Sigmund Freud

Although there is great diversity in approaches to mental health, all forms of counseling ultimately owe their own foundation to the work of Sigmund Freud.

Unlike most other theorists, he was not associated with a university, nor was his system based on experimental evidence. Although Freud performed some experimental research early in his career, it had no real relevance to his later theory. Indeed, Freud’s theory had more to do with behavioral deviation than with general principles of behavior. Based in medicine and neurology, he revolted against the traditional German psychiatrists (e.g., Kraepelin) and their insistence on physiological causes for behavioral disorders. As his theory developed, Freud’s explanations became more psychological and less medical.

Born May 6, 1856 in Freiburg, Austria (now Pribor, Czechoslovakia), Sigmund Freud was the eldest child of his father’s second family. His father had two grown sons from a previous marriage, and Sigmund was the first of 8 more. Although his father was a poor wool merchant, every effort was made to give Sigmund every advantage possible. While the rest of the family used candles for light, he was given an oil lamp (better for reading).

He graduated from the Sperl Gymnasium in 1873, considered studying law or physiology but eventually settled on medicine. In 1873, Sigmund entered the University of Vienna and studied with noted physiologist Ernest Brucke (a disciple of Hermann von Helmholtz).. Under Bruche’s direction, Freud published articles on anatomy, physiology and neurology. He wanted an academic appointment as a biologist-physiologist but Jews were “discouraged” from academic and governmental positions but allowed in law and medicine. In 1881, Freud graduated from the University of Vienna.

Shortly before obtaining his medical degree, Freud was befriended by Joseph Breuer, a respected, successful, and sophisticated physician in Vienna. In 1889, Breuer had treated Bertha Pappenheim (referred to as Anna O in his writings). Breuer could find no physiological cause for her symptoms, which included arm and leg paralysis, blurred vision, and confusion, but he found that his patient seemed to improve just from talking about her problems while under hypnosis. Although the symptom set changed, the treatments (which the girl called “chimney sweeping” or “the talking cure”) appeared to be effective in helping her deal with emotionally-charged events from her past. In 1891, 2 years after the fact, Freud and Breuer discussed the case at great length. Together, they pondered the significance of this breakthrough technique, and included her case in a book which they co-wrote. Published in 1895, Studies in Hysteria marked both the end of their friendship and the founding of psychoanalysis.

During his association with Breuer and not too long after graduating from medical school, Freud went to Paris to study with Charcot. In 1885, Charcot was the leading neurologist in France, and the source, according to Freud, of a famous statement. The story goes that in reference to the case of a one patient, Charcot said the cause “in this kind of case, it is always something genital — always, always, always.” Although Charcot denied making the statement, it has become part of Freudian folklore.

Upon his return to Vienna, Freud continued to use hypnosis and Breuer’s “talking cure.” But he discovered that with patients who couldn’t be hypnotized that similar results could be found by talking about their early emotional traumas even if not hypnotized.

Freud’s theory is a deterministic system of internal motivation. Borrowing heavily from the terminology of physics and other sciences, Freud proposes a self-contained system of psychical energy. Behavior is a result of conscious and unconscious processes which oppose and counteract each other. Although responsible for popularizing it, Freud didn’t create the concept of the unconscious mind. Certainly, Leibnitz’s (1646-1716) theory of monads contained the notion of an unconscious but it was Herbart (1776-1841) who fully developed it. Similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote of the negative influence unconscious ideas could have. He also introduced the basic concept of repression.

Freud proposed that the mind is composed of three structures: the id, ego and superego. The id is Freud’s term for the earliest and most basic component of personality. At birth, a neonate is only an id. Like a spoiled child wanting immediate gratification, the id relies on the pleasure principle. The id operates like a reflex, providing the individual’s psychic energy. The id’s primary process generates an image of the object it desires. Since the id is completely unconscious, it can’t distinguish between images and reality. 

As an infant matures, it evolves from an id-centric organism in order to deal with reality. With the addition of an ego, the child can interact with reality and tries to acquire in reality the imaginary images produced in the id (object substitution). The ego operates on the reality principle, and controls both the motor and sensory functions of the body. As a child learns right from wrong, the ego creates the third mental component. Like the id, the superego cannot distinguish imagined from real, and consequently punishes you equally for a bad idea as for a bad action. Composed of the conscience (what you should not do) and the ego ideal (what you should do), the superego is in direct opposition to the id (what you want to do). The conflict produced by the fighting of the id and superego is called anxiety. Human behavior is a function of the ego mediating between the forces of the id and superego.

Freud has given us a complicated system of force and counter-force. Although the structure of the mind is illustrative and abstract, his model emphasizes the importance of the individual. Freud based his ideas on case histories and not on experimental data. He shows us that good writing and revolutionary theorizing does not depend on the latest computerized laboratory equipment. Freud emphasized the importance of early childhood, the usefulness of dreams, and that we are not always aware of our own motives.

For more on the subject, here is a video I made about Sigmund Freud.

I have written an extended report on Freud. It’s 50+ pages, so I think you’ll find it helpful. It’s available as a download here; it’s $5.
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