Psychoanalytic Theories: Examples and Explanations

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psychoanalysis theory examples, explained below

Psychoanalysis is the branch of psychology that investigates the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in the mind.

Founded by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, this theoretical framework aims to bring repressed fears and conflicts into the conscious mind, allowing an individual to confront and better understand their feelings and behaviors. The process usually involves dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst, often focusing on the patient’s dreams and childhood memories.

Psychoanalysis posits that human behavior is a product of internal conflicts, unconscious desires, and past experiences. In this framework, resolving these conflicts and bringing them to consciousness can lead to improved mental health and a clearer understanding of oneself.

While Freud’s ideas are largely debunked, subsequent researchers have build-on his foundations to develop their own useful ideas about the subconscious psyche.

Psychoanalytic Theory Examples

1. Ego Psychology (Freud)

Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, developed a theory of how the subconscious mind operates.

He held that the mind contained three components: the id, ego, and superego. Each influence one another and are in struggle. The id represents impulse, the ego represents pragmatism, and the superego represents morals:

Freudian ComponentDefinitionRuling Principle
IdThe Id is primitive and instinctive. It governs all of the innate drives we have, present at birth, including Eros (sex instinct) and Thanatos (death instinct). (Freud & Strachey, 1955).The Pleasure Principle: The Id drives us to seek immediate gratification, i.e. pleasure. If our desires are not satisfied immediately, we may fall into a state anxiety or tension (Renkins, 2017).
EgoThe Ego is responsible for dealing with reality as it is, not what we want it to be. It emerges through experiences of interaction with the world, where we learn that we all experience frustration, delay, and occasional dissatisfaction (Crews, 2017).The Reality Principle: The reality principle controls the Ego. It seeks to mediate the Id’s drive in realistic ways. (Sayers, 2020).
SuperegoThe Superego is responsible for our morals, ethics, and ideals. It strives for perfection at all times (Samuels, 2019).The Perfection Principle: The Superego seeks to live up to moral standards, which are internalized through our upbringing. It is in direct conflict with the Id. (Johnson, 2020).

See Also: Freudian Slip Examples

2. Psychosexual Development Theory (Freud)

Freud’s second important contribution to psychoanalysis was his theory of development. In this theory, he believed people developed through distinct stages, driven by sexual desires.

Each of Freud’s stages is characterized by a different sexually-related challenge that must be overcome, or else we will develop a complex for the rest of our lives.

The stages are outlined below:

StageAge RangeCore Challenge
OralBirth – 1 yearDependency and the satisfaction gained from oral activities like sucking and eating.
Anal1 – 3 yearsManaging and controlling bladder and bowel movements; balancing demands and autonomy.
Phallic3 – 6 yearsResolving the Oedipus/Electra complex; identifying with same-sex parent.
Latency6 years – pubertyChanneling sexual energy into socially acceptable activities; dormant sexual feelings.
GenitalPuberty – adulthoodEstablishing intimate relationships and balancing love and work.

Go Deeper: Freud’s Theory of Personality – An Overview

3. the Collective Unconscious (Jung)

Carl Jung, a prominent Swiss psychiatrist, introduced the concept of the collective unconscious to psychology.

The collective unconscious is proposed to be a part of the unconscious mind, manifested by universal archetypes or symbols that are shared among all humans due to ancestral experience.

In essence, Jung’s idea posits that our behaviors and thoughts are not merely personal but influenced by ancestral knowledge contained within the collective unconscious. This concept distinguishes itself from the personal unconscious, which refers to information that has been acquired during one’s life but has been forgotten or repressed.

According to Jung, exploring your collective unconscious (through dreams or various forms of therapy) allows you to tap into universal experiences (known as Jungian archetypes) and ideas that shape your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Go Deeper: Jung’s Collective Unconscious – An Overview

4. Psychological Archetypes (Jung)

The second key contribution of Carl Jung to psychoanalysis is the concept of archetypes. Jung defined these as universal and innate symbols present in the collective unconscious of all human beings.

Psychological archetypes, according to Jung, play a vital role in influencing human thoughts, actions, and feelings. They are generally formed through historical experiences shared by our ancestors and can be recognized through patterns that emerge in dreams, literature, art, or religion.

Some of the main Jungian archetypes include the Self, the Persona, the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, the Great Mother, the Wise Old Man, the Hero, and the Trickster.

Each archetype represents a different aspect of the human psyche. For instance, the Persona represents the image we present to the world while the Shadow houses our darkest desires and impulses. Understanding these archetypes, Jung argued, could help individuals to gain insights into their behaviors and deeper selves.

Go Deeper: Jungian Archetypes – An Overview

5. Adler’s Individual Psychology

Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychotherapist, established a unique perspective called Individual Psychology. It emphasizes the person as a whole unit and highlights the importance of societal factors, notably family and community, on individual development.

Adler argued that human character traits are shaped by an individual’s drive to overcome feelings of inferiority, which he called Inferiority Complex. The feelings arise in childhood from our realization of being lesser and weaker than adults. Correctly overcoming these feelings guides us toward mastery and personal growth, known as striving for superiority.

According to Adler, this pursuit of superiority is influenced by one’s lifestyle, an overall strategy we construct to navigate society and face challenges. The relational approach encouraged by Adler manifests in our goal-setting and problem-solving behavior, underscoring how our interactions with society profoundly shape our individuality.

6. Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson made Freudian psychology far more palatable with his psychosocial rather than psychosexual model of development.

Whereas Freud argued that psychosexual energy (called the libido) was the driving force behind development, Erikson argued that it was social desires that are core to psychological development.

Erikson went on to formulate a set of lifelong stages, where the core challenge or crisis in each stage was not sexual in nature, but social:

StageAge RangePsychosocial CrisisBasic Virtue
Trust vs. MistrustBirth – 1 yearDeveloping trust in caregivers and environmentHope
Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt1 – 3 yearsLearning to control one’s body and make choicesWill
Initiative vs. Guilt3 – 6 yearsStarting to make decisions and carry out plansPurpose
Industry vs. Inferiority6 years – pubertyDeveloping skills and abilities to cope with the worldCompetence
Identity vs. Role ConfusionAdolescenceForming a coherent sense of self and life directionFidelity
Intimacy vs. IsolationYoung adulthoodEstablishing deep and meaningful relationshipsLove
Generativity vs. StagnationMiddle adulthoodContributing to society and the next generationCare
Ego Integrity vs. DespairLate adulthoodReflecting on one’s life and either feeling satisfaction or regretWisdom

Each stage presents a central conflict or crisis that individuals must navigate. Successfully resolving each crisis leads to the development of a basic virtue that contributes to a healthy personality and interactions with others.

Go Deeper: Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development

7. Klein’s Object Relations Theory

Melanie Klein, a prominent child psychoanalyst, offered a novel perspective through her Object Relations Theory.

This theory focuses on our interpersonal relations, asserting that our experiences with others (objects) significantly impact our personal growth and perception of the world.

According to Klein, early childhood experiences, particularly those involving primary caregivers, play an instrumental role in shaping our psyche, our expectations of others, and our relationships. These “objects” or people can either be part-objects, such as a mother’s breast to a hungry baby, or whole objects like the mother herself.

Klein proposed that we develop both positive and negative feelings towards these objects, resulting in what she termed the “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” positions:

  • Paranoid-Schizoid: This refers to a child’s early perception of good and bad objects.
  • Depressive: This introduces the awareness that objects can possess both good and bad qualities.

By understanding these interactions, Klein believed, we could grapple with our difficulties and derive insights into our relationships.

Before you Go

I’ve provided links throughout this piece to help you go deeper into your exploration of the various psychoanalytic theories. But it’s also worth zooming out to see the range of other theories in psychology, including:

  • Cognitive Psychology: This branch studies mental processes such as thinking, memory, perception, and problem-solving.
  • Behavioral Psychology: This focuses on observable behaviors and the effects of the environment on them.
  • Humanist Psychology: This emphasizes individual potential, self-actualization, and the intrinsic nature of human beings.
  • Developmental Psychology: This examines the psychological changes and growth that occur throughout the human lifespan.
  • Personality Theories in Psychology: These seek to explain the enduring patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion that characterize individual humans.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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