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Psychosexual Stages of Personality Development
Freud believed that all behaviors are defensive but that not everyone uses the same defenses in the same way. All of us are driven by the same id impulses, but there is not the same universality in the nature of the ego and superego. Although these structures of the personality perform the same functions for everyone, their content varies from one person to another. They differ because they are formed through experience, and no two people have precisely the same experiences, not even siblings reared in the same house. Thus, part of our personality is formed on the basis of the unique relationships we have as children with various people and objects. We develop a personal set of character attributes, a consistent pattern of behavior that defines each of us as an individual.
A person’s unique character type develops in childhood largely from parent–child interactions. The child tries to maximize pleasure by satisfying the id demands, while parents, as representatives of society, try to impose the demands of reality and morality. So important did Freud consider childhood experiences that he said the adult personality was firmly shaped and crystallized by the fifth year of life. What persuaded him that these early years are crucial were his own childhood memories and the memories revealed by his adult patients. Invariably, as his patients lay on his psychoanalytic couch, they reached far back into childhood. Increasingly, Freud perceived that the adult neurosis had been formed in the early years of life.
Freud sensed strong sexual conflicts in the infant and young child, conflicts that seemed to revolve around specific regions of the body. He noted that each body region with gratification received from defecation.
Sometimes a person is reluctant or unable to move from one stage to the next because the conflict has not been resolved or because the needs have been so supremely satisfied by an indulgent parent that the child doesn’t want to move on. In either case, the individual is said to be fixated at this stage of development. In fixation, a portion of libido or psychic energy remains invested in that developmental stage, leaving less energy for the following stages.
Central to the psychosexual theory is the infant’s sex drive. Freud shocked his colleagues and the general public when he argued that babies are motivated by sexual impulses. Recall, however, that Freud did not define sex in a narrow way. He believed that the infant is driven to obtain a diffuse form of bodily pleasure deriving from the mouth, anus, and genitals, the erogenous zones that define the stages of development during the first 5 years of life.
The Oral Stage
The oral stage, the first stage of psychosexual development, lasts from birth until some time during the second year of life. During this period the infant’s principal source of pleasure is the mouth. The infant derives pleasure from sucking, biting, and swallowing. Of course, the mouth is used for survival (for the ingestion of food and water), but Freud placed a greater emphasis on the erotic satisfactions derived from oral activities.
The infant is in a state of dependence on the mother or caregiver. She or he becomes the primary object of the child’s libido. In more familiar terms, we might say the infant is learning, in a primitive way, to love the mother. How the mother responds to the infant’s demands, which at this time are solely id demands, determines the nature of the baby’s small world. The infant learns from the mother to perceive the world as good or bad, satisfying or frustrating, safe or perilous.
There are two ways of behaving during this stage: oral incorporative behavior (taking in) and oral aggressive or oral sadistic behavior (biting or spitting out). The oral incorporative mode occurs first and involves the pleasurable stimulation of the mouth by other people and by food. Adults fixated at the oral incorporative stage are excessively concerned with oral activities, such as eating, drinking, smoking, and kissing. If, as infants, they were excessively gratified, their adult oral personality will be predisposed to unusual optimism and dependency. Because they were overindulged in infancy, they continue to depend on others to gratify their needs. As a consequence, they are overly gullible, swallow or believe anything they are told, and trust other people inordinately. Such people are labeled oral passive personality types.
The second oral behavior, oral aggressive or oral sadistic, occurs during the painful, frustrating eruption of teeth. As a result of this experience, infants come to view the mother with hatred as well as love. Persons fixated at this level are prone to excessive pessimism, hostility, and aggressiveness. They are likely to be argumentative and sarcastic, making so-called biting remarks and displaying cruelty toward others. They tend to be envious of other people and try to exploit and manipulate them in an effort to dominate.
The oral stage concludes at the time of weaning, although some libido remains if fixation has occurred. Then the infant’s focus shifts to the other end.
The Anal Stage
Society, in the form of parents, tends to defer to the infant’s needs during the first year of life, adjusting to its demands and expecting relatively little adjustment in return. This situation changes dramatically around the age of 18 months, when a new demand, toilet training, is made of the child. Freud believed that the experience of toilet training during the anal stage had a significant effect on personality development. Defecation produces erotic pleasure for the child, but with the onset of toilet training, the child must learn to postpone or delay this pleasure. For the first time, gratification of an instinctual impulse is interfered with as parents attempt to regulate the time and place for defecation.
As any parent can attest, this is a time of conflict for all concerned. The child learns that he or she has (or is) a weapon that can be used against the parents. The child has control over something and can choose to comply or not with the parents’ demands. If the toilet training is not going well—for example, if the child has difficulty learning or the parents are excessively demanding—the child may react in one of two ways. One way is to defecate when and where the parents disapprove, thus defying their attempts at regulation. If the child finds this a satisfactory technique for reducing frustration and uses it frequently, he or she may develop an anal aggressive personality. To Freud, this was the basis for many forms of hostile and sadistic behavior in adult life, including cruelty, destructiveness, and temper tantrums. Such a person is likely to be disorderly and to view other people as objects to be possessed.
A second way the child may react to the frustration of toilet training is to hold back or retain the feces. This produces a feeling of erotic pleasure (derived from a full lower intestine) and can be another successful technique for manipulating the parents. They may become concerned if the child goes several days without a bowel movement. Thus, the child discovers a new method for securing parental attention and affection. This behavior is the basis for the development of an anal retentive personality. Stubborn and stingy, such a person hoards or retains things because feelings of security depend on what is saved and possessed and on the order in which possessions and other aspects of life are maintained. The person is likely to be rigid, compulsively neat, obstinate, and overly conscientious.
The Phallic Stage
A new set of problems arises around the fourth to fifth year, when the focus of pleasure shifts from the anus to the genitals. Again the child faces a battle between an id impulse and the demands of society, as reflected in parental expectations.
Children at the phallic stage display considerable interest in exploring and manipulating the genitals, their own and those of their playmates. Pleasure is derived from the genital region not only through behaviors such as masturbation, but also through fantasies. The child becomes curious about birth and about why boys have penises and girls do not. The child may talk about wanting to marry the parent of the opposite sex.
The phallic stage is the last of the pre-genital or childhood stages, and phallic conflicts are the most complex ones to resolve. They are difficult for many people to accept because they involve the notion of incest, a taboo in many cultures. Between incestuous desires and masturbation we can see the seeds of shock, anger, and suppression being sown in the parents of the typical 4-year-old. Reality and morality come to grips with the evil id once again.
The Oedipus complex in boys. The basic conflict of the phallic stage centers on the unconscious desire of the child for the parent of the opposite sex. Accompanying this is the unconscious desire to replace or destroy the parent of the same sex. Out of Freud’s identification of this conflict came one of his best-known concepts: the Oedipus complex. Its name comes from the Greek myth described in the play Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in the fifth century B.C. In this story, young Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, not knowing who they are.
The Oedipus complex operates differently for boys and girls; Freud developed the male part of the complex more fully. In the Oedipus complex, the mother becomes a love object for the young boy. Through fantasy and overt behavior, he displays his sexual longings for her. However, the boy sees the father as an obstacle in his path and regards him as a rival and a threat. He perceives that the father has a special relationship with the mother in which he, the boy, is not allowed to participate. As a result, he becomes jealous of and hostile toward the father. Freud drew his formulation of the Oedipus complex from his childhood experiences. He wrote, “I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case, too” (Freud, 1954, p. 223).
Accompanying the boy’s desire to replace his father is the fear that the father will retaliate and harm him. He interprets his fear of his father in genital terms, becoming fearful that his father will cut off the offending organ (the boy’s penis), which is the source of the boy’s pleasure and sexual longings. And so castration anxiety, as Freud called it, comes to play a role, as it may have done in Freud’s childhood. “There are a number of indications that [Freud’s father] enjoined little Sigmund not to play with his genitals, and even threatened him with castration if he did” (Krüll, 1986, p. 110).
Additional evidence to support this contention comes from Freud’s later writings on masturbation, in which he saw such threats from fathers as common. Freud also reported that his adult dreams contained material relating to the fear of castration by his father.
Two other childhood events may have reinforced Freud’s fear of castration. At around the age of 3, he and his nephew engaged in some rough sex play with his niece and discovered she did not have a penis. For a 3-year-old boy, this may have been sufficient evidence that penises can be cut off. In the opinion of one Freud biographer, “the threat of castration is particularly realistic to a Jewish boy, since it is easy to establish a connection between ritual circumcision and castration” (Krüll,
1986, p. 110). Freud confirmed this in his later writings.
So strong is the boy’s fear of castration that he is forced to repress his sexual desire for his mother. To Freud, this was a way of resolving the Oedipal conflict. The boy replaces the sexual longing for the mother with a more acceptable affection and develops a strong identification with the father. In so doing, the boy experiences a degree of vicarious sexual satisfaction. To enhance the identification, he attempts to become more like his father by adopting his mannerisms, behaviors, attitudes, and superego standards.
The Oedipus complex in girls. Freud was less clear about the female phallic conflict, which some of his followers termed the Electra complex. Like the boy’s, the girl’s first object of love is the mother, because she is the primary source of food, affection, and security in infancy. During the phallic stage, however, the father becomes the girl’s new love object. Why does this shift from mother to father take place? Freud said it was because of the girl’s reaction to her discovery that boys have a penis and girls do not.
The girl blames her mother for her supposedly inferior condition and consequently comes to love her mother less. She may even hate the mother for what she imagines the mother did to her. She comes to envy her father and transfers her love to him because he possesses the highly valued sex organ. Freud wrote: “girls feel deeply their lack of a sexual organ that is equal in value to the male one; they regard themselves on that account as inferior and this envy for the penis is the origin of a whole number of characteristic feminine reactions” (Freud, 1925, p. 212). Thus, a girl develops penis envy, a counterpart to a boy’s castration anxiety. She believes she has lost her penis; he fears he will lose his.
This female Oedipus complex, Freud suggested, can never be totally resolved, a situation he believed led to poorly developed superegos in women. Freud wrote that an adult woman’s love for a man is always tinged with penis envy, for which she can partially compensate by having a male child. The girl comes to identify with the mother and repress her love for her father, but Freud was not specific about how this occurs.
The phallic personality. Phallic conflicts and their degree of resolution are of major importance in determining adult relations with and attitudes toward the opposite sex. Poorly resolved conflicts can cause lingering forms of castration anxiety and penis envy. The so-called phallic character or personality type evidences strong narcissism.
Although continually acting to attract the opposite sex, these persons have difficulty establishing mature heterosexual relationships. They need continual recognition and appreciation of their attractive and unique qualities. As long as they receive such support they function well, but when it is lacking they feel inadequate and inferior.
Freud described the male phallic personality as brash, vain, and self-assured. Men with this personality try to assert or express their masculinity through activities such as repeated sexual conquests. The female phallic personality, motivated by penis envy, exaggerates her femininity and uses her talents and charms to overwhelm and conquer men.
The tense drama of the phallic stage is repressed in all of us. Its effects motivate us as adults at the unconscious level, and we recall little, if anything, of the conflict.
The Latency Period
The storms and stresses of the oral, anal, and phallic stages of psychosexual development are the amalgam out of which most of the adult personality is shaped. The three major structures of the personality—the id, ego, and superego—have been formed by approximately the age of 5, and the relationships among them are being solidified.
Fortunately, because the child and parents certainly could use some rest, the next 5 or 6 years are quiet. The latency period is not a psychosexual stage of development. The sex instinct is dormant, temporarily sublimated in school activities, hobbies, and sports and in developing friendships with members of the same sex.
The Genital Stage
The genital stage, the final psychosexual stage of development, begins at puberty. The body is becoming physiologically mature, and if no major fixations have occurred at an earlier stage of development, the individual may be able to lead a normal life. Freud believed that the conflict during this period is less intense than in the other stages. The adolescent must conform to societal sanctions and taboos that exist concerning sexual expression, but conflict is minimized through sublimation. The sexual energy pressing for expression in the teenage years can be at least partially satisfied through the pursuit of socially acceptable substitutes and, later, through a committed adult relationship with a person of the opposite sex. The genital personality type is able to find satisfaction in love and work, the latter being an acceptable outlet for sublimation of the id impulses.
Freud emphasized the importance of the early childhood years in determining the adult personality. According to Freud, the first 5 years are the crucial ones. His personality theory pays less attention to later childhood and adolescence, and he was little concerned with personality development in adulthood. To Freud, what we are as adults—how we behave, think, and feel—is determined by the conflicts to which we are exposed and with which we must cope before many of us have even learned to read.