An introduction to neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theory

An introduction to neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theory
An introduction to neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theory

Psychoanalysis began with Freud, but it did not end with him. Many psychoanalysts influenced by Freud were nonetheless dissatisfied with the mechanistic picture of the human person he left us with. Freud sees humans as “isolated beings irrationally driven by biological, primitive drives welling up within them, their personalities molded by discrete psychic structures interacting mechanically and unconsciously to achieve compromises leading to gratification.” Freud focused a great deal on the ego in his later work “The Ego and the Id.” This was a departure from his early theorizing about a “seduction theory,” according to which the child’s early interpersonal environment was closely related to emerging pathology. This interpersonal view of the human person, however, was relatively absent in his later work.

In his later work, the human person is primarily internal and self-contained and controlled by biological drives and instincts, as well as those fantasies associated with these drives. The ego is a kind of kite in a hurricane. Some believed that this later thought was a radical paradigm-shift in Freud’s thought, while others believed it was simply a fine-tuning of his earlier thought, and a natural development of it. In any case, the classical psychoanalytical position remains firmly entrenched in the drive/structure model articulated by Freud, according to which the individual is relatively isolated and self-contained.

Whatever his intentions, Freud’s later emphasis on the ego gave rise to a school of neo-Freudians who were less preoccupied with the id and its drives and more concerned with the ego and its interpersonal roles and functions. This was a less biological and less mechanistic view of the human person, more preoccupied with interpersonal behavior and cognitive processes. In other words, it is less concerned with human drives and more concerned with human relationships.

Post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory is divided into three categories:

1) Ego psychology – This is the “American” school. It emphasizes the continuity of personality throughout the individual’s life. While there are clearly certain conflicts which reflect the striving of id impulses for gratification, this does not change the fact that we must pay attention to the ego strivings for competence and adaptability, as well as mastery. This model is based on Freud’s early thought with greater emphasis on ego and relationships rather than merely tensions concerning sex and aggression. Identity, integrity and intimacy become important for these theorists, and among them are Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, David Rapaport, Heinz Hartmann and Rudolf Lowenstein.

2) Object relations – These emphasize the outward focus of the ego in a manner similar to the American ego psychology school. The object relations school is associated with British neo-Freudians.They focus on the earlier years of life and the important impressions they leave on the personality. In the words of Stanton L. Jones:

“The main determinant of personality is presumed to be the internalized images that we each carry within us of the primary relational figures in our past (“objects” such as mother and father). Personality is then understood primarily in terms of the relationships among the characteristics of these internalized “objects.” These internal images or objects then are the primary psychic structures, replacing id, ego and superego. The interrelations of the objects create our psychological drives, rather than them welling up fro the id. The drives themselves are deemed relational rather than crudely sexual and aggressive.”

3) Self psychology – This was established by Heinz Kohut and his followers and its purpose is to articulate the impact of the experiences of the early years in the individual’s development, and the sense of identity.


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