When it comes to Freud, we have an iconoclast shrouded in tantalizing rumors that are met with intrigue by some, and outrage by others. In the realm of psychology there is no doubt that he is the “father” of psychotherapy as we know it today. To some, he is a great and wonderful dad who is to be revered and respected. To others, he is the tyrannical father who, in the end, is recognized for the pitiful figure he was. Ultimately, when it comes to Freud, what he accomplished in his life must be acknowledged for the important legacy that follows in the wake of the man.
Sigmund Freud was born on May 6th, 1856 to Jewish parents in a part of the Austrian Empire, which is now a part of the Czech Republic. His father, Jakob, was 41 and his mother, Amali, was 21 at the time of his birth. Jakob had been married once before he married Freud’s mother and he had two children from the previous marriage. Freud was favored by his parents over the other children due to how smart he was, which was evident at a young age. His father was a wool merchant, but lost his business due to the economic difficulties of 1857. Due to this, the family moved and eventually settled in Vienna in 1865. Freud went to high school at the Leopoldstdter Communal-Realgymnasium and graduated in 1873 with honors. He went onto medical school at the University of Vienna. Ernst Wilhelm von Brcke was Freud’s first year medical school supervisor. Brcke introduced Freud to the concept of psychodynamics, which Freud then applied to his psychological theories of the unconscious.
In 1886 Freud married Martha Bernays shortly after opening his own medical practice, where he specialized in neurology. It was here that he started trying to use hypnosis on his neurotic patients. Eventually Freud gave up on using hypnosis and started having his patients simply talk about their problems. This became known as the “talking cure,” (Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer’s patient Anna O. came up with the term). During Breuer’s work with Anna O. he heard her mumble certain words, which he later repeated to her while he had her under hypnosis. Though this process, Breuer was able to make a connection to Anna’s father’s illness and his death along with her various symptoms. Freud adapted Breuer’s technique and developed what he called a “pressure technique” that he used with his patients he was treating for “hysteria.” From this technique he believed that many of his patients were coming up with unconscious memories of sexual abuse in childhood or infancy and that these memories were the cause of the symptoms of “hysteria”.
One of the tantalizing facts of Freud’s life was his interest in cocaine. He used cocaine and was a proponent of its uses as an antidepressant. He started using cocaine upon the recommendation of his friend Wilhelm Fliess. Fliess was using cocaine at the time as a treatment for “”nasal reflex neurosis.” This had to do with a theory that a bone in the nose had a connection with the genitalia, and if it was removed the thought was that one would no longer have a desire to masturbate. Cocaine was thought to be useful because of its anaesthetizing effect on that particular part of the nose. It is important to note here that in Vienna during this Victorian period of time, masturbation was a great sin and caused much distress. Many odd contraptions were invented to prevent masturbation, specifically in children. It is also important to take into consideration that, in general, this was an era in which sex was considered to be for procreative purposes only in “polite society,” yet prostitution was big business along with many other sexual indiscretions. This was an age of great hypocrisy with regard to sexuality, leading to a problem for many people in having to reconcile their attitudes with their behaviors. Fliess operated on many of Freud’s patients, but when he botched the surgery with one of Freud’s favorite patients (Emma Eckstein) this proved to be the beginning of the end of Freud’s friendship with Fliess.
Freud is probably most notorious for his theories on psychosexual development. It is important to acknowledge that he originally posited a theory he called the “seduction theory,” which basically linked childhood sexual abuse as the root cause of neuroses. This was a theory that was intolerable for many of his colleagues at the time. It appears that after the theory was met with so much rejection, he then started to question it and eventually abandoned it altogether. This lead him to his theory of the Oedipus complex (the Electra complex in women), which theorizes that young boys develop strong affection for their mothers around the age of four or five and that they desire to get their fathers out of the picture so they can have their mothers for themselves. Eventually, as they successfully pass through this stage, the boy realizes that their father is too big and that any attempt to remove him from the picture would end in disaster for himself. This realization then leads the boy to align himself with his father and tries to become more like his father. (In women it works in the opposite.) If the child does not successfully complete this stage, which he labeled as the “phallic stage,” then hysteria and other neurotic symptoms begin to develop. If the child successfully completes this stage they will learn to sublimate their sexual feelings towards their parent and they then enter into the “latency phase.” This is part of his theory of development. Freud believed that as children develop they go through five stages he labeled as oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. The other three stages have to do with the area of the body which is the focus of the child’s pleasure.
Arguably one of the biggest contributions Freud made was to assert the existence of the unconscious mind. Basically, he suggested that there are layers of awareness. He suggested that what we are conscious of could be conceptualized as the tip of an iceberg, where if you look below the surface of the water there will be a much larger mass of ice. He suggested that dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious”, i.e., the best way to get a glimpse at what is going on beneath the surface. Along with this, he developed the concept of the Id, Ego, and Superego, which are known as the three divisions of the psyche. The Id contains our entire unconscious desires and anything guided by the “pleasure principle,” the Superego contains our morals and values and strives to quiet the Id, and the Ego is our consciousness, which strives to find a balance between the wants of the Id and the restraints of the Superego.
There are many out there who have a great distaste for Freud, but given the era during which he lived he made groundbreaking changes to the way we understand people. No matter what your opinion is of the man, and it is important to remember that he was just a man, it is undeniable that his fingerprints still remain in every area of modern psychology.