The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud outlines five early stages of psycho-sexual development in which the ego and libido are developed. Sam McLeod does an admirable job in explaining this often baffling theory:
These are called psychosexual stages because each stage represents the fixation of libido (roughly translated as sexual drives or instincts) on a different area of the body. As a person grows physically certain areas of their body become important as sources of potential frustration (erogenous zones), pleasure or both.¹
The five early stages are:
- The oral stage of 0-1 years where infant gratification is achieved through sucking the primary object of the mother’s breast (or substitute objects)²
- The anal stage of 1-3, in which sexual gratification is achieved through the child’s control over and actual production of feces. From his or her toilet training the child first learns the reality of restrictions from the external world
- The phallic stage of 3-6, where the body and especially genitalia become important. The child learns sexual and gender differences, and may explore with self and others by playing “doctor” and other childhood activities
- The latency period – occurring between the phallic stage and adolescence – in which the child pays less attention to the body and more to the acquisition of essential life skills
- The genital stage at which time the adolescent’s attention is oriented toward developing mature, loving human relationships with others
According to Freud’s theory, so-called normal individuals proceed through these stages without major difficulties while some become fixated at a given stage. Fixation in this sense refers to an unconscious attachment to a particular object of libidinal gratification.
Again, the actual body areas involved in the psycho-sexual stages can be symbolized. So the the adult alcoholic fixated at the oral stage substitutes liquor and the bottle for the mother’s nipple. Whereas those disregarding or, perhaps, obsessed with cleanliness, order and regularity would be fixated at the anal stage.
In general, fixation manifests in excessive behaviors like excessive housecleaning; it may involve extreme emotional states of depression, fear, anxiety and forced elation.
For Freud, normal human development pretty much ends at the genital phase. Behaviors like celibacy, fasting and prolonged solitude may be viewed as pathological by Freudians. However, more holistic thinkers see this as a reductive and potentially dangerous approach, one suggesting spiritual ignorance, immaturity and perhaps sin.
The International Institute for the Advanced Studies of Psychotherapy and Applied Mental Health sums up Freud’s theory as follows:
Although Freud’s theory of psychosexual development was extremely influential and continues to be taught in professional psychology programs today, empirical research has failed to generate significant support for these ideas and it is generally not an accepted model among practicing psychologists. Additionally, this theory has drawn criticism for being constructed on sexist ideas. Regardless, terminology associated with the stages of psychosexual development has found wide popular usage in a variety of registers and fields of activity.³
² Freud’s usage of the word ‘object’ includes other people.
³ http://www.psychotherapy.ro/resources/constructs/psychosexual-development/ (since the time of this entry’s last update, the link has been generalized to http://albertellis.org/the-international-institute-for-the-advanced-studies-of-psychotherapy-and-applied-mental-health/ )