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Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

Author: Erick Taggart

Identify the key aspects of psychoanalytic theory.

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Hello, class. So in today's lesson, we're going to be looking at psychoanalytic theory and how it relates to personality. So a major figure again in psychoanalytic theory is Sigmund Freud, and Freud is one of those very recognizable figures in psychology.

He was an Austrian doctor who, in the late 1800s, began studying neurology and practicing the treatment of different patients with brain and nervous disorders, people that were having trouble with things like hysteria. So a lot of his theories are informed by his practice. They go the opposite way of most psychological theories, which start with experiments and research and lead to practice. He goes from practice to the theories.

And Freud's main idea is that mental life is a bit like an iceberg, so this is a good metaphor to use to remember this. The part that's sticking outside of the water, or our conscious minds, are the things that we're aware of, the things that we are thinking about at any given time. But the conscious mind is only a very small part of the entire mental experience.

Most of what's going on under the water in our unconscious is the stuff that we're not aware of, and this can affect our conscious mind. These are things like our memories, our emotions, different kinds of instincts or desires. Mostly the unconscious, according to Freud, was very negative, or unwanted, which is why we put it down there.

So psychoanalytic theory tries to uncover how these unconscious forces and conflicts can affect our conscious mind and lead to any kind of negative or unwanted behaviors. An example of this is something we call a Freudian slip. A Freudian slip is an error in speaking that reveals some kind of unconscious thought or wish.

An example of this might be when you're with one person, you might say the name of an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, another person. And this is obviously a really embarrassing thing. But Freud would say, maybe that's showing some unconscious desire to be with the ex-boyfriend or girlfriend.

Another symbol of the unconscious, according to Freud, were our dreams, which were sort of language of the unconscious, and spoke to us in symbols that we needed to interpret understand what's going on.

Now, because a lot of this mental landscape, according to Freud, is very negative or unwanted, the brain develops certain kinds of protection, or what we call defense mechanisms. And defense mechanisms are these generally sort of unconscious ways that people protect their minds and deal with the anxiety that's going on as a result of their unconscious mind and the conflict there.

An example of this might be in denial. Denial means when you're trying to ignore something bad that happens, or you don't want to think about in any kind of way. Similar to denial is repression.

Now, repression is when certain kinds of bad memories or unwanted desires are blocked or pushed down from our conscious thoughts. So we're taking all these bad things-- for example, something negative that happened to us when we were a child-- and we push them down under the water into the unconscious.

An example of this might be if you had some kind of traumatic experience in your childhood. But these kinds of repressed thoughts can affect our conscious thoughts in adverse ways, and they can lead to these dysfunctional sorts of thoughts and behaviors that we're having, or mental disorders, according to Freud.

Also according to Freud, what we need to do is bring these repressed thoughts up to the surface into our conscious thought and sort of bring them into alignment so they're not just festering in our unconscious. And in this way, Freud said, we could become better, and we could secure a lot of mental disorders.

Terms to Know

Defense mechanism that pushes out thoughts or feelings into the unconscious, making ourselves "unaware".


Beyond awareness; things we aren't always aware of such as irrational wishes, unacceptable sexual desires, aggressive tendencies.