The 12 Things Sigmund Freud Got Right

05/07/2015 12:42 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

sigmund freud

May 6 was Sigmund Freud's birthday (born in 1856). It has been more or less 100 years since Freud wrote many of his groundbreaking books and papers on the human mind -- exploring and theorizing about dreams, culture, childhood development, sexuality and mental health. And while some of his theories have been discredited, many major ideas have been borne out and are still relevant today, according to Discover Magazine. They are a roadmap to our minds and are still useful and accepted -- in one way or another -- by all educated people, who grapple with the issues of self-knowledge and human motives.

Freud tells a story that few of us want to hear: We do not know ourselves. We do not really know what motivates us or why we do what we do.

Our conscious thoughts are just the tip of our mental iceberg.

In commemoration of Mental Health Awareness month this May, the following list, compiled with help from the American Psychoanalytic Association, are 12 examples of the gifts Freud left to us.

1) The Unconcious. Nothing Comes "Out of the Blue": Freud discovered that there are no accidents and no coincidences. Even "random-seeming" feelings, ideas, impulses, wishes, events and actions carry important, often unconscious, meanings. Anyone who has ever made a "Freudian Slip" that has left them embarrassed or baffled will attest to the importance of the unconscious meanings of the things we do and say. That time you "accidentally" left your keys at your lover's apartment may have been an accident; but more likely, at least unconsciously, you wanted to go back for more. From dreams, to Freudian slips, to free association -- delving into one's unconscious as a means of unlocking often hidden or denied fantasies, traumas or motivations is still crucial to gaining the whole truth about human behavior.

2) Sexuality is Everyone's Weakness-and Strength: Sex is a prime motivator and common denominator for all of us. It is not a message many want to hear. So high is our disgust for these elementary Darwinian principles -- that led to human triumph over all other living things -- that we spent much of our time denying the dark side of our lives. Even the most prudent, puritanical-appearing individuals struggle greatly against their sexual appetites and expression. One need only look to the many scandals that have rocked the Vatican, fundamentalist churches, politicians and celebrities alike. Freud observed this prurient struggle in men and women early on in Victorian Vienna and extrapolated easily from there.

3) A Cigar is Never Just a Cigar (except when it is)
: It is a commonly accepted idea in contemporary psychology that everything is determined by multiple factors and also idiosyncratic to the individual. So, nothing is so simply determined. So is it a pacifier? Okay. A penis? Perhaps. A cigar? Sure. However, few would argue that all meanings have profound implications. No controversy here. So go ahead, have a cigar.

4) Every Part of the Body is Erotic: Freud knew that human beings were sexual beings right from the start. He took his inspiration from the baby nursing at the mother's breast to illustrate the example of more mature sexuality, saying, "No one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile can escape the reflection that this picture persists as a prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction later in life." He knew, too, that sexual excitation is not restricted to genitalia, as pleasure is achieved through erotic attachment to potentially any idiosyncratically defined area of the body, and most definitely not limited to genital intercourse between a male and female. Even today many people have great difficulty accepting this idea.

5) Thought is a Roundabout Way of Wishing: Freud discovered that the mere act of thinking (wishing and fantasizing) is itself gratifying. In fact, what therapists and psychoanalysts commonly observe is that the fantasy is more mentally and physically stimulating fulfilling than the actual, real life action the fantasy is organized around. Is it any wonder that reality doesn't measure up to the intense, vivid fantasy? Freud's observation that humans' attempt to fantasize things into reality is today fully accepted by neuroscientists as the basis for imagination

6) Talking Cures: "If someone speaks, it gets lighter" From Freud's introduction lecture XXV.

Whether an individual's therapy is based in Freudian psychoanalysis or some other form of talk therapy, the evidence is clear that talking helps alleviate emotional symptoms, lessen anxiety and frees up the person's mind. While medication and brief therapy can often be effective in alleviating symptoms, talk therapy uses the powerful tool of the therapeutic relationship. The whole person is involved in the treatment, not just a set of symptoms or a diagnosis, therefore deeper and more lasting change becomes possible.

7) Defense Mechanisms: The term "defense mechanism" is so much a part of our basic understanding of human behavior that we take it for granted. Yet, this is another construct developed and theorized by the Freuds (Sigmund and his daughter, Anna). According to Freud, defense mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind to manipulate, deny or distort reality in order to protect against feelings of anxiety and/or unacceptable impulses.

Among the many types of defense mechanisms coined by Freud, i.e. repression, rationalization, projection, denial is perhaps the most well known. Denial is an outright refusal to admit or recognize that something has occurred or is currently occurring. Denial can be personal-for example denying an addiction or denying a painful life experience-but it can also take the form of denying scientific, social and cultural phenomena -- for example, the reality of climate change or the Holocaust.

8) Resistance to Change: Our minds and behavior patterns inherently resist change. It's new, it's threatening and it's unwelcome -- even when it's a change for the good. Psychoanalysis got this ubiquitous principle of resistance right, and found tools to bring it to consciousness and defeat its stubborn ability to create obstacles to forward movement, both of individuals and groups.

9) The Past Impacts the Present: This might seem like a no-brainer to most of us in 2015, but more than 100 years ago, this was an "ahh-ha" moment for Freud. Today, many of Freud's theories on childhood development and the effects of early life experience on later behavior contribute greatly to helping and treating patients whose lives are stuck in repetitive patterns.

10) Transference: An example of the past impacting the present is the concept of transference, another Freud construct that is widely understood and utilized in today's psychology practices. Transference refers to very strong feelings, hopes, fantasies and fears we have in relation to the important relationships of our childhood that carry forward, unconsciously, and impact present day relationships.

11) Development: Human development continues throughout the life cycle; a successful life depends on adaptability and mastery of change as it confronts each of us. Every new stage of life presents challenges and provides the opportunity to reassess our core personal goals and values.

12) The Price of Civilization is Neurotic Discontent: Freud stated, "The inclination to aggression constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization." Few thinkers have looked so unflinchingly at human aggression as Freud. While the guns of August still echoed and European anti-Semitism grew rife, Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), declaring: "Man is wolf to man. Who ... will have the courage to dispute this assertion?" "Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved," Freud wrote in 1929, using words as relevant today as then, "but rather, (are) creatures whose instinct (is) aggressiveness." We continue to meet the enemy...and it is us. Yet if we cannot change, what will happen to our civilization?"

The Nazi invaders in World War II banned and attacked Freud, as did the Communists afterwards. New Yorker editor David Remnick quotes a Hamas leader saying that Israel must be destroyed because "the media -- it's controlled by the Jews. Freud, a Jew, was the one who destroyed morals."

But Freud did not like America. He thought that Americans had channeled their sexuality into an unhealthy obsession with money.

He wrote to a German friend after World War I, "Is it not sad, that we are materially dependent on these savages, who are not a better class of human beings?"

Ironically, America, in the end, turned out to be a most favorable repository of Freud's exquisite legacy of ideas.

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