Father of Psychoanalysis: A Deep Dive into the Life of Sigmund Freud


“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.”

Sigmund Freud
Most Frequently Asked Questions on Sigmund Freud
What is Sigmund Freud most known for?

Freud is best known for his work on psychoanalysis. This school of psychology is based on his belief that human behaviour is determined by unconscious forces that are not accessible to awareness.

Sigmund Freud is a notable, but controversial figure whose contributions laid the foundations for further growth in the field of Psychology. He was born on 6 May 1856 as Sigismund Schlomo Freud to his Jewish parents at Freiberg (now known as Příbor in the Czech Republic). He was an Austrian Neurologist whose work in the late 19th and early 20th century significantly influenced the understanding of the human mind. He pioneered Psychoanalysis, which suggests a relationship between human behaviour, and unconscious memories, thoughts and urges. Sigmund Freud is commonly known as the Father of Psychoanalysis. His theories continue to be followed by many psychologists today.

Read More: What are the Techniques of Psychoanalysis?

Early Life and Education:

Sigmund Freud was the eldest of eight children of his parents, Jakob Freud and Amalia Nathansohn. When Sigmund Freud was born, the family was struggling with finances and lived in a rented room. His father, who was married twice before, had two grown children, Emanuel and Philipp, from his first marriage. In his childhood, Emanuel’s son, John, and Sigmund were inseparable playmates.

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Although both of his parents were raised in orthodox Jewish households, they didn’t force any religious beliefs onto their children. While Freud grew up to become Atheistic, he remained true to Jewish culture. In the year 1859, the family had decided to immigrate. They spent a year in Leipzig, before moving to Vienna in 1860. At the age of 9, Freud entered a prominent German Grammar High School, Sperl Gymnasium. In 1873, he graduated from the Matura (Secondary School Exit Exam) with Honors.

Read More: Life of a Psychologist: Career, Challenges and Responsibility

Freud, being deeply interested in language and literature, could speak English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish. He continued his education at the Medical School of the University of Vienna. Freud’s interest in medicine emerged from his fascination with the image of a scientist as a truth seeker. Sigmund Freud obtained his medical degree in 1881, focusing on physiology and neurology. Later in life, Freud returned to the research that initially caught his attention in the field of medicine.

Career Beginning:

After receiving his degree, Freud took up a junior position at the Vienna General Hospital, where he worked with physician Josef Breuer. This is when his interest towards psychology was truly sparked. Breuer introduced Freud to the case of Bertha Pappenheim, now popularly known as Anna O. The ideas emerging from this case fascinated Sigmund Freud enough to make him devote his career to developing these ideas. Early in his career, Freud looked at neurological aspects of mental disorders, with a special interest in Hysteria. Breuer and Freud also co-authored the book ‘Studies on Hysteria’, which was later published in 1895.

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In 1885, Freud went to Paris for a three-month fellowship under Jean-Martin Charcot, where he learnt about hypnosis. After returning to Vienna in the following year, Freud started his medical practice, focusing on brain and nervous disorders. Here, he explored the therapeutic applications of Hypnosis, before concluding that it was an inefficient method for him to achieve the desired results.

He then focused on an approach to therapy that involves talking to the patient. The method of talking to patients encouraged patients to unwrap their unconscious minds to let go of the emotions repressed. This came to be known as the ‘talking cure.’ This element of talking built the foundation for Freud to develop what is known today as Psychoanalysis.


Freud’s most significant contribution to Psychology is his theory of Psychoanalysis. With many key concepts, this school of Psychology argues that behaviour is based on unconscious motivation that is rooted in one’s childhood experiences.

The Unconscious Mind:

Freud argued that the mind consists of the conscious, preconscious and unconscious. The unconscious mind refers to those forces that are inaccessible to awareness. In this part of the mind, memories and desires are suppressed. When there is a problem in a person’s unconscious mind, effects are reflected in their behaviour and their ability to regulate emotions.

Read More: The Unconscious Mind, and its Relation to Mental Health

Structural Model of Personality:

Personality, according to Freud’s theory, is said to be governed by id, ego and superego. Id, also known as the pleasure seeker, acts on impulses and biological urges. It is primary to one’s personality and is present from birth. The superego or the regulator imposes moral values and norms on an individual. It emerges around five years of age. The ego, the executive negotiator, maintains a balance between the two as it works on the reality principle, controlling a person’s actions. The ego develops before the superego between the ages of one to three.

Stages of Psychosexual Development:

Freud proposed that a person goes through five stages of psychosexual development. He has attributed a psychological task to each stage. These tasks need to be completed to ensure proper development. If not, the individual remains stuck at the stage till the conflict is resolved. This is known as fixation. Each stage is also said to have an erogenous zone, which refers to the body area that is sensitive to stimulation at each stage. Read more in-depth about this topic: Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development

  • Oral Stage: 0 to 18 months; the erogenous zone is the mouth; signs of fixation include nail biting, excessive drinking, etc.
  • Anal Stage: 18 months to 3 years; the erogenous zone is the anus; signs of fixation include overly organized (Anal- retentive) or very messy (Anal- expulsive)
  • Phallic Stage: 3 to 5 years; erogenous zone is phallus; signs of fixation include
  • Latent Stage: 6 years to puberty; erogenous zone is repressed sexuality; signs of fixation include exhibitionism or sexual aggression.
  • Genital Stage: Puberty to lifetime; erogenous zone is genitals; signs of fixation include development of sexual perversions.

Freud has also talked about the Oedipus complex, which can develop in the phallic stage. According to this theory, a child views the same-sex parent as a rival, while experiencing possessiveness towards the parent of the opposite sex. The rivalry towards the parent of the same sex comes from the feeling that they will steal the child’s share of affection from the other parent.

It is named after the Greek hero, Oedipus, who unknowingly married his mother after killing his father. Using this theory, Freud also explained Castration anxiety. He said that a male child in the phallic stage is likely to fear that his father might eliminate the threat he poses by castrating him.

Defence Mechanisms:

These are the tools used by the unconscious mind to avoid painful memories by altering reality. These were further developed by his daughter, Anna Freud.

  • Regression: Hiding unacceptable impulses from conscious awareness.
  • Denial: Not letting painful reality enter the conscious awareness.
  • Projection: Attributing your unacceptable feelings to someone else.
  • Displacement: Redirecting the emotional responses to a less threatening target.
  • Reaction Formation: Changing unacceptable feelings to the exact opposite.
  • Rationalization: Going back to the behavioural patterns of an earlier developmental stage.
  • Sublimation: Offering an acceptable reason for an unacceptable action or attitude.

Read More about the Defence Mechanism in depth.

Free Association:

Freud developed this technique of psychoanalysis aiming to resolve repressed conflicts. It took him six years to develop this method. He saw it as a replacement for hypnosis. His main focus while developing this technique was to overcome the issues of transference (of feeling from one person to another), projection (of one’s qualities on someone else) and resistance (to certain feelings and memories).

According to Freud, this method gives complete control to a person to examine their thoughts. This technique encourages you to speak or write down all your thoughts. It doesn’t necessarily have to be coherent and can jump from one memory to another. The aim is to reveal associations that might not have come forward.

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Freudian Slip:

Also known as parapraxis, Freudian slip is what you would describe as a slip of the tongue. During this phenomenon, you say something that you did not mean to. According to Freud, these slipups can be traced back to your unconscious desires. These are things that you feel but you haven’t realized. In most instances, these slips can be traced back to repressed sexual urges.

Case Studies:

Freud used many of his case studies as a means to obtain evidence that supported his theories. A lot of his case studies were based on people who approached him in his clinic in Vienna. One of the first famous cases that he was associated with was that of Anna O (Bertha Pappenheim), who was a patient of Josef Breuer. Although Freud never treated her himself, discussions with Breuer led him to believe that her symptoms resulted from repressed memories. This formed the basis of Psychoanalysis.

The case study on Dora (Pseudonym for Ida Bauer) looked at her symptoms of Hysteria (coughing and aphonia) as a manifestation of repressed sexual desires and conflicts of the unconscious. Freud suggested that the Oedipus complex played an important role. Looking into a couple that was close to the family, he made note of their impact on Dora’s symptoms.

He suggested that her coughing was related to her father and Frau K. Dora rejecting Herr K’s advances shows her unconscious resentment towards her father. Freud’s focus on sexual interpretations of the case was highly criticized. There are arguments about his personal bias affecting the interpretation of this case. Although there are many limitations, this case is a famous part of psychoanalytic literature. Now let’s look at one of Sigmund Freud’s best-known cases in detail.

Little Hans Case Study:

This case study is about a boy named Herbert Graf (pseudonym, ‘Little Hans’) and his phobia of horses. Little Hans was the son of Freud’s friend, Max Graf. Freud didn’t directly treat Little Hans. He was treated by his father, who sent detailed letters of conversations and relevant instances to Freud. Sigmund Freud conducted only one session in person with Little Hans.

At the age of four, Little Hans had witnessed a traumatic incident of a horse carrying a heavily loaded cart and collapsing on the street. Since then, he began to develop a fear of horses, particularly those that carried heavy loads or wore blinkers. In a conversation with his father, he described two horses entering a room, one crumpled, and the other calling out to him while he took the crumpled giraffe away.

Little Hans also experienced sibling jealousy after the birth of his little sister. Since his mother’s attention was taken away by his sister, he expressed his wish for her drowning in the bath. His sister’s birth also made him curious about conception. Unwilling to explain the truth, Little Hans’ parents shared a traditional tale of stork birds delivering newborns in boxes. The boy also liked to sleep in his parents’ bed. He had a preoccupation with the male genital, which made his mother threaten him with castration.

Read More: Importance of Sex Education

Freud had already developed his theory of psychosexual stages by the time he encountered this case. He concluded that Little Hans was in the phallic stage. Freud believed that Little Hans was showing signs of the Oedipus complex. For instance, the crumpled giraffe represented his mother, whom he was taking away from his father, the other giraffe. Little Hans also described his fantasy of replacing his father and having children with his mother, reducing his castration anxiety. This belief was additionally supported as Little Hans called his father ‘grandfather’, replacing him as the paternal figure to earn his mother’s attention. Freud further explained his fear of horses by claiming that Little Hans associates the horse with his father.

When horses have blinkers on, the boy looks at it as his father’s glasses. Freud asked his friend to assure Little Hans that he is in no danger of castration and that he was loved by his father. Slowly, Little Hans started to overcome his symptoms and led a normal life. Freud’s use of the case study to support his theory was criticized. His way of obtaining evidence was questioned as the letters he received were from Little Hans’ father, whom the boy despised. This raised the question of the authenticity of the conversations mentioned in the letter.

Critiques and Controversies:

Freud’s work has faced a lot of criticism over the years. One of them that has persisted over time is the lack of verifiable evidence of the concepts he has proposed, such as the Oedipus complex. Moreover, his constant focus on sexual urges as a basis of human behaviour has led many people to be sceptical about his work and its validity.

In modern-day, critics argue that his theory of the unconscious mind and psychosexual stages overly simplifies the basis of human behaviour. His theories have also been subjected to criticism in terms of gender, implying the embracement of stereotypes. Another criticism faced by Freud’s theories is that they are highly influenced by his own experiences, making them subject to projection. Other than this, his focus on human behaviour as sexual urges has also led him to ignore social or cultural influences of behaviour.

Legacy and Influence:

It can be said without a doubt that Freud has left behind a legacy. While he has faced much criticism for his theories, questions have also been raised due to the lack of proper evidence regarding these theories. Freud’s ways of obtaining evidence were far from scientific methods, which is one of the first reasons his theories were subjected to scrutiny. Even to this date, Freud remains highly controversial.

Although his theories have lost their significance over time, Freud is revolutionary. He has had a lasting influence in this field. His core ideas were further explored by psychologists in conceptualizing theories and treating mental health issues. Freud’s followers agreed with a lot of his fundamental ideas. However, many adapted his approach to incorporate their own beliefs.

These psychologists are the Neo-Freudians. They disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexual desires, the negative light in which he viewed people’s nature, and the fact that his theories failed to consider other aspects of influence on a person’s behaviour. Some famous Neo-Freudians are Karen Horney, Erik Erikson, Alfred Adler and Carl Jung. While Neo-Freudian ideas have also lost a significant amount of relevance, they have contributed to the growth of psychology.

Read More: Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development

Personal Life:

Freud, in his early childhood, was inseparable from his playmate, John. However, the dynamics between the two was complex. John was the son of Emanuel, who was Jakob Freud’s child from his first marriage. This technically made Freud John’s Uncle. However, John was older than Freud. This meant that there was always a question about authority, creating a complication in power dynamics.

The two had a love-hate relationship as they were friendly but also confrontational. In the late 1890s, Freud conducted a self-analysis. Due to an early exposure to these complex dynamics, he reflected that his relationship with John set a pattern for all his interactions with male friends. Other than his relationship with John, Freud also experienced extreme jealousy after the birth of his younger brother, Julius. However, a year after his birth, Julius passed away. Freud suggested that guilt has always lingered with him since his wish of Julius’ disappearance was unexpectedly fulfilled. His relationships with people in his life have contributed to shaping his theories greatly.

In 1886, Freud married Martha Bernays in Vienna. The two had a total of six children. His daughter Anna Freud is well-known in the field of Psychology. Following in her father’s footsteps, Anna created the field of child psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud passionately worked his whole life to build his theories on psychoanalysis. He spent most of his life in Vienna. In 1923, he discovered the growth of an inoperable cancerous tumour that began in his mouth as a lesion. At his request, his friend and physician Max Schur administered morphine. A lethal dose of it became the reason for Freud’s death on 23 September 1939 in London, England.

Read More: Understanding Freud’s Personality Theory (1923) in the light of Indian mythological character

Quotes and Anecdotes:

Let’s look at some of Sigmund Freud’s own words to better understand the thought process behind his school of psychology.

  • “The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.”
  • “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
  • “The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises.”
  • “The ego is not master in its own house.”
  • “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.”
  • “Every normal person, in fact, is only normal on the average. His ego approximates to that of the psychotic in some part or other and to a greater or lesser extent.”
  • “Public self is a conditioned construct of the inner psychological self.”
  • “Just as no one can be forced into belief, so no one can be forced into unbelief.”
  • “The more perfect a person is on the outside, the more demons they have on the inside.”
  • “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”

Summing Up

Sigmund Freud’s theories were shaped according to his own experiences in childhood. Freud pioneered psychoanalysis. He laid a strong argument for the formation of human behaviours. His theories helped the field progress not only by establishing psychoanalysis but also by influencing Neo-Freudians to contribute and bring new perspectives to Psychology. Freud is a notable figure to this date. However, he has faced a lot of criticism for his work.

Most people in this field would not cite Freud as a credible source today, but his theories and assertions have paved the path for many psychologists to establish their findings. Further, Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind cannot be denied, as it is still a part of the basis of many therapeutic interventions. Modern mental health care is built on theories that have established themselves from foundations laid down by Freud. Overall, it is fair to say that Freud’s work has decreased in its relevance today, however, he stands as a strong reference point in the field.

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