The many times that Freud’s personality theory relates to addiction

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

The many times that Freud’s personality theory relates to addiction

Sigmund Freud, known as the father of psychoanalysis, created controversy aplenty following his personality theories and how the human character develops.

Addictions and substance use

As controversial as Freud’s work was at times- some of the theories he proposed, however scandalous, contribute to our understanding of the relationship between personality and the development of substance addiction (and other addictions).

Ego, id and superego

Perhaps Freud’s most exciting theory was the paper he published in 1923, which covered personality disorder and attachment theory constructs.

Included in the paper was Freud’s then newly developed theory, which included the three types of human personality:

  • Ego
  • ID
  • Superego

Psychoanalytic theory

To explain psychoanalytic theory – Freud proposed the Iceberg model, which he used to describe his view of the human mind.

He explained that while some parts of the mind are conscious, for the most part, the human brain operates mostly on an unconscious paradigm. 

Freud determined that most of our thoughts, emotions, desires and impulses get driven by unconscious forces.

Iceberg model

Freud proposed the iceberg model, which he categorized into three subtexts; conscious, preconscious and unconscious.

Conscious memories are mental products that get brought into awareness and at any given moment.

Preconscious memories and thoughts that are not always in awareness but can get easily accessed by a person.

Unconscious memories make up most of the human brain and cannot be easily retrieved or accessed.

What are the three components of personality, according to Freud?

Freud belonged to the psychodynamic circle (alongside Erik Erikson and Alfred Adler), a school of thought that contributed to how psychotherapy gets practised in today’s modern world.

Personality disorder and psychoanalytic theories get explained at length through in-depth analysis of personality development and the many different stages people go through from birth onwards.

Any therapist will likely be familiar with the many personality theory systems within the constructs of the psychodynamic circle and beyond!

Psychosexual perspective: a structural model of personality according to Freud

As much as Freud was one of the founding members of influential psychology circles, his psychosexual theories on personality development and personality disorders saw him break away from his former predecessors.

Structural systems of personality theory

Freud proposed that personality gets made up of 3 components:

  • ID: The pleasure principle
  • Ego: The reality principle
  • Superego: The morality principle

The id originates from biological drives that manifest from the unconscious – an innate part of the personality that is present at birth. 

The ego and superego get developed later on and, with the id, go through several sub-stages of development.

A lack of self-control

Conflict occurs when one personality principle clashes with or compromises another.

The id is the primitive drive, the superego is the moral compass, all of which gets mediated by the ego (which operates on the reality principle).

Let’s say someone is on a strict diet. After a few weeks of shedding the pounds and sticking to the rules, they get offered a slice of chocolate fudge cake at a party.

At first, the person declines the offer outright, but after a while, finds themselves fantasizing about the taste, texture and overall pleasure of having just one small bite. It can’t hurt to have only one slice.

It’s not long before the person gives in and eats more than a few slices of cake, and the diet gets broken.

In this example, the ID (the pleasure principle) won the battle.

The urges manifesting from the person’s instinctual drives (ID) were too strong to resist (hence, the individual eventually caved in). 

The superego’s attempt at morality (although unsuccessful) occurred by initially declining the offer for cake. The ego badly mediated all this: ”It can’t hurt to have one slice, right?”

Substance use disorder and psychoanalysis

Suppose we were to take the above example and put it into the context of addiction and substance abuse. 

We get a much clearer insight into how alcohol addiction and other addictions to substances occur.

Psychosexual stages of childhood development

Freud’s psychosexual theory proposes that all children go through five stages of development; these childhood experiences include:

  • Oral: This phase represents early-stage development (sucking, swallowing etc.)
  • Anal: This stage represents the anus, such as the excretion of, or withholding of faeces
  • Phallic: This stage represents the exploration of body parts (in this stage, the superego develops)
  • Latency: Latency represents little to no sexual motivation
  • Genital: The focus in this stage shifts to the genitals, and a person usually becomes sexually active


According to Freud, each of the five stages represents sexual energy (libido), and this energy gets expressed in a multitude of ways. 

Much of development is dependent on how successful the child is at passing the various stages.

Fixation occurs when a child receives either too much (or too little) stimulation at each stage.

For example, if a child is potty trained and, whilst training, the mom (or family) gives too much attention and praise (or not enough as the case may be), the child may develop an anal fixation.

Personality disorder in full view

The anal-retentive personality is often:

  • Stingy or miserly
  • Overly concerned with cleanliness and order
  • Stubborn
  • A perfectionist

Fixation can occur during any stage (oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital). A whole host of negative personality traits (such as those you see above) is often the result.

What are some theories of addiction?

Psychoanalysis offers a beautiful insight into personality development and how people go from being sober to becoming substance abusers.

Alcohol addiction (and any other form of substance abuse) is often the result of trauma. 

However, Freud offered some impressive, albeit flawed, theories on why addiction may occur for some people.

Drug use and substance use disorders

Looking at the psychoanalytic theory and taking into account the three personality types – Freud developed a basis in which addiction’s psychological loop gets formed.

As we’ve learned, the id is childlike, intuitive and often impulsive – the id wants what it wants and possesses an immediate need for gratification. 

When someone has a drug dependence, their id drives the deep urges and cravings of drug abuse.

The superego gets thought of as the sensible parent or conscience – the superego understands the difference between what is right and what is wrong.  Its primary purpose is to control the impulses from the id.

The ego is also a sensible adult, and its primary function is to mediate between the id and the superego.


Anxiety plays a significant role in addiction and substance use disorders.

People with a drug dependence or alcohol problem often suffer from low self-esteem, along with episodes of crippling anxiety.

Defense mechanism

Addicts often turn to substances to soothe the unpleasant feelings associated with anxiety through alcohol or drug use.

Psychoanalytic theory suggests that people use defense mechanisms such as denial, projection, regression, rationalization, anger and avoidance to cope with anxiety.

Denial is one of the main coping mechanisms used by addicts and substance abusers who frequently deny that they have an addiction problem.

You could also argue that alcohol addiction (and drug use) is a form of avoidance.

The id and superego are in a constant battle with one another as the unconscious wishes deriving from the id are opportunities for an alcoholic to drink (all attempts at numbing out pain).

Oral fixation 

Another (albeit slightly more controversial) theory of addiction in psychoanalytic psychology is that a person who drinks and smokes may be orally fixated.

Most oral fixations begin in the early stages of life, where the libido gets centred around the mouth – this is where the mother pays too much (or not enough) attention to weaning their child.

According to Freudian psychology, smokers and nail biters may also fit into the orally retentive group.

Addiction Treatment and approaches

However, addiction gets formed – people must get help as soon as possible.

There are plenty of effective treatment programs available for those with an addiction or substance use disorder.

The treatment approach will differ depending on the addiction (alcohol or drug use).  A therapist or health provider’s strategy is to examine a patient’s symptoms and life experiences thoroughly.


Getting help

It is never too early (or too late) to get the help you need for addiction – whether your problem is with alcohol addiction or drug use, support is always available.

If you feel as though you, a family member or a friend, needs help with an addiction, the team at Tikvah Lake Recovery are here to help.


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