Freud’s Classical Psychodynamic theory

The Psychodynamic approach to personality stems from Sigmund Freud’s theory about how and why people become who they are.



According to Freud, an internal structure of the mind is made up of three parts:

  1. The Id,
  2. The Ego, and
  3. The Superego.

1. Id is the irrational, emotional, impulsive part of the mind that pushes people to act on their impulses and seeks immediate gratification.
2. Ego is the rational part of the mind that considers all perspectives and weighs the pros and cons of a course of action. The ego has a more long-term perspective than the id.
3. Superego is the moral part of the mind that seeks to follow rules, social norms, and personal value. However, it pushes people to act in accordance with their values and ideals.


1. These three parts of the mind can sometimes function independently, but they often come into conflict, “pushing” for opposite behaviors.
2. In these cases, the Ego is supposed to be the moderator between the Id and Superego and make an executive decision.
3. According to Freud, unresolved conflict between the different parts of the mind leads to anxiety.

The importance of the unconscious in the psychodynamic theory:

The psychodynamic theory of personality emphasizes that an individual’s behavior (and thus his or her personality) is not always the result of conscious mental processes; many of the processes underlying behavior are unconscious. This has several examples:

1. Self-knowledge: If some of the motives for our behavior reside in our unconscious, we may not be aware of all aspects of our personality. Thus, people may have personality characteristics they honestly don’t believe they have.

2. Psychic determinism is the view that every act is determined by what is going on in a person’s conscious and unconscious mind. Freud claimed that all behaviors are a reflection of what is going on in the person’s mind.

3. Defense mechanisms: Freud believed that part of the reason so much of personality resides in the unconscious is because many motives, thoughts, and feelings are threatening for us to admit to ourselves. Thus, we develop means to keep those aspects outside of our consciousness by developing self-protective strategies. These strategies are called defense mechanisms and include the following.

  • Denial is refusing to acknowledge something
  • Repression is pushing something out of your mind so you do not think about it. You don’t actively deny it; rather, you just decide not to think about it and eventually forget it.
  • Reaction formation is convincing yourself of the opposite of what is actually true.
  • Projection is attributing an unwanted trait or thought to someone else.
  • Rationalization is coming up with a logical, rational (but false) explanation for a shameful thought or action.

Personality (psychosexual) development according to the psychodynamic perspective.

  1. Freud argued that early childhood experiences are extremely important for personality development. Adults are the way they are in large part because of what happened to them in childhood.
  2. He sensed strong sexual conflicts in the infant and young child, conflicts that seemed to revolve around specific regions of the body.
  3. In his psychodynamic theory, Freud believed most people went through five stages of psychosexual development, and failure to progress through each of these stages associates with particular personality problems.
  4. Fixation is a lingering focus of pleasure-seeking energies at an earlier psychosexual stage during which conflicts were unresolved. For example, a fixation on oral pleasure would indicate being stuck in the oral stage, we will discuss below.
  5. He believed that the infant is driven to obtain a diffuse form of bodily pleasure deriving from the mouth, anus, and genitals, the erogenous zones that define the stages of development during the first five years of life.
  6. Each stage is associated with a particular psychological struggle and also with a physical focus.

Five Stages of Psychosexual Development in Freud’s psychodynamic theory

The Oral Stage

  • The oral stage, the first stage of psychosexual development, lasts from birth until some time during the second year of life. During this period, the infant’s principal source of pleasure is the mouth, tongue, and lips.. The infant derives pleasure from sucking, biting, and swallowing.
  • There are two ways of behaving during this stage: oral incorporative behavior (taking in) and oral aggressive or oral sadistic behavior (biting or spitting out). 
    1.  The oral incorporative behavior mode occurs first and involves the pleasurable stimulation of the mouth by other people and by food.
    2.  Oral aggressive or oral sadistic, occurs during the painful, frustrating eruption of teeth. As a result of this experience, infants come to view the mother with hatred as well as love.
  • Oral fixations include using the mouth to self-soothe under stress, such as smoking, biting fingernails, employing sarcasm, etc.
  • Failure to successfully pass through this stage can lead to the adult personality characteristic of being overly dependent or its opposite, overly independent.

The Anal Stage

  • According to Freud, from age 18 months to 3-1/2 years, the primary struggle children face is obedience and self-control. Children typically go through toilet training during this stage.
  • The physical focus of this stage is anus.
  • Freud believed that the experience of toilet training during the anal stage had a significant effect on personality development. Defecation produces erotic pleasure for the child, but with the onset of toilet training, the child must learn to postpone or delay this pleasure.
  • Failure to successfully pass through this stage can lead to the adult personality characteristic of being extremely rule-abiding and obsessed with order (anal retentive) or its opposite, being rebellious, chaotic, and anti-authority (anal expulsive).

The Phallic Stage

  • A new set of problems arises around the fourth to fifth year, when the focus of pleasure shifts from the anus to the genitals. The primary struggle children face is figuring out their gender identity and sexuality.
  • The physical focus of this stage is the sexual organs
  • The child becomes curious about birth and about why boys have penises and girls do not.
  • Failure to successfully pass through this stage leads to the adult personality characteristic of being over-sexualized (e.g., flirty) or its opposite, being undersexualized (e.g., overly modest).

The Latency Period

  • The next 5 or 6 years are quiet.
  • The latency period is not a psychosexual stage of development. The sex instinct is dormant, temporarily sublimated in school activities, hobbies, and sports and in developing friendships with members of the same sex.
  • children do not face any special psychological struggles and do not fixate on any body part. All earlier issues remain hidden in the unconscious.

The Genital Stage

  • The genital stage, the final psychosexual stage of development, begins at puberty.
  • Freud believed that the conflict during this period is less intense than in the other stages. The primary struggle is the creation and enhancement of life.
  • Freud believed that people rarely completely resolve this struggle, but if they were to, the result would be a healthy, mature adult personality.
  • The genital personality type is able to find satisfaction in love and work, the latter being an acceptable outlet for sublimation of the id impulses.
  • There is no particular body part associated with this stage, though the physical focus more generally is one’s sexuality, especially in relation to others (i.e., intimate relationships).


Sydney Ellen Schultz, Duane Schultz. Theories of personality, (10th ed) © 2013, 2009 Wadsworth, Cengage Learning

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