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Freudian Psychosexual Stages

Freudian Psychosexual Stages

Another axis of human psychological development is evident in Freud’s earlier description of the psychosexual stages. During childhood, the libido (sex drive)is expressed and gratified through activities relating to particular areas of the body (erotogenic zones) – the mouth, anus and penis/clitoris. This introduces conflicts (between id and external reality [mainly parents]) through weaning, toilet training and masturbation, respectively. The way such conflicts are handled shapes the personality. According to Freud, the personality is largely formed in the first five or six years of life as the child progresses through the oral, anal and phallic stages. Such stages can merge rather than being discrete and the prominence of particular stages may vary from person to person. The oral, anal and phallic stages are termed pre-genital. They are proposed to be followed by a latency period then, signalled by the onset of puberty, the genital stage itself.

Fixation (preoccupation) can occur through too little or too much gratification being achieved during the psychosexual stages. Too little gratification (Freud’s negative fixation hypothesis) may lead to a desire for what has been missed. Too much gratification (Freuds positive fixation hypothesis) may lead to overindulgence and a reluctance to move on. Both “pattern” the libido, creating a prototype/template/blueprint (as original and genetically determined object-choices) for later behaviours, attitudes and personality traits. The fixation point – generally, oral, anal or phallic – provides an immature state for regression to when the person is stressed or frustrated.

The oral stage occurs in the first year of life. Its focal activities include sucking and feeding, during the initial oral dependent phase, and then biting, during the later oral aggressive phase. Subsequent issues experienced by the person originally fixated at the oral dependent phase typically relate to dependence/independence, optimism/pessimism and trust/mistrust. Characteristic behavioural difficulties tend to occur in the realms of alcoholism, eating disorders and smoking. The legacy of fixation at the oral aggressive stage (and later regression to it when the person is under stress) may involve passivity/aggression, kindness/criticism, talkativeness/quietness and ambivalence (both the libido and the aggressive instinct being simultaneously directed towards same object).

The anal stage develops between the ages of approximately one and three. The main associated activity is elimination, which the infant may experience as providing its parents with a “gift” (a precursor of productivity, tenacity and creativity). Fixation characteristics of the so-called anal retentive personality comprise the “anal triad” of obstinacy, orderliness and parsimony, which may also be inferred through an excessive preoccupation with cleanliness, neatness, perfectionism, stinginess, pedantry and control. The anal expulsive character, by contrast, develops towards being messy, disorderly, wasteful, extravagant, irresponsible, impulsive and rebellious. Through the typically convoluted dynamics of Freudian defence mechanisms, especially reaction formation, it is suggested that both anal retentive and anal expulsive traits and behaviours may implicate one another.

The phallic stage occurs between the age of three and six, again approximately. It evolves through the young childs unconscious fantasies and anxieties about seducing the opposite sex parent and being punished accordingly by the same sex parent. Freud believes that this fundamental drama of human development – the Oedipus complex, involving the twin themes of (imagined) incest and patricide – mirrors Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex.

In this Greek tragedy, it was foretold prior to Oedipus birth that his father, King Laius of Thebes, would be murdered by a future son. On that basis, the baby Oedipus is subsequently mutilated – his feet being pierced – and left in the mountains to die. He is rescued by shepherds, however, and then adopted and raised by the King and Queen of Corinth (Oedipus being unaware that they are not his natural parents). Later, he consults the Oracle of Delphi and is told he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid this, Oedipus flees Corinth and travels through Greece. After a dispute over the right of way at a crossroads, he kills an older man (who unknown to him is King Laius, his natural father). On reaching Thebes, he encounters the Sphinx monster who has been terrorising the city, devouring anyone unable to answer her riddle. Oedipus does answer the riddle, frees the city, becomes its king and marries Queen Jocasta, his natural mother. Many years later, as the tragedy unfolds, he discovers that he has murdered his father and blinds himself, while his wife/mother commits suicide.

With the young boy, the oedipal situation begins with his incestuous attraction towards his mother. His father becomes considered as a rival and his punishment anticipated (the boy not realising his father cannot “mind read” his guilty thoughts about his mother). Such punishment is particularly feared to take a terrifying guise, leading to castration anxiety, which is given credibility by the observation that little girls seem already to have suffered this dreadful fate. To deal with the terror, the little boy abandons his preoccupation with his mother and identifies with his father. In the process, the whole unsavoury business is repressed and formation of the superego begins in earnest.

Freud believes that no human being emerges from the oedipal situation unscathed. There is invariably a complicatory residue left in the psyche, excavation and expression of which becomes the centrepiece of psychoanalysis. This occurs especially through the patient’s emotional (over-)involvement with the analyst, displacing and repeating oedipal experiences through transference reactions. Unresolved oedipal conflicts may be revealed – during psychoanalytic sessions or any other life experiences – through problems with authority figures, mother or father fixation, sexual orientation, gender identity, choice of partner, vanity, flirtatiousness, submissiveness and various guises of castration anxiety (including sexual deviations [paraphilias] and dysfunctions) or penis envy.

Following the phallic stage is the much less turbulent latency period. This is characterised by sexual quiescence as the child turns to the outside world to learn and acquire knowledge, skills and roles. Triggered by the physiological changes of puberty, the genital stage then emerges, along with its substages of puberty itself, adolescence and adulthood. Whereas the pregenital stages tend to be narcissistic, the main aim of the genital (not to be confused with phallic) stage is an adult, non-incestuous expression of sexuality. This involves separating from parents and establishing a mature – outgoing and altruistic – relationship with a person of the opposite sex, demonstrating at least half of Freuds criteria for psychological health: the capacity to love and to work.

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