Monday, April 12, 2010

It Just Makes Me Feel Like an Id Again

This is a post about how totally geeked-out I am about psychology. Many years ago, when I was in junior high school, a friend's mother gave me one of her psychology textbooks from college. I'm not sure how it came about, but I'm sure I must have told her that I was interested in the subject. I'm also not sure whether she ever thought about the book again, but I have to admit that the summer I received it I read the entire An Introduction to Theories of Personality (second edition) by B.R. Hergenhahn, cover to cover, at least twice. At the time, I think I enjoyed the thought of getting through something so far above my expected reading level, but also I loved learning about the ways people have attempted to explain human behavior over the years.

I went on to major in psychology in college, and then on to a masters' degree in counseling. I have worked as a therapist, and now as a community college instructor. I can no longer keep track of the number of books I have read on the subject of personality, but I am still not tired of psychology. I am always on the lookout for psych-related articles or news stories to discuss with my students, I once took a summer course in psychopharmacology just for fun, and I am constantly updating my stockpile of cool videos and audios to show to my classes.

Through all this time reading and using and teaching psychology, nobody has piqued my curiosity or held my interest better than Sigmund Freud. His theory is at the same time ludicrous and brilliant, and there is nothing quite like teaching a roomful of students about penis envy and the Oedipus complex. One time I was teaching a group of students at another location via satellite, and on my screen I had a power point slide that was obscuring my camera view of the classroom. I heard some talking, then some tittering, then some giggles, and when I turned off the slides to investigate I found a whole group of students crowded around a chart in the textbook, trying to contain their embarrassed laughter over Freud's psychosexual stages.

And this is why Freud is the most fun of all to teach. He strongly believed in the power of our unconscious to direct our behavior, and in the end mostly everything comes back to some kind of threatening, inappropriate deep-seated sexual desire, or to something your parents did to mess you up. He proposed that little boys sexually desire their mothers. He said little girls are just dying to know why they don't have a cool penis like dad's, and are secretly resentful toward their mothers for not keeping better track of theirs. He says having an anal-retentive personality has to do with too early or too high-pressure potty training, and that smoking may be a person's way of coping with the trauma of being taken off their mother's breast. Certainly this is not the kind of lecture that students sleep through.

The thing is, though, that if Freud were only responsible for some wacky theory about the origin of adult personality, he would never have endured the way that he has. No, Freud is really fantastic to me because of his fabulous observations of kids learning to identify with their gender, and his ability to recognize that we often act in ways that don't match our conscious explanation. So many parts of his theory are such givens in our modern thinking that we don't even realize they are Freudian. Ideas like denial, rationalization, repression, and projection are all his. The idea that there is something behind a man forgetting his anniversary, or your slip of the tongue; or the recognition that some things that happen to us as children can shape the way we are even 50 years later. It's fascinating to think that his theory was first, and that his therapy was first, and that everyone else is just kind of a response to him.

In the end, despite the fact that as a therapist I much more resemble Carl Rogers than Freud, there is a part of me that thinks the idea of a terrible unconscious, driving our behavior, so appalling that we would be threatened if we knew its contents is just. so. cool. And so I get a little excited each semester as the chapter on theories of personality rolls around.

I'm aware that there is a joke among my students that I tend to say I just LOVE each new chapter of their text, and that each chapter is SO interesting, but secretly I look forward to talking about personality the most. We just finished the Freud section, and even the promise of discussing social psychology this week is kind of a letdown compared to talking about the id, ego, and superego. My first psych book is still on my shelf, though, in its special little place, waiting for next semester.


  1. Erika, I love you and your passion for psychology. I love that we are both nerds in our respective subjects, and of course, I love penis envy and Oedipal complexes as much as the next repressed gal. Thanks for making me smile today!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I too love psychology --intro was Psychology Today in school library. Plus wanting to understand why people act the ways they do. Guess I love Carl Jung the most. We donated our Jung library to the Friends of Jung Society in Omaha and wish I could be closer to attend their meetings.

  3. Carole, I do love Jung's idea of archetypes... You should know, then, that the rest of the joke I used in my title is, "Being around all you Jung people just makes me feel like an id again."