The course of personality and social-emotional development was permanently altered by writings of both Sigmund Freud and Eric Erikson. “Although their theories have implications for other developmental areas, their primary focus was on explaining social and emotional developmental states and the personality dimensions that may be formed by experiences encountered in each stage.” (Bergen, 2008, p. 36) This essay will attempt to highlight some of the strengths, and some of the criticisms of both Freud and Erikson.
Rarely is the writing of a single individual so influential on a field that he becomes a household name… such is the case with Sigmund Freud. We need only refer to a Freudian slip (a verbal mistake that expresses the unconscious mind’s feelings) to get clarity on how deep and wide his influence is. (Bergen, 2008, p. 43) “Freud was one of the first theorists who thought that the causes of human behavior could be discovered by scientific methods, and he used the methods that were available in his time to investigate the underlying developmental causes of adult mental health issues.” (Bergen, 2008, p. 37) Adult is a key component of that statement, since Freud is best known for his phases of psychosexual development that begin with the “oral” phase (ages 0-1) and culminate with the “genital” phase (age 12+). There is some irony that Freud worked almost exclusively with adults, yet the bulk of his theory was concerned with childhood.
Another basic construct that is inseparable from Freud is the concept of defense mechanisms. Rationalization, repression, displacement, regression, projection, identification, reaction formation, and sublimation are all concepts that were born of and nurtured by Freud and his disciples. He is credited with differentiating between the conscious, the unconscious, and the preconscious (the area between the two). Freud not only put “the unconscious” on the map but he operationalized it in a new way—as a dynamic unconscious, laying down the foundation of a science of the unconscious. (Lothane, 2006) He is generally recognized as birthing of the concepts of id, ego, and superego. All of these theories were the metaphorical shoulders on which the giants of psychological thought stand today… Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Anna Freud, Karen Horney, and Melanie Klein are all indebted to the work of S. Freud. And that influence only takes the metaphorical couch into consideration… Freud’s real legacy lies beyond the couch in the application of psychoanalysis to community problems and social issues. (Twemlow & Parens, 2006)
As can be expected with any theory or theorist, Freud is not without his critics. Among the criticism is that his theory does not meet the test of falsifiability, primarily because they are not supported or discounted with empirical evidence. (Bergen, 2008, p. 42) Critics levy charges of “circular reasoning,” “predicting backwards,” “denigrating female development” with an overemphasis on male development in the Oedipal phase, and finally as a “dated construct” due to the fact that it was firmly situated in the Victorian society it attempted to describe. The confusion around Freud and his theoretical constructs is that we appear to be misapplying Freudian concepts at present. “Psychoanalysts have to decide whether to stay with the original meanings or to choose different and proper terminology to suit their new concepts instead of misapplying the original ones.” (Fayek, 2002, p. 476)
Eric Erikson, while less known in contemporary layman circles, is no less influential. “Erikson’s theory draws on many of Freud’s concepts; however, his emphasis is on explaining how healthy personalities develop rather than focusing on unhealthy developmental processes.” (Bergen, 2008, p. 43)
Like Freud, Eriksons work is increasing seen as dated due to ongoing changes in society at large. For example, “it is certainly the case that adolescents do ‘try on’ many identities, but because of changing social conditions, they may not do that for a longer period of time without it having unhealthy consequences.” (Bergen, 2008, p. 50) Erikson’s discussion of the final two periods of life may also need revision dude to the fact that individuals live longer now than they did previously. (Bergen, 2008, p. 51)
My biggest issue with Erikson is of a more personal nature. It is generally well known that Erik Erikson had a 4th child who suffered from Down’s syndrome. This son, who died at the age of 21, was effectively abandoned by him and his wife. A psychoanalyst who was famous for effectively treating problem children failed to give even the minimum parental care to his own mentally challenged son. One might question the integrity of an individual who would do such a thing, but the reality is that this experience shaped some of the critical aspects of Erikson’s theory of human development. (Paranjpe, 2000)
Bergen, D. (2008). Human development: Traditional and contemporary theories. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Fayek, A. (2002). Psychic reality and mental representation: Contemporary misapplications of Freud’s concepts. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 19(3), 475-500. doi: 10.1037/0736-97188.8.131.525
Lothane, Z. (2006). Freud’s legacy–is it still with us?. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 23(2), 285-301. doi: 10.1037/0736-97184.108.40.2065
Paranjpe, A. C. (2000, Nov). Review of Identity’s architect: A biography of Erik H. Erikson. Canadian Psychology, 41(4), 288-289. doi: 10.1037/h0088184
Twemlow, S. W., & Parens, H. (2006). Might Freud’s legacy lie beyond the couch?. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 23(2), 430-451. doi: 10.1037/0736-97220.127.116.110