Understanding The Mind of Sigmund Freud: The Founder of Psychoanalysis

Alexander Tokarev, PhD
Updated on: April 3, 2024
Reviewed by:
Yelnur Shildibekov, PhD
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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) stands as the colossus in the field of psychology, a figure whose brilliance and insights revolutionized our understanding of the human psyche.

Known as the father of psychoanalysis, Freud’s exploration into the depths of the human mind unveiled a world where unconscious desires, dreams, and childhood experiences shape our behaviors and personalities. His work, controversial yet transformative, laid the foundational stones for modern psychology and offered a new lens through which to view human nature.

Fast Facts: Sigmund Freud

  • Born: May 6, 1856, in Freiberg, Moravia (now Czech Republic)
  • Died: September 23, 1939, in London, England
  • Education: Medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1881
  • Key Contributions: Founder of Psychoanalysis, with theories on the unconscious mind, the Oedipus complex, and the structure of personality (id, ego, superego)
  • Notable Works: “The Interpretation of Dreams,” “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” and “Civilization and Its Discontents”
  • Legacy: Despite controversies, Freud’s theories remain influential in psychology, literature, and the broader cultural landscape

Sigmund Freud Biography

Sigmund Freud, born to a Jewish family in 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, was the eldest of eight children. In 1860, his family moved to Vienna, Austria, where Freud spent most of his life.

After earning a medical degree in the University of Vienna in 1881, Freud started his medical practice in Vienna and became a Lecturer on Nervous Diseases at same University in 1885.

While Freud’s medical career began with a focus on neurology, it was his work with Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris that ignited his interest in the psychological origins of hysteria and the use of hypnosis as a useful technique in clinical settings.

This exploration led Freud to develop psychoanalysis, a method that involved allowing patients to speak freely about their thoughts and feelings, revealing the unconscious conflicts driving their symptoms.

Despite facing rejection from Vienna's medical community over his innovative ideas, particularly on hysteria, Freud published significant neurological works, including "On Aphasia: A Critical Study," where he introduced the term agnosia.

Freud endured a number of challenges in his life, including battling cancer and escaping the Nazi regime given his Jewish ancestry.


In 1923, Freud found a leukoplakia in his mouth, related to smoking. He informed Ernest Jones after its removal. Advised by dermatologist Maximilian Steiner to quit smoking, Freud was later treated by Marcus Hajek, enduring a risky operation with heavy bleeding. Felix Deutsch, avoiding the term cancer, recommended further surgery but didn't disclose the severity to Freud, fearing he might consider suicide.

Escaping Nazi Regime

In January 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany and began burning his books, Freud jokingly noted the human progress from potentially burning him in the Middle Ages to just his books now.

Despite the rising Nazi threat and the violent antisemitism following the Anschluss in March 1938, Freud was initially reluctant to leave Vienna. It took the arrest and interrogation of his daughter Anna by the Gestapo, along with earnest persuasion by Ernest Jones, then president of the International Psychoanalytical Association, to convince Freud to flee to Britain. Jones, leveraging his connections, expedited immigration permits for Freud and his family and sought diplomatic pressure to facilitate their escape.

Dr. Anton Sauerwald, assigned to manage Freud's assets, became sympathetic to Freud and helped mitigate some financial demands from the Nazis, allowing Freud and his immediate family to leave Vienna in June 1938 for London. Despite efforts, Freud's elderly sisters were left behind and later died in Nazi camps. In London, Freud continued his work until his illness worsened, passing away in September 1939.

Sigmund Freud’s Theories

Freud's theories extended across various aspects of human psychology, offering insights into behavior, culture, and mental health.


Freud divided the psyche into three parts: the id, ego, and superego. The id operates on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification. The superego represents internalized societal norms and morals. The ego, governed by the reality principle, mediates between the id, the superego, and the external world.

Defense Mechanisms

Freud introduced the concept of defense mechanisms, psychological strategies that the ego uses to protect itself from anxiety and conflict. These include repression, denial, projection, rationalization, displacement, and sublimation, among others.

Freudian Slip

Freud also explored the phenomenon of the "Freudian slip," where an unintentional error in speech or action reveals an underlying, unconscious thought or desire. This concept illustrates how unconscious thoughts can surface in everyday life.

Transference and Countertransference

In the therapeutic process, Freud identified transference as the projection of feelings, desires, and expectations from past relationships onto the therapist. Countertransference refers to the therapist's emotional reaction to the patient's transference, which Freud believed could be used therapeutically to uncover unconscious material.

Sigmund Freud’s Main Ideas

Sigmund Freud introduced several groundbreaking ideas that forever changed the way we understand human psychology.

The Unconscious Mind

Freud proposed that the unconscious mind houses wishes, desires, and memories, which are beyond our conscious awareness yet significantly influence our thoughts and behaviors. This vast and hidden part of our psyche plays a critical role in shaping our personality and behavior.

Freud likened the structure of the mind to an iceberg to explain it. In his Iceberg Theory, the conscious mind is represented by the small, visible section above water, whereas the vast unconscious mind remains hidden beneath the surface, unseen but profoundly impactful.


Psychosexual Development

Freud suggested that personality develops through a series of childhood stages in which the pleasure-seeking energies of the id become focused on certain erogenous areas. These stages are the oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages. Each stage involves specific conflicts that must be resolved for healthy psychological development.

Dream Analysis

Freud considered dreams to be the "royal road to the unconscious," providing vital clues to understanding our unconscious desires. He viewed dreams as the id's unmet desires attempting to surface into consciousness. However, due to the potentially unacceptable nature of these desires, they are often masked or altered through symbolic representation.

The Oedipus Complex

One of Freud's most controversial ideas, the Oedipus complex, suggests that during the phallic stage, a child experiences a subconscious sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent and hostility toward the same-sex parent. This complex plays a crucial role in the psychosexual development and the structuring of personality.

Life and Death Drives

Freud posited that human behavior is governed by two opposing sets of instincts: those that affirm life and those that lean towards death. The life drives are focused on sexual reproduction, survival, and the pursuit of joy, while the death drives are associated with aggressive behavior, self-destructive actions, and the impulse towards annihilation.

Sigmund Freud’s Patients

Sigmund Freud's groundbreaking psychoanalytic work involved detailed case studies that significantly advanced our understanding of the psyche. Among these, several cases stand out for their impact on the development of psychoanalysis:

  1. Anna O. (Bertha Pappenheim): Marking the inception of psychoanalytic theory, Anna O., a patient of Freud's associate Josef Breuer, experienced symptoms like hallucinations and paralysis. Her treatment, which Freud interpreted as hysteria stemming from suppressed traumas, led to the pioneering "talking cure" method, influencing Freud's psychoanalytic approach.
  2. Wolf Man (Sergei Pankejeff): A case involving a Russian aristocrat plagued by dreams of wolves, Freud's analysis uncovered repressed memories and highlighted the Oedipus Complex's role. Wolf Man's complex treatment is among Freud's most debated analyses.
  3. Rat Man (Ernst Lanzer): Suffering from obsessional neurosis related to rats, Rat Man's treatment by Freud linked his fears to repressed guilt and sexual desires, expanding Freud's exploration of internal conflict and the unconscious.
  4. Little Hans (Herbert Graf): Freud diagnosed five-year-old Hans's equinophobia as a manifestation of the Oedipus Complex, based on reports from the boy's father. This case is frequently cited to exemplify Freud's theory on childhood development and the Oedipal Complex.
  5. Dora (Ida Bauer): As a teenager diagnosed with hysteria, Dora's symptoms, according to Freud, stemmed from repressed sexual desires influenced by familial dynamics. The abrupt end of her therapy and the critique of Freud's handling of the case are well-documented.

In Freud's era, societal norms heavily suppressed sexual expression, often leading to neurosis, particularly among women. Freud's investigations into his patients' sexual histories—exploring desires, emotions, and the management of guilt, love, and fear—were less about sexual acts and more about understanding the deeper, often unconscious, emotional turmoil shaping their lives.

Psychologists Influenced by Freud

Sigmund Freud's pioneering work in psychoanalysis not only revolutionized our understanding of the human mind but also gathered a following of dedicated disciples. These followers, some of whom would later diverge from Freud's theories to develop their own psychological theories, played a significant role in the spread and evolution of psychoanalytic thought. Here are summaries of some of Freud's most notable followers:

  1. Carl Jung: Initially a close colleague of Freud, Jung's work diverged to focus on concepts such as the collective unconscious and archetypes, leading to the development of analytical psychology. Despite their eventual ideological separation, Jung's contributions significantly expanded the scope of psychoanalytic theory.
  2. Alfred Adler: A key figure in the early formation of psychoanalytic thought, Adler broke away from Freud to emphasize the importance of social conditions and feelings of inferiority in personality development, founding individual psychology.
  3. Melanie Klein: Klein extended Freudian concepts into early childhood, pioneering object relations theory. Her focus on the pre-Oedipal stages and the mother-child relationship introduced new dimensions to psychoanalytic practice, particularly in child psychology.
  4. Anna Freud: Sigmund Freud's daughter, Anna, was instrumental in advancing child psychoanalysis and elaborated on defense mechanisms, contributing significantly to ego psychology. Her work emphasized the importance of the ego's role in managing the pressures of the id, the superego, and the external world.
  5. Karen Horney: Horney challenged many of Freud's theories, particularly his views on female psychology. She developed a theory of neurosis based on social and cultural influences, introducing the concepts of basic anxiety and the search for self-identity.
  6. Erich Fromm: Fromm integrated Freudian psychoanalytic concepts with Marxist social theory, focusing on social character and the influence of societal structures on personality development. He is known for his works on love, freedom, and the human condition within society.
  7. Wilhelm Reich: Initially part of the psychoanalytic movement, Reich's work took on a more political and controversial tone, emphasizing sexual liberation and introducing the concept of orgone energy. His theories eventually led him to part ways with the mainstream psychoanalytic community.
  8. Otto Rank: A close collaborator with Freud, Rank's later work diverged from Freudian thought, particularly in his theories on birth trauma and the will to power as the driving force behind creativity and neurosis.

Each of these followers, while influenced by Freud, contributed unique perspectives and theories that expanded the field of psychoanalysis beyond its original contours, influencing psychology, culture, and therapy in profound ways.

Sigmund Freud's Perspectives

Sigmund Freud's theories extended beyond the psyche, offering perspectives on various aspects of society, including gender roles, religion, and the differences between men and women. His views have sparked considerable debate and analysis over the years. Here are summaries of Freud's perspectives on these topics:


Freud's views on women were shaped by his time and have been criticized for being limited and patriarchal. He is known for concepts like "penis envy," suggesting that women feel a sense of inferiority and jealousy towards men. Freud believed that women's psychological development was largely influenced by their realization of being "castrated" and their desire for a penis, which was a controversial viewpoint that has been widely disputed and criticized in modern psychology.


Freud saw men as being driven by their libido and the Oedipus complex during their early developmental stages. He suggested that the resolution of the Oedipus complex was crucial for a male child to develop a healthy adult identity. Freud believed that men sublimate their primal sexual desires into productive activities, including work and cultural contributions, which was seen as a natural progression of male psychological development.


Freud was an avowed atheist and saw religion as an illusion—a collective neurosis that mankind developed to cope with the harsh realities of life and the fear of death. In works like "The Future of an Illusion" and "Totem and Taboo," Freud argued that religious beliefs are projections of the father figure and serve to provide psychological comfort. He likened the rituals of religion to obsessive-compulsive behaviors, suggesting that they are both manifestations of underlying neurotic impulses.

Freud's perspectives on women and men reflect the gender norms and scientific understanding of his time, which have evolved significantly. His critique of religion highlights his belief in the power of the unconscious and the psychological mechanisms that drive human behavior. Despite the controversies, Freud's work remains foundational in psychoanalytic theory and continues to influence the fields of psychology, sociology, and cultural studies.