The Basics of Freudian Theory

The Basics of Freudian Theory

Learn about Freudian theory and discover examples of Freud’s contributions to the field.

There are many pieces to Freudian theory, which makes it hard to concisely define what Freud’s theory was. First of all, it is important to understand that Freud was trained as a doctor – a neurologist and psychiatrist, to be specific – and was guided in his thinking by the philosophers and scientists who came before him. Freudian theory takes inspiration in particular from Darwin’s revelations regarding adaptation and evolution. He saw humans as both social animals and instinctual animals, and Freud developed his theories out of a desire to explain how people balanced their need to connect with and be accepted by others with their drive to act on their instinctual desires (Freud, 1936).

While Freud’s ideas about the unconscious manifested in his thinking about libido, defense mechanisms, transference, and dreams, the first place to start in understanding Freudian theory is to understand Freud’s three parts of our psyche: the id, superego, and ego (Freud, 1936):

1. The id. Freud described the id as the seat of the unconscious, composed of all the desires and wishes we might have, but can’t consciously acknowledge.

2. The superego. If the id is the seat of all of our innate desires, then the superego is very much the opposite: it is the part of the brain that keeps track of all moral and social expectations of us.

3. The ego. Stuck in between the id and the superego is the ego: it is our sense of self that seeks to balance the demands of the superego and the id.

Freud saw our personalities as being determined by how our id, ego, and superego interacted with each other (Freud, 1936). For example, a person with a highly developed and powerful superego might come across as perfectionistic, judgmental, or highly self-critical, while a person with a weak ego would have lots of mood swings and great difficulty telling you what their sense of self is.

Freudian psychoanalysis took as its goal the acknowledgment and integration of one’s unconscious desires and needs, since ignoring those unconscious urges seemed to generally result in painful outcomes and psychological challenges for his clients (Sarnoff, 1960). For example, many people were thought to engage in defense mechanisms that made their lives much more difficult, but through exploring the unconscious causes of those defense mechanisms, a psychoanalyst would help a client react to the unconscious urges more effectively.

“Human life should not be considered as the proper material for wild experiments.”
― Sigmund Freud

Why Freudian Theory Is Important

The simple answer for why Freudian theory is important is twofold: (1) it inspired a field of psychotherapy that continues to be widely practiced and is known to be effective, and (2) many of Freud’s ideas have entered the public consciousness and continue to influence psychologists today (Blatt, 1998). More generally, Freud was one of the first people to provide long-term, intensive therapy – sometimes several sessions a week with each client – and he is one of the first people to pay a great deal of attention to what happens in the psychotherapeutic process (Blatt, 1998).

Freudian Theory of Sexuality

Freud (1905) believed that personality develops as an individual progress through five psychosexual developmental stages. In each stage, he saw our libidos as fixated on certain body parts.

1. Oral stage. As babies, we engage with the world through our mouths. Freud believed that developmental challenges during this period of life would leave people with an oral fixation in later years, such as biting their nails in adulthood.

2. Anal stage. From roughly ages one to three, we focus more on pleasure in defecting and come to see ourselves as distinct from other humans. Freud saw potty training as a central conflict of this stage.

3. Phallic stage. From ages three to six, Freud thought children became aware of their genitals and, by extension, their gender. This would lead them to begin to develop antagonistic feelings toward people of their gender, and attractions toward people of the other gender. Discovering self-pleasure was also characteristic of this stage.

4. Latency stage. From age seven until puberty, Freud thought sexual energy was mostly repressed or transferred into other activities such as school work and sports.

5. Genital stage. Starting in puberty, Freud thought that sexual energy became focused on experimentation with both one’s own genitals and those of other people. He saw this exploration – as long as it was heterosexual – as normative and healthy at this stage.

In Sum

This article barely scratches the surface of understanding Freudian theory, but hopefully it can serve as a helpful starting point if you are new to his work. You can always learn more from reputable sources on the Internet, Freud’s own writings, and the work of the many people whom he either directly mentored or indirectly inspired.


● Blatt, S. J. (1998). Contributions of psychoanalysis to the understanding and treatment of depression. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 46(3), 723-752.

● Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Standard Edition 7: 123- 246.

● Freud, A. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.

● Sarnoff, I. (1960). Psychoanalytic theory and social attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 24(2), 251-279