More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Freud: So wrong and yet so right
May 04, 2006

As the 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud's birth approaches on Saturday, mental-health experts consider his legacy mixed: A seminal thinker, Freud was far ahead of his time with some ideas but dead wrong on others.

Freud invented the concept of the unconscious, his most important idea to stand the test of time, says Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University who has studied the Viennese analyst's contributions. "Before him, nobody realized that our conscious mind is the tip of the mental iceberg." But it's now a given that people often act from unconscious motives or emotions that may reveal themselves in dreams.

And Freud was right about denial. "The research is crystal-clear that we look the other way not to see what makes us uncomfortable," Westen says.

Another key Freudian notion that has held up well is ambivalence, adds psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac, whose biography of Freud is due next year. "He knew people were very conflicted -- they had mixed emotions, even about those they loved, and that was a revolutionary thought in his era."

Some pioneering ideas advanced by Freud are so widely accepted now that many don't realize who thought them up, Westen says. For example, it's common knowledge that childhood experiences can shape what we think of ourselves and how we develop adult relationships. But, says Westen, Freud was the first to see this key influence.

He also pioneered the idea that a therapist could help ease emotional pain. "He invented psychotherapy," says David Baker, director of the Archives of the History of American Psychology, based at the University of Akron.

But Freud's concept of therapy -- in-depth psychoanalysis several times a week -- is rarely done, Baker says. Most patients don't have the time or money for it, and insurance won't cover most of the cost, he says. Also, shorter-term therapies have been proven helpful.

The supportive environment that spawned the heyday of psychoanalysis after World War II "will not be seen again," predicted Sander Abend, training and supervising analyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, in a 2006 issue of The American Psychoanalyst.

That doesn't mean nobody benefits from Freudian therapy. Although these sessions can cost more than $200 an hour (four days a week) in big cities, some still consider it worth every penny. David Lundin, a 64-year-old retired executive in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., pays $24,000 a year out of pocket -- his insurance covers a bit -- for psychoanalytic therapy. He's been doing it for 10 years.

Other therapies didn't ease his depression, anxiety and lack of confidence, Lundin says. "By free association and dreams, I accessed very early feelings that led to not trusting people, to anger. You work them through, and they have less hold on you. I'm not cured, but I'm much better. I'm a happier person."

Although Freud's "big-picture items held up," he faltered on many specifics, Kramer says. He wrongly linked physical symptoms to specific feelings. "For example, if you were nauseous, there was something you couldn't stomach." He thought paranoia was always based on someone wanting to have done to them what they claim to fear -- not so, Kramer says.

And of course Freud has been pilloried by feminists for dreaming up "penis envy." But, notes Westen, "if you grow up in a culture where men are so privileged, it's easy to see how he could arrive at that."

Freud also mistakenly reduced people to having just two basic motives: sex and aggression. What about love for one's children or desire for material things? Many forces drive behavior, Westen says.

Freud fell far from the mark in predicting that religion would die out soon, as modern science took hold. Today, 92% of Americans say they believe in God, according to the Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., market research company that focuses on culture and faith.

Still, the modern world confirms Freud was prophetic in sensing the power of religion to channel human aggression into destructive paths, says Naomi Janowitz, director of religious studies at University of California-Davis. "He knew there were powerful, aggressive motives that religious leaders could tap into."

Freud also left behind a valuable primer for understanding political leaders, says presidential historian and biographer Robert Dallek. "There are grandiose and paranoid men in leadership. There are struggles to outdo one's father," says Dallek, who attended psychoanalytic seminars for four years and says they gave him a clearer fix on what drives politicians.

Numerous Freudian concepts -- "anal" people, being "in denial," the Freudian slip -- have made their way into common parlance, Baker says. So even though he's been wrong about a number of things, perhaps the inventor of "the talking cure" still may claim to have the last word -- sometimes.


Wow! I'm glad this was put up--I did not know it was his 150th birthday tomorrow! Happy birthday Freud! I have to say that, although at first read it is easy to rebuff some of Freud's more extreme claims, after learning more about his contributions I hold him in high regard. As the article states, many of his core concepts are still widely believed and practiced today. It is my impression that he may have erred on the side of overconfidence, but that is probably why he was able and motivated to come up so many sound and ground breaking theories. I wonder if Freud had never come up with psychotherapy, if it would have ever been invented. And if it had been, how much longer would it have taken for someone else to think of it.

About 8 months ago I read a good fiction's a story about the invention of the talking cure and it unites psychology and philosophy. Nietzsche, Josef Breuer and a young Freud are all characters. I really liked it. If anyone is interested it is called When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin Yalom.


Very interesting article. I haven't known much about Freud, although my first exposure to group therapy in 1976 was under the auspices of what was referred to as a "Freudian" therapy group. I didn't take to it too well. That aside, it does seem that Freud had a lot of good ideas, especially with regards to the power of the unconscious, creating the phenomenon of denial. I would guess that I must have many unconscious motives that perhaps others see clearly. Perhaps they even think these motives are *conscious* motives of mine, although they are not. I also somewhat shudder to think of how many things I might be in denial over, simply because they would be too uncomfortable to face.

Anyway, that's all off the top of my head. I'm posting here, by the way, because I'm about to enter into therapy on Tuesday--my first therapy session since my mother died in October of 2003.



Good luck with your therapy on Tuesday and remember that I will be thinking of you and sending my thoughts and prayers to you on that day.

Take care


Thanks, Nancy. I'll let you know how it goes. (It might take a while for me to process it all afterward, however, before I go so far as to post.)


I know the feeling sometimes I have to process it in my own mind before I can post about it and make any sense....I shall be waiting whenever you are ready and able :)


Hi Nancy, good to hear from you as usual. I thought you might be able to identify with that experience. Sometimes a therapy appointment, or similar meaningful event, is so phenomenal that I can't quite talk about if for a while. It's like seeing a powerful film on a date, and leaving the theatre wondering who's going to say what first. Sometimes an hour goes by without either person saying a word. So this kind of experience might be somewhat analagous.
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