Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud
(6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939) an Austrian neurologist and founding father of psychoanalysis is regarded as one of the most influential and controversial minds of the 20th century. His life work gave us a new understanding of human behavior and mental illness and such was his influence that today his ideas are interwoven into our everyday language as we refer to ego, defensiveness, repression, denial, mommy and daddy issues, death wish, phallic symbols, someone being passive-aggressive or anal retentive or simply when we refer to Freudian slips of the tongue or sibling rivalry.

Freud was the inventor of a new mode of dealing with the unconscious, the psychoanalytic situation, with his theory providing the bases for modern depth psychology and psychotherapy.  He developed a theory of how the mind is organized and operates internally and is perhaps best known for his mapping of the unconscious, his creation of a structural model of the mind (the id, ego and superego) and his theories of libido (the sexualized life instinct), Thantaos (the death instinct), dream analysis, Oedipus complex and his charting of the sequence of psychological growth from infancy to mature adulthood. His therapeutic techniques introduced the analytical hour, talk therapy, free association, complexes, the mechanisms of repression and transference.

Perhaps his greatest contribution was the founding of a “school”, a movement, with its own organization, publishing house, strict rules of membership and its official doctrine, namely psychoanalytic theory.

Freud’s life and times

Born in the small Moravia town of Freiberg, on the 6th May, 1856, the first of eight children, he was named Sigismund Schlomo Freud and spent the first three years of his life, in a picturesque landscape of meadows and woods before moving to Vienna where he spent most of his life.

“Almost nothing, is known about Freud’s early childhood in Vienna.  The only certain point is that Jacob Freud changed his residence several times between 1860 and 1865, and after that lived in the Pfeffergasses, in the predominantly Jewish quarter of Leopoldstadt.  Nor is it known whether Sigmund received his first schooling at home from his father, or whether he went to one of the elementary Jewish schools in the neighborhood.” (Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious, p.429)

Ambitious, outwardly self-assured, brilliant in school and voracious in his reading, the adolescent Freud was a bright student, attending the secondary school in Leopldstadter Communal Gymnasium between 1866 and 1873.

“At the Gymnasium,” he tersely summed up his record, “I was first in my class for seven years, held a privileged position, was scarcely examined.”  The report cards he preserved repeatedly pay tribute to his exemplary conduct and his outstanding work in class.” (Peter Gay, Freud A Life for Our Time, p.22)

Graduating from the Gymnasium with distinction, Freud began his medical studies at the age of 17 at the University of Vienna. He had planned to study law but joined the medical faculty where his studies included philosophy, physiology and zoology. Receiving his medical degree in 1881, Freud began research work on the nervous system, guided by Ernst van Brucke.

In 1882, Freud began three years of hospital residency at the old Viennese General hospital.

“The old Viennese General Hospital, with its four or five thousand patients, was one of the most famous teaching centers of the world, where almost every head of department was a medical celebrity.  There was great emulation among the medical staff and a keen competition for the much-coveted and poorly paid positions.” (Ellenberger, p.434)

It was here that Freud hoped to make a brilliant discovery, the secret hope of many young physicians that would bring him fame.  Reading an article about a supposedly harmless new drug – cocaine, written by Doctor Aschenbrandt, Freud experimented on himself and his friends and in July 1884 published a paper praising the virtues of the new drug which he described as an effective stimulant that could be used to combat fatigue, neurasthenic symptoms and the withdrawal of morphine in addicts. However the fame that Freud sought would at this stage eluded him, as his colleagues Leopold Konigstein and Carl Koller hearing Freud mention that cocaine caused a numbness of the tongue experimented with the drug on the eyes of animals and discovered its anesthetic properties. Konigstein and Koller presented the discovery to the Society of Physicians and acquired sudden fame.

“.. it was all the more frustrating to him since it was he who had given Koller the hint that led to the discovery. But Freud did not give up his study of cocaine.  He experimented with its effect on muscular force and continued to advocate the medical use of the new drug.  It was not long before Albrecht Erlenmeyer published a paper warning against the danger of cocaine addiction, and this was to be the beginning of a storm against Freud.” (Ellenberger, p.435)

In 1885, Freud received a one-year scholarship with Charcot at the Salpetrier in Paris.

“Charcot’s scientific style and personal charm overpowered Freud even more than his specific teachings.  He was “always stimulating, instructive and splendid,” Freud told March Bernays…Freud took intense pleasure in the intellectual excitement that animated Charcot as he diagnosed and identified particular mental ailments.” (Gay p.49)

Being able to discern one mental illness from another and from physical ailments was a rare art during this time and “Freud was amazed and impressed to see Charcot inducing and curing hysterical paralyses by means of direct hypnotic suggestion.” (Gay p.49) Under Charcot, Freud practiced and observed hypnosis as a clinical technique and began to formulate a theory of the mind.

In 1886, desiring to get married and needing to earn an income Freud entered private practice, specializing in brain and nervous disorders. One of Freud’s earliest and best known case studies, describes patient Anna O, a twenty-one year old woman who had fallen ill after nursing her father and who suffered from paralysis on her right side, language disorders (aphasia), double and distorted vision, mood swings, amnesia and various hallucinations.  First treated by Joseph Breuer and then Freud, Anna O, was diagnosed with hysteria, and was treated by what she described as her “talking cure” or “chimney sweeping”. During the course of analysis Anna O’s symptoms disappeared, as Breuer was able to make her evoke the specific circumstances that had led to their appearance. Breuer’s and Freud’s method of treating hysteria stands out as a turning point in the history of attempts to understand human psychology and Anna O’s treatment is regarded as the beginning of psychoanalysis.

Anna O’s case also shed light for the first time on the phenomenon called transference, the process by which the patient’s emotions, desires and feelings towards a significant figure in his/her life are unconsciously shifted to another person, especially onto the therapist.

Meeting with patients Freud encouraged them to recline and deeply relax on the “therapy coach” and encouraged the patient to speak about any thoughts or images that drifted into their awareness.

“The hysterics Freud treated in these heroic days displayed an astonishing assemblage of conversion symptoms, from painful legs to chilly feelings, depressive moods to intermittent hallucinations.  Freud was not yet prepared to eliminate the element of heredity, the “neuropathic” legacy, from his diagnoses.  But he now preferred to look for early traumatic experiences as clues to these hidden sources of his patients’ odd disabilities.  He was becoming persuaded that his neurotics’ secrets were what Breuer called secrets d’alcove, sexual conflicts hidden from the sufferers themselves….Listening became, for Freud, more than an art, it became a method, a privileged road to knowledge that his patients mapped out for him.” (Gay, p.70)

Freud recognized the value of purposeful attentive listening and for the first time in the treatment of mental distress, the patient’s response to the therapist become an explicit part of the treatment with Freud encouraging his patients to practice free association, a psychoanalytic technique that invites the patient to relate whatever thoughts, ideas, impressions and feelings come to mind without censorship or embarrassment.

By 1892, Freud had assembled the outlines of his psychoanalytic technique – close observation, apt interpretation and free association and in 1895, he co-authored with his colleague Josef Breuer,Studies of Hysteria, which contained a number of Breuer and Freud’s case studies of “hysterics” and introduced the technique of psychoanalysis as a form of cure.

Freud’s interest then shifted towards dream interpretation, finding through the analysis of his own dreams and that of his patients that all dreams are meaningful and contained symbols depicting inner conflict. One of the first dreams Freud analyzed has become known as Irma’s Injection.

Freud was experiencing difficulty with a patient he was treating and who did not wish to follow his proposed treatment, he referred to her as Irma. Visiting with a colleague who knew Irma, Freud asked about her condition, that night he dreamt:

“A large hall – numerous guests, whom we were receiving. – Among them was Irma. I at once took her to one side, as though to answer her letter and to reproach her for not having accepted my ‘solution’ yet. I said to her: ‘If you still get pains, it’s really only your fault.’ She replies: ‘If you only knew what pains I’ve got now in my throat and stomach and abdomen – it’s choking me.’ – I was alarmed and looked at her. She looked pale and puffy. I thought to myself that after all I must be missing some organic trouble. I took her to the window and looked down her throat, and she showed signs of recalcitrance, like women with artificial dentures. I thought to myself that there was really no need for her to do that. – She then opened her mouth properly and on the right I found a big white patch; at another place I saw extensive whitish grey scabs upon some remarkable curly structures which were evidently modeled on the turbinal bones of the nose. – I at once called in Dr M, and he repeated the examination and confirmed it … Dr M looked quite different from usual; he was very pale, he walked with a limp and his chin was clean-shaven … My friend Otto was now standing beside her as well, and my friend Leopold was percussing her through her bodice and saying: ‘She has a dull area low down on the left.’ He also indicated that a portion of the skin on her left shoulder was infiltrated. (I noticed this, just as he did, in spite of her dress.) … M said: ‘There’s no doubt it’s an infection, but no matter; dysentery will supervene and the toxin will be eliminated. … We were directly aware, too, of the origin of the infection. Not long before, when she was feeling unwell, my friend Otto had given her an injection of a preparation of propyl, propyls … propionic acid … trimethylamin (and I saw before me the formula for this printed in heavy type) … Injections of this sort ought not to be given so thoughtlessly … And probably the syringe had not been clean.

By analyzing this dream, Freud became aware that in dreams the ego’s defenses are lowered allowing repressed material to come through to awareness.  “Freud discerned a censoring mechanism that transformed unacceptable thoughts, so that they did not disturb sleep.  The dream revealed the process of repression in action.” (Peter D. Kramer, Freud, Inventor of the Modern Mind, p.83)

Freud concluded that dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious” and represent some sort of wish fulfillment.

In 1900, he published The Interpretation of Dreams in which he outlined the method of dream interpretation, the idea that a major function of dreams was the fulfillment of unmet wishes, the Oedipus complex, the work of repression, the struggle between desire and defense and a wealth of material from case histories.  In Freud’s later work on dreams he explored the universal symbols in dreams.  Some of these were sexual in nature including poles, suns and swords representing the penis.  However Freud was cautious about symbols and stated that general symbols are personal rather than universal and as such a person cannot interpret what the manifest content of a dream symbolizes without knowing about the person’s circumstances. Freud considered The Interpretation of Dreams his capital work and today the book is still considered a classic.

In 1904, he published The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, his most widely read and best known work, in which he theorized that forgetfulness or slips of the tongue, which we now call Freudian slips were not accidental at all but revealed meaningful dynamics of the unconscious. The book is the most widely read work of Freud’s and was translated into twelve languages in his lifetime.

In February 1907 Jung went to meet Freud in Vienna, in their initial meeting they spoke for thirteen straight hours. In the beginning, their relationship was facilitated by mutual good will with Jung being passionately interested and enthusiastic about Freud’s ideas.  Freud considered Jung, who was 19 years, his junior, the son and heir apparent who would succeed him as leader of the psychoanalytical movement.  As time passed Jung became increasingly critical about Freud’s ideas being unable to accept Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex and Libido representing sexual energy. This fundamental difference in thinking, led to a break between the two men.

By 1909 Freud was becoming a household name and by 1910 psychoanalysis was proclaimed a “movement” (and not just a new branch of science).

“During the year 1910 a peak came in Freud’s life and in the history of psychoanalysis. The Wednesday Psychoanalytic Society, which in 1908 had became the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society, could no longer meet in Freud’s apartment, with its increased membership.  At the second International Congress, in Nuremberg, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded…” ( Ellenberger, p.455)

It was in this same year Freud began analyzing, a wealthy, young Russian aristocrat whom he referred to as the Wolf Man. The Wolf Man came to Freud for treatment suffering from severe depression. During his analysis he presented the following dream:

“I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees.  I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window.  There were six or seven of them.  The wolves were quite white and looked more like foxes or sheep dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something.  In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up.  My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me.  It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree.  At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger and went to sleep again.”

Freud believed that the dream was the result of the Wolf Man having at an early age, witnessed his parent’s having sex.  The case played an important role in Freud’s development of his theory of psychosexual development, which describes how personality develops during childhood.  The case study was published in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis in 1918.

Freud wrote and theorized about a broad range of subjects including dreams, sex, obsessions, phobias, religion, women and culture, some of his major works include:

Studies of Hysteria, which he co-authored with his colleague Josef Breuer (1895); The Interpretation of Dreams (1900); The Psychopathology of Everyday life (1904); Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905); Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905); Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva (1907); Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1910); Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1910); Totem and Taboo (1913); On Narcissism (1914); Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1917); From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (1918); Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920); Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920); Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921); The Ego and the Id (1923); Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926); The Question of Lay Analysis (1926); The Future of an Illusion (1927);  Civilisation and It’s Discontents (1930); New Introductory Lectures on Pscyho-Analysis (1933); An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1938); Moses and Monotheism (1939).

While Freud’s theories have been widely criticized, his work made important contributions to how we view and treat mental illness. Some of Freud’s major contributions include:

  • The creation of a new psychotherapeutic method, based on the observations that individuals are often unconscious of many of the factors that determine their emotions and behavior and that looked at how these unconscious factors affect current relationships and patterns of behavior. The method included the use of the analytical coach and the creation of the analytical hour, an indispensable tool for the treatment and resolution of painful, immobilizing inner conflicts.


  • The creation of a psychoanalytic theory, emphasizing the influence of the unconscious mind on behavior and theorizing that the unconscious governs behavior to a far greater extent than people realize.   The goal of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious.


  • A structural model of the mind that divides the human personality up into three major components – the id, the ego and the superego. The id being the primitive part of the personality which seeks to fulfill all its wants, needs and impulses. The ego being the part of the personality that deals with reality and tries to balance the demands of the id in safe, realistic and socially acceptable ways.  The superego is the part of the personality that holds all our internalized morals and standards and which tries to get the ego to act in an idealistic and moral manner.


  • Stages of psychosexual development of the child. Freud believed that each stage of a child’s development is directly related to specific needs and demands, each based on a particular part of the body and all rooted in a sexual base. Gratification is important during each stage to prevent the individual from being stuck at any particular level.  This theory paved the way for further theories on how a child develops.


  • The identification of two basic instincts that drive our behavior – Eros, the sexual drive or creative life force and Thantaos, the death force or destructiveness. Both drives are driven by Libido, psychic and sexual energy.  How libido is expressed depends on the stage of development that the individual has reached.


  • The theory of defense mechanisms, which are used to protect the person from anxiety and include denial, repression, suppression, regression, displacement, sublimation, intellectualization, projections and rationalization.


  • Transference, the process by which the patient’s emotions, desires and feelings towards a significant figure in his/her life are unconsciously shifted to another person, especially onto the therapist.


  • The interpretation of dreams, dreams as expressions of repressed or unfulfilled wishes and the process of free association.


  • The creation of a psychoanalytic organization.


In 1923 at the age of 67, Freud was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw, a result of years of cigar smoking.  He would have 30 operations over the next 13 years to treat this progressive disease. By 1933, the Nazi party had risen to power in Germany.  They burned books of Freud and took over Austria in 1938.  Freud’s passport was confiscated, but his fame and the influence of foreigners persuaded the occupying forces to let him go and he and his wife fled to England where he died in 1937.

Today Freud’s theories and research methods are controversial and are in dispute or have been proven questionable.  The most common criticism of his theories is that they are neither scientific nor provable and that parts of his theory are too generalized. Whilst many of these criticisms are valid and totally justified, his theories changed the field of psychology and introduced a new way of analyzing human behavior. He deserves credit for a comprehensive model of what it means to be human, the existence of unconscious mental processes, the childhood origins of adult behavior, the phenomena of transference, defense mechanisms and the psychoanalytic model of treatment which provides the bases for modern day depth psychology and psychotherapy.



Freud, A Life for Our Time, Peter Gay, Anchor Books 1989

Cassandra’s Daughter, Joseph Schwartz, Penguin Books 1999

The Discovery of the Unconscious, Henri F. Ellenberger, 1970

Freud Inventor of the Modern Mind, Peter D. Kramer, Atlas Books, 2006