Psychodynamic Personality Theories

The set of theories of personality development that are referred to collectively as psychodynamic or psycho-analytic vary dramatically in their specifics, but share a common lineage and several core concepts. Scholars agree that Sigmund Freud, the famous and controversial Austrian neurologist who wrote the first comprehensive theory of personality development, laid the foundation for all subsequent psychoanalytic theories. Similarly, the fundamental principles that tie psycho-dynamic theories together can be traced back to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.

Aspects of personality development common to all psychodynamic theories are (1) the existence and importance of the unconscious and (2) the significance of childhood relationships and experiences in shaping personality. Psychodynamic theories are often further categorized according to other features they share, but there is no consensus on how various theories should be grouped. Moreover, many advocates of a psychoanalytic approach contend that, although various factions may disagree on the abstract theory that guides their understanding of personality, their therapeutic techniques or “clinical theories” are much more similar than different. Nevertheless, a common delineation of the major schools of thought is (1) Freudian, (2) ego psychology, (3) object relations theories, and (4) self psychology.

It is appropriate to add a new category to this traditional list to account for theories that have emerged in recent decades. These theories, which will be broadly referred to here as contemporary psychodynamic theories, are reinterpretations, integrations, and expansions of the older theories. They are innovative in that they are informed by contemporary ideas such as systems theory, pluralism, feminism, and social constructivism.

Freudian Theory

Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis is also referred to as classical or traditional psychoanalytic theory. Certain components of Freud’s comprehensive theory are sometimes also singled out and, although not technically correct, used as if they were synonymous with the whole of Freudian theory. The most common of these are drive theory and structural theory. Drive theory refers to Freud’s focus on instinctual drives toward pleasure and aggression as principle motivators of human behavior. Structural theory refers to Freud’s initial description of a tripartite configuration of the mind—consisting of id, ego, and superego.

Despite vehement detractors over the past century, Freud’s influence has been so great that a basic understanding of his theory is necessary for any student of contemporary Western thought. It is important to remember, however, that psychoanalytic theory has evolved over time, and very few (if any) analysts today would consider themselves strict “Freudians.” Instead, contemporary Freudians maintain much of Freud’s theoretical foundation, but also incorporate the advances proposed by numerous followers and dissenters of Freud over the past 100 years.

Freud proposed that the human mind or psyche is primarily unconscious or out of conscious awareness. Moreover, a healthy and mature psyche is comprised of the id, ego, and superego, with the ego orchestrating an appropriate balance of id and superego activity. Freud also described developmental stages whereby infants progress from an id-dominated and superego-less state to a more balanced psyche when the superego forms at 5 or 6 years of age.

The id

The id is the only psychic structure that is fully present at birth. It translates the organism’s needs into essential instinctual drives or wishes that are the primary motivators of behavior. The instincts that play the biggest role in Freud’s theory are the drives for life and death, which are often oversimplified as sexual and aggressive drives, respectively. More precisely, however, the life instinct seeks self-preservation and species preservation; the psychic and emotional energy associated with this drive is called libido. Freud theorized that a death drive, a wish for a natural dissolution to an inorganic state, must be programmed into all living things because the natural course of life is death. A primary defense against the anxiety stirred by the death instinct is aggression, which is sometimes even directed at the self (as seen in some forms of depression).

The conceptualization of the movement and power of the id’s quest for wish fulfillment as a type of energy was inspired, in part, by advances in the field of thermodynamics in the 19th century. For example, Freud’s description of how libidinal energy requires release is akin to how compressed physical energy is continually pushing against whatever is containing it.

Although the word libido became associated with sexual pleasure among the general public, Freud proposed that libidinal energy was tied to many other life-sustaining needs (e.g., eating). The part of the body that is the focus of libidinal pleasure (i.e., an erogenous zone) changes over time. In infancy, the erogenous zone is the mouth. Indeed, Freud labeled the first stage of psychosexual development the oral stage. He believed that proper attention to the oral needs of an infant (i.e., birth to 18 months) is necessary for healthy development. Infants who have every oral need instantly gratified are apt to be too dependent on their mothers and not resolve the psychological conflicts of this stage. Their “fixation” in the oral stage can result in dependent personality traits as adults. Infants who have their oral needs met inconsistently are liable to experience anxiety that becomes a more permanent aspect of their character. Freud also theorized that personality traits such as insatiability, cynicism, and argumentativeness had their roots in problematic experiences during the oral stage.

The Ego

Freud proposed that the ego (or “I”) begins to develop as infants use their connection with external reality to manage id drives. The ego is considered the core of the self and the part of the psyche that usually deals with external reality. Unlike the id and superego, the ego is primarily conscious. Eventually, the ego also mediates the conflict between the id and the superego, primarily through defense mechanisms such as denial, repression, and projection. Optimally, as children progress through each psychosexual stage, the ego develops more mature psychological defenses  (e.g., humor) to manage their id impulses while discharging libidinal energy. In addition, they learn other nondefensive mechanisms (e.g., frustration tolerance) to foster self-preservation. These latter functions of the ego are central in the theories that make up the branch of psychoanalysis known as ego psychology.

At about 18 months of age, the physical development of the toddler brings about a change in the erogenous zone. From 18 months until about 3 years of age, children are in the anal stage, when the anal area is the main source for the expression of libidinal energy. Freud believed that exploring and gaining control over bodily processes (e.g., toilet training) are essential for successful progression through the anal stage. Aggressive urges are often expressed as desires to gain control over others as well. Numerous potential problems that give rise to maladaptive personality traits can occur in the anal stage. For example, children who are shamed about their bodily processes may react with self-loathing or poor self-esteem. Freud also coined the term anal retentive to describe the overcontrolled personality type who is preoccupied with cleanliness and order. The anal expulsive personality, on the other hand, is crass and destructive.

The Superego

From about age 3 to 5 or 6, children must navigate the phallic stage. For several reasons, this part of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is the most controversial. First, it ignores social taboos against thinking of children as sexual beings and suggests that incestuous feelings, albeit unconscious, are normative. In addition, many of Freud’s conclusions related to this stage are considered sexist and homophobic. Third, because gender-role differences and the development of the superego are explained by events of the phallic stage, it is considered the most central to his theory and, therefore, attracts more critical attention.

Freud proposed that during the phallic stage the genitals become the primary source of sensual pleasure, although Freud differentiates this from the genital pleasure experienced by adults. Instead, preschool-age children discover their genitals during this stage and often learn that touching themselves feels pleasurable. Freud theorized that if parents react with anger or judgment, their sons might fear that their penis would be lopped off as a punishment (which, from a boy’s perspective, would also explain why his sisters lacked penises). Freud referred to this fear as castration anxiety and suspected that, if not worked through, castration anxiety could cause problems with adult sexual functioning (i.e., either sexual inhibition or promiscuity).

For boys, the most important aspect of the phallic stage is the necessity to resolve what Freud referred to as the Oedipus complex. This developmental challenge was named for the protagonist in the ancient Greek play Oedipus the King, by Sophocles. As the tragic story goes, a young man who does not know he was adopted kills a man whom he later learns to be his father and marries a woman whom he later learns to be his mother. Freud proposed that normal psychosexual development leads boys to want their mother for themselves and to have hostility toward their father for frustrating this goal. Castration anxiety, however, motivates boys to displace their yearning for their mother onto other females—first girls and then women. For Freud, the Oedipal struggle ends when a boy identifies with and internalizes his father. Thus, the intrapsychic and idealized paternal authority figure is the core of the male superego.

According to Freud, the development of the superego in females is less direct and, by design, less successful, than it is in males. Freud, taking a “male as normative” perspective, theorized that castration anxiety is the best motivator of superego development; and, girls, because they do not have penises, cannot experience castration anxiety. Instead, Freud assumed that a girl in the phallic stage tends to wonder why she does not have a penis and this concern gives rise to penis envy. Penis envy can never be fully resolved, but indirect solutions such as marrying a man or bearing a son are possible. The first step down this path is for a girl to become more like her mother so that she can eventually attract a husband. Thus, for girls, the process of internalizing one’s mother results in the formation of the superego.

The superego is a vital part of Freud’s tripartite personality structure. The superego consists of two components—the conscience and the ego ideal. The former comprises the moral standards learned from parents, society, and various people or institutions that are considered moral authorities. The latter is the internalized image of one’s perfect self and how one should emulate parents and other authority figures. In a sense, the conscience activates when a person is behaving in a manner contrary to his or her values, while the ego ideal activates when people reach a goal they are proud of or, alternatively, when they fail to reach a goal.

As a psychic structure that evolved to defend against Oedipal wishes, the superego can be thought of as opposite of the id. The id is concerned with fulfilling wishes and pleasing the self, while the superego is focused on denying the self and/or pleasing others. In short, the id is governed by the “pleasure principle” and the superego operates by the “morality principle.” The ego uses the “reality principle” to dissipate the resulting tension of the id-superego dichotomy.

Not surprisingly, personality problems can result from a superego that is either too weak or too strong. A weak (or nonexistent) superego results in a person who has no moral compass and may be involved in criminal activities. People with overdeveloped superegos, on the other hand, typically have personality traits such as perfectionism, overachievement, an excessive sense of responsibility, and chronic guilt about their perceived failings.

Once a child reaches age 5 or 6, he or she moves into a stage of psychosexual quiet because the libido is repressed (i.e., remains unconscious). Freud proposed that this “latency” period allows school-age children to focus on other important aspects of development such as intellectual growth, physical mastery, and social relationships. Freud did not write much about the latency stage or the genital stage, the final stage of development that begins at puberty. With regard to the formation of personality, Freud’s classical drive theory is essentially focused on events that end with the phallic stage.

A number of Freud’s followers had doubts about some aspects of traditional psychoanalytic theory. Some of the intellectuals and clinicians who were initially drawn to Freud’s innovative way of understanding human behavior followed unquestioningly, but many strove to develop or improve the theory. Some of this latter group, such as Freud’s daughter Anna, considered themselves loyal Freudians, but are now categorized differently. Other theorists, such as Carl Jung, disagreed with some of Freud’s ideas and were, in a sense, no longer welcome in Freudian circles. A third type of Freudian descendant is those psychoanalysts who actively rejected some or most of Freud’s theory and set out to develop their own. Some of these innovators developed theories that are so different from Freud’s that they are not classified under the psychoanalytic umbrella. A good example of a psychoanalyst who followed such a path is Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy. The remainder of this entry, however, focuses on the men and women who extended Freud’s ideas and proposed theories of personality that have enough in common with that lineage to be considered psychoanalytic.

Ego Psychology

In general, theorists who are considered ego psychologists focus on the motives and functions of the ego and give less attention to the drives of the id. The most prominent ego psychologists are Anna Freud, Heinz Hartmann, and Erik Erikson. Anna Freud is best known as the founder of child psychoanalysis and for the extension of her father’s notion of ego defenses. Her student, Erik Erikson, was inspired by both Sigmund and Anna Freud and developed a theory of psychosocial stages that cross the life span.

Erikson retained the structure of Freud’s first four psychosexual stages and added four adolescent and adult stages of his own. He theorized that the types of developmental challenges that individuals encounter are related to the social environment and, if not mastered, can have negative effects throughout life. For example, from about 18 months to 3 years, toddlers face the challenge of developing more autonomy from caregivers. Achieving autonomy can be facilitated by parents who allow more autonomy and do not criticize their child. If independence is thwarted, however, the child is likely to experience feelings of shame and doubt that can make it even more difficult for the child to master subsequent stages. Furthermore, the feelings of shame and doubt can affect the child’s developing personality and lead to traits such as inhibition and indecisiveness.

Hartmann viewed the development of the ego as the key to mental health. In addition to bolstering ego functions such as reality testing, judgment, and affect regulation, Hartmann argued that psychoanalysis should aim to expand analysands’ “conflict-free ego sphere.” That is, the more people are able to reason, think, and remember without emotional interference, the better they will be able to adapt to their environment.

Object Relations Theories

According to object relations theorists, it is a drive for relationships, rather than id impulses, that shapes personality and motivates behavior. The term object relations refers to the largely unconscious internalized perceptions that children develop about their relationships with significant others in their life. The British theorists who are most often associated with this branch of psychoanalytic theory are Melanie Klein, W. R. D. Fairbairn, and Donald W. Winnicott. The most notable American object relations theorists are Edith Jacobson, Margaret Mahler, and Otto F. Kernberg. Although all of these theorists are considered object relations theorists, each of their theories is unique. For example, Mahler wrote a comprehensive theory about the development of object relations from birth to age 3. She was particularly interested in the processes that allowed children to separate from their mothers and develop individuality. In addition to the internalization of how relationships are imagined by the child, Mahler’s complex theory explains how children develop a stable self-concept as well as a concept of others.

Kernberg extended Mahler’s ideas and wrote about a third level of internalization—the perception of the how self and other are related—which is now a central aspect of object relations theory. These templates for “self,” “other,” and “relationships” are largely responsible for how a person feels and acts in relation to him- or herself and other people. For example, the child who perceives that he or she is “good” based on his or her relationships with early caregivers will have a positive self-concept and expect to be treated well in later relationships.

Winnicott did not propose a formal theory, but he was perhaps the most influential of the early object relations theorists because he was able to present his ideas to a lay audience. It is because of Winnicott that terms such as good enough mother, transitional object, and true self and false self are widely known.

Another theorist who deserves mention here is John Bowlby, who developed attachment theory. Although Bowlby trained as an analyst and was strongly influenced by Anna Freud and Klein, his most innovative work emerged from his knowledge of ethology. He focused on the role of the mother-infant attachment bond in shaping a child’s “internal working model” of self, other, and relationships. The ability of researchers to assess the type of attachment bond toddlers have with their caregivers has led to a tremendous amount of empirical research on attachment theory.

Self Psychology

Heinz Kohut developed self psychology, the branch of psychoanalytic theory that took the biggest turn away from Freud’s focus on the tripartite personality structure. Instead of discussing the development of and conflicts between the id, ego, and superego, Kohut focused on the interpersonal experiences that facilitate or derail the development of the “self.” The self is the core of personality and the achievement and maintenance of a cohesive sense of self is the most important psychological function. As inherently social beings, infants and children require relationships that provide certain experiences in order to develop a healthy self. Similar selfobject experiences are required to maintain self-esteem over the course of life, although people can learn to provide themselves with some adequate selfobject experiences through creative endeavors, religion, and the like.

Two important selfobject functions are mirroring and idealizing, which help a person to feel known, valued, and admired, forming the core of the person’s self-esteem. Kohut also wrote about the selfobject function that helps people feel interpersonally connected; he called this twinship.

Another key aspect of Kohut’s theory is the notion that a type of narcissism or self-absorption is necessary for the normal development of a secure sense of self. Kohut labeled this particular facet of psychic structure the grandiose self. The other part of the bipolar selfis the internalized parent, also referred to as the idealized selfobject. Over time, if parents are adequate selfobjects for the child, a healthy and cohesive self will develop. Adequate selfobjects provide a balance of mirroring (i.e., empathic approval), which supports the grandiose self, and mild empathic failures (e.g., disappointing or setting a limit with the child), which frustrates the grandiose self. Problems arise if either the grandiose self or the idealized selfobject does not develop normally. For example, without a strong idealized selfobject, people typically cannot soothe themselves when they are emotionally upset. Instead, they may turn to harmful things (e.g., alcohol) to serve this purpose.

Contemporary Psychodynamic Personality Theories

Theorists who have been influenced by the work of postmodern philosophers, more recent political movements, and advances in neuroscience are continuing to develop psychoanalytic theory. While the term postmodern means different things across disciplines and to different scholars, here it refers to a recognition that what is “real” to a person is not unitary or objective, but pluralistic and subjective. The postmodern paradigm shift means analysands and psychodynamic psychotherapy clients are no longer conceptualized as clinical specimens that can be observed and understood by an objective and neutral analyst. Instead, postmodern psychoanalysts view the therapeutic encounter as a co-construction of reality in which the subjective experience of both parties is valid. Moreover, each person’s subjective experience is necessarily embedded in the culture, context, and relationships of his or her environment and must be considered in that light. This innovative metatheory is referred to as intersubjectivity theory. Key figures in this movement (and the name of their theories) include Roy Shafer (action language), Irwin Z. Hoffman (dialectical constructivism), and Robert D. Stolorow (intersubjective systems theory). In addition, Jessica Benjamin and Juliet Mitchell have contributed a feminist perspective to intersubjectivity theory.

Another postmodern theorist who has made a tremendous impact on the field is Stephen A. Mitchell, who, along with Jay R. Greenberg and Lewis Aron integrated components of various theories and synthesized a postmodern relational theory of psychoanalysis. Mitchell, in particular, argued that relational theory should supplant classical psychoanalytic theory, which he considered obsolete. Relational theory and intersubjectivity theory are closely allied and often grouped together as postmodern psychoanalytic theories.

The newest frontier of psychoanalytic theory appears to be the presentation of research in neuro-science to validate or renovate psychoanalytic theory. Leaders in this area include psychoanalysts Glenn O. Gabbard and Drew Westen and neuroscientists Eric Kandel and Paul Grobstein.


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