Sigmund Freud — The Father of Modern Psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856, to a Jewish merchant family in Freiberg, a small town in the Austrian empire in what is now the Czech Republic.
He was apparently a playful, curious, happy child, though his family was unusually structured. His father was married once before and brought children near in age to his new wife into the second marriage. Freud apparently always looked back on his early childhood with a great amount of fondness, being his mother’s first child and her apparent favorite.
“I recall an anecdote I often heard repeated in my childhood. At the time of my birth an old peasant-woman had prophesied to my proud mother that with her first-born child she brought a great man into the world.”
Because of his father’s failing business, Freud’s family was forced to move when he was only four. They moved to the city of Vienna, where he would spend the majority of his life. He later said that he never really stopped missing home.
Freud became a student of medicine at the University of Vienna in 1873 and found himself fascinated with the workings of the brain. He explored the biology of animal and human brains in autopsies during his time in school, and, after he graduated in 1881, worked at the Vienna General Hospital. It was here that he met and began working with his long-time mentor and colleague Josef Breuer, and handled the famous case of Anna O.
Anna suffered from a condition then called “hysteria,” which had no apparent cause to her doctors at the time. Freud and Breuer theorized that her symptoms of paralysis, hallucinations, loss of speech, and more were brought on by traumatic events. The two developed a treatment method that was based on talking through her trauma and vocalizing it, which, much to the surprise of their contemporaries, saw the immediate and dramatic reduction of her symptoms. This was the basis of Freud’s later work, and the pattern for this legacy — the birth of psychoanalysis.
“When inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.”
Freud left the Vienna General Hospital for Paris in 1885, to study under neurologist Jean Charcot. While in Paris, he further developed his theories and, when he returned to Vienna in 1886 to set up his own private medical practice, began compiling his theories. This was the same year that he married Martha Bernays, with whom he would have six children.
He published them four years later, in 1900, in the now-classic psychology exploration The Interpretation of Dreams. This and his later works focused on the complex mechanics of the human mind and became the basis for his theory of the topographical model of the mind. This theory states that the mind is made up of the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious parts which work together to create a person’s personality and which can be deeply affected by a person’s childhood experiences and sexual experiences.
“Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.”
Freud’s life wasn’t all high-flying achievement, though. He struggled with an addiction to the newest drug craze of the time — cocaine. He’s reported to have said that it calmed his mind and “untied his tongue.” He had always been a nervous man, prone to bouts of depression, and, promised that this would help him with that, it led to an intense, life-long habit that so deeply interfered with his professional work that he ended up nearly killing one of his patients while under its influence.
“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.”
Still, he was able to achieve quite a lot in the 1910s and 1920s. He developed the idea of the psyche, which was another explanation for the configuration of the mind, made up of the instinctual Id, realistic Ego, and morally centered Superego. This and his topographical theory built off of each other and assumed that every behavior expressed by a person could be explained by some event in their childhood.
Unfortunately, Freud was becoming increasingly physically weak. He was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw in 1923 and underwent many surgeries throughout his lifetime to try and combat it. His situation grew worse when he was forced to flee Vienna when the Nazi party took power, as they saw his theories as dangerous and publicly burned many of his books. Freud and his family fled to London in 1938, and a year later, he finally succumbed to cancer on September 23, 1939.
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
Freud’s work has been criticized intensely in modern years. Much of his theory has been disproven or shown to be faulty in logic in the first place. Many people find his fixation on sexuality to be disturbing, at the very least.
Still, his psychoanalytical methods are very much in use even today. His work became the standing basis for modern therapeutic techniques and inspired entire generations of psychologists to dig deeper into how we develop as people, and how our relationships with each other form us from the moment we’re born.
Because Freud, a nervous man from a small town and a dysfunctional home, plagued by addiction and disease, persecuted and ridiculed, was unwavering in his dedication to understanding people at the most basic level, we’re able to understand how minds work and have been able to develop treatments for the very conditions that caused him so much strife.
Like him or not, Freud is rightfully seen as one of the most influential figures in psychology, from whom we can take inspiration in knowing that we don’t have to have all the answers to be curious and dedicated to exploring what they might be.