7 teachings from Sigmund Freud that we all need to unlearn

Freud’s contributions to psychology were significant. However, many psychologists and researchers believe he was dead wrong about almost everything.  

Shocking, I know.

Many of his ideas are under constant fire for their limitations and lack of empirical support. In other words, everything’s his opinion and theory, and that’s impossible to replicate or prove. 

Modern psychology takes a more multifaceted and inclusive approach to understanding human behavior and mental processes. That’s something that wasn’t a practice for a very long time. 

So, let’s dive in and see what teachings from Sigmund Freud we all need to unlearn.

1) The Oedipus/Electra complex

Freud’s theory of the Oedipus and Electra complex claims that children experience unconscious sexual desires for their opposite-sex parent. They also develop hostile feelings towards their same-sex parent.   

I always found this theory interesting but never really saw it in practice. 

The Oedipus complex has been criticized for oversimplifying family dynamics. Critics argue that kids’ emotional attachments and conflicts within the family are much more complex and varied than this theory suggests.

An alternative explanation to the Oedipus and Electra complex is described in the attachment theory. It argues that children bond with one parent more and express jealousy of the rival parent. 

Also, even from my experience as a child and now a parent, kids typically go through stages of attachment and identification with both parents, and these processes aren’t necessarily indicative of sexual desires or conflicts.

What do you think?

2) Penis envy and castration anxiety

Freud’s idea of “penis envy” for girls and “castration anxiety” for boys has been criticized for reinforcing gender stereotypes and reducing psychological development to genitalia. 

You couldn’t escape this one in pop culture during the 90s when seemingly every TV show referenced it for some reason. 

But most of Freud’s theories, including these two, lack empirical support. As I already said, they’re based on his clinical observations and interpretations, which are hard to test scientifically. 

That’s a big issue because modern psychology has a stronger focus on practical evidence to support theories and concepts.

It also recognizes that gender identity and development are influenced by a wide range of factors beyond physical attributes. 

If only we could explain things as easily as Freud suggested.  

3) The primacy of sexual motivation

With this theory, Freud again excessively emphasizes sexual instincts as the central driving force behind human behavior. 

While sexuality is undoubtedly essential for human life, reducing nearly all human actions and motivations to sexual desires oversimplifies the complexity of human behavior.

That’s why Freud’s theory of the primacy of sexual motivation has also faced significant criticism and skepticism in modern psychology.

We now know that we’re motivated by a complex interplay of biological, social, cognitive, and cultural factors. 

Although, looking at some people, his oversimplification is spot on!

4) Unconscious motivation

While the concept of the unconscious mind remains relevant in psychology, psychologists have criticized Freud’s specific ideas about unconscious desires and conflicts for being difficult to test empirically. 

Yes, I know, I’m like a parrot, but this whole article basically boils down to the inability to test his theories and him oversimplifying and sexualizing behaviors. 

For instance, Freud’s theory often pathologized normal human behaviors by attributing them to hidden sexual conflicts. 

This kind of labeling potentially leads to unnecessary stigmatization and misunderstanding of others and how they behave.

For example, his concept of “oral fixation” suggested that habits like nail-biting or smoking could be attributed to unresolved conflicts during the oral stage of development. 

By medically labeling such behaviors, people who do them often feel abnormal or even “broken,” even if these behaviors are within the range of typical human conducts.

5) Dream analysis

Freud also heavily believed that dreams provided insight into unconscious desires and conflicts. This was a novel and intriguing concept at the time.

He introduced the idea that dreams contain symbolic elements that must be decoded to understand their true meaning. 

He argued that the actual events and symbols in dreams were a disguise for the hidden, repressed desires or thoughts. 

This approach to dream analysis was both intriguing and controversial. However, it’s also highly subjective and, again, lacks empirical evidence. 

Although we still don’t know why we dream, modern dream research incorporates neuroscience and cognitive psychology to offer alternative explanations for dream phenomena.

Apart from Freud’s, there are six major theories on why we dream, including processing information and aiding our memory.

I have always been fascinated by lucid dreaming, yet I don’t think I’ve ever experienced one despite numerous tries.  

6) Psychosexual stages

Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages suggests that children go through distinct stages of development, each characterized by specific conflicts. 

Freud’s stages of human development include oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages.

His ideas about how personalities develop are famous in psychology, but they’ve always sparked debate and controversy, both when Freud was alive and in today’s psychology.

Critics argue that these stages are overly rigid and don’t account for many other factors.

For instance, his theory was primarily developed within a Western, European context and may not be applicable or relevant to people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Above all, many modern developmental theories consider the entire lifespan and recognize the significance of development in adolescence and adulthood, not just childhood.

7) Gender and sexuality

Freud’s views on gender and sexuality were largely binary and heteronormative. He assumed that heterosexual orientation was the norm. 

He, therefore, viewed deviations from this norm as pathological. However, this perspective ignores the existence of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities beyond heterosexuality.

Modern psychology recognizes a broader spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations, emphasizing the need for a more inclusive and diverse understanding of human sexuality.

He also initially considered homosexuality as a form of mental illness and attributed it to unresolved conflicts in childhood. 

While he later softened this stance, his early views greatly contributed to the pathologization and stigmatization of homosexuality.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, Freud’s theories are just that – theories. They should evolve over time as we try to replicate them or find new evidence to support or disprove them.   

While Freud’s pioneering work laid the foundation for modern psychology, we must recognize that scientific progress continually challenges and revises theories.

This allows us to build on the past while adapting to a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the human mind and behavior.

His work will undoubtedly live on even though it’s faced with a lot of scrutiny. 

Adrian Volenik

Adrian has years of experience in the field of personal development and building wealth. Both physical and spiritual. He has a deep understanding of the human mind and a passion for helping people enhance their lives. Adrian loves to share practical tips and insights that can help readers achieve their personal and professional goals. He has lived in several European countries and has now settled in Portugal with his family. When he’s not writing, he enjoys going to the beach, hiking, drinking sangria, and spending time with his wife and son.

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