In the field of psychology, few names resonate with so many people as Sigmund Freud does. His work continues to be dissected, discussed, and analyzed for the groundwork he set for future psychological research. His query into the idea of a personality and all the aspects that make one up in each individual have furnished important roots in the field and therefore he is one of the first critical psychologists to explore when learning about the self. While not all of his work has stood the test of time, it is nonetheless important to continue to take a critical lens to Freud’s theories, reworking where there is missing information or links, and building upon where there is a solid theoretical foundation. This paper seeks to explore Freud’s work from a psychoanalytic approach, adding personal reflections with the analysis to synthesize the readings explored thus far.
In terms of personality, Freud may be considered the first psychoanalyst to theorize on the subject (Frick, 1991). Essentially Freud is the father of what is now modern psychoanalytic theory and therefore his work is paramount when developing an understanding of subsequent later theories. While his work has certainly been revised through modern analysis, he continues to be one of the most important theorists on the personality (Frick, 1991).
His work- Freudian theory- can be categorized into three main assumptions: “Its deterministic view of personality development…..Its belief in the irrationality of the human personality….(and) its view of the unchanging nature of personality” (Frick, 1991, p. 8). We can break each of these three components down further as a means of understanding the underlying theories of his personal work. While it cannot fully cover the breadth of this assertions, this is a convenient way to summarize the main points of Freudian theory
According to Freud, the personality is exposed by behavior that is largely unconscious (Frick, 1991). Rather than an individual using their free will and self-determination to shape and mold their identity, Freud suggests that each person is governed by instinctual drives (Frick, 1991). These drives, therefore, determine the majority of a personality.
Further, Freud posits that most of an individual’s personality is based off irrational forces (Frick, 1991). While he does acquiesce that part of one’s ego can adapt to a rational approach, it appears this is only through the work of psychoanalysis (Frick, 1991). Without a conscious effort to attack irrationality by enlarging this small rational sphere that is available, it is likely that an individual’s personality will continue to develop in irrational ways.
Lastly, Freudian theory of the person insists that once these deterministic and irrational forces shape an individual, there is little one can do to change their fate (Frick, 1991). Essentially, after experiencing infancy and one’s early childhood years, Freud insists that this will remain largely immutable through adulthood (Frick, 1991). This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Freudian theory, as it argues that a person’s near-entire being is shaped before one even has the chance to determine what kind of person to be. Further, it implies that a person might be aware of maladaptive personality traits but are unable to fundamentally change them due to the nature of psychological development.
Of course, not all of Freud’s work remains completely sound in a modern-day analysis. This would be impossible with anyone that has such a vast portfolio of research, and Freud is no exception. It is important to remember that while he contributed in leaps and bounds to the psychoanalytic theory of the personality, critics have pointed out issues in his work. These issues must be addressed alongside any understanding or use of his theories to ensure proper scientific research is being completed.
Freud was known to utilize the approach of the case study in his research methods (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Case studies can provide excellent analysis for a certain set of conditions and variables. However, there are often limitations that come along with utilizing this approach. First, these studies are not objective in their observations, which automatically produces a bias in the work (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Thus the collected data cannot be systematically collected in a uniform fashion (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Similarly, during a psychoanalytical session, the patient brings a unique set of conditions that cannot be duplicated perfectly.
All of these factors lead to an approach that is already riddled with limitations. When this is coupled with Freud’s individual approach to conducting research through case studies, even more issues arise. According to Schultz and Schultz (2017):
A fundamental criticism of Freud's (sic) case studies involves the nature of his data. He did not keep verbatim records of his therapy sessions, and he warned analysts against taking notes during the sessions, believing it would distract their attention from their patients’ words. (p. 60).
Much of Freud’s work, then, is essentially his own piecing together of selected memories rather than utilizing a hard set of data (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Without recording every session, there is also a concern that Freud only chose to record the therapy sessions that already fell in line with his beliefs, rather than modify his hypotheses as new information emerges and is synthesized (Schultz & Schultz, 2017).
There is no way for modern psychoanalysts who are critical reviewing Freud’s work to effectively validate his findings that come from the comments of his patients due to his approach. Freud himself appeared somewhat uninterested at the process of validation within the research method (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). This is odd, considering his work is cited more than perhaps any other of his peers, yet one of the main requirements for a sound study was not in place with Freud’s work. His critics offer that Freud should have verified his patients’ stories on childhood events by comparing them to their families and friend’s recollection (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Unfortunately, this indicates that the initial step in his research-the process of data collection- is at best incomplete and at worst inaccurate.
Another major criticism of Freud is his liberties in inferring of assuming things about his patients that are never explicitly said (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). For example, some critics argue that in the Freudian approach, a patient did not have to report a sexual experience from their childhood for Freud to analyze the patient through a sexual framework (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Essentially, Freud relied on the fundamental principle that a person’s maladaptive behavioral and personality traits stemmed from a (possibly) traumatic sexual event in youth. Most notably, Freud believed that most women had been somehow sexualized by their biological fathers, and build a theory around this fact. Yet when analyzing his research, there is not one patient that openly reveals any type of event happened to them (Schultz & Schultz, 2017).
While one of the most famous psychoanalysts who pioneered the development of personality theories, Freud was incredibly problematic. His research relied on methods that did not require validation or replication, and the basis of his approach was predicated on the belief that his theory was already proven (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). This represents a complex perspective on Freud, in which his work is hugely substantial, however, is incredibly limited. It is necessary to determine what elements of Freud can be extracted to ensure data is worth building upon.
Frick, W. B. (1991). Personality theories: Journeys into self: An experiential workbook. New York: Teachers College Press.
Schultz, D., & Schultz, S. (2017). Theories of Personality. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.