Theories of Personality 9th Edition

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28 Part II Psychodynamic Theories

Levels of Mental Life

Freud’s greatest contribution to personality theory is his exploration of the uncon-
scious and his insistence that people are motivated primarily by drives of which
they have little or no awareness. To Freud, mental life is divided into two levels,
the unconscious and the conscious. The unconscious, in turn, has two different
levels, the unconscious proper and the preconscious. In Freudian psychology the
three levels of mental life are used to designate both a process and a location. The
existence as a specific location, of course, is merely hypothetical and has no real
existence within the body. Yet, Freud spoke of the unconscious as well as uncon-
scious processes.


The unconscious contains all those drives, urges, or instincts that are beyond our
awareness but that nevertheless motivate most of our words, feelings, and actions.
Although we may be conscious of our overt behaviors, we often are not aware of
the mental processes that lie behind them. For example, a man may know that he
is attracted to a woman but may not fully understand all the reasons for the attrac-
tion, some of which may even seem irrational.
Because the unconscious is not available to the conscious mind, how can one
know if it really exists? Freud felt that its existence could be proved only indirectly.
To him the unconscious is the explanation for the meaning behind dreams, slips
of the tongue, and certain kinds of forgetting, called repression. Dreams serve as
a particularly rich source of unconscious material. For example, Freud believed
that childhood experiences can appear in adult dreams even though the dreamer
has no conscious recollection of these experiences.
Unconscious processes often enter into consciousness but only after being
disguised or distorted enough to elude censorship. Freud (1917/1963) used the
analogy of a guardian or censor blocking the passage between the unconscious and
preconscious and preventing undesirable anxiety-producing memories from enter-
ing awareness. To enter the conscious level of the mind, these unconscious images
first must be sufficiently disguised to slip past the primary censor, and then they
must elude a final censor that watches the passageway between the preconscious
and the conscious. By the time these memories enter our conscious mind, we no
longer recognize them for what they are; instead, we see them as relatively pleas-
ant, nonthreatening experiences. In most cases, these images have strong sexual or
aggressive motifs, because childhood sexual and aggressive behaviors are fre-
quently punished or suppressed. Punishment and suppression often create feelings
of anxiety, and the anxiety in turn stimulates repression, that is, the forcing of
unwanted, anxiety-ridden experiences into the unconscious as a defense against the
pain of that anxiety.
Not all unconscious processes, however, spring from repression of childhood
events. Freud believed that a portion of our unconscious originates from the expe-
riences of our early ancestors that have been passed on to us through hundreds of
generations of repetition. He called these inherited unconscious images our
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