Psychodynamic Perspectives

Personality can be defined as an individual's characteristic pattern of feeling, thinking, and acting. Theorists view personality from several diverse perspectives.

Psychodynamic theories, descended from the work of Sigmund Freud, emphasize the importance of unconscious mental forces.

Freud and psychoanalytic theory. Sigmund Freud originated the psychoanalytic approach based on his experiences in his psychiatric practice and developed a technique called free association, which requires a patient to relax and report everything that comes to mind no matter how trivial or how strange it might seem. Using this technique, he found that patients often revived painful memories reaching back even to early childhood.

Freud believed that the mind is like an iceberg, mostly hidden (Figure ), and that free association would ultimately let a patient retrieve memories from the unconscious, memories not ordinarily available because they are threatening in some way. Conscious awareness (the visible part of the iceberg) floats above the surface. The preconscious (the area only shallowly submerged) contains information which can voluntarily be brought to awareness. The unconscious (the larger, deeply submerged portion of the iceberg) contains thoughts, feelings, and memories of which a person is unaware and many of which have been repressed, or forcibly blocked from consciousness. From his work, Freud developed psychoanalysis, a technique for treating psychological disorders by identifying and resolving problems stored in the unconscious.




Figure 1
Levels of Consciousness


Freudian personality theory. Concomitant with his development of psychoanalysis, Freud constructed a theory of personality, which includes the following observations.

  • Personality has three structures: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id, a reservoir of unconscious psychic energy, operates on the pleasure principle, seeks immediate gratification, and is not restrained by reality. It operates solely at the unconscious level. The ego, which develops in early childhood, operates through the reality principle, which seeks to gratify impulses of the id realistically and to bring long‐term pleasure without pain. The ego operates at both the conscious and pre‐conscious levels. The superego, a third structure, emerges as children reach 4 or 5 and internalize the morals of parents and society. The superego acts as a voice of conscience and operates mostly at the preconscious level of awareness. People also possess and are driven by a psychological energy called the libido.

  • Children pass through a series of psychosexual stages during which the id seeks pleasure from body areas, erogenous zones, that change during development. If children have difficulty passing through a particular stage, they are said to have become fixated. Fixation at the phallic stage may create an Oedipus complex for a boy (jealousy of a son toward his father in competing for his mother's attention) or an Electra complex for a girl (who competes with her mother for her father's attention). Children resolve these conflicts by identifying with the parent of the same gender.

  • During a child's development, the ego strategically uses defense mechanisms to deal with the anxiety produced by conflicting impulses from the id (operating on the pleasure principle) and the superego (using internalized representation of the parents' value system). Defense mechanisms include

  • repression, preventing dangerous or painful thoughts from entering consciousness

  • reaction formation, preventing expression of dangerous impulses by exaggerating opposite behavior

  • projection, attributing one's feelings, shortcomings, or unacceptable impulses to others

  • displacement, directing impulses toward a less threatening or more acceptable person or object

  • regression, retreating to an earlier stage of development

  • sublimation, rechanneling of unacceptable impulses into acceptable activities

  • denial, refusing to perceive reality, acting as if something did not happen

  • compensation, counteracting real or imagined difficulties or weaknesses by emphasizing other traits or excelling in other areas

  • intellectualization, separating emotions from threatening situations by thinking and acting impersonally

  • fantasy, meeting unfulfilled desires by imagination

  • Psychopathology can result if an individual does not pass through the stages of psychosexual development and becomes fixated, or fails to pass to the next stage. For example, a person fixated at the oral stage could, among other things, exhibit symptoms of obsessive eating or smoking in adult life. The problem could be identified and treated through psychoanalysis.

The neo‐Freudians. Other theorists, while they accepted much of the Freudian theory, differed on certain basic premises and introduced additional ideas.

  • Carl Jung, a contemporary of Freud, developed a variation of psychoanalytic theory called analytical psychology, which includes two well‐known concepts.
  • The collective unconscious, in contrast with Freud's unconscious, contains latent memory traces from a person's ancestors.

  • Archetypes, emotionally charged images and thoughts that have universal meaning, may be manifested in a culture's symbols, art, religion, and so forth.

  • Alfred Adler's approach to personality theory is called individual psychology, which de‐emphasizes the importance of sexual motivation and focuses on socially based motives. Adler believed that the behavior of adults is motivated by striving for superiority, a drive for perfection.

  • Karen Horney proposed that many adult characteristics are produced by attempts to deal with basic anxiety, a feeling of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world. Horney was also a pioneer in the study of psychology of women. She suggested that outside the family, women experience harmful effects because society places a greater value on being male, an attitude that contributes to women's feeling of inferiority and lack of self‐esteem.