What Is… Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud's psychoanalytic theory - cartoon of Sigmund Freud

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is not so much a single term as a group of terms that fall within the umbrella of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory.

Love him or hate him, Sigmund Freud was quite remarkable in terms of his impact on the field of psychiatry. In separate posts, I’ve covered various elements of his psychoanalytic theory:

This post will consider the ego and the stages of psychosexual development, which served as the basis for his research and clinical work.

Aspects of the mind

Freud saw the mind as consisting of three elements:

  • Id: The id is part of the unconscious and is the primal part of the mind focused on seeking pleasure. Consequences are of no matter to the id.
  • Ego: The ego is focused on self-preservation, and constrains the id in order to achieve balance between pleasure and pain.
  • Superego: The superego develops around the age of 4 or 5. It acts as the conscience, applying moral principles and differentiating right from wrong. Freud divided the superego into two parts, consciousness and the ideal self.

Freud was a great believer in the power of the unconscious. He also believed that nearly everything ties back to sexual drives and comes bursting forth from the unconscious.

Stages of psychosexual development

Freud’s theory of psychosexual development included five stages that humans pass through from birth to adulthood. This was later used as the basis for Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. The theory considers the way that sexual energy is expressed via the id throughout the developmental stages. People may become fixated at a certain stage and revert to strategies for obtaining pleasure that are consistent with that stage.

The stages are:

  • Oral (birth to 1 year old):  Pleasure comes through the mouth, from things like sucking and biting. Oral fixation can manifest as things like smoking, nail-biting, or thumb-sucking.
  • Anal (1-3 years old): Pooping is pleasure number one in this stage. Potty training is a source of conflict, and can shape how the individual deals with authority in the future. Fixation at this stage can result in people being anal retentive or anal expulsive (disorganized, over-sharing) later in life.
  • Phallic (3-6 years old): At this stage, children start to pay attention to their genitals, and they become the primary source of pleasure. Children develop an erotic attraction to the opposite sex parent and become jealous of the other parent. This was part of the Oedipus complex (for boys) and Electra complex (for girls), which also involve castration anxiety on the part of boys and penis envy on the part of girls. This conflict is resolved by the child coming to identify with the same-sex parent.
  • Latent (6 years old to puberty): The libido takes a break at this stage to let other kinds of childhood development take place.
  • Genital (puberty and onward): In the genital stage, the libido is back and focused on heterosexual intercourse (in Freud’s view this was what constituted normal sexuality that wasn’t affected by fixation or conflict).


Freud popularized the term libido, describing it as “the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude… of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’.” He considered it to be an innate instinct, much like hunger, that is part of the id.

Libido can be affected by defense mechanisms like repression, pushing it out of conscious awareness, and sublimation, redirecting it into something that’s considered more acceptable.

According to Carl Jung, the libido “denotes a desire or impulse which is unchecked by any kind of authority, moral or otherwise. Libido is appetite in its natural state. From the genetic point of view it is bodily needs like hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex, and emotional states or affects, which constitute the essence of libido.”

The Freud package

While I do think Freud had some interesting ideas, particularly around defense mechanisms, the stages of psychosexual development just don’t do it for me. Sexual drives are obviously important, but the notion that they are behind the transitions we make from infancy to adulthood just doesn’t ring true. Between the ages of 3 and 6 is an important time in terms of social, cognitive, and emotional development, and the way psychoanalytic theory shunts that off to the side and focuses instead on Oedipus and Electra really doesn’t seem useful.

Are you a Freud fan, or does this seem a little out there to you?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

19 thoughts on “What Is… Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory”

  1. I am a fan! But I see the Eros not only as a sexual drive but more like the life force. You see I’m still looking for mine sometimes.

    But how can you not be a fan!? When you wrote about the anal expulsive (maybe explosive 🙂 ) and over-sharing later in life. Yes I feel that, people who tend to overshare, it can feel like they expulse things onto my plate that are not ment to be there! 😂

    I think his theory is not finished and it is quite difficult to understand because one sentence can mean so much. I wrote my thesis on Jealousy and Freud didn’t write too much about that, so I had to deal with one or two paragraphs maybe, I can tell you, once I read other authors, there were a lot of good pointers in Freuds minimal words.

    1. There are definitely people who over-share and are expulsive/explosive; I guess I’m just not convinced it comes down to conflict over potty training as a kid.

      1. I don’t think so either. It has more to do with the ‘dirty things’ I guess, I don’t know but I like to think about it. You write a nice and respectful post, thank you! Although Freud is not your thing, you handled it with care.

  2. I appreciate Freud’s division of the mind into ego, id and superego. As for the stages of psychosexual development, NO I am NOT a fan. Yes, I think it’s a bit too “out there.” I have even thought that Freud’s overemphasis on the role of the psychosexual in human development may have been a function of the well-known fact that he was using cocaine in the daytime while writing. The drug cocaine is known to enhance pleasure centers and cause people to see the world in ways that are more psychosexual than meet the eye in ordinary human consciousness. I therefore think his overemphasis on Eros was largely the product of a particular slant derived from an altered state.

    While I would agree that Eros is a life force, I do not believe that is THE life force. There are psychic, biological and spiritual life forces apart from Eros. So — that’s my fifty-two cents.

  3. Not a fan – My undergrad Abnormal Psych professor was a ‘Phenomenologist’ while the head of the department was a ‘Freudian’ – our final was departmental devised by the department head, my professor was so disdainful of Freud that he said we had to take the final but that he was just going to toss the blue books without even reading them.

    As with just about everything – Freud had many valid theories and some were just lala –

  4. Not really tho it could have been had my professor been a full time instructor, instead he was a full time psychologist, head of the adolescent wing at a state mental hospital…he didn’t give a rats ass what the college department head said or thought LOL Ah, the joy of going to college part time in the evening – most of my professors spent all day DOING what they spent evenings teaching, Most of my psych courses were based in reality rather than the academic.

  5. Personally, I can’t stand the hype about him. In scientific psychology most of his theories are rightfully disregarded as outdated. Besides that, most people are not aware of Freud’s outright intellectual theft of many of Nietzsche’s idea without every crediting him (if you know Nietsche’s work, this becomes quite obvious). Michel Onfray wrote an interesting book a couple of years ago, deconstructing a lot of myths surrounding Freud.

    1. I’ll check out that book by Onfray – sounds very interesting. What’s really strange to me is that psychiatry residents in Canada are required to do training in psychodynamic psychotherapy.

  6. I think some of his theories have validity, like repression, but the way he viewed women was appalling. I can’t help but think that influenced his theories at times.

  7. I heard somewhere recently (can’t remember where) that when Freud was treating women with mental illness (what probably would have been termed “hysteria” then and could be a number of things now), he wrote that they were mentally ill because they were abused by their fathers. Polite society was scandalised that he was accusing so many “respectable” men of abusing their daughters, so then he came up with the theory that the women were fantasising about their fathers instead of actually abused by them. I don’t know how true that is, but it does throw a different light on it.

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