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Psychodynamic Approach: Psychological Defenses and Development

Freud’s threefold division of the personality was just a way of saying that our thoughts and actions are determined by the interplay of three major factors:

Psychological Defenses and Development


Freud’s threefold division of the personality was just a way of saying that our thoughts and actions are determined by the interplay of three major factors: our biological drives (the id), the commands and prohibitions of society (the superego), and the various ways we have learned to satisfy the former while respecting the latter (the ego).


Obviously, though, these three forces will sometimes pull us in different directions—for example, when we want to do something but know we cannot or should not—and this guarantees conflict among the competing forces. Imagine that a child performs some forbidden act and is then scolded or disciplined by his parents. The child feels threatened with the loss of his parents’ love and becomes anxious about this. This anxiety leaves its mark, and the next time the child is about to perform the same act—say, touch his penis or pinch his baby brother—he will feel a twinge of anxiety, an internal reminder that his parents may castigate him and the worry that he will be abandoned and alone.




Since anxiety is unpleasant, the child will do everything he can to ward it off. If the cause of the anxiety is a real-world event or object, the child can simply run away and remove himself from it. But how can he cope with a danger lurking within—a threat-ening fantasy, a forbidden wish? To quell this anxiety, the child must suppress the thoughts that triggered it, pushing the thoughts from conscious view. In short, the thought must be repressed.


According to Freud, repression serves as the primary defense mechanism that pro-tects the individual from anxiety. But repression is often incomplete. The thoughts and urges that were pushed underground may resurface along with the associated anxiety. As a result, various further mechanisms of defense are brought into play to reinforce the original dam against the forbidden impulses.

One such mechanism is displacement—a process in which repressed urges find new and often disguised outlets, outlets that are more acceptable to the ego and super-ego. An example is a child who is disciplined by her parents and who then vents her anger by punching or kicking her doll. A different defense is reaction formation, in which she guards against the repressed wish by turning to thoughts and behaviors which provide the diametrical opposite of the forbidden ideas. A young boy who hates his sister and is punished for calling her names may protect himself by bombarding her with exaggerated love and tenderness, a desperate bulwark against aggressive wishes that he cannot accept.


In still other defense mechanisms, the repressed thoughts break through but are rein-terpreted or unacknowledged. One example of this is rationalization, in which the per-son interprets her own feelings or actions in more acceptable terms. The cruel father beats his child mercilessly but is sure that he does so “for the child’s own good.” A related mechanism is projection. Here the forbidden urges well up and are recognized as such. But the person does not realize that these wishes are his own; instead, he attributes them to others. “I desire you” becomes “You desire me,” and “I hate you” becomes “You hate me”—desperate defenses against repressed sexual or hostile wishes that can no longer be banished from consciousness (S. Freud, 1911; Schul & Vinokur, 2000).



Why does one person develop one pattern of defenses, while the next develops another pattern? The answer for Freud lies in the events of early childhood, events that, in Freud’s view, were remarkably similar from person to person, and that give rise to a gen-eral set of stages through which we all pass (S. Freud, 1905). Freud called these the stages of psychosexual development, and, although he believed the stages wereuniversal, the way the conflicts at each stage were handled differed from person to per-son. It is these differences, Freud believed, that give rise both to observable variations in personality and to psychopathology.


According to Freud, the child starts life as a bundle of instincts to seek pleasure, with the pleasure readily found in the stimulation of certain sensitive zones of the body. For the youngest child, most of the pleasure seeking is through the mouth, a period of life that Freud termed the oral stage. As the infant attains bowel control, the emphasis shifts to pleasures associated with the anus (the anal stage). Still later, the child shows increased interest in pleasure from genital stimulation (the phallic stage). The culmina-tion of psychosexual development is attained in adult sexuality when pleasure involves not just one’s own gratification but also the social and bodily satisfaction brought to another person (the genital stage).


Within this sequence, Freud held that the pivotal point in the child’s psychosexual development is the Oedipus complex, named after the Theban king of classical Greek liter-ature who unwittingly committed two awful crimes—killing his father and marrying his mother (Figure 15.15). Because Freud came to believe that the sequence of steps is some-what different in the two sexes (S. Freud, 1905), we will take them up separately.


At about the age of 3 or 4 years, the phallic stage begins for the young boy. At this time, he becomes increasingly interested in his penis, and he seeks an external object for his sexual urges. The inevitable choice, in Freud’s view, is the most important woman in the boy’s young life—his mother. But there is an obstacle—the boy’s father. The little boy wants to have his mother all to himself, as a comforter as well as an erotic partner, but this sexual utopia is out of the question. His father is a rival, and he is big-ger. The little boy therefore wants his father to go away and not come back—in short, to die.

At this point, a new element enters into the family drama. The little boy begins to fear the father he is jealous of. According to Freud, this is because the boy is certain that the father knows of his son’s hostility and will surely answer hate with hate. With child-ish logic, the little boy becomes convinced the punishment his father will mete out will be catastrophic. This leads to intolerable anxiety, and the anxiety escalates still further until the father is unconsciously viewed as an overwhelming ogre who threatens to annihilate his little son. As the little boy grows, so does his rivalry with his father and its accompanying terror. Eventually, though, he hits on a solution. He throws in the towel, relinquishes his mother as an erotic object, identifies with his father, and renounces genital pleasure until he is older.


What about girls? In Freud’s view, females go through essentially identical oral and anal phases as do males. In many ways, the development of the young girl’s phal-lic interests (Freud used the same term for both sexes) corresponds to the boy’s. As he focuses his erotic interests on the mother, so she focuses hers on the father. As he resents and eventually fears his father, so does she her mother. In short, there is a female version of the Oedipus complex, sometimes called the Electra complex, after the Greek tragic heroine who goaded her brother into slaying their mother.


Of course, like young boys, young girls’ first attachment is to their mother. It is the mother, after all, who nurses the infant (and so provides pleasure during the oral phase). It is likewise the mother who, for most infants, is the primary caregiver. So why, according to Freud, does a girl switch love objects and come to desire her father? To answer this question, Freud proposed that the shift of attachment begins as the little girl discovers that she does not have a penis. According to Freud, she regards this lack as a catastrophe, considers herself unworthy, and develops penis envy. One conse-quence is that she withdraws her love from the mother, whom she regards as equally unworthy. Freud argued that, painfully, she turns to her father, who has the desirable organ and who she believes can help her obtain a penis substitute—a child. From here on, the rest of the process unfolds more or less like its counterpart in the boy: love of father, jealousy of mother, increasing fear of mother, eventual repression of the entire complex, and identification with the mother (S. Freud, 1925, 1933; LaFarge, 1993).


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