The only thing more common than a blind admiration for Freud seems to be an equally blind hatred for him. Certainly, the proper attitude lies somewhere in between. Let's start by exploring some of the apparent flaws in his theory.

The least popular part of Freud's theory is the Oedipal complex and the associated ideas of castration anxiety and penis envy. What is the reality behind these concepts? It is true that some children are very attached to their opposite sex parent, and very competitive with their same-sex parent. It is true that some boys worry about the differences between boys and girls, and fear that someone may cut their penis off. It is true that some girls likewise are concerned, and wish they had a penis. And it is true that some of these children retain these affections, fears, and aspirations into adulthood.

Most personality theorists, however, consider these examples aberrations rather than universals, exceptions rather than rules. They occur in families that aren't working as well as they should, where parents are unhappy with each other, use their children against each other. They occur in families where parents literally denigrate girls for their supposed lack and talk about cutting off the penises of unruly boys. They occur especially in neighborhoods where correct information on even he simplest sexual facts is not forthcoming, and children learn mistaken ideas from other children.

If we view the Oedipal crisis, castration anxiety, and penis envy in a more metaphoric and less literal fashion, they are useful concepts: We do love our mothers and fathers as well as compete with them. Children probably do learn the standard heterosexual behavior patterns by imitating the same-sex parent and practicing on the opposite-sex parent. In a male-dominated society, having a penis -- being male -- is better than not, and losing one's status as a male is scary. And wanting the privileges of the male, rather than the male organ, is a reasonable thing to expect in a girl with aspirations. But Freud did not mean for us to take these concepts metaphorically. Some of his followers, however, did.


A more general criticism of Freud's theory is its emphasis on sexuality. Everything, both good and bad, seems to stem from the expression or repression of the sex drive. Many people question that, and wonder if there are any other forces at work. Freud himself later added the death instinct, but that proved to be another one of his less popular ideas.

First let me point out that, in fact, a great deal of our activities are in some fashion motivated by sex. If you take a good hard look at our modern society, you will find that most advertising uses sexual images, that movies and television programs often don't sell well if they don't include some titillation, that the fashion industry is based on a continual game of sexual hide-and-seek, and that we all spend a considerable portion of every day playing "the mating game." Yet we still don't feel that all life is sexual.

But Freud's emphasis on sexuality was not based on the great amount of obvious sexuality in his society -- it was based on the intense avoidance of sexuality, especially among the middle and upper classes, and most especially among women. What we too easily forget is that the world has changed rather dramatically over the last hundred years. We forget that doctors and ministers recommended strong punishment for masturbation, that "leg" was a dirty word, that a woman who felt sexual desire was automatically considered a potential prostitute, that a bride was often taken completely by surprise by the events of the wedding night, and could well faint at the thought.

It is to Freud's credit that he managed to rise above his culture's sexual attitudes. Even his mentor Breuer and the brilliant Charcot couldn't fully acknowledge the sexual nature of their clients' problems. Freud's mistake was more a matter of generalizing too far, and not taking cultural change into account. It is ironic that much of the cultural change in sexual attitudes was in fact due to Freud's work!

The unconscious

One last concept that is often criticized is the unconscious. It is not argued that something like the unconscious accounts for some of our behavior, but rather how much and the exact nature of the beast.

Behaviorists, humanists, and existentialists all believe that (a) the motivations and problems that can be attributed to the unconscious are much fewer than Freud thought, and (b) the unconscious is not the great churning cauldron of activity he made it out to be. Most psychologists today see the unconscious as whatever we don't need or don't want to see. Some theorists don't use the concept at all.

On the other hand, at least one theorist, Carl Jung, proposed an unconscious that makes Freud's look puny! But we will leave all these views for the appropriate chapters.

Positive aspects

People have the unfortunate tendency to "throw the baby out with the bath water." If they don't agree with ideas a, b, and c, they figure x, y, and z must be wrong as well. But Freud had quite a few good ideas, so good that they have been incorporated into many other theories, to the point where we forget to give him credit.

First, Freud made us aware of two powerful forces and their demands on us. Back when everyone believed people were basically rational, he showed how much of our behavior was based on biology. When everyone conceived of people as individually responsible for their actions, he showed the impact of society. When everyone thought of male and female as roles determined by nature or God, he showed how much they depended on family dynamics. The id and the superego -- the psychic manifestations of biology and society -- will always be with us in some form or another.

Second is the basic theory, going back to Breuer, of certain neurotic symptoms as caused by psychological traumas. Although most theorists no longer believe that all neurosis can be so explained, or that it is necessary to relive the trauma to get better, it has become a common understanding that a childhood full of neglect, abuse, and tragedy tends to lead to an unhappy adult.

Third is the idea of ego defenses. Even if you are uncomfortable with Freud's idea of the unconscious, it is clear that we engage in little manipulations of reality and our memories of that reality to suit our own needs, especially when those needs are strong. I would recommend that you learn to recognize these defenses: You will find that having names for them will help you to notice them in yourself and others!

Finally, the basic form of therapy has been largely set by Freud. Except for some behaviorist therapies, most therapy is still "the talking cure," and still involves a physically and socially relaxed atmosphere. And, even if other theorists do not care for the idea of transference, the highly personal nature of the therapeutic relationship is generally accepted as important to success.

Some of Freud's ideas are clearly tied to his culture and era. Other ideas are not easily testable. Some may even be a matter of Freud's own personality and experiences. But Freud was an excellent observer of the human condition, and enough of what he said has relevance today that he will be a part of personality textbooks for years to come. Even when theorists come up with dramatically different ideas about how we work, they compare their ideas with Freud's.