Psychologists still study Sigmund Freud’s theories to get a deeper understanding of human behavior — including his theories on depression.
Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, created a new understanding of how the mind works by exploring the id, superego, and ego.
Specifically, Freud looked at the dynamic of these three systems and how they contribute to our mental state. Today, it’s a core principle in psychodynamic theory.
Freud was one of the first to recognize the connection between guilt and depression, considering depression to be an exaggerated feeling of guilt and self-blame.
Psychodynamic theory is founded on the idea that the conscious and unconscious mind collide and create conflict. Freud believed that there are three parts of the unconscious mind:
- id: primitive, instinctual, and is entirely unconscious
- superego: moral conscience, shaped by society and your experiences to “do what’s right”
- ego: balances the desires of the id and the superego
“Freud’s focus on the parts of self and the mind serve as a reminder that even if something traumatic is happening externally, there is a risk of internalizing these events as parts of ourselves,” says Lena Suarez-Angelino, a licensed clinical social worker.
Suarez-Angelino suggests thinking about how your parents treated you as a child to understand this concept. Do you have feelings of anger and resentment? Some people may internalize these feelings, which can lead to depression.
A child cannot outwardly express anger or resentment toward their parents because they need the parents for safety and protection. Also, they love the parents, too, so they cannot risk rejection.
So, instead of expressing their anger toward a parent, the child might turn their anger inward and develop a negative self-concept — believing that they are bad or unlovable. This is what then leads to depression.
Whether Freud’s theories are right or wrong is difficult to answer.
“Psychoanalysis understands depression as aggression that is too upsetting to manage or settle, so it is ultimately turned against the self (ego),” says Dr. Natalie Bernstein, a licensed psychologist.
She adds that this turning against the self occurs unconsciously because it’s often uncomfortable to think about.
The person may feel that something is happening to them and not understand why. This may lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-blame, Bernstein explains.
Freud believes that happiness is the most simple yet difficult human desire to achieve and maintain.
In his 1917 writing “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud describes depression as self-directed, Suarez Angelina explains.
Freud’s theory laid the foundation for many modern theories of depression.
Some psychological perspectives view depression as a result of negative mental frameworks where automatic thoughts and ways of interpreting the world support these thinking patterns, Bernstein explains.
Although modern-day diagnostic criteria for depression still highlight loss of interest and isolation, there’s a greater focus on changing habits and behaviors rather than the self.
“[Psychodynamic therapy] focuses on the patient’s internal world, development of perspective, and a person-centered approach,” explains Suarez-Angelino.
She adds that the psychodynamic approach also shines a light on avoidance, identifying patterns, and how past influences shape the present.
Depression is the result of self-blame
“What the majority of theories have in common is that depression is a reaction to difficult situations that is turned inward,” says Bernstein.
“The depressed person loses perspective and places blame upon themselves for their difficulties.”
Look deeper into your past to understand how it’s affecting you today
It’s worth taking a closer look at past experiences that could be causing symptoms of depression.
“Being able to pinpoint and recognize the role that your unconscious mind plays in your everyday life will help make changes and create even more awareness on a conscious level,” Suarez-Angelino explains.
“Learning to no longer be as self-critical or punishing self as a way to promote change will help you lessen your experience with depression,” she adds.
Limit self-critical internal dialogue
The way you speak to yourself directly affects how you feel about yourself. This directly affects your state of mind.
Some forms of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) use self-talk as a therapeutic tool.
CBT aims to help the client bring their unconscious thoughts into their conscious awareness, allowing them to explore and understand internal conflicts and learn new, more adaptive ways to relate to themselves and others.
According to Freud’s psychodynamic theory, depression results from exaggerated self-blame and guilt that arises from early life experiences and interactions.
Psychodynamic theories form the basis for modern psychological theories. By taking a closer look at past experiences and how they might be affecting you today, you might find relief from the symptoms of depression.