Personality Development Through the Lens of Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development

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“Personality is the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his unique adjustments to the environment.” 

Gordon Allport (1937).

          The above definition, simply put, means that personality is a person’s characteristic way of thinking, feeling and behaving. While there is no fixed definition of personality, there have been a number of theories that have emerged in the field of psychology that attempt to explain it, with some focusing on how personality develops, while others are concerned with individual differences in personality. 

          So how does the personality develop? One of the earliest (and possibly most controversial) theories of personality development was presented by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, termed ‘psychoanalysis’. Freud believed that personality forms during one’s early first few years. Children pass through a series of psychosexual stages that lead to the development of adult personality. In each stage, the pleasure-seeking tendencies of the id focus on distinct erogenous zones – which are defined as parts of the body that are particularly sensitive to stimulation. As children pass through each stage, it presents its own challenges, which Freud termed as ‘conflicting tendencies’. 

         During the five psychosexual stages, which are the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages, the erogenous zone associated with each stage serves as a source of pleasure. The libido was described as the driving force behind behavior. Freud regarded the libido as the psychic energy related to sexuality. The manner in which the child handles the conflict between the impulses and environmental restrictions is decisive for development. Too little or too much gratification at a certain stage may result in fixation. The stages are mentioned in brief in Table 1. 

Stage Focus
Oral (0 – 18 months) Pleasure centers around the mouth.
Anal (18 – 36 months) Pleasure focuses on bowel and bladder elimination; coping with demands for control.
Phallic (3 – 6 years) Pleasure zone is the genitals; coping with incestuous sexual feelings.
Latency (6 years to puberty) A phase of dormant sexual feelings.
Genital (Puberty onwards) Maturation of sexual interests.
Table 1. Freud’s Psychosexual Stages

  1. The Oral Stage 

Erogenous Zone : The Mouth 

          During the oral stage, the erogenous zone in focus is the mouth, with the interest in oral gratification, which arises from sucking, eating, biting and chewing. The primary conflict in this stage is the weaning process. Fixation at this stage may produce an adult who is unusually absorbed in oral activities such as eating, talking, smoking, drinking, biting one’s nails or chewing gum. Freud also believed that fixation is also represented through symbolic sorts of oral activities, such as the use of “biting” sarcasm or a person who is always criticizing everyone else’s ideas without offering any of their own. 

  1. The Anal Stage 

Erogenous Zone : Bowel and Bladder Control 

          During the anal stage, the source of pleasure is in withholding or eliminating feces. The major conflict at this stage is the child’s potty-training, with the parents’ approach toward it being vital. If the potty-training was very lenient and unstructured, it may result in adult tendencies toward disorderly, messy, wasteful and careless behavior, which Freud termed as anal-expulsive personalities. By contrast, if it was very strict and harsh, it would give rise to stubborn, compulsive, rigid, orderly personalities in adulthood, termed as anal-retentive personalities.

  1. The Phallic Stage

Erogenous Zone : The Genitals

          In the phallic stage, the primary focus of the libido is on the genitals. The child experiences pleasure through the handling of his or her genitals. Too much or too little gratification sets the stage for later difficulties, such as, the individual who feels guilty about their sexual needs or desires or engages in sex to reduce anxiety. It is also at this stage that children begin to discover the differences in the binary males and females. 

          Freud also believed that during the phallic stage the boys seek genital stimulation and develop both unconscious sexual desire for their mother; and jealousy and hatred towards their father, whom they consider a rival. Freud called this collection of feelings the Oedipus Complex, after the famous Greek legend of Oedipus. Given these feelings, boys also experience guilt and a lingering fear of punishment, perhaps in the form of castration, from their father, which he termed as castration anxiety. For girls, the parallel was the Electra Complex, with them experiencing penis envy

          Children eventually cope with these threatening feelings by repressing them and by trying to identify with the rival parent, thus incorporating their parent’s sexual orientation, mannerisms and values. This sense of identification influences our early childhood relations – especially with our parents and caregivers and in turn, our developing identities, personalities and moralities. However, Freud believed that penis envy was never fully resolved for girls and that all women remain somewhat fixated on this stage – a theory that has attracted heaps of criticism on the grounds of being inaccurate and demeaning to women. 

  1. The Latent Stage 

Erogenous Zone : Dormant Sexual Feelings

          In this stage, early sexual feelings are forgotten and sexual urges lie dormant and inactive. The child focuses on other areas such as intellectual pursuits, schoolwork, sports and social interactions. The child forms same-sex friendships and platonic friendships with members of the opposite sex. This stage is important in the development of social and communication skills and self-confidence. As with the other psychosexual stages, Freud believed that it was possible for children to become fixated in this phase, resulting in immaturity and an inability to form fulfilling relationships as an adult. 

  1. The Genital Stage

Erogenous Zone: Maturing Sexual Interests 

          The onset of puberty in this stage causes the libido to become active once again. During the final stage of psychosexual development, the individual develops a strong sexual interest in the opposite sex. This stage begins during puberty but lasts for the person’s entire life. However, it is worth noting that Freud’s theory does not account for homosexual attraction.  Sexual interests are reawakened and there is a focus on gratification through genital or sexual activity. The goal of this stage is to establish a balance between the various life areas. The well-adjusted adult experiences genital strivings so that he or she is capable of genuine love and adult sexual satisfaction. Most adult problems with sex derive from fixations at the earlier oral, anal, or phallic stages.

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Id – In psychoanalytic theory, the id is the part of the human psyche that operates on the pleasure principle. It seeks immediate gratification.

Fixation – Behavior reflecting an earlier stage of development due to an unresolved conflict.

Identification – The process by which, according to Freud, children incorporate their parents’ values into their developing selves.

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