Over the years, many scholars and cognitive scientists recourse to all-or-nothing thinking in either accepting the sexual foundations of Freud’s psychology together with its psychosexual stages of development or outright rejecting it. But the objective truth is probably somewhere in the middle, meaning that the psychosexual pattern of development may instead be domain-specific and apply only in social and environmental circumstances where the sexual element predominates. Duhem’s thesis reminds us that for any number of facts there can be multiple hermeneutics (i.e. theories of interpretation), and so the most logical deduction would be one which regards psychoanalytic approaches to personality and development as potentially true or coming-to-be. Personally, I have identified several instrumental moments in my life where the best contextualization is offered, believe it or not, by the Freudian lens.
According to Freud’s repression model, consciousness is molded by instinctual drives and ego defenses. We must penetrate through this superficial uppermost layer encompassing a detailed record of contemporary psychic life if we are to understand the processes of sedimentation mediating the whole psyche. Freud assures us that beneath this dark veil of appearances are a succession of horizontal psychic strata, the preconscious and the unconscious, in which actualized mental contents await sensory expression. Lowest is a subterranean reserve that perpetually feeds a Hadean chamber crammed full of unobstructed sexual wishes and fantasies with inexhaustible psychic energy or libido. Just as the deepest layers of geological strata contain fossilized remains of plants and animals now extinct, so too does the unconscious contain a chronological repertoire of traumatic memories. These manifest consciously as maladaptive and dysfunctional aspects of personality and explode like land mines into consciousness each time the immediate environment offers up the same cognitive, emotional, and physical stimuli implicated in the latent traumatic memory.
In 2006 I experienced a very stressful period replete with depressive symptoms such as sleep disturbances and a significant reduction in the qualitative feelings of pleasure and satisfaction afforded by my usual hobbies. Conjecturing that the problem was psychological in origin, I elected to try a nonconventional therapeutic intervention and chose hypnosis as my ‘poison’. The hypnotic regression involved imaginal descent down a winding staircase and into a cellar, where I explicitly recall seeing myself from the perspective of a detached, third-person observer–a sunwashed youth with peroxide blond hair decked in nothing but blood red surfing shorts and peppered with abrasions. Later, it occurred to me that the imaginal representation corresponded precisely with my general presentation during a time when desperate, premeditated efforts for reconciliation where not reciprocated. Indeed, the image was a lifelike flashback to a moment imbued with excruciating pain and humiliation. Like Ariadne’s ball of woolen thread, the unconscious had led me to the wellspring of the anxious distress. In this particular case, the unconscious irruption of specific imagery (i.e. red surfing shorts) associated with the primal wound of romantic rejection is explicable in terms of the Freudian model of unconscious repression in the service of ego defense.
The phenomenology of the Anal Stage (1-3yrs) pertaining to obsession with the erogenous zone of the anus also rings true for me. Freud explicitly stated that children who refused to go to the toilet, opting instead to retain excrement and experience pent-up pressures against the intestines, developed characterological traits that were anal-retentive in nature. Word has it that I, too, was obstinate and uncooperative when it came to the department of toilet training–I didn’t want to go at all! This was, to all intents and purposes, a symbolic reflection of an inwardly-turned and introverted disposition. From an early age my personal preference was for solitude and on many an occasion I intentionally overlooked those verbal signals and gesticulations wishing to divert my attention elsewhere. And what was the underlying motivation for such behaviours? Was it an intrinsic pull to self-determination, self-sufficiency, and independence or was it the parental and societal pressures stipulated by Freud? Their phenomenal remoteness is such that we’ll probably never know. Nowadays, I am precise, neat, orderly, careful, meticulous, and determined in the manner I coordinate and conduct my life–all anal-retentive traits which stand as clear evidence of personal fixation at the Anal Stage. Or do they?
Prevalent in my early and mid-twenties were intermittent acts of sexual deviance and disinhibition, reflecting a superficial mind aground on the reefs of hedonism. Everything I did back then–joining fee-based websites for online dating, organizing spontaneous rendezvous with acquaintances, and forging new interpersonal connections–was motivated by the promise of sexual gratification. It just so happens that during these periods my dreams were punctuated with surreal albeit traumatic experiences of losing my prehensile phallus. Sometimes it would drop to the ground while I was meandering about naked, at others it would snap off whilst I was urinating, and at others still it would crumble in my hands. The dreams would culminate with frantic attempts to reattach it and I would frequently awake awash in perspiration and frozen in terror. Looking back, this literal case of castration anxiety is explicable as an unconscious reaction to sexual desires deemed taboo by my social conditioning and higher conscience (superego). Erupting from the unconscious was the warning that many sexual transgressions come at a cost, and so it may be better to repress these rather than placidly submit and humiliate oneself in the process. Freud decrees castration anxiety to be a corroborating feature of the Phallic Stage (3.-6yrs) but in truth it could probably crop up at any time.
I would conclude that there is always room for entertaining Freudian psychosexual theories in the context of personal development, if indeed you are valiant, fearless, and open-minded enough to tread there.