).

One of the key conflicts is the oedipal conflict that occurs during the oedipal phase of development, between the third and the sixth year of life. The basis of oedipal conflict consists of the ambivalent feelings towards parents, i.e. the feelings of love and hate toward the father and the mother become entangled. The child strives to reduce the oedipal triangle (father-mother-child) to a dyadic relationship (father-child; or mother-child) because it feels the parental couple (father-mother) as a threat to its own narcissism (self-esteem and self-love) since the parental couple leads a "secret" love life from which the child is excluded (unconscious fantasies of parental sexual intercourse).

The third important concept in the dynamics of personality is related to regularities in the unconscious mental functioning that we call the psychic work. Freud described two such processes: the dream-work and the grief-work. Dream-work is a psychic process triggered by the unconscious desires (often infantile sexual desires carrying the energy of libido), which comes into place through the transformation of daily memories and physic stimuli into a dream image. Dream-work unfolds in two phases. The primary processes are active in the first phase which occurs when sleeping, while the secondary processes are active in the second phase, which occurs during and after waking up. Three basic mechanisms of forming a dream in the first phase are: condensation (compression), displacement and visualization (ability for visual representation). Through condensation, a number of so-called "dream thoughts" are represented by a single element of a dream. Therefore, one element in a dream may carry several meanings. Through displacement, the "dream thoughts" are expressed by a following picture in an existing associative array. Visualization refers to the ability to express a "dream thought" through an image. The result of the dream work is a dream which we remember after waking up, and that represents the manifest content of the dream. Then comes the secondary revision, as the fourth mechanism of dream formation, whose function is to arrange the existent dream elements in such way as to become meaningful within a certain scenario, to gain logical and temporal coherence and to prepare them for verbal expression. Conversion of dream image into a narrative structure can significantly alter the manifest dream image. The procedure of dream interpretation is implemented to discover the latent "dream thoughts". This procedure was developed by Freud in the scope of his psychoanalytical method and it consists of free associating the elements of the manifest content of the dream thus revealing the associative currents which followed the dream-work. Since the dream work is run by unconscious desires, Freud believed that the main goal of dreams is the fulfillment of desires.

Grief-work is an unconscious psychic process that is triggered by a loss of important person in whom a significant amount of libido energy was invested (Freud, 1915). During the grief-work, a person shifts the interest from external reality and directs the attention to re-living memories related to the deceased person. This allows gradual separation of libido energy and its re-placement on a different object, so the result of this process is enabling Ego to function normally. The grief-work is a normal psychic process that can become complicated in case of self-blaming for the death of the loved one.

Childhood is a time of particular importance for the development of psyche. During the first five or six years of life, the psychosexual development is very intensive and represents a basis for later adult personality. This development is called psychosexual because the psychic structures are developed under the influence of libido, the energy of sexual urge. Since sexual reproductive organs are not functional until puberty, libido seeks indirect gratification by leaning on important activities in certain periods of child development. These activities are related to specific areas of the body so development stages were named after them. Freud defined the following stages of psychosexual development during childhood: oral, anal and phallic.

In the oral stage, the libido relies on sucking as the basic activity that takes place between the mother and her child. This leads to the satisfaction of hunger, but at the same time, to the satisfaction of libido through the development of mother-child interaction and exchange of feelings of love through the pleasant sensation of sucking, mother's attention, warmth, and similar reactions. Certain forms of behavior from the oral stage are later converted into certain human traits. The oral stage is characterized by the introjection (swallowing) and ejection (vomiting), which is manifested in the formation of psychic structures, for example, in the ability to learn (introjection or ejection of knowledge). On the oral level, ambivalence (the state when we cannot decide for one of the two available options) manifests through retaining food in the mouth (neither swallowing nor spitting). Disorders related to the oral stage can be recognized in addiction diseases (alcoholism, drug addiction, etc.). The term addiction means that a person cannot live without the introduction of artificial materials (e.g. drugs) into the body, a connection with the oral stage can also be asserted from the dependence of baby on its mother's care. Obviously, the milk itself is not enough for survival, love between mother and baby is also important. If love is absent, then breastfeeding is recorded as an experience of unsuccessful attempts to gratify the libido by sucking. We can recognize such patterns in the behavior of drug addicts, where the drug appears as an artificial surrogate for milk without love. No matter the amount of the drugs consumed, an addict does not reach fulfillment of the original libidinal needs, only temporary appeasement followed by the experience of emotional emptiness. Chronic lack of love cannot be corrected through drug abuse, but a person continues to behave in such a way because of the compulsion to repeat in the hope of experiencing what has never happened before (experience of mother's love during breastfeeding).

In the anal stage, libido leanes on the activities related to toilet training. The child is exposed to the influence of socialization through toilet training conducted by parents. All attention is focused on teaching the child to carry out excretion (discharging) in a socially acceptable manner. At the same time, the child is socialized in terms of proper feeding (drinks water from cups, eats on the table with the help of cutlery, etc.). In addition to learning how to satisfy personal needs (e.g. using the bathroom), during the anal stage the child also learns to delay the gratification of urges (delaying the need for excretion, for example, until reaching the bathroom). Characteristics of the anal stage come to the fore through the volitional acts of retention and releasement (of excrement). In addition to mastering the control of the sphincter (a muscle that controls anus and bladder), and because of it, the child acquires the ability to stand up to its parents and then the symbol "no" appears in its speech. For example, the child may refuse to perform excretion when parents expect it, instead it may choose perform it when it wants. Other important symbols that the child learns during the anal stage are opposing pairs such as "dirty - clean", "beautiful - ugly", "good - evil" and the like. Personal characteristics acquired in the anal stage can be meticulousness, stinginess, stubbornness, and the like.

In phallic stage, libido leans on child activities related to sexual curiosity. The maturing of the cognitive apparatus enables the child to notice that men and women are different with regards to the genitalia, this in turn sparks interest in one's own genitalia and the child starts playing with it. This period is also known as "the thousand why" because children constantly seek explanations and asks questions. In this period, children become aware of mortality which sparks the interest in the origin of life and first primitive theories about conception arise.

Oedipal phase emerges during the phallic stage of psychosexual development. The child becomes aware that its parents are creators and simultaneously becomes jealous of their love life. Because the child feels excluded from the parenting couple, it starts developing a need to remove one of the parents and take the vacant place. Out of fear of losing the parental love, the child directs its destructive desires towards them; this is why we say that the child is in oedipal conflict. Basic cultural taboos are associated with oedipal issues. Primarily, these are the prohibition of patricide expressed as "respect thy parents and elder ones" and the incest taboo expressed through customs that forbid marriage between blood relatives. The adoption of social prohibitions and norms leads to the formation of Superego.

A so-called oedipal triangle (father-mother-child) emerges in the oedipal phase and represents child's integration into society because three is the basis for forming a group. This is when the feelings of competition, jealousy, need for prestige, self-assertion and the like develop. Before this period, the children play together, but each one separately without sharing toys. Now the child becomes capable of actually playing with its peers.