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Freud's psychodynamic approach to abnormality

Updated on March 24, 2013

Freud’s psychodynamic approach to abnormality:

In general, psychodynamic accounts explain behaviour in terms of dynamic or motivational forces which drive us. These forces cause change and development. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is the best know psychodynamic account, but it is not the only one! It claims that mental disorder is the product of unconscious conflicts formed in early childhood.

First, it would be useful to know a bit about Freud’s structure of the mind:

Freud made two claims, first being that the mind has three parts (the id, not I.D, but id, the ego, and the superego), and second being that the mind has both conscious and unconscious elements.

He believed the id, ego and superego reflect how a person relates to different aspects of himself/herself. To simplify things, Freud believed that the id is unconscious, and in the source of basic urges that demand immediate satisfaction such as sex and food. He believed the ego is mostly the conscious, rational thinking and intellectual part of your personality and the superego is mostly conscious, and is your social consequence which makes up the moral part of your personality.

The id and superego come into conflict because the id wants its demands dealt with straight away whilst the superego’s conscience wants us to behave in a rational manner (an acceptable way). The ego’s role is to manage the id and superego in a rational way. If the ego is weak and either the id or the superego is allowed to dominate, that is when abnormality can occur.

Largely conscious
Develops from the id during the second 6 months of life
Fully formed by about the age of two
Rational, intellectual part of your personality
Plans and makes decisions
It is in contact with the outside world
Keeps our thoughts and actions in step with the world
Realises operating on the pleasure principle is not the most effective method
It works on the reality principle which mediates between the demands of reality and immediate gratification.
Regulates the id and mediates between the id and superego

Largest part of the mind
Wholly unconscious
Source of basic urges like food, water, warmth, affection, aggression and sex
Ids motivating force is called the libido
Works n the pleasure principle – seeks immediate gratification
If the id isn’t satisfied, tension is produced and the id attempts to eliminate the tension quickly

Largely unconscious
Develops from ego, throughout childhood
Contains social conscience
The conscience is formed about ages 5 – 6
Moral part of our personality
When children discover many impulses are unacceptable to their parents, their parents’ values become the child’s to attain approval
Guides us to acceptable behaviour
Threatens ego with consequences of wrong doing or we are rewarded for good behaviour

The relationships:
Id and superego are indirect conflict
A well adjusted person develops a strong ego to control the ego and id, allowing them to express themselves at appropriate times.
If id impulses are unchecked, they are expressed in immorality and destructiveness which may lead to childhood conduct disorders and adult psychopathic behaviour.
Dominant superego overly restricts id so person is deprived of even socially acceptable pleasures which leads to neurosis (anxiety disorders etc).
If the personality doesn’t develop properly and neurotic anxiety emerges, the discomfort felt by the anxious ego can be handled by ego defence mechanisms that unconsciously distort reality.

Ego defence mechanisms:
At the neurotic anxiety’s core is the unconscious conflict going on within an individual’s personality. The ego is discomforted at feeling neurotic anxiety, so neurotic anxiety is handled through an unconscious distortion of reality by ‘defence mechanisms’. It allows discharge of id energy whilst not facing the true nature of behavioural motivation.
Repression (the most important one according to Freud): pushes impulses/thoughts that are unacceptable to the ego into the unconscious, it prevents awareness and keeps buried desires from growing up, by staying repressed, infantile memories cannot be corrected by adult experience and so cannot retain their original intensity.
Denial: Refusal to believe/admit to the reality of a traumatic experience
Projection: Attributing one’s own characteristics/desires to someone else because they are unacceptable to conscious awareness.
Displacement: Redirection of emotion from a dangerous subject to a subordinate, less dangerous subject
Reaction formation: Involves a feeling to its opposite, e.g. hate to love
Regression: A person retreats to the behavioural patterns of an earlier age. Freud argued schizophrenics regressed to an early stage of development when the id/ego are unseparated which is why schizophrenics exhibit a loss of contact with reality.
Rationalisation: Inventing a reason for an unreasonable action or attitude, e.g. telling a child off due to anger but saying it was to do the child good.
Sublimation: Sexual or aggressive impulses are converted into socially valued behaviour, especially creative activity.

Evaluation of the psychodynamic model:
It was the first systematic model of abnormality that focused specifically upon psychological factors as a main cause of mental disorder and on psychological forms of treatment. Before Freud, nearly all explanations of mental disorder were in physical terms or ideas such as possession by evil spirits.
It was correct that the causes and purposes of human behaviour aren’t always obvious and it was right to emphasise that the causes of the disorder aren’t always immediately evident.
Support exists for defence mechanisms like repression and displacement.
It was correct in saying that traumatic childhood experiences are a factor in adult disorder; however it may have overemphasised the role.
It paved the way for later psychological approaches and therapies.
However, the id, ego and superego are hypothetical constructs and their existence has not been demonstrated scientifically.
The evidence for Freud’s theories was not objective, nor scientific (instead, it was anecdotal).
The information derived from the therapies he had used was unreliable because Freud did not take contemporaneous notes, and it may have been affected by Freud’s potentially biased views, but also, it relied on clients recalling memories from early years which may not have been accurate.
Interpersonal and social factors were given too little emphasis by Freud whilst his relative disinterest in his clients’ current problems devalued adult experience.
Freud’s theory of personality development gives little room for an individual’s own conscious involvement in his personality development.
Since Freud didn’t have today’s knowledge of genetics, neurochemistry etc, a traditional Freudian account of abnormal behaviour fails to acknowledge these important issues.


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    • Logically5150 profile image


      7 years ago

      Well done LovelyJ. It always interests me to see others take on all things Freud. Keep up the good work!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      My partner and i utilized to get on top of lifestyle nevertheless as of late I've truly piled up the level of resistance.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you for writing this, has helped me with some homework i was strugglying with.


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