An Introduction to Freud’s Most Important Theories

A brief(ish) overview of Freud’s theory of sexuality (including the Oedipal complex), structural theory and dreams theory.

Perhaps no other man has had as much singular intellectual impact and influence on a field and the paradigmatic thinking of a society than Sigmund Freud. Copernicus and Darwin were great deflators of humanity’s anthropomorphic world views, and Freud included himself among them, believing his unearthing of the unconscious to be disruptive enough to deflate humanity’s narcissism — we are not, as we had previously thought, the captains of our own ships.

Born Sigmund Schlomo Freud to a middle-class Jewish family in Austria in 1856, Freud was born in an era when those around him believed in humanity’s superiority to the natural world because of our cognitive ability to think and control our behaviors. Freud spent his early years as a medical student dissecting hundreds of eels in order to locate their reproductive organs without success and then briefly promoted cocaine as a miracle medical drug before hitching up with Josef Breuer, an Austrian physician (whose work and ideas are often overshadowed by Freud’s).

This collaboration would arouse within Freud his lifelong devotion to the field of psychoanalysis. It is Breuer and Freud’s collaboration on a patient popularly known as Anna O (real name: Bertha Pappenheim) that laid the groundwork for Freud’s revelations around the unconscious — the idea that there is a part of ourselves, unbeknownst to us, that drives our behaviors.

Freud studied the nature of what it is to be human; in particular, the parts we don’t normally have access to. He was fascinated by the latent quality of dreams, sexuality, errors (parapraxes, now known as Freudian slips), the world of sexual fantasy, things we keep hidden from ourselves. He believed the mind to be a place of intense conflict — an ongoing negotiation between tension and discharge.

Freud often compared his work as a psychoanalyst to an archeological dig, in which the mind, like the earth’s stratum, is structured in layers and whose excavation necessitates the digging and drudging up of memories, fantasies and infantile wishes deeply buried. Yet, these fossils serve as the foundation for one’s adult life and the symptoms one develops.

One of the building blocks to Freud’s many theories is the pleasure principle: we are instinctually driven to seek pleasure. Conflict arises in the need to negotiate with and adjust to the reality principle, a necessary condition for living and functioning in the modern world. This conflict occurs within the internal structure of the individual’s mind — tensions build, seeking expression — and depending on an individual’s adaptations, may result in neuroses or perversion.

Before diving deeper into some of Freud’s major contributions and theories to psychoanalysis, which has served as the bedrock of growth for many contemporary theorists and analysts, it’s important to keep in mind a few of Freud’s core underlying assumptions:

  1. There exists an unconscious which houses our instinctual drives.

Keeping these in mind, let’s dive into a few of Freud’s better known and often debated theories.


It’s easy to shrug off some of Freud’s theories as absurd and outdated, especially around his notions of sexuality, but to write these ideas off as preposterous or to dismiss it because of their unfalsifiability is to miss the point entirely. These are theories, speculations, different colored lenses with which to filter, explore and examine one’s experiences.

Freud was of the mind that human sexuality is intrinsically, fundamentally disturbed, and so what interested him was not “how does one develop a neuroses or perversity?” but rather, “how does one become sexually normal?” For Freud, “sexuality” is an umbrella term encompassing far more than our restricted understanding of adult sexuality — of genital, penetrative sex; it includes any act or activity invested in with libido, which may include eating, defecating, bathing, touching, etc. Libido may be defined here as “the energy of the sexual drive as a component of the life instinct.” It might be helpful to think of libido as a sort of life force.

Libidinal drives may arise as tensions in different parts of the body, demanding some kind of activity to allow for its discharge. For Freud, sexuality is the experience of pleasure and joy (and sometimes disturbance) within the body. He noticed early on how young children experience intense, sexual desires, which led to his proposal of the five sequential psychosexual stages of development: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital.

It’s important to note that these intense, sexual desires as experienced by infants and young children are not the same as the sexual desire we think of and experience as adults, but rather an instinctual pleasure derived from the libido’s fixation with (or perhaps curiosity towards) a particular part of the body and the sensations it produces.

The oral stage, which ends around the one-year mark, includes activities such as breastfeeding, sucking and biting. The anal stage, which covers one-to-three years, includes activities such as defecating, bathing and being potty-trained. The phallic stage, which covers three-to-six years, includes activities such as touching and exploring one’s penis or clitoris, which may or may not include masturbation. The latency stage, which covers six-to-twelve years, is a period in which the libido lays dormant and sexual energy is instead channeled into learning, play and relationships. The genital stage, the final stage covering puberty to adulthood, is the emergence of heterosexual exploration and pleasure with an other, a stage most of us are familiar with.

All of these stages and their variants are organized into one’s adult sexuality. In other words, our adult sexuality includes all of the forms of infantile sexuality. Some aspects of infantile sexuality, such as kissing, sucking, fingering, have been adopted into the process of foreplay with the ultimate goal of genital intercourse, but many other aspects may be unacceptable to the socialized mind.

Since Freud believed perversion is something we are all born with rather than something we acquire and sought to answer how one becomes sexually normal, he pinned the development of sexuality on the interaction with our early caregivers. If things goes well, then the perversion is contained “under the aegis of socialization,” and what we end up with is a more normative form of sexuality.

Needless to say, many of us do not end up with a normative form of sexuality. The impulses of infantile sexuality continues to seek expression in adulthood, which may appear as disguised, neurotic symptoms (i.e — one may become anally retentive if strongly chastised by caregivers for toilet-training accidents), or as undisguised, sexual perversions deplored by society.

Oedipus Complex

Perhaps the concept most widely associated with Freud and most criticized is the Oedipus complex, named after Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother.

The Oedipus complex emerges sometime between three and five years old, during the phallic stage of psychosexual development. At this stage, the child undergoes a transition towards obedience — learns to give up things, to not take what they want when they want it, to let others go first. It is a time of intense desires and anxieties.

In its simplified and often misunderstood form, the Oedipal complex is the idea of a child loving the parent of the opposite sex and hating the parent of the same sex. Some have interpreted Freud to mean the child desires genital intercourse with the parent of the opposite sex, but this presumes a young child understands what that entails and means.

Freud later revised his theory around the Oedipus complex to suggest both boys and girls love, first and foremost, their mother, since she is, in most cultures, the primary care provider. Perhaps a more helpful way to understand the complex is by viewing it as a child’s desire for possession of the parent; in this case, the mother — of wanting to become one with her. The child may have some ideas around the genitals’ involvement, but they do not understand the concept of genital sex in the same way adults do. It may be they wish to hug their mother, suck on a part of her, tug her hair, rub against her. The child, quite simply, just wants to be loved and grows increasingly aware of the father who is the object of the mother’s affection and attention. This leads to feelings of competition, rivalry and jealousy. What the child wants more than anything is to possess the mother all to himself, and so hates anyone who keeps her from him. At the same time, he feels fear and anxiety around the repercussions of his feelings being found out.

The successful resolution of the Oedipus complex involves the child’s understanding that they are not omnipotent, cannot possess the parent, and learning to identify with the parent of the same sex. The child internalizes the attitudes, characteristics and values of the same-sex parent (which may include personality traits, gender roles, etc.), and begins to view the parent as a role model rather than a rival.

Structural Theory

Freud’s structural theory divided the human psyche into three theoretical provinces: the id, the superego and the ego. The word “psyche” is of Greek origin and means breath, life or soul. But in our modern, mechanistic world, we often delegate psyche to the mind.

A simple way to think of the id, superego and ego are as representatives of instincts, morality and reality, respectively. The id houses our instinctual, unconscious drives of sexuality and aggression; the superego constitutes our ideas of right and wrong, good and bad; the ego operates as the mediator and negotiator between the id and the superego.

In Freud’s own words:

“The id is totally non-moral; the ego tries hard to be moral; and the superego can become hyper-moral and show a degree of cruelty only the id can match.”

For Freud, all human trouble and symptoms stem from the psychic tension and conflict between the id and the superego, as mediated by the ego. In other words, we are constantly at war with ourselves.

The id seeks immediate gratification and expression, and throws a tantrum if it doesn’t get what it wants when it wants it. It is governed by the pleasure principle. The superego lays down the law, often harshly; it judges the id and enforces its perfectionist tendencies onto the id. The ego comes in and says: “Id, you can’t do it this way, but superego, perhaps you’ll allow id to do it this way,” as an attempt to reach compromise between the two. The challenge and purpose of the ego are to successfully and continuously negotiate the conflict between the id and the superego.

Part of the ego, Freud later came to believe, is unconscious as well, because the process of repressing unconscious thoughts is an unconscious act, and so the ego must have a conscious and an unconscious part. Thus, the unconscious must be spread out all over the psyche, rather than isolated to the id.

We can think of the id as in a permanent state of “terrible twos,” with its childish desires and pleasures; the superego is the authority figure who rewards or punishes, is despotic, hypercritical and sadistic; the ego is the kind aunt or uncle, who tries to smooth things over and make everything okay in the moment out of their own discomfort but rarely gets to the core of the conflict. The ego possesses the power to distort our sense of self and our perceptions, but a “healthy” ego also has the power to lift parts of our unconscious into consciousness.

How do the id, superego and ego relate to Freud’s sexuality and the Oedipal complex? Sexuality is one of the two driving forces behind the id. It seeks expression starting from the oral stage (infancy) all the way through to the genital stage (adulthood). Whereas the id, ego and superego all exist at birth, the id dominates in the oral stage of development. It is at the time of the phallic stage — around the onset of the Oedipal complex — when the superego begins to build through the introjection and internalization of attitudes, characteristics, values, etc. of the caretakers. The ego develops and strengthens with each stage of development and is established at the genital stage.

When the id overpowers the superego and ego, psychotic behavior may appear. When the superego overpowers the id and ego, neurotic behavior may appear. Freud believed psychoanalysis could help bring to light parts of our unconscious and enhance ego-functioning so the id, superego and ego might finally coexist in harmony.

Dream Theory

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud considers dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” During the day, our ego functions are hard at work repressing the impulses of the id, but at night, our egos too are at rest, so there’s less automatic repression occurring to keep latent content in containment.

Our infantile wishes, drives and trauma, if left unchecked, would emerge and repeatedly disrupt our ability to stay asleep, leading to sleep deprivation and mental impairments. Dreams, for Freud, serve as a guardian to sleep, a necessary byproduct to maintain sleep. Dream interpretation, on the other hand, serve as a way to tap into parts of the unconscious through the unearthing of repressed desires.

To help us stay asleep, our psychic system evolved a censor, whose job is to keep forbidden material out of consciousness. But if the latent material is strong, the pressure may build and build until it steals past the censor in an altered form and appear as manifest content in the dream realm.

A key feature of Freud’s theory of dreams is the distortion of a person’s repressed desires through a process known as dream-work. There are four ways in which latent content is transformed into the manifest content we remember upon waking:

  • Condensation: a collapse of several concepts (themes, images, people, ideas, etc) into one, which might appear in a dream as one person standing in for two different people.

The dream-work process is one of censoring, editing and compromise, allowing latent thoughts and desires to manifest itself — though disguised — in the dream realm; that is, until the dreamer or a psychoanalyst interprets its significance. Ultimately, Freud felt the best kind of sleep is a dreamless sleep, but a dreamful sleep grants us access to those hidden parts of ourselves.

exploring the liminal b/t the art of being, loving & thinking | therapist-in-training | yoga-doer | writer sometimes | curious always |

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