w w w . b r e n t o n p r i e s t l e y . c o m

Freudian Psychoanalysis:
Psychosexual Theory of Personality Development and Defence Mechanisms (2001)

Brenton Priestley



Freud’s Psychosexual Theory of Personality Development

Freud believed that one of the central factors in the development of personality was the libido, or the sexual drive. According to his psychosexual model of personality development, each stage in a healthy person’s development is marked by the cathexis of a particular organ, or erogenous zone. ‘The psychosexual stages,’ according to Westen, ‘reflect the child’s evolving quest for pleasure and growing realisation of the social limitations on this quest’ (534).

The oral stage occurs earliest. Newborn babies are initially limited to sucking and drinking. Their sexual instinctual drive is therefore focused around the mouth, initially in passive sucking and chewing. Later, pleasure is derived from more aggressive biting and chewing. Fixations, which persist beyond each developmental stage are manifested through the oral stage as thumb sucking or cigarette smoking.

The anal stage, which occurs in toddlers, is subdivided into two phases – the expressive period, in which the child derives pleasure in expelling faeces, and the retentive period, in which they derive pleasure from storing it. The anal stage coincides with toilet training in the child, and is marked by ‘conflicts with parents about compliance and defiance’ (Ibid 536).

The phallic stage is one of the most significant in the Freudian model. Children obtain pleasure from stimulating their genitals and begin to discriminate between the sex roles of their parents. Initially, a child in the phallic stage will identify with the parent of the opposite sex in what is known as the Oedipus complex. Briefly, the Oedipus complex posits that the ‘...[child’s] urges seek an external object. The inevitable object is his mother’(Gleitman 436). This naturally leads to hostility towards the father-figure.

The Oedipal phase of the phallic stage gives way to one in which identification with the same-sex parent occurs. Such identification helps to form perception of gender roles and personality.

A latency stage occurs before the onset of puberty and is marked by the dormancy of the libido. Sexual and aggressive drives are channelled into more socially acceptable substitutes.

Finally, the genital stage, coinciding with puberty, marks the return of conscious sexuality and finds its cathexis in the genitals. Emotional maturity is ultimately attained in this stage, although elements, in the form of fixations, from the earlier stages often remain.

Gleitman observes that by and large, Freud never studied children (449), thus rendering the Psychosexual Development model (like much of Freudian theory) scientifically debatable. It remains, however, influential. The more recent developmental models of Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget have focussed far less on sexuality as a determining influence on the development of personality. Recent studies have lent support for some of Freud’s psychosexual theories, especially the Oedipus complex. Interestingly, Westen notes that ‘...most obscenities... reflect one or another of Freud’s stages... perhaps the most vulgar thing someone can call another person in our society has a distinctly Oedipal ring’ (538).

Freudian Defence Mechanisms

The Freudian concept of the conscious self, responding to the unconscious demands of the id takes form in the ego. When the libidinal and aggressive drives of the id come into conflict with the prohibitions of the superego – an intrapsychic conflict (Carlson 549), defence mechanisms are activated by the ego in order to avoid anxiety. Freud’s theory of defence mechanisms can therefore be defined a range of largely unconscious processes which reduce anxiety or reinforce pleasurable emotions.

Repression involves the prevention of ideas, emotions or memories from reaching consciousness. Carlson quotes Freud’s case of Anna O, who repressed the memories that caused the conflicts underlying her hysteria (549).

Similarly, denial involves the avoidance of the acknowledgment of facts or emotions in order to avoid anxiety – an example that Westen gives is the dismissal of a skin growth to avoid the idea that one may have cancer (539).

A reaction formation works as a means of ‘...supplementing the original repression by blocking off the impulse altogether’ (Gleitman 434). The fear or desire of a certain behaviour is replaced by one to which it is diametrically opposed. An obvious example, given by both Carlson (549) an Westen (540) is that of individuals who campaign against sex and pornography in order to suppress an inherent fascination or obsession about such things.

Displacement works as something of a perverse variation of the reaction formation; aggression is transferred of to new outlets, but remains in an aggressive form. Gleitman suggests the persecution of minority groups is a form of displacement, ‘[t]hey become convenient scapegoats for aggressive impulses fueled by social and economic unrest’ (433).

Sublimation diverts energy from an unacceptable drive into an acceptable one. Carlson quotes Freud in saying that sublimation is an important factor in artistic and intellectual creativity (549); for example surplus sexual energy can be sublimated into creative pursuits. Likewise, sibling conflict or competition can be sublimated into a desire for success.

The process of creating a socially acceptable reason for unacceptable behaviour is rationalisation. A smoker, for example, has to rationalises his or her habit in multiple ways.

Isolation involves the separation and elimination of emotions from distressing memories. Gleitman suggests concentration-camp survivors or rape victims who can describe their experiences dispassionately as examples of isolation in action (434).

Again, like the Psychosexual Theory of Personality Development, it is difficult to scientifically quantify these defence mechanisms in any meaningful way – although anyone can probably identify with each mechanism in practice. Laboratory studies of recall of words with emotional (specifically anxiety-inducing) significance have lent credence to the idea that the slower retrieval time of such words compared to neutral words involve a mechanism similar to Freud’s repression (Gleitman 445-6).

The use of defence mechanisms, as Westen notes, is not necessarily representative of an unhealthy mind – recent studies have suggested that ‘...some degree of defensive distortion may be useful, such as the tendency for people to see themselves more positively than is warranted by reality’ (540). Such defences become damaging when they arrest development rather than promote it.



Carlson, Neil R. Psychology: The Science of Behavior. Boston: Allyn, 1990

Gleitman, Henry. Psychology. New York: Norton, 1991.

Westen, Drew. Psychology: Mind, Brain, Culture. New York, 1999.


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