It has been a more than 100 years since Sigmund Freud shocked the world with his ideas about dreams, sexuality, mental health, human development and culture. Many believed that he was a dirty-minded pansexual and a pervert. When seen through the lens of time, we can see that his ideas were truly revolutionary. Viennese society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was bound by strict rules of conduct and social morals. By comparison, he was a maverick, a visionary and innovator.
While some of Freud's theories have been discredited over the years, many have been proven true and served as the foundation for further development of psychological theory. He created a roadmap of the mind that is helpful for people who struggle with self-knowledge, emotional growth and the motives that drive us. His ideas are embraced by professional and nonprofessionals.
A number of Freud's ideas are familiar to most of us. For example, he was behind the concepts that our conscious thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg, and that sex is a driving force in our lives. To this day, we have “freudian slips” that tell others and ourselves what truly lurks in the depths of our unconscious mind.
Today, I want to present five of the lesser known and perhaps surprising ideas he gave us as well:
1. Embedded in Our Thoughts Are Unconscious Fantasies And Wishes:
Freud discovered that thinking leads to wishing and fantasizing. He realized the
importance and predominance of fantasy in the life of individuals. Fantasy is more intense and vivid that actual events. It is often more fulfilling and stimulating than real life.
Reality cannot measure up to the intensity of a fantasy. Fantasy is the basis of imagination.
2. We Resist Change Even When we Want to Change:
Many of our beliefs and behaviors were programed into us before we were “old enough to vote.” They were reinforced by our caretakers and by life itself. Our beliefs become deeply ingrained patterns. Their roots exist in our unconscious mind, therefore we do not consciously know them.
Our minds resist change; if it is new we resist it because it interrupts the patterns we have and the belief systems in place. Freud taught that resistance exists to protect the old beliefs. Those beliefs have to be made conscious so that the obstacles that prevent us from accomplishing our desires can be achieved.
Freud’s addiction to cigars is an example of how we resist change. His doctor ordered him to quit smoking because of nasal lesions. He complied for a short period but was unable to change long-term. In a state of defiance and denial, he responded by asking the rhetorical question, “do you think it’s a glorious fate to live many long years in misery?” He believed he needed his cigars to do his work. His inability to change and the power of his unconscious mind, led to years of suffering and to an early death from jaw cancer.
3. Human Development is a Life Long Task:
Every stage of life presents us with necessary developmental tasks that are appropriate for that moment. To have a successful life mentally, emotionally and physically, we need to be able to adapt to what life presents to us. We need to be able to face change with strength and courage. These tasks need to be mastered at the appropriate time in order to move confidently forward in life.
4. The Price of Civilization is Neurotic Discontent:
Very few people know about the papers Freud wrote concerning war and human
aggression. In 1929 he wrote, “Civilization and Its Discontent,” in which he discussed human aggression and the demands culture puts on humans to curtail that aggression. He wrote, “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, but rather creatures whose instinct (is) aggression.” The neurotic discontent comes from the drastic interference civilization causes with the passionate desires of the individual. The need to suppress the instinctual needs that are alive in the unconscious mind and seeks explosive expression leads to frustration and discontent.
Life in society imposes compromises on individuals which create insoluble dilemmas. That which is intended to maintain human survival creates dissatisfaction because of the limits it places on aggression and desire.
In 1932, Einstein invited Freud to join him in presenting a paper to the Committee for Literature and Arts of the League of Nations entitled “Why War?” Freud’s response was, “Why not war?”. This was not because he believed in war but based on his knowledge of the innate aggression, tendency toward self-destruction and envious inclinations of men and women. Freud knew that for there to be peace, the natural tendencies of humans had to be contained and redirected into creative endeavors. Freud continued by stating, “We meet the enemy…and it is us. Yet if we cannot change, what will happen to our civilization?” He revealed the nature of humans to be aggressive and envious. He believed in the ability of humans to change. It is to that end that he dedicated his life.
5) A Cigar is Never Just a Cigar (except when it is):
This is an idea that you may have heard, but you may not know what it means. In this statement, Freud is addressing the fact that life is complicated by the unconscious mind and the things about ourselves that we may not know. He believed that the unconscious mind was far more powerful than we realize and has more influence on our life, beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions than the conscious mind. Everything is determined by multiple factors; nothing is simply determined. To further complicate life, everything is shaped by the individual, their experience, temperament and abilities.
Freud presents a view of human nature that few of us want to see: We do not really know what motivates us or why we do what we do. We do not know ourselves, yet if we listen to the story he tells us, it will lead to a greater internal freedom, contentment and peace with life. Try it, and you may find it fascinating.