Sigmund Freud is said to be the founder of psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalytic theory is a method of investigating and treating personality disorders that is commonly used in psychotherapy. Included in this theory is the idea that things that happen to people during childhood can contribute to the way they later function as adults. Discover some psychoanalytic theory examples and learn more about this approach to understanding personality and behavior.
What Is Psychoanalytic Theory?
Psychoanalytic theory focuses on the mind-body connection to personality. Freud believed that the mind is made of two parts — the conscious mind and the unconscious mind — and that the unconscious mind often prompts people to make certain decisions even if they don't recognize that they are doing so on a conscious level.
ID, Ego and Superego
According to Freud, personality has three parts — the id, the ego and the superego. These three elements of personality are largely driven by a person's unconscious mind. These three different parts of personality interact to influence the decisions a person makes and how that person behaves.
- A person's id seeks instant gratification and pleasure.
- At the opposite extreme, the superego seeks to follow the rules of society and morality.
- The ego is in a constant struggle to balance the id and superego.
According to Freud, a person's personality is formed by the process and results of struggles. He posits that most of an individual's personality is formed by the age of five.
Psychoanalytic Theory: Inner Forces Drive Behavior
There are many examples of psychoanalytic theory in human behavior. Some may even be highly relatable to your own life.
Psychoanalytic Theory in Relationships
A lot of relationship problems can be explained via psychoanalytic theory. Someone who has been hurt in the past by people they loved and/or should have loved them will often have trouble building strong relationships.
- April broke up with Mark and three months later went on a date with Adam. While at the restaurant, April accidentally called Adam by Mark's name. This could have just been a simple accident, but psychoanalytic theory says that there is a deeper reason for April's slip. Maybe she still has feelings for Mark and her mind is on him. So, she called her new date by her old boyfriend's name.
- Mary's therapist believes that Mary's current relationship difficulties stem from the unstable relationship she had with her father while growing up. If she came to expect instability in relationships, her unconscious may seek out difficult relationships or even cause her to behave in a way that introduces instability to the relationship dynamic.
- Tom and Ashley were participating in pre-marital counseling. It came up during one session that Tom may have difficulty really believing that Ashley loves him because he never felt that his parents loved him. A child who doesn't feel loved at a young age may grow up to feel unlovable.
- Levi is adamant that he does not want to get married. His parents divorced when he was young, and deep down, he does not really think that any marriage can work. As a result, he sabotages any relationships that start to get serious.
- Cheryl had grown up in an abusive home and couldn't wait to get to college to escape from her parents. She met some wonderful people at school, but it took her a long time to develop close friendships because of the trust issues she had developed as a child and teenager.
Psychoanalytic Theory and Traumatic Events
When a person experiences a trauma, that event can inform how they react to or approach future events. Even when one has learned to cope with a trauma that has occurred, it can unconsciously impact their future behavior.
- Every time the vehicle she is riding in stops suddenly, Mrs. Smith panics. She thinks this is because she was in a car accident when she was a child, and in each new situation the fear of another accident crashes over her like a wave.
- Jack's mother left his family when he was a child. Ever since then, he has had a very difficult time trusting people because he is afraid they will abandon him.
- When Kelly was seven, her brother died. Now that she is about to be married, her deepest fear comes out: she is terrified to have children, especially a son because she is afraid that the child will die at a young age.
- The violent behavior of criminals is often traced to the violent ways they themselves were treated during their formative years. Children who experience abuse normalize such behavior, so it becomes within the range of what is acceptable to their ego.
- When Tim proposed to Emma, she didn't accept because she couldn't wrap her head around the idea that he wanted to be with her for a lifetime. Six years earlier her fiancé had called off their wedding after the rehearsal dinner, and Emma had never recovered.
Psychoanalytic Theory and Compensation
Something that a person missed out on earlier in life can drive their future behavior as they seek to "make up" for something they have missed out on (or perceive that they missed).
- Amber is 57 years old and is an accomplished professional, but she never feels like her work is good enough and is always afraid that people will be unhappy with her performance. She realizes that she might have this outlook because when she was growing up, her mother criticized everything she did. If she brought home a test with an A+ on it, her mother would comment that Amber must have cheated because she certainly wasn't smart enough to do that well on her own.
- When Melanie graduated from college, she almost couldn't believe it. She never thought she'd do it because the words of her first-grade teacher calling her a failure had always haunted her.
- Sylvia was planning her wedding, but her mother wanted to override every decision Sylvia made. In conversation one day, Sylvia's mother admitted that she never got to have the wedding that she wanted, so she was trying to include what she had wanted for her own wedding into her daughter's wedding.
- Laura reminded her co-worker Max of his mother, from whom he was estranged. Max found it harder and harder to separate his feelings towards Laura from his feelings towards his mother. Even though Laura was perfectly nice, her mannerisms and speech seemed like a mirror image of his mom. At the end of one particularly difficult day, Max blew up at Laura, letting loose with a string of comments he'd wanted for years to say to his mom but never did.
- Sarah was adopted into a loving family when she was five. However, for years she displayed aggressive behavior towards her adoptive parents and siblings, even though they were incredibly kind to her. The adoption specialists advised the family not to take Sarah's behavior personally, explaining that her anger was really directed at her birth parents and former foster families for the way she had been treated.
Psychoanalytic Theory and the Unconscious Mind
The unconscious mind can regulate behavior in many ways. Sometimes your id wants something that you can't consciously admit that you want, but you do something that will let you get it anyway.
- Andrew lost his car keys and was late for work. A psychoanalytic theorist might say that he lost his keys because, somewhere in his subconscious mind, he did not want to go to work that day and actually wanted to quit his job. He wouldn't consciously just miss work, but the key misplacement could be an excuse to help make that happen.
- Kathy was driving her daughter around in the van, trying to get the three-month-old to take a nap. She wasn't paying much attention to where she was going and realized that she had driven to the house of an old friend with whom she hadn't spoken in years. She wondered if that was her subconscious telling her that it was time to reconcile with her friend.
- Justin's parents have always encouraged him to play baseball and think he is an excellent player; but, Justin would rather play tennis. His parents make him try out for the baseball team anyway. Justin does not make the team. He normally is a good player, but on the day of tryouts, he did not do well. He probably was not able to play his best because, deep down, he did not want to make the team anyway.
- Heather often tells white lies and is known for giving evasive answers to questions. Her husband thinks Heather does this because deep down she is afraid of facing the truth about difficult situations, so she avoids the truth in both major and minor circumstances.
- Matt has asked Miranda several times to get together to study. Miranda keeps saying she wants to but is never available when Matt asks. Matt finally concludes that Miranda probably really doesn't want to meet with him, or else she would make it work.
Build Your Psychology Knowledge
These psychoanalysis theory examples can all help illustrate how psychoanalytic theory works. Now that you know what psychoanalytic theory is and have seen some psychoanalysis examples, take the time to expand your understanding of psychology. Start by learning a selection of basic psychology terms and what they mean.