By: Dr. Richard Osbaldiston
Most everyone has heard of the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud. Although he wasn’t the first psychologist, he is probably the most well-known psychologist of all time. He was a prolific writer, and he developed many theories. Is there some way to capture the basic overview of his theories? I have developed this “Freud in a Nutshell” idea to help students understand where Freud was coming from.
- Stress and anxiety are an inevitable part of our lives because of the structure of our minds. According to Freud, we all have three voices in our heads: the id, ego and superego. Each of these voices has a different mission. The id seeks pleasure, the superego tries to uphold our highest values, and the ego has to deal with both to find a way to operate in reality. It’s pretty easy to see how the id and the superego can often be in conflict; there isn’t much common ground between “Let’s eat cookies!” and “Let’s eat broccoli.”
- This anxiety is uncomfortable, and we are motivated to reduce it. If you were wearing a pair of uncomfortable shoes, perhaps high-heels that pinch your toes or boots that create blisters, what would you want to do? Take them off! Our mind does the same thing with anxiety. According to Freud, there is a whole list of ways that our minds deal with anxiety: denial, rationalization, projection, displacement, reaction formation, sublimation, etc.
- Some of these ways of dealing with anxiety are healthy, and some are not. In general, things like denial, rationalization, and repression are unhealthy ways to deal with anxiety because they cover up or push down the anxiety, but they don’t really solve it. They just move it to a different location where it is likely to come up again. The healthiest way to deal with anxiety is to sublimate it, that is, to channel your anxiety into productive projects that address the source of the anxiety.
My favorite example of sublimation is from time management. If a person gets stressed about deadlines and due dates, they will live in a constant state of tension. All of life seems to be about beating deadlines. But if you can channel that anxiety into productive projects, like keeping a planner, determining your priorities, and following through on your commitments, then the anxiety in your life is likely to be much lower.
There is much more to Freud than just these three points, but this is the view from 30,000 feet of his life’s work. It is fascinating work—and controversial, too—and if you are interested in this stuff, I hope you will pursue it further.