5 Psychosexual Stages According to Sigmund Freud

    Updated 14 April 2020 |
    Published 17 December 2019
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    Reviewed by Tanya Tantry, MD, Obstetrician & Gynecologist, Medical Consultant at Flo
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    While there are a number of theories about how personalities develop, Freud’s remains one of the most well-known and controversial. Freud tied the ability to function well as an adult directly to childhood experiences. More specifically, individuals go through stages, which can be navigated successfully or not, from birth to adulthood. If an individual becomes stuck, or fixated, in any one stage, Freud thought that future problems could erupt that would require the attention of psychoanalysis therapy to resolve.  

    The role of conflict in Freud’s psychosexual stages

    According to Freud, each stage of psychosexual development comes with some degree of conflict and frustration. He theorized that how completely a person is able to move on to the next stage depends on the degree of conflict and how the person is parented.

    In Freud’s theory, conflict is part of each stage, and the ability to resolve the conflict and move on is a large part of developing into a healthy adult. But what causes such conflict? Freud believed that the id, the primitive, instinctual part of our personality, is always in conflict with expectations, both from authority figures and from society at large. 

    Freud speculated that each psychosexual stage involves conflict between the id and external forces (developing into the ego and superego between ages three and six). To help illustrate his point about how conflict plays out during each stage, Freud used a battle metaphor. During a war, troops are sent out to battle against their opponents. If they are able to successfully win the battle, they can then move on to the next battle or conflict. However, if they are met with great difficulty, they will be less successful in moving forward to the next confrontation. More troops will be forced to stay behind, effectively remaining “stuck” in that one stage of combat. The same process, Freud argued, happens during the psychosexual stages of development. If the conflict causes a great deal of frustration, or if the child is overindulged, Freud thought they would be more likely to remain stuck in that stage of development. They would be less able to progress, and signs of this would be evident later in adulthood.       

    What are frustration, overindulgence, and fixation according to Freud?

    Freud thought that frustration, overindulgence, and a subsequent fixation could all arise if conflict during a psychosexual stage is not resolved.

    Freud describes fixation as what happens when some part of the libido (or id) is strongly invested in a particular psychosexual stage. According to Freud’s Structural Theory, the id consists of unconscious, instinctual sexual/aggressive urges and primary process thinking.  

    Freud claimed that overindulging children’s needs at each stage could lead to the same result. If the child’s needs are overindulged (overly satisfied), it could cause that individual to become stuck.

    Freud describes fixation as what happens when some part of the libido (or id) is strongly invested in a particular psychosexual stage.

    Frustration and indulgence can occur separately or at the same time. Freud’s theory was that both experiences result in the same outcome: fixation. Fixations can vary widely, depending on the stage. For example, Freud thought that becoming fixated in the oral stage could lead to a reliance on forms of oral stimulation such as smoking, eating, or drinking.

    Freud argued that adults struggling with fixations could find resolution through therapy. During therapy, some people project feelings about someone important onto their therapist, a process known as transference. Sometimes transference can be negative, but Freud believed that all transference was a gateway that could move someone from illness to recovery.    

    Freud’s psychosexual stages of development

    Freud’s theory of psychosexual development consists of five main stages. Each one is characterized by a specific kind of conflict and an erogenous zone. Freud thought that individuals could experience overindulgence, frustration, or both during one or more stages.   

    Oral stage

    In Freud’s theory, the oral stage begins at birth and typically lasts until children are one year old. The oral stage is characterized by the pleasure center and libido being centered around the mouth.

    Since infants’ primary way of interacting with the world is through their mouth, Freud thought this is where the libido is focused. With the rooting and sucking reflex, breastfeeding, biting, and tasting different foods, the oral stage is about satisfying the id’s needs through the mouth.

    Since infants’ primary way of interacting with the world is through their mouth, Freud thought this is where the libido is focused.

    Freud believed that if a child at this age is not properly weaned (becoming less reliant on caregivers), then a fixation could occur. Fixation could also occur at this stage if an infant’s needs for security, largely fulfilled through feeding, were not met. Freud thought that an oral-stage fixation could show up later as aggression or dependency, expressing itself through compulsive habits such as smoking, overeating, and excessive drinking.    

    Anal stage

    Freud characterized the anal stage as a shift of erogenous zones from the mouth to the anus and a focus on successful toilet training. 

    The anal stage, which Freud believed to take place when children are one to three years old, shifts the pleasure center from the mouth to the anus, where children find pleasure in defecating. Freud also believed that this is a period of independence. The child realizes that they are a person separate from their parents, with a growing list of individual needs and desires. Freud also thought that the ego, the sense of self in relation to the external world, develops during this stage.

    The anal stage, which Freud believed to take place when children are one to three years old, shifts the pleasure center from the mouth to the anus, where children find pleasure in defecating.

    The overarching struggle in this stage is between the wishful impulses of the id and the ego. Freud believed that the ego mediates between the primal urges of the id and the realities of the outside world. The more specific conflict of the anal stage, however, revolves around toilet training. 

    Children need to learn to control their bodily needs, and parents play an important role during this phase. Toilet training based on a system of reward and praise can lead to successful navigation and advancement to the next stage. Children feel proud of their accomplishments and begin to see themselves as competent and capable. However, Freud thought that parental responses that are either overly lenient or overly harsh could cause the opposite result. He believed that being too strict, either by being critical or punishing a child for not meeting toilet-training goals, could cause an anal-retentive personality. Freud described this personality as overly strict, obsessively neat, or extremely stingy with money. He thought that children who experience lenient toilet training could develop the opposite, an anal-expulsive personality. This manifests as a messy, disorganized, and rebellious adult.   

    Phallic stage

    The next stage of psychosexual development according to Freud is the phallic stage, characterized by a change in sexual impulse from the anus to the genitals. Freud believed the phallic stage begins when children are about three and continues until they are six. Freud’s theory was that the phallic stage is also when the controversial Oedipus and Electra complexes develop.

    Masturbation and a focus on the genitals are sources of pleasure during the phallic stage. In addition to the pleasure of masturbation, children may become aware of the opposite sex for the first time. Freud believed that this awareness of sexual differences could cause attraction and rivalry as well as jealousy and fear. His theory was that this can result in the Oedipal complex for boys and the Electra complex for girls. 

    Considered the most controversial of Freud’s theories, the Oedipal complex describes when a male child desires their mother. The Electra complex describes female children who desire their father. Following the myth of Oedipus, in the Oedipal complex, boys wish to marry their mother but, realizing their father is too strong a foe, align themselves with him instead. In the Electra complex, Freud thought that girls, wishing to marry their father, align themselves with their mother as a way of indirectly possessing their father. Freud also believed that girls develop penis envy during this stage and, unlike boys, remain at least partially fixed in this stage throughout their lives.

    Masturbation and a focus on genitals are sources of pleasure during the phallic stage.

    Freud believed that an unresolved phallic fixation could have a negative outcome later in life for men and women. Self-centeredness, a low sense of self-worth, and shyness are some of the traits Freud thought characterize those stuck in the phallic stage. He believed that it could show itself in women as flirtatious, promiscuous behavior and relationships with unloving men.    

    Latency stage

    Freud described the time between when children are six through puberty as the latent period, when the id is suppressed by the ego. He characterized this stage as the child relating to the community by adopting values, developing social skills, and forming relationships with people outside the immediate family. The ego and superego play a significant role in this phase, directing sexual energy towards different outlets. Hobbies, school activities, and learning all take center stage. Freud believed that this is when children develop the strongest relationships with others of the same sex, focus their energies on these friendships, and acquire new knowledge and experiences.

    Like the other stages, Freud believed fixation was possible in this stage, resulting in immaturity and an inability to develop close interpersonal relationships with others as an adult. 

    Genital stage

    In his theory’s fifth and final psychosexual stage, Freud believed the genital stage starts at the onset of puberty and continues on into adulthood.

    Freud believed that with the start of puberty comes a reawakened, active libido and sexual attraction. Freud theorized that as opposed to the phallic stage, which was focused on self-pleasure, the pleasure during the genital stage is focused on heterosexual pleasure. Freud believed that the proper expression of sexual instinct was through heterosexual relationships and sexual intercourse. By extension, if fixation or conflict developed during this or an earlier stage, Freud thought perversions might develop, preventing those sexual relationships. Someone fixated on the oral stage, for example, would find more pleasure in kissing and oral sex than through intercourse.

    This phase differs from the others in that Freud felt the ego and superego to be fully developed by this point. Unlike when they were younger and controlled mainly by the id, by puberty, teens are able to check their desires, keeping them within society’s standards and expectations.    

    What are Freud’s psychosexual stages criticized for?

    Despite its prevalence and influence, Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages has received numerous criticisms. Scientific researchers and feminist theorists have criticized his theory for various reasons. For one, Freud’s theories are difficult to test scientifically, and some research has found the theories to be not fully plausible. Freud himself never performed empirical studies, relying instead on anecdotal accounts from his adult patients. Finally, his focus on male development, as well as the penis envy theory, has led a number of feminist scholars to declare his theories to be unsubstantiated and entirely incorrect. 

    Status of Freud’s psychosexual stages theory

    While some of the specifics of his psychosexual theory are not supported, Freud’s psychosexual stages theory has left a profound impact on the study of human development. He understood that trauma and the way it can be repressed can have a significant impact on individuals in adulthood. His understanding of how the unconscious functions in our daily lives is perhaps his most enduring legacy. While his timeline of stages and each stage’s importance are disputed, experts agree that early childhood experiences play an enduring and crucial role in lifelong personal and social development.

    History of updates

    Current version (14 April 2020)

    Reviewed by Tanya Tantry, MD, Obstetrician & Gynecologist, Medical Consultant at Flo

    Published (17 December 2019)

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