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Freud and Maslow: Comparing Personality Theories

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There have been countless studies and theories that attempt to define the mental processes that occur within different stages of our lives, as well as to explain the causes for certain behaviors and psychopathologies. Attempting to discover why humans are the way they are and why each individual has their own unique personality has resulted in several approaches; all of which are viable and contain valuable insight. Every theory, no matter how different, have contributed to the greater goal of ultimately understanding the human mind. It is valuable to discuss approaches such as Freud’s psychoanalysis and Maslow’s holistic-dynamic theory which appear vastly different on the surface but can be explored to find similarities that help further research.

Sigmund Freud is known as the founder of psychoanalysis; the most famous of all personality theories. Essentially, psychoanalysis is a patient-centered approach, which Freud largely based on his experiences with patients, his analysis of his own dreams, and his vast readings in the various sciences and humanities (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, 2018). Freud considered mental life to be divided into the conscious (what we know), unconscious (what we don’t know that we know), and preconscious (what we don’t know but can be recalled), and development was largely affected by the way these three levels interacted. The conscious is everything that the mind is aware of and plays a very minor role in comparison to the unconscious and preconscious. Our unconscious drives the urges and instincts that are beyond awareness. The unconscious fuels behaviors and is largely to blame for much of what a person does or how they feel.

Freud considered the critical moments of development to occur within childhood. According to him, how the stages of development from infancy into childhood unfold shape the way an individual thinks and behaves in adulthood. He described children as going through five stages of sexual development (Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency, and Genital). Throughout each stage, a child will shift from receiving pleasure from sucking and biting with their mouth (oral) to toilet training (anal), genital stimulation, or the phallic stage (in this stage, Freud believed that the child would turn their interest and love to the parent of the opposite sex and resent the same-sex parent), followed by a period of nonexistent sexual urges (latency), and finally turning to adult sexual interests (genital). What a child experiences during the beginning stages may alter their development as adults and thus lead to either healthy, normal behavior, or certain psychopathologies.

While these stages are occurring, Freud theorized that what he called the three provinces of the mind; the id, the ego, and the superego, are also playing a large role in the background. The id is known as the pleasure principle of the mind; its only motive is to seek pleasure without regard for what is proper or just. Freud believed that an infant is the personification of an id unencumbered by restrictions of the ego and superego (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, 2018). An infant will suck their thumb even though they only receive nutrition from sucking on the mothers’ nipple because it fails to realize that thumb-sucking does not provide nourishment; the id is not logical and not changed by experiences. After infancy, the ego comes into play and is responsible for dealing with reality; it is essentially what controls the id and the superego from taking over. To Freud, the ego becomes differentiated from the id when infants learn to distinguish themselves from the outer world. While the id remains unchanged, the ego continues to develop strategies for handling the id’s unrealistic and unrelenting demands for pleasure (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, 2018). The superego, or the ideal self, grows out of the ego and works at a conscious level where it strives for perfection, at times being unrealistic. The ideal self and is largely determined in childhood from parental values and how an individual was brought up (McLeod, S. A., 2007).

Freud spent his time studying patients to gather more insight into the human personality. He worked on extracting childhood repressed memories from his patients by suggestive procedures and later he aimed to uncover them by dream analysis and free association. He worked one-on-one with his patients in typical therapy sessions. To Freud, dreams were the window to the unconscious and therefore used his patient’s dreams to learn more about any unconscious processes that may be occurring.

Essentially, Freud believed that the core of our personality is defined by the three provinces of the mind, and is critically shaped by the experiences that occur during the five stages of sexual development. During each stage, the child is presented with conflicts between biological drives and societal expectations, and successful navigation through each will lead to a fully mature personality (Wolberg, 1974). Much of the important milestones that determine who an individual becomes happen within the earlier years of life and what is seen in adulthood is the product of those experiences.

Abraham Maslow took a humanistic “person-centered” approach to define personality. Maslow called his approach a Holistic-dynamic theory because it assumes that the whole person is constantly motivated by one need or another and that people have the potential to grow toward psychological health, or “self-actualization” (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, 2018). Maslow believed that there may be too great a focus on biological factors and that a person has the full potential to grow throughout the course of his life. To achieve this significant growth and to ultimately achieve happiness, or “self-actualization”, certain needs have to be met.

To explain the “steps” an individual takes in life to reach the desired self-actualization, Maslow created a hierarchy of needs. Throughout this hierarchy, which he depicted as a staircase, the most basic needs are at the bottom, which needs to be met for any other, “higher level” needs to follow. The most basic needs begin with physiological needs. A human being needs food, water, oxygen, etc, which are the most prepotent of them all. This is a very primitive need and one that is usually met in affluent societies, so individuals do not actively suffer these “needs” and can move up the hierarchy. Following physiological needs are safety needs; security, stability, dependency, protection, and freedom from threatening forces. Unlike physiological needs, safety needs cannot be overly satiated, as people can never be completely protected from meteors, fires, floods, or dangerous acts of others (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, 2018). Love and belongingness need to follow in the hierarchy, as an individual needs to feel loved and establish meaningful relationships. Children must have this need met to grow psychologically. Esteem needs follow, such as self-respect, confidence, competence, etc., and finally, the hierarchy ends with self-actualization. Maslow implies that ultimately a human being strives for self-actualization naturally, even though not every individual achieves it. Every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization, but unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by failure to meet lower-level needs (Mcleod, S., 2007).

To find individuals who Maslow believed were “self-actualized”, he began searching through people he had met throughout his life, such as colleagues.  If someone is already self-actualizing, he then questioned what motivates that person. In seeking an answer he came up with motivation by intrinsic values such as ‘truth, goodness, beauty, perfection, excellence, simplicity, elegance, and so on.’ (Guest, H. S., 2014).

He had certain criteria for self-actualization, mainly that they were free from psychopathology, they had progressed through the hierarchy of needs, and that they had full use of their talents, capacities, and potentialities. Maslow implemented a patient-centered type of therapy where the goal would be for clients to embrace values such as justice, goodness, simplicity, etc, and free themselves of dependency on others. His form of psychotherapy aimed to assist people in reaching self-actualization, many times developing a warm, loving, interpersonal relationship with the therapist, which would then lead to fulfilling love and belongingness and esteem needs. This healthy form of therapy would then allow the client to establish these relationships in their life outside of therapy, thus getting them closer to achieving self-actualization.

In contrast to what can be considered a rather pessimistic approach by Freud, Maslow seems to have a more hopeful outlook on the human experience. While Freud considers most of an individual’s development to be made early in life during childhood, Maslow considers the fact that humans do not have a finite amount of time to develop fully. He theorizes that humans strive to “self-actualize” throughout their lives and have the opportunity to do so even as adults. The psychoanalytic approach by Freud largely suggests that an individual does not have complete control over the way they turn out to be later in life. If certain delays were experienced during any of the psychosexual stages, it would lead to anxieties, neuroses, repressed emotions, or more severe psychopathology. Maslow, on the other hand, does not address any particular point in an individual’s life that would directly lead to permanent damage in adulthood.

When looking at Freud’s theory of personality, humans are recognized as being almost primitive in nature, constantly undergoing a battle of the id and the superego to control animalistic pleasure-seeking impulses. As early as infancy, humans are working on auto-pilot to seek pleasure, until they reach a point in their growth where the ego is developed and essentially mediates actions to comply with social expectations. When looking at actions of a human seen during infancy, Maslow would define such behaviors as fulfilling physiological, or the most basic, needs. This need must be satiated for the person to move on to more complex needs further in the hierarchy. To Maslow, these needs are all hard-wired within the human species (Guest, H. S., 2014).

The forces that motivate individuals in the psychoanalytic theory are sexual in nature, as Freud believed that most of the development seen occurs through a gradual movement of sexual energy throughout the provinces of the mind. In contrast, the holistic-dynamic theory described by Maslow leaves motivation entirely up to the individual. While Freud defines an individual’s personality as something that is largely due to unconscious factors, according to Maslow, growth in an individual occurs by a conscious motivation to fulfill their needs throughout their lives. By fulfilling each need in his hierarchy, an individual would eventually reach self-actualization and essentially “peak” in life. Maslow provides a means to an end, whereas Freud claims that the id can never be satisfied, and it will be a constant struggle of the id and the ego/superego.

Freud had a mainly problematic, conflictive idea of the human mind, giving us explanations for certain negative traits or psychopathologies, but did not do much to explain for the “good” part of humanity. While both Freud and Maslow aimed to explore how motivations in humans are produced, Maslow developed a more “hopeful” approach. In essence, he theorized that we are not doomed to suffer from childhood trauma, conscious or unconscious. Maslow believed that humans are innately motivated to do good and be good, whereas Freud described a true human’s essence to be the id, an uncontrollable amoral entity.

Keeping this in mind, it is important to not discard any approach, as both Freud and Maslow made very insightful theories that have contributed greatly to the world of psychology. In my opinion, Maslow more accurately describes the human experience, even if Freud’s theories may hold. Even though Maslow’s theory is more optimistic, it is difficult to deny that our childhood experiences do indeed affect the way we see and interact with the world when reaching adulthood. However, Maslow’s theory insists that we, as humans, have ultimate control over how we reach self-actualization due to the underlying motivation to be happy which is embedded into all of us.

Nearly all of Freud’s reasoning behind our actions and behaviors lies in sexual stages when humans are multifaceted and do not act solely on sexual desires. Freud’s idea of the human personality was generalized, insinuating that every human mind works in the same way when Maslow attempted to step beyond what would be considered basic needs for our fulfillment. Freud insists that certain experiences throughout his developmental stages could permanently damage an individual, but that is also not necessarily true for everyone. According to him, the way we behave and feel in adulthood is directly tied to our experiences during the psychosexual stages we go through in childhood/teenage years.

Maslow’s hierarchy consists of general basic, biological needs, followed by more complex needs that can be achieved in different ways. The way one individual perceives love and belongingness, for instance, may not be the same as another, and yet they both may have fulfilled that need. It is never safe to assume that the human mind behaves the same for everyone, and I believe that Freud’s theories tend to do that. Freud brought psychology closer to biology through an emphasis on man’s instinctual needs, especially in the process of personality development (Parsons, 1958). However, he fails to consider other needs that humans have that exceed biological standpoints. These needs also shape us as humans and should be considered as valid parts of the puzzle when studying human personality. I believe due to Freud’s lack of acknowledgment that humans strive for love, belongingness, esteem, safety, etc, he creates limitations within his theory that can impede a greater understanding of what drives us as humans.

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