Firstly, it is important to understand that psychoanalytic theory was
not designed as a personality theory per se. Rather, it was the
first major, coherent, psychological theory. Psychoanalytic is
broad in scope and offered unique, controversial insights into how the human mind worked.
In addition, psychoanalytic theory provided a new approach to psychotherapy, thus it provided new treatment techniques for
psychological problems that had previously puzzled doctors and others.
Unlike other personality theories, the psychoanalytic theory is
relatively cohesive (e.g., the Biological Theory consists of many
different, separate ideas, models and theories). This approach to personality
takes up the challenge of explaining what is going on when what is going on is
difficult to understand.
The main thrusts of the psychoanalytic perspective on personality are that:
Psychic energy is needed to make the mind go
& the energy (motivation) cannot be destroyed, it must be expressed:
The psychoanalytic approach assumes that the psychological apparatus of
the mind needs some kind of energy to make it go. This energy is used in
psychological work such as planning, thinking, feeling, remembering. The
psychic energy is thought to come from 2 main drives: Eros (or libido,
the life and sexual instincts) and Thanatos (death instinct). The
thinking is that at any time there is only a finite amount of energy
available and if itís busily being used say to repress memories, and
deal with anxieties, then itís not being used fruitfully. If the
neuroses can be resolved, then the psychic energy can be freed to use
more creatively and productively.
Psychic Determinism: Everything that happens in a personís mind and
everything a person does has a specific, identifiable cause i.e.
psychic determinism. Psychoanalysis has no room for miracles,
accidents or free will. All seeming contradictions of mind and
behaviour can be resolved: nothing is accidental, e.g.,
it is not accidental when you forget someoneís name, drop something,
say one thing and do another. The purpose of psychoanalysis is to dig
these hidden causes out, bring them into conscious awareness, and
through this insight, the cause can be resolved.
Humans have base instincts (unconscious urges): In Freudian psychology, the unconscious is
extremely important in determining behaviour. This is a pervasive
theme of the approach: that a lot of desires, motivations and
conflicts are seething below the surface, below the level of
consciousness. Freud believed that people are driven, fundamentally, by
unconscious, animalistic, instinctual urges, particularly lust (eros)
aggression (thanatos). These urges are often in conflict with
the demands of society. For example, humans desire pleasure, but
society places limits on the kinds of pleasure-seeking which it deems
acceptable. Freud emphasizes the extent to which humans are
motivated by psychosexual pleasure.
Topography of the psyche (unconscious, pre-conscious, conscious):
Using an iceberg metaphor, the unconscious is understood to be the large
part of the mind, which is hidden from view. The pre-conscious is
represented by the waterline - but it is the zone in which there are
fleeting glimpses of the unconscious, "flickering" across the screen of
consciousness. Finally, the relatively small part of the iceberg
which sticks of the water is seen as equivalent to the small amount of
conscious awareness that the human experiences. Freud also
believed that if there was information that was too painful for the
conscious part to bear, that defense mechanisms would act to push it
down it into the unconscious part of the mind.
Structure of Mind (Id, Ego, Superego): The mind has an internal structure
-- three parts with separate motivations: Id
(irrational and emotional part of the mind); the Ego (rational part);
and the Superego (the moral part).
The Way Psychic Conflicts are Resolved Shapes Personality: Personality characteristics are determined by
the way in which a person learns to resolve unconscious conflicts
amongst the Id, Ego & Superego. This evolves from how
people handle several psychosexual stages during childhood.
Personality is very strongly influenced by
early experiences. Freud was the first to really emphasize the
importance of early childhood experiences. People's Id, Ego and Superego develop characteristic patterns of
interaction which for them resolve the urges for psychosexual pleasures.
However, in some people, a psychosexual stage may not be effectively
resolved and this leads to adult personalities characterized being
"stuck" at a particular psychosexual stage (e.g., anally retentive or
anally expulsive if the 2nd psychosexual stage "anal" (learning how to
"let go" of faeces)) is not resolved, depending on which of the Id,
Ego, and Superego becomes more dominant. The quality of a
person's mental health was seen as determined by the extent to which
psychic conflicts had been effectively resolved. If the forces
of mind are in balance, according to Freud, then good psychological
Personality is viewed as a dynamic set of process which
are always in motion i.e. psychodynamic. Because of the
dynamism, it is possible for an adult personality characteristic to be altered
quite dramatically through therapeutic (psychodynamic) insight.
Life is Painful, Therefore We Use Defense Mechanisms to Shield Our
Psyche's from the Pain: Psychological defenses are proposed as important aspects of human
functioning. Because of human's desire for pleasure (note,
they also have destructive instincts), life is essentially too painful for the human being to endure
consciously, therefore much of the pain and conflict is diverted via
defence mechanisms and kept within the unconscious. It is within
the hidden unconscious that much of the conflict takes place, and
these conflicts in the unconscious mind are seen as the root of
behavior and conscious experience.
Apparently paradoxical or irrational behaviors can be accounted for by
these inner conflicts, i.e., psychic determinism.
Unconscious Leaks Into Conscious Awareness via dreams, slips of the
tongue, psychosomatic symptoms, and so on: The unconscious is
dynamic, and the psychic energy must go somewhere, plus there is psychic
determinism. In other words, whilst the unconscious conflicts may
be largely kept from conscious awareness, they still significantly
influence behaviors, psychosomatics, plus leak into the preconscious.
Therapeutic Relief Can be Achieved Through Insight into the
Therapeutic relief can be effected by helping a person to bring underlying conflicts,
often related to past
negative learning experiences during critical psychosexual stages.
To the extent that insight and understanding can be
achieved, and a person can resolve many psychological problems.
Note that the therapeutic emphasis on the role and value of achieving
"self-insight" is a notion later explored by humanistic psychology.
Psychoanalytic therapy was the first "talk therapy" -- it was noticed
for the first time formally in psychology that talking about it helps!
Psychotherapy may also use project assessment techniques, such as the
Rorschach Inkblot Test.