10 Theories of Sigmund Freud explained

The name of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) will always be synonymous with mental health and his contribution to psychology is likely to be eternal. You do not need to be a specialist to understand many of Freud’s work. His theories can be heard in everyday conversations with the use of phrases related to the Austrian’s work such as Oedipus complex, death wish and libido, amongst others. Here we will look at 10 theories developed by the founding father of psychoanalysis.

Oedipus complex

According to Greek mythology, Oedipus was the King of Thebes who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Freud was inspired by this tragedy to describe the unconscious sexual desires of male and female children towards their parent of the opposite sex. For Freud, this also brought about feelings of jealousy between the child and parent of the same sex. He stated that this complex manifested itself between the ages of 3 to 5 and then again in puberty. According to Freud this complex is vital in defining our future sexual preferences and failure to resolve issues presented by it can lead to sexual problems in later life.

The id, the ego and the superego

Id, ego and superego were everyday concepts to Sigmund Freud. The id, according to Freud, is the engine of human thought and behaviour. It is the primitive, innate part of our psyche which aims to preserve the pleasure principle. In practice, this means it immediately seeks to address needs related to hunger, thirst and even sex. The ego is the part of our personality that is organised as a result of environmental influences. It responds to the reality principle and Freud categorised it a system of psychological functions. Finally, the superego is born from culture. It is the part that counteracts the id, and has to do with moral and ethical thoughts.

The unconscious mind

This theory can be considered as the prodigal son of Freud. As well as being his best-known and most popular theory, it is also his most important. The father of psychoanalysis defines the unconscious as an instance in which consciousness has no access and as something which makes itself known through dreams, lapses, jokes and failed acts. It is in the unconscious mind that desires, instincts and repressed memories are found. It can only be known when it is no longer unconscious and this is where psychoanalysis comes in, becoming a sort of mind translator.


In biological terms, libido is a sexual instinct. However, Freud was not a specialist in biology and through his psychoanalytic vision he saw libido as something that has organic, chemical and psychological aspects. Freud wrote: “We have defined the concept of libido as a quantitatively variable force which could serve as a measure of processes and transformations occurring in the field of sexual excitation.” This concept can be understood as the sexual instinct and, simultaneously, as the loving energy of the psyche.

Interpretation of dreams

Freud helped popularise the study of a subject that has intrigued people since the beginning of human history, namely the meaning of dreams. Freud argued that it was within dreams that we communicated everything that the conscious mind could not. He suggested that different situations and feelings appeared in dreams in a symbolic way and that they were the way in which desires repressed by the subject came to light.

Life and death instincts

According to Freud, all human behaviour is determined by impulses. They are called neurological representations of physical needs. The life instinct has to do with perpetuating the life of the individual but also of the species and it is put into practice by satisfying hunger, thirst and sexual desires. The death drive, however, relates to Freud’s hypothesis that everyone has an unconscious need to die. Addictions, suicidal tendencies, destructive attitudes and other conflicts have to do with this second drive.


Freud published several theories on psychoneurosis, highlighting a number of classifications which have since fallen into disuse such as: anxiety neurosis, phobic neurosis, obsessive-compulsive neurosis, depressive neurosis, neurasthenic neurosis, depersonalisation neurosis, hypochondriacal neurosis and hysterical neurosis. Freud wrote: “Neurotics are the class of people who, since they possess a recalcitrant organization, only succeed, under the influence of cultural requirements, in achieving a suppression of their instincts which is apparent and which becomes increasingly unsuccessful. They therefore only carry on their collaboration with cultural activities by a great expenditure of force and at the cost of an internal impoverishment, or are obliged at times to interrupt it and fall ill.”

Psychosexual stages

One of the more relevant contributions made by Freud concerns his work on psychosexual stages, which he argued were determined by the pleasure experienced at different stages in life. Freud stated that the oral stage lasts from birth to about 18 months and has as its focus pleasure in the mouth. The anal stage occurs between 18 months and 3 or 4 years old. Here the focus is on pleasure is the anus. The phallic stage covers the period from 3 or 4 years old to 5, 6 or 7 and focuses on pleasure of the genitals. The latency stage lasts from 5, 6 or 7 years of age to puberty. Freud believed that sexual instinct was suppressed during this stage in the pursuit of learning. Finally, the genital stage begins at puberty and is symbolised by the rebirth of the sex drive in adolescence, with the focus on sexual relations.

Defence mechanisms

There are certain strategies that people unconsciously develop to defend themselves. Freud called them defence mechanisms and argued that they were based on the unconscious blocking of impulses, making them less threatening and providing the ability to still maintain self-image. The goal of the defence mechanism, although it sounds paradoxical, is to protect the individual from themselves. The person defends themselves, at least in that moment, from that which they cannot face. Among the various defence mechanisms categorised by Freud include: denial, projection, disassociation and repression.

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According to one of Freud’s theories, people unconsciously repress certain stressful and traumatic situations in order to protect themselves. However, he argued that despite this ability to store away memories and keep them out of our conscious minds, symptoms of repression would eventually display themselves in various ways. Although he said all human beings had this defence mechanism, Freud specifically related it to people suffering from hysterical neurosis.

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