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10 Fascinating Digressions Of Freudian Theory

by HTR Williams
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Sigmund Freud is a contradictory figure. We honor him as an innovative genius and ridicule him without mercy for his many mistakes. Freud formulated his theory of psychoanalysis in the 1890s. However, as he developed it throughout his career, he often changed his mind or changed direction. The history of Freudian theory is full of digressions away from the core theories, and many are astoundingly weird and absurd. Here are 10 examples of some of Freud’s strangest and most fascinating digressions.

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10 Freud’s Theory Of Weaving

Freud’s opinions about women are famously patronizing and misogynistic, although he did advocate for them becoming members of his profession. He thought of women as being more emotionally needy, more demanding of attention, more prone to neuroses and hysteria, less swayed by conscience, more passive, and more narcissistic than men. Some of the theories that he invented to explain these personal observations seem completely ludicrous to us today. Freud’s theory on how weaving came about is a perfect example.

Why were women so demanding of attention? Why did they invest so much time and effort in their appearance? According to Freud, it was a compensation for their natural sexual inferiority. Women were born with a “genital deficiency” (they didn’t have a penis), so out of fear of being disregarded altogether, they had to ensure that they looked nice and turned men’s heads. This natural inferiority, combined with their lack of aggression, led to them contributing little to the advance of civilization, save for one pesky exception—plaiting and weaving.

Why was that the case? Women were motivated to invent plaiting and weaving because of shame, of course. To be clear, they didn’t look at all the cool things men had invented over the centuries and feel ashamed for having been historically useless. Rather, their unconscious desire to hide their shameful “castration” caused them to view their own pubic hair in a newly inventive way.

According to Freud, the shame that women felt for not having the right equipment led to them attempting to plait their pubic hair together in order to better conceal their lack. Having mastered the plait, women easily went on to invent the art of weaving. Of course, in reality, women have accomplished many important things and made countless remarkable contributions. Sadly, many of their efforts have been left out of the official history books thanks to the kind of misogyny that Freud exemplified.

9 Freud’s Theory Of God


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Freud’s ideas about God were both interesting and influential. The famously Jewish “father of psychoanalysis” claimed that the Judeo-Christian concept of God originated in a much older, far more primitive, father figure. This grisly, authoritarian uber-Daddy stems from Freud’s concept of the “primal horde.”

The primal horde was essentially an ancient Stone Age clan. They lived under an alpha male leader who kept all the women for himself. Too afraid to challenge his tyranny, the horde remained in conflict with their own repressed sexual and aggressive urges, living in a state of childlike obedience and dependence.

Sometimes, however, the horde’s urge to break free would reach a critical point. It grew into a collective wish to shatter the spell of the leader’s assumed omnipotence. The father’s sons might break away and achieve independence through homosexuality. They might then confirm their newfound independence by returning to kill the father and cannibalize him. Afterward, they would feel guilty, and the craving for the comfort provided by Daddy’s protection would recur.

This all-powerful father figure at some point became the abstract entity that we call God. The whole primitive drama was eventually formalized into a civilizing system of belief and worship. Many people supposedly still cannibalize a murdered God today when they participate in Eucharistic ceremonies.

Totemism was seen by Freud as an intermediary step in this process of abstraction, with the father figure often being reduced to a huge symbolic penis. The underlying psychological pattern remains as a regressive part of human psychology. Our regressive need, should it arise, is catered to by religion.

Freud claimed that people under the influence of religion are like groveling, helpless children. They believe in the comforting story of an omnipotent benefactor who promises them power through association, justice, help, and easy answers to the most perplexing questions of existence. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard it used as a leading argument for atheism.

8 Freud’s Theory Of Paranoia

Unreasonable paranoia is a commonly observed symptom among the mentally ill. Freud, of course, had an unusual theory about it. For some reason, he saw paranoia as a projection of unconscious homosexual desire. (Might he have been projecting a little?) Freud also thought that paranoia might be a defense mechanism for protecting self-esteem, and this is the only aspect of his theory of paranoia that is still taken seriously today.

Later psychoanalysts generally discarded Freud’s original theory of paranoia and came to agree that the deeply hidden psychological cause was not a projection of repressed homosexuality, but rather a projection of repressed childhood aggression. This theory seems to make a bit more sense, since most paranoid people are paranoid about someone or something intending to harm them in some way. From a purely scientific perspective, however, the cause of paranoia is still unclear.

7 Freud’s Seduction Theory

Early in his career, Freud noticed that many of his female patients who were suffering from “hysterical neuroses” had repressed memories of early sexual abuse and trauma. In most of these cases, the perpetrator was said to be the woman’s own father. Doctors were aware of this relatively common complaint among female psychiatric patients, but in those days, they universally dismissed them as perverse fantasies on the part of the patient. Freud, however, began to take the abuse claims seriously and listened to what they had to say. He wrote in his paper, “The Etiology of Hysteria”:

The fact is that these patients never repeat these stories spontaneously, nor do they ever in the course of a treatment suddenly present the physician with the complete recollection of a scene of this kind. One only succeeds in awakening the psychical trace of a precocious sexual event under the most energetic pressure of the analytic procedure, and against an enormous resistance. Moreover, the memory must be extracted from them piece by piece, and while it is being awakened in their consciousness they become the prey to an emotion which it would be hard to counterfeit.

The abuse claims didn’t fit the patterns of fantasy or untruth. When they surfaced, all of the overwhelming, repressed emotions that went along with childhood sexual trauma were attached to them. Freud became convinced that he was onto something, but he knew that the topic was taboo and that he would also meet great resistance from the medical community. Nonetheless, in writing his paper, he used strong and direct words like “rape,” “abuse,” and “attack,” besides the word “seduction.” There was no mistaking what he meant at the time.

After deliberation, Freud presented his findings to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna in 1896. He articulated the theory in two other papers that year, as well. His conclusions met a frosty reception, and the society’s reaction to Freud’s presentation was deliberately excluded from public record. Freud was ostracized. Moreover, his own daughter, Anna, was careful to hide references to the theory in her father’s correspondences many years later when she became the executor of his estate. After bringing the matter to light, Freud publicly retracted what later became known as his “seduction theory” in 1905:

I believed these stories, and consequently supposed that I had discovered the roots of the subsequent neurosis in these experiences of sexual seduction in childhood. [ . . . ] If the reader feels inclined to shake his head at my credulity, I cannot altogether blame him. [ . . . ] I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only fantasies which my patients had made up.

To this day, the seduction theory remains controversial, with various scholarly arguments being made as to why Freud abandoned it and why he revised his theories on the causes of hysteria so dramatically in retrospect.

6 Freud’s ‘Double Moses’ Theory

At the end of his life, Freud’s staunch atheism mellowed. Upon reflection, Freud no longer entirely saw religion as something peddled to weak-minded individuals, but rather as something which had allowed humanity to think in new ways and achieve new outcomes.

Freud also began to see that religion was valuable in terms of how it encouraged people to become more introspective and explore the inner world of the mind. He even went so far as to refer to belief in an abstract deity in preference of visible idols as “a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.” Freud’s last book, Moses and Monotheism, could be described in turn as a triumph of imaginative speculation.

Freud speculated that there were two separate individuals behind the story of Moses, and they later got conflated into the single Old Testament character. The first individual was an Egyptian named Moses. The second was an unnamed Midianite priest.

Freud’s study of fairy tales had led him to believe that the Biblical account had been reversed, since children in fairy tales always start out with wealthy parents and then get adopted by poor ones before discovering their true, noble origins. Therefore, the child Moses, sailing down the Nile in his reed basket, wasn’t discovered and taken in by wealthy Egyptians. Rather, the Egyptians launched him, and the Israelites found him and raised him.

Moses, according to Freud, went on to teach the heathen Israelites an early version of their monotheistic religion. Freud believed that it was the Egyptians, not the Jews, who had been the first people to arrive at monotheism, and the early Jewish religion of Moses was similar to the cult of the Egyptian Sun god Aton. The Jews, however, soon resented the repressive laws that Moses’s newfangled religion imposed upon them, so they murdered him.

Guilt over the murder triggered a psychological defense mechanism that Freud liked to call “reaction formation.” Their true intent of annihilating Moses and his religion was psychologically too uncomfortable for them, so they solved the discomfort by attempting to convince everybody, including themselves, that the exact opposite was true. Having departed the scene of the crime, they found the Midianite priest and got him to impose strict laws on them again and to reinstate a monotheistic religion.

5 Freud’s Theory Of Inherent Bisexuality

Everyone has both active and passive aspects to their personality and behavior. Freud thought of “active” aspects as being inherently masculine and of “passive” aspects as being inherently feminine. Therefore, it followed in Freud’s mind that, psychologically speaking, everyone must be a mix of masculine and feminine components.

Most people today would agree with this, but we can now appreciate that defining gender is not as simple as labeling active traits masculine and passive traits feminine. Nonetheless, Freud concluded that everyone must be inherently bisexual. This idea was strengthened, if not arrived at, through the powerful influence of his peculiar friend, Wilhelm Fliess.

Fliess was an ear, nose, and throat specialist whose wide-ranging interests included psychoanalysis. He became Freud’s closest friend throughout Freud’s most productive period, and Freud would bounce ideas off Fliess and vice versa. Like Freud, Fliess was highly ambitious and able to dream up some pretty wild theories. Both agreed that all humans were innately bisexual. Even though Fliess was an ear, nose, and throat specialist, he began to treat hysterical, depressed, and anxious patients by applying his own weird fusion of psychoanalysis and nose doctoring.

Fliess was concerned with the problems of human sexuality in general. He also believed that changes inside the nose were directly related to the genitals (his “nasal reflex theory”) and that this was especially observable in menstruating women. He treated his own neurotic patients with cocaine snorted through the nasal passages, or he cauterized their nasal passages to stop excessive menstruation. He even went so far as to surgically remove turbinate bones. However, since nasal passage changes were observable in both sexes, then, according to Fliess, that was only “consistent with our bisexual constitution.”

Freud and Fliess eventually had a falling-out when Fliess began to insist that Freud had stolen his ideas about innate bisexuality, which he had confided to Freud but had not yet fully published. Some time after their relationship had ended, Freud explained in letters to another friend that Fliess’s influence over him had been a manifestation of Freud’s own latent homosexual longing, which he had finally and manfully managed to overcome, unlike paranoid people. Interestingly, Freud later encountered a similar problem in his relationship with Carl Jung.

4 Freud’s Theory Of The Death Drive

Someone with a “death wish” is said to be prone to habits and situations that could endanger their life. The “death wish” idea is popularly accepted today as a legitimate psychological complex, but Freud intended something slightly different with his theory of a “death drive.”

What Freud originally meant has become fraught with misunderstanding. This is primarily because of mistranslations from German to English and because Freud himself was confused in his development of the idea over many years. He was also grasping at straws to support it and was keen to distance himself from the fact that the pessimistic German philosopher Schopenhauer had come up with a remarkably similar theory several decades before him.

Freud, having already established his theory of the “pleasure principle” (the positive drive or instinct toward life, health, well-being, creativity, and procreation), became uncertain while treating traumatized victims of World War I. If his pleasure principle theory was correct, then why would the mind seek to recreate, revisit, and ultimately relive terrifying, life-threatening traumatic events in dreams? Why also did children seem to repeatedly enjoy playing darkly themed games? Similarly, why do many of us enjoy watching horror films that scare us?

The death drive was Freud’s way of explaining this problem, but he didn’t do a very good job of it. Freud’s biographer, the Welsh psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, later wrote, “Freud seemed to have landed in the position of Schopenhauer, who taught that ‘death is the goal of life.’ ” Later analysts tended to replace the death drive with a will to aggression or power, which is sometimes inverted in a masochistic way back onto the individual ego, instead of being outwardly directed sadistically onto one’s fellow human beings.

3 Freud And Hypnosis

Freud studied hypnosis early in his career and showed great interest in the underlying psychological mechanisms that made the technique so effective on more suggestible patients. He mainly explained his theories on the subject in his work Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. He began the book by discussing the apparently unrelated subject of love.

Freud believed that there were various degrees of falling in love, but he observed that in extreme cases, where someone completely idealizes another person, the individual’s ego gets “exchanged” for the will of his or her lover. In other words, “Whatever my lover wants, I will do for him or her, no matter the personal cost to me!” That’s where the connection with hypnosis comes in.

When lovers have entered into an exclusive group of two, with each individual taking the place of the other’s ego, the love is reciprocated. Hypnosis resembles this, according to Freud, except that the hypnotist retains his or her will completely and imposes it on the other person. Hypnosis is also a much purer surrendering of will in exchange for the will of another, on the part of the person being hypnotized. (Hopefully, there’s no sex involved.)

Strong emotional ties exist in other groups, as well. The individuals who make up a group can surrender their own will to that of the herd. However, humanity is not a herd animal, but rather a “horde” animal. There is always a single, charismatic leader, as often happens in religious cults. Religion on a grander scale often boils down to the surrender of one’s own will. According to Freud, when a strong group bond is created around a leader, most people in the group regress to a more primitive, childlike state of mind. They regress right back to the mentality of the “primal horde” and surrender their will to that of the collective father figure.

Freud understood the phenomenon of hypnosis as being somehow related to an inherited, ancient biological function of group dynamics. Although he eventually abandoned hypnosis as a clinical technique and has even been accused of making it less popular than it should have been in the early decades of the 20th century, he nonetheless maintained a strong interest in the subject. Freud is also credited with noting that hypnosis is closely related to sleep and with anticipating other issues that have come up in contemporary hypnosis research.

2 Freud And The Cathartic Method

Catharsis is when people vent their feelings and supposedly feel better afterward. Freud used a “cathartic method” passed on to him by his early friend and colleague Josef Breuer. Breuer also referred many of Freud’s first patients to him when Freud began his private practice in Vienna. The two collaborated in writing Studies in Hysteria, in which Breuer explained his observation that the symptoms of neuroses could be relieved by inducing patients to recall negative past experiences under hypnosis.

This finding led both Breuer and Freud to believe that neurotic symptoms had their roots in the unconscious. They only needed to be brought into consciousness in order for their power to be extinguished. Along with hypnosis, the cathartic method was the primary way of achieving this. In those days, Freud used and developed the cathartic method along with hypnosis before arriving at his more effective theory of the psychoanalytic technique.

Freud recognized a number of problems with the cathartic method, which eventually led to him abandoning it. Chiefly, according to Freud, it had no lasting results. It could relieve symptoms, but it didn’t actually get at the underlying, unconscious processes that caused them and as such, produced no lasting change. Still, he never disputed its immediate effectiveness, and it was a critical step in his arriving at his theory of psychoanalysis.

Some analysts still use a cathartic method even today, although many therapists argue against it, claiming that it only makes people more angry. Breuer and Freud got their patients to express strong emotions through language, but some patients today are encouraged to vent their anger physically, by chopping wood or punching pillows, for example. Pillow punching in the therapist’s office gets spoofed in the comedy film Analyze This. Robert De Niro’s character, a mobster, is encouraged by his therapist to “hit the pillow,” and De Niro blows it to pieces with a handgun.

1 Freud’s ‘Relief Theory’

It’s often said that laughter is the best medicine. While Freud didn’t invent the “relief theory” of laughter, he added to it in 1905 when he published Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. In it, Freud attempted to explain the unconscious reasons why certain things make us laugh. A form of cathartic relief is the answer. He claimed that laughter is caused by storing repressed energy and then releasing it suddenly, causing a form of pleasurable relief. Jokes enable us to capture the energy of our repressed sexual desires or inappropriate aggressions and release it in a harmless way. Freud suggested three main contexts in which this happens—the comic, humor, and jokes.

The comic sets up an intellectual problem for us to solve. Repressed energy is diverted into solving the problem. The problem gets solved for us by the comic, usually not in the way we expect, and the trapped energy is released through laughter.

With humor, the problem isn’t intellectual, but rather emotional. A situation looks like it’s going to turn into something that’s going to make us feel something unpleasant. We might be upset, embarrassed, or provoked to anger. Tension is released as laughter when everything turns out to be okay after all.

Jokes are formulated in advance, but the category can also include spontaneous witty bantering. These are more personal exchanges which include rude jokes, sexual innuendo, racist jokes, or jokes that express aggressions which society generally finds inappropriate.

Freud’s theory sounds plausible, but it has been criticized for not clearly explaining how mental energy-saving works. Most experts today dismiss relief theory as a whole, mainly because it is founded upon an unproven assumption.

HTR Williams is the author of Vampires and Psychoanalysis and is a huge fan of the psychoanalytic movement.

fact checked by Jamie Frater