This is a thinker who helps us understand
why our lives and relationships are full of so much confusion and pain. He tells us why
life is hard, and how to cope. His own life incurred a lot of anxiety. Sigmund
Schlomo Freud was born to a middle-class Jewish family in 1856. His professional life was not an immediate
success. As a medical student, he dissected hundreds of eels in an unsuccessful attempt
to locate their reproductive organs. He promoted cocaine as a medical drug, but
it turned out to be a dangerous and addictive idea. A few years later he founded the discipline
that would ultimately make his name. A new psychological medicine he called PSYCHOANALYSIS The landmark study was his 1900 book The Interpretation
of Dreams. Many others followed. Despite his success, he was often unhappy. During some particularly strenuous research
he recorded, “The chief patient I am preoccupied with is myself…” He was convinced he would
die between 61 and 62 and had great phobias about those numbers. (Although he actually
died much later, at age 83.) Perhaps because of his frustrations, Freud
achieved a series of deep insights into the sources of human unhappiness. He proposed that we are all driven by the: Pleasure Principle which inclines us towards easy physical and
emotional rewards: and away from unpleasant things like drudgery
and discipline. As infants we are guided more or less solely according to the pleasure principle,
Freud argued. But it will, if adhered to without constraints,
lead us to dangerous reckless things: like never doing any work
eating too much or, most notoriously, sleeping with members
of own family. We need to adjust to what Freud called THE REALITY PRINCIPLE Though we all have to bow to this reality
principle, Freud believed that there were better and worse kinds of adaptations. He
called the troublesome ones NEUROSES Neuroses are the result of faulty negotiations
with –or in Freud’s language, repression of–the pleasure principle. Freud described a conflict between three parts
of our minds: the ID driven by the pleasure principle, and the THE SUPEREGO driven by a desire to follow the rules and
do the right thing according to society. and the EGO which has to somehow accomodate the two. To understand more about these dynamics, Freud
urged us to think back to the origins of our neuroses in childhood. As we grow up, we go through what Freud termed: THE ORAL PHASE where we deal with all the feelings around
ingestion and eating. If our parents aren’t careful we might pick
up all kinds of neuroses here: we might take pleasure in refusing food, or turn to food
to calm ourselves down, or hate the idea of depending on anyone else for food. Then comes THE ANAL PHASE which is closely aligned with what we now
call “potty-training”. During this period, our parents tell us what
to do–and when to go. At this phase we begin to learn about testing the limits of authority. Again, if things go wrong, if we don’t feel
authority is benign enough, we might, for example, choose to withhold out of defiance. Then, as adults, we might become “anally
retentive”; in other words, not able to give or surrender. Next comes: THE PHALLIC PHASE which goes until about age 6. Freud shocked
his contemporaries by insisting that little children have sexual feelings. Moreover, in
the phallic phase children direct their sexual impulses towards their parents, the most immediately
available and gratifying people around. Freud famously described what he called THE OEDIPUS COMPLEX Where we are unconsciously predisposed towards “being in love with the one parent and hating the other.” What is complex is that no matter how much
our parents love us, they cannot extend this to sexual life and will always have another
life with a partner. This makes our young selves feel dangerously jealous and angry
– and also ashamed and guilty about this anger. The complex provides a huge amount
of internalised worry for a small child. Ultimately, most of us experience some form of confusion around our parents that later ties into our ideas of love. Mum and dad may both give us love, but they
often mix it in with disturbed behaviour. Yet because we love them, we remain loyal
to them and also to their bizarre, destructive patterns. For example, if our mother is cold,
we will be apt nevertheless to long for her. And as a result, however, we may be prone
to always associate love with a certain distance. Naturally, the result is very difficult adult
relationships. Often the kind of love we’ve learned from mum and dad means we can’t
fuse sex and love because the people we learnt about love from are also those we were blocked
from having sex with. We might find that the more in love with someone we are, the harder
it becomes to make love to them. This can reach a pitch of crisis after a few years
of marriage and some kids. Freud compared the issues we so often have
with intimacy to hedgehogs in the winter: they need to cuddle for warmth, but they also
can’t come too close because they’re prickly. There’s no easy solution. Freud says we
can’t make ourselves fully rational, and we can’t change society, either. In his
1930 book Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud wrote that society provides us with
many things, but it does this by imposing heavy dictates on us: insisting that we sleep
with only a few (usually one) other, imposing the incest taboo, requiring us to put off
our immediate desires, demanding that we follow authority and work to make money. Societies
themselves are neurotic–that is how they function – and it’s why there are constant
wars and other troubles. Freud attempted to invent a treatment for
our many neuroses: psychoanalysis. He thought that with a little proper analysis, people
could uncover what ails them and better adjust to the difficulties of reality. In his sessions he analysed a number of key
things. He looked at people’s dreams, which he saw as expressions of WISH FULFILLMENTS He also looked at PARAPRAXES or slips of the tongue. We now call these revealing mistakes FREUDIAN SLIPS Like when we write ‘thigh’ when we wanted
to write ‘though’. He also liked to think about jokes. He believed
that jokes often help us make fun of something symbolic like death or marriage, and thus
relieve some of our anxiety about these topics. There’s a temptation to say Freud just made
everything up, and life isn’t quite so hard as he makes it out to be. But then one morning
we find ourselves filled with inexplicable anger towards our partner, or running high
with unrelenting anxiety on the train to work, and we’re reminded all over again just how
elusive, difficult, and Freudian our mental workings actually are. We could still reject his work, of course.
But as Freud said, “No one who disdains the key will ever be able to unlock the door.” We could all use a bit more of Freud’s ideas to help us unpick ourselves.

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