Was Freud Right?
Sigmund Freud is arguably one of the most controversial figures in the field of psychotherapy, so much so that his ideas have all but “fallen completely out of favor in academia.” Perplexingly, some people still use Freud’s psychoanalytic theory which spawned the practice of psychoanalysis.
As one source puts forth, “Freud’s theories are, on the whole, almost impossible to submit to the rigor of statistical analysis that legitimate science has to endure,” and, “That’s because his ideas are hopelessly vague. How do you test for them? They’re just phrases.”
When hearing I’m a psychotherapist, it isn’t uncommon for people to ask if I practice psychoanalytic techniques such as having clients lie on a couch during session, whether or not I psychoanalyze people in my off time, or if I use projective testing (i.e., Rorschach Test, Thematic Apperception Test, etc.).
Regarding the latter, and as a heads-up to fellow Texas clinicians, Rule §681.43 of the Texas Administrative Code specifically states that “use of standardized projective techniques is prohibited. This prohibition includes, but is not limited to, the Rorschach Inkblot Test, the Holtzman Inkblot Test, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Children’s Apperception Test, and the Senior Apperception Test.”
Projective assessments “all have serious shortcomings,” I don’t typically volunteer my off time trying to figure out what people in my personal life may or may not have going on in their lives, and clients may lie on couches in the comfort of their homes during our virtual sessions if they choose—though I’d ask that they not face away from me, as is the standard of classical psychoanalysis.
I practice Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), created by Albert Ellis, who once practiced psychoanalysis though later abandoned the modality. Ellis has stated, “[T]he techniques which are most used in classical psychoanalysis are those that are least used in rational therapy,” a precursor to REBT.
Nonetheless, perhaps because he’s one of the most recognizable psychological theorists, Freud’s legacy may be worth considering—or at least a portion of his purported pseudoscientific work. In particular, I would like to explore Freud’s concept of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels of the mind, as well as the id, ego, and superego.
For the purists in the audience, I will upfront address a mild point of contention some people express when discussing Freud. It is said that Pierre Janet “published his ideas four years before Sigmund Freud came up with his own, essentially identical discoveries, resulting in a dispute between the two over who was first to make the discovery.”
Also, I fully disclose that I’m coming from an ignorance-informed perspective concerning this topic. I’m exploring these concepts, because I find it a better use of time between sessions than using other forms of escapism.
I’m not an expert at anything. Therefore, I’m open to hearing about how incredibly wrong my understanding of Freud’s concepts is.
The Conscious, Preconscious, and Unconscious Mind
The three levels of the conceptual mind often associated with psychoanalysis relate to an iceberg mostly submerged in water. The conscious mind is visible above the surface of the water and represents a person’s awareness. I’ll demonstrate.
Think of a banana. What comes to mind? Likely, you’re able to readily recall a mental image and you could probably describe the shape, color, and other characteristics of the item to someone else through writing or speaking. You are consciously aware of the banana.
Calculating mathematic equations, writing a grocery list, and speaking to a friend about what you liked or disliked about a streaming series are examples of conscious activity. We can focus on present matters and contemplate the future using the conscious mind.
Continuing with the iceberg image, the preconscious (often referred to as the subconscious) is just below the water level and represents information of which a person isn’t currently aware, though may be recalled if needed. Sound confusing? I’ll demonstrate.
Suppose you’ve lived at your current address for a year. You likely know different routes you may take from various locations in order to return home. This likely wasn’t always so.
Perhaps you once used a map, GPS, received other directions, or you were repeatedly shown different ways to navigate to and from your home. Now that you have the information, you don’t need to rehearse the directions, because they’re stored in what is said to be your preconscious or subconscious mind.
Recently past associations and memories, and other stored knowledge is what this stage of mind represents. I don’t have to consciously think about how to brush my teeth or tie my shoes, because the information is said to be stored just below my immediate awareness in my preconscious mind.
Finishing with the iceberg motif, the unconscious—reportedly the most sizable portion of the mind—is where motives, memories, emotions, urges and desires, dreams, and other content is said to be stored. Some people suggest that childbirth and other stored memories—aside from what a person ate for lunch yesterday—are stored in the unconscious memory network.
As such, distant associations and memories, as well as “unconscious drives,” are all said to be connected with the unconscious—or unaware—portion of the mind. Some psychotherapists claim to be able to access the unconscious (e.g., hypnotherapy), though, “This sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby.”
I practice REBT, which “places a good deal of its focus on the present.” Though the past is relevant, because it allows us to adopt “beliefs that we carry in our head in the present,” I find it a better use of time “for a person to engage with a treatment approach and explores what they’re feeling in the present moment.”
Many of my professional counterparts disagree. Nonetheless, when it comes to the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious, one source says, “Consciousness is one of the final frontiers of science that we still know so little about as human beings.”
Additionally, it has been said that, “We know very little about the brain;” whereas a brain is crudely conceptualized as hardware and the mind is its software. While Freud may have tried his best, his concepts may not be entirely correct.
As well, and given how little is understood about an individual mind, I remain skeptical about claims of a collective consciousness, collective unconsciousness, or whether or not artificial intelligence will eventually develop a mental capacity similar to humans. Then again, I’m ignorant regarding all of this, so I don’t know.
The Id, Ego, and Superego
According to Freud, the three parts of one’s personality used for moral and other reasoning are the id, ego, and superego. The id is said to represent natural impulses (e.g., hunger), while the superego is associated with moral principles (i.e., good, bad, right, wrong, etc.), and the ego relates to a compromise between the id and superego in order to determine behavior.
Despite remaining as a controversial figure to some, I value the correlation between Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat and Freud’s concept of the id, ego, and superego. Some people compare the cat in the story to the id, the children and narrator to the ego, and fish to the superego.
In the tale, the cat—with the assistance of Thing 1 and Thing 2—wreak havoc while the fish prescribes how the children should, must, and ought to behave. The id is emotional and impulsive while the superego is logical, rational, and moralizing.
What I appreciate about this comparison is that neither the cat nor fish are in full control, as the children maintain agency—the ability to reason and make decisions, act, and remain responsible and accountable for their actions. In this regard, the ego is akin to balance.
Even better, in my view, there is no patronizing infantilization of the children from narrowly-focused ideologues who push irrational indoctrination messaging on the children. Perhaps if social media, social justice, social and emotional learning, and other socially-influenced elements were present, the story would’ve played out differently.
The mother in the original story, as the dad is largely absent, also doesn’t represent a helicopter, snowplow, or authoritarian parenting style, though the dad later makes an appearance on spinoff versions of the story and also seems to be in accordance with the mom’s parenting style. I could be wrong.
Maybe there’s a valuable lesson from which media (mainstream, legacy, corporate, etc.), government officials (federal, state, local, etc.), the academy (at all levels), and activists (of varying varieties) could learn. How about you, dear reader, what information could you glean from Freud’s concept of the id, ego, and superego?
Was Freud right about his concepts of the mind? Is there an actual conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mind? Are Freud’s ideas about the id, ego, and superego “just phrases,” worthy of disregard? Maybe.
Again, I’m an REBT practitioner, so I don’t fully adopt these concepts. Still, I find value in a method of conceptualizing how the mind may work. This requires some degree of categorization and labeling.
That stated, I’m thankful for Freud’s contribution to the growing body of knowledge involving the mind. So, was Freud right? No more or less so than I’ve been, am, or shall be in my lifetime. Ultimately, I think Freud made a worthy attempt to conceptualize something I couldn’t have synthesized as well as he did.
If you’re looking for a provider who will help you interpret dreams, blame your parents for their shortcomings, delve into complex analysis of your past, subjectively assess what your thoughts and feelings mean, and use questionable practices that aren’t necessarily supported by the rigors of scientific research, I’m not who you’re looking for.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking and belief systems impact physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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