Psychoanalytic theory was an enormously influential force during the first half of the 20th century and was based on the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Throughout
Freud's professional career, his ideas regarding unconscious motivations, psychosexual development, and dynamic insights about coping mechanisms dominated psychological explanations of how the human mind works (Solms, 2004).
Bom in Vienna in 1856, Freud displayed great academic potential and keen intelligence early in life. The firstborn son of a Jewish family, he was the most favored among his eight siblings by his doting mother and authoritarian father. His mother often referred to him as her "golden Siggy" (Gay, 1999). Freud returned his mother's devotion throughout his adult life, but he did not share an equally close relationship with his father.
Although the young Freud and his family endured many years of poverty during his youth, his parents were determined to provide him with a solid, formal education. After finishing his elementary schooling 1 year earlier than his peers, he diligently studied medicine at the University of Vienna. Graduating at the age of 26, he then attained a prestigious position as a lecturer at the same university (Laible, 1993). While visiting Paris in 1885 on a traveling fellowship, he began to study physiology as a dynamic system influenced by neurology. Greatly intrigued by this concept, he deserted the exclusive practice of family medicine and instead devoted his life to medical pathology, primarily exploring the potential of hypnosis, free association, and dream analysis as cures for a constellation of unusual symptoms he observed in patients (Laible, 1993). These symptoms, including anxiety, amnesia, unexplained paralysis, and psychosomatic complaints, primarily observed in his female patients, led him to label the constellation of symptoms as hysteria (Siirala, 1993).
The famed patient "Anna O." (later identified as 21-year-old Bertha Pappenheim, 1859-1936) led Freud to popularize the concept of the "talking cure," or the free-flowing catharsis of symptoms and their possible origins (Mishne, 1993). He observed that talking about her life appeared to greatly relieve her "hysteric" symptoms, and over time, Freud suggested that many psychological conditions were found to greatly improve once repressed trauma and their related emotions were expressed using the talking cure. He shortly abandoned hypnosis as a useful method for treating psychological symptoms in favor of a new, more effective method, and later used additional techniques that appeared to, in conjunction with this method, dramatically improve the psychological functioning of his patients.
During his early 40s, Freud engaged in his own self-analysis and channeled his creative energy on processing the meaning of his own dreams. This was a challenging task, and he developed many of his formative theories during this period (Blum, 2001). One such theory was that of personality development. Freud concluded that personality is formed through early childhood experiences, and those experiences are responsible for an individual's functioning through one's adult life. He devoted his professional and personal life to developing and expanding this theory and included several influential concepts that are still widely practiced today.