In the field of psychology, there is perhaps no more famous figure than Sigmund Freud. During his time, he stirred up a lot of controversy around his unconventional ideas.
Some of Freud’s work – specifically his psychosexual development theory – has even been abandoned and dismissed as they can’t be accurately tested.
That aside, it can’t be denied that Freud has had a huge impact in psychology. In fact, a large chunk of his work has laid the foundation for the advancements we enjoy today.
Here are 7 important insights from Freud that can help us understand other people better:
1) The role of the unconscious
This is perhaps what Freud is most famous for – bringing the role of the unconscious to the forefront.
What he simply means is that many of our decisions, emotions, and behaviors are driven by unconscious desires and memories, even though we’re not actively aware of them.
Which means, before we judge or lose our minds over someone’s behavior, we should pause and consider that they may be operating from hidden fears or repressed experiences.
For instance, someone might avoid close relationships due to fears of abandonment rooted in childhood. The thing is, they probably don’t even realize this themselves.
I can attest to that. As someone whose parents divorced when I was very young, I used to approach romantic relationships with a wall around me.
It was only when I started self-reflecting and dissecting why I behaved this way that I understood it was because I had a fear of abandonment. I was keeping people at arm’s length so that when they leave, it won’t hurt so bad.
The bottom line is that this insight from Freud can help us be more empathetic and patient towards others.
We could extend ourselves to understand that there may be deeper psychological processes driving them to behave in an irrational or self-defeating way.
2) Understanding defense mechanisms
Still on the topic of unconscious thought, do you know what your defense mechanisms are?
We all know that accountability is an important part of building trust and better connections with others. Yet, as responsible as we may be, we still have a degree of defensiveness in us.
According to Freudian theory, it’s an unconscious strategy we use to shield ourselves from anxiety or unacceptable thoughts and feelings.
Here’s a list of the ways we do this:
- Repression – suppressing feelings
- Denial – outright refusal to accept something
- Projection – attributing their feelings/thoughts/actions to the other person
- Regression – moving backwards developmentally in times of stress
- Displacement – satisfying an impulse with a substitute object/person
- Sublimation – the positive version of displacement (i.e. satisfying an impulse to be aggressive by doing something constructive)
All that to say, recognizing these mechanisms can explain behaviors that otherwise seem inexplicable.
It can offer insights into our own behavior and that of others, and hopefully foster better communication and relationships.
3) The id, ego, and superego
Freud’s model of the psyche divides it into three parts:
- The id: our primal desires/instincts
- The ego: our rational and realistic thought
- The superego: our moral standards
They may be three separate elements but they all work in conjunction, and understanding them can help us make sense of the complexities of human behavior.
Especially inner conflict.
For example, a person might have a primal desire to want something – sex, food, drugs, etc. But the problem is, their superego deems it wrong.
Because these two elements are fighting each other, the ego (rational thought) steps in and tries to mediate. It tries to find a balance between the basic impulse and the moral ideal.
To be the realistic adult in the room, so to speak.
If it succeeds, we feel at peace and stable. If it doesn’t, we feel anxious, guilty, or other forms of distress.
Freud’s model presents this inner tug-of-war as a hallmark of the human experience.
In this way, it provides a lens through which we can view our – and other people’s – internal struggles. It helps to explain why we feel torn between different courses of action.
4) Childhood experiences
Back when I was in third grade, my mom threw a birthday party for me. I invited my whole class, but on the day itself, no one showed up. To this day, I haven’t forgotten the sadness and embarrassment I felt that day.
And it really influenced the way I behaved as an adult, too, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I had a fear of rejection, and I used to see myself as not worthy of love and friendship.
That’s exactly in line with what Freud says about early childhood experiences. He believed that unresolved conflicts during childhood could show up in adulthood.
This explains why, for example, a child who was neglected might struggle with self-worth and attachment issues later in life.
Again, this insight is useful in helping us approach relationship issues with more compassion.
When you stop and consider if someone might not be affectionate because they never received affection as kids, doesn’t it seem easier to extend them more grace?
5) Figuring out what dreams mean
Ah, dream interpretation – yet another controversial area where Freud reigned supreme.
With unconscious thought being the underlying principle behind his theory, it makes sense that Freud considered dreams to be the expression of repressed wishes and desires.
According to Freud, dreams let us uncover the deepest thoughts and feelings that we can’t access consciously.
Dream interpretation involves asking these two key questions:
- What are the materials of a dream?
- How do these materials work together?
The answers to those questions can connect the dots for us and reveal what’s really going on.
For example, a recurring dream about being chased could symbolize a person’s avoidance of facing a particular fear or anxiety in their waking life.
Or a dream about flying could signify a desire for any of the following: freedom, ambition, power…which one it is, that would depend on the symbols and context of the dream.
In short, dream interpretation can be a valuable tool in therapy and self-reflection.
Speaking of symbols brings me to my next point…
6) Symbolism in everyday life
Or to put it in Freud’s words – the “psychopathology of everyday life”.
What exactly does that mean?
Simply this – that unconscious thoughts and desires often express themselves through symbols in everyday life.
Symbols like jokes, slips of the tongue (hence the name “Freudian slip”), art and literary symbols, forgetfulness in certain matters…
Even simple mistakes or accidents could be more than meets the eye, according to Freud.
Remember how Ross kept saying Rachel’s name at the altar while getting married to Emily in the sitcom Friends?
Another example – one might misplace a wedding ring, and it could be an expression of deeper, unacknowledged unhappiness or ambivalence about the marriage.
Of course it could be a true accident, but…what if it isn’t?
That’s precisely what Freud wants to point out – that there may be underlying reasons for things like this.
It might sound overanalytical, yes, but you can’t deny that there may be some truth to it. At the very least, psychopathology provides a framework for exploring and understanding others’ behavior.
7) The importance of free will
Finally, Freud once said, “Just as no one can be forced into belief, so no one can be forced into unbelief.”
In other words, we might try and convince someone to believe in something, but we can only go so far.
Because the truth is, belief systems are deeply personal and autonomous.
Whether it’s related to religion, ideology, or personal values, beliefs are individual by nature. You can’t force someone to be a Democrat or a Republican. Or a Catholic or Baptist.
Nor can you force them out of it.
What I like about this is that it’s a great reminder of what makes us all better people – respect for diversity.
Yes, it can be enraging when someone clings to an outdated or unjust belief system. But really, we can only persuade and influence them to let go of those beliefs so much. The ultimate decision to let go has to come from them.
I suppose that once we understand that, it becomes easier to see where they’re coming from. Why do they think or behave that way? How did their background contribute to that?
When we understand that others’ beliefs are a result of their unique life experiences, we’re more likely to approach differences with empathy and understanding, instead of resorting to judgment or hostility.
Freud might have caused a stir during his time, but there’s no doubt that his influence has outlived him.
Without these insights from Freud, we wouldn’t have talk therapy. We wouldn’t have psychoanalysis.
Whether you love him or hate him, the fact remains that his work laid the foundation for many other thinkers to build on.
From Freud, we can learn to consider the unseen forces – the unconscious – that drive a person to behave the way they do.
He might have been unconventional, but he did build a bridge on which we could stand and be more compassionate towards others.
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