The Personality Theory developed by Dr. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is the bedrock upon which the psychoanalytic school of psychiatry was founded. Working theories of human development, behavior, psychopathology, and clinical treatment stemmed from his understanding of personality. Although some of his ideas have been disputed, modified, or abandoned, they remain influential in modern clinical approaches. As such they are well worth studying and understanding.
This is an introduction to Freud’s Personality Theory. Tomes have been written on the subject, but a basic understanding is fairly common-sense and not difficult to grasp. The basic premise of the theory can be pictured in the formation of the mind of a child.
A child is born with no concept of reality around him. He knows he has needs and demands that they be met, without considering the impact of his demands on his parents or the world around him. As he becomes aware of himself and his surroundings, he develops personality traits and problem-solving techniques to relate to the world around him. He is also taught standards of right and wrong by his parents, and by society. As an adult, then, he possesses all three; an unconscious drive to fulfill basic needs, a learned concept of right and wrong, and a conscious struggle to control his behavior so as to satisfy both.
Three Components of Personality
Freud divided personality into three basic components called the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The interaction of these components, both conscious and unconscious, is what creates human behavior and psychological conflict.
The Id is more correctly translated ‘The It’. It is the unconscious, primitive drive for such basic needs such as hunger, self-preservation, and sexual desire. Its two main goals are fulfilling desire, and avoiding pain. An analogy might be the little devil that sits on a man’s shoulder and says, “Do it! You know you want to!”
The Super-Ego is more correctly translated ‘The Above-I’, and contains values, morals, and concepts of right and wrong. The Super-Ego is both conscious and unconscious, and is kind of a prototype formed from parental and societal rules. It counter-balances the Id, upholding the ideal desired behavior against the primitive urges. It is the little angel on that man’s other shoulder saying, “No, don’t do it! You know it’s not right!”
The Ego is more correctly translated “The I”, and is the executive branch of personality that decides the course of action. The Ego uses both conscious and unconscious mental processes such as reasoning and problem-solving to create behaviors that are socially acceptable, and will satisfy both Id and Super-Ego.
A good analogy of the three personality components is seen in a man who sees a desirable woman. The Id says, “I like sex, I want sex, I want sex now.” The Super-Ego creates guilt for desiring a woman who belongs to someone else, or desiring sex before marriage. The Ego then decides this man’s course of action.
How is a basic understanding of Freud’s personality theory useful in everyday life? First, it can help self-awareness. Recognizing the source of strong basic urges and equally strong feelings of guilt can aid the process of conscious self-control. Understanding the inherent conflict between unconscious desires, learned morals and values, and the need to interact with society reduces internal stress, allowing one to analyze actions more objectively.
Second, molding the behavior of others is easier. To direct the desired behavior, one can find ways to appeal either to the basic desire of the Id, the correctness of the Super-Ego, or the logic of the Ego.
Third – and perhaps most importantly – is in confronting odd or confusing behavior. Understanding the interaction used in the normal personality also helps underline defense mechanisms used by the mind to prevent pain or harm, which sometimes create abnormal or confusing behaviors. Such defense mechanisms as repression, denial, and fantasy are normal responses to emotionally painful events – whether remembered or repressed. One can draw on such knowledge to understand what he sees in society around him. This understanding is also the basis for clinical treatment to help the Ego correct and maintain a healthy balance.