Maritha on Counseling: On Freud

Maritha Pottenger

This column will examine psychoanalysis, which has influenced psychology and counseling tremendously, and end with a discussion of ideas I find useful to astrology. Sigmund Freud was a prolific writer for years and changed his theories with time and experience. Clearly, one article cannot do justice to his many ideas. I have abstracted and summarized those concepts I find most interesting, which trigger thoughts of astrological correspondence in me. Obviously, much has been left out or ignored, for lack of time and space or due to personal objections. (I find much of what Freud wrote about women offensive. He did not rise above his culture in that respect.) Interested readers are referred to his own collected works or to any of the numerous authors who write about Freud.

My aim is to excite your palates with a taste. A full course meal is impossible, but you can pursue desired dishes yourselves. I encourage you to examine, argue with, refute my ideas. We hope to stimulate your thinking and welcome comments and responses from our readers. So please, share your insights with others!

Sigmund Freud’s system of personality is referred to as a dynamic psychology. It studies the transformations and exchanges of energy within the personality. Freud was influenced by Hermann Helmholtz who formulated the principle of energy conservation: energy can be transformed but not destroyed. E.g., if one object gets cooler, nearby objects become warmer. Freud applied this principle to personality and what he termed psychic energy.

Psychic energy is a construct; Freud did not expect to measure it. It is assumed to be a part of or derive from the instincts or drives. Instincts are inborn and consist of a stereotyped or constant reaction— more complex than a simple reflex. When a drive is operative, the individual feels tension (psychic excitation) and is impelled to act in a certain way (also genetically determined, Freud felt, but modified by experience). E.g., when I experience hunger, I may exhibit a range of food-seeking behaviors. This activity hopefully leads to gratification (i.e. cessation of tension/excitation). An instinct is the mental representation of a bodily need. It has a source, an aim, an object and an impetus. There are probably as many instincts (psychic) as there are bodily needs.

Freud postulated two drives: the sexual (libido) and the aggressive. He assumed they often could and did combine, though not necessarily in equal amounts. Later, these were defined as two groups of instincts: those in the service of life and those in service of death.

Part of Freudian theory traces the sequence of how the sexual drive manifests from infancy on. His formulation of stages: Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency, Genital theorizes that the sexual drive is somewhat localized at different ages. That is, certain areas of the body provide major desires and gratification (erogenous zones). One’s major source of pleasure is assumed to be the mouth during the Oral stage. Etc.

A fundamental part of Freud’s energy system is the concept of psychic determinism. This principle assumes that nothing in the mind occurs by chance. Each psychic event is determined by others which precede it. That which seems unrelated or random to us is only apparently so. The reason for this apparent randomness is Freud’s second fundamental principle: that of unconsciousness. Most of our psychic life is assumed to be unconscious. Consciousness is deemed the exception rather than the rule. Unconsciousness explains the apparent discontinuity people feel in their mental lives.

Freud eventually theorized three realms: the Conscious (that which we have in our immediate attention, what we are aware of); the Preconscious (that which we can bring to consciousness by focusing our attention upon it) and the Unconscious (that which is barred from consciousness by some force within the mind itself.)

Freud thus conceptualized a very active, fluid system with two kinds of energy flowing constantly from object to object, depending on needs for gratification; localizing and emphasizing certain body parts in various developmental stages (e.g. Oral) and varying between Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious.

Later additions to Freud’s theoretical construction of psychic apparatus were the Id, Ego and Super Ego—another way to examine the distribution of psychic energy. The Id was assumed to be all one had at birth, the seat of all instinct and drives and thus of all psychic energy. The Id is irrational and desires immediate fulfillment. It operates on the pleasure principle: to get rid of or reduce as much as possible any tension (psychic excitation). Reduction of tension equals pleasure in this system. On a psychic level, this is the homeostatic principle of all biological organisms: to maintain constancy in the face of internal and external disturbances. This could be as simple as sneezing to remove irritating particles or crying to be fed.

Since no human parents can totally gratify an infant immediately, babies inevitably experience some frustration which is assumed to stimulate the development of the Id. One skill the Id develops is what is called wish-fulfillment or primary process. The Id forms the memory or image of an object that is needed to reduce tension (e.g. food for the hungry baby). To the Id, the memory of food is exactly the same as having the food itself!

Because the Id is not in touch with the external world, it does not change with experience or the passage of time. Its images and reality are purely subjective. The Id meets its needs either through action or wish-fulfillment. The Id is demanding, impulsive, asocial, irrational and selfish. It pursues pleasure, avoids pain and can “magically” fulfill wishes by imagination, fantasy, hallucinations, and dreams. It recognizes nothing outside itself.

Obviously, the Id’s functioning falls short at times in aiding species survival and reproduction. People need to interact with the outside world. The Ego is the system that does that. The Ego operates under the reality principle. The Ego can postpone gratification until the tension can be discharged by an appropriate action. The Ego functions with secondary process: logical thought and problem solving to get what is needed from the world (though the Id first formulates the image of the desired object).

The Ego is assumed to develop as one matures and interacts with the environment. It grows out of the Id, but becomes an intermediary between the Id and the world. It enables us to cope in an objective reality.

The last branch of personality, the Super Ego, Freud saw as developing out of the Ego as a consequence of the child’s assimilation of the parents’ standards of good and evil. The Super Ego represents the ideal rather than the real and strives for perfection rather than pleasure or reality. It is often divided into the Ego Ideal (the child’s conception of what his/her parents see as good) and Conscience (child’s perception of what the parents feel is bad). The Super Ego rewards and punishes the Ego as a means of control (just as parents do children). For the Super Ego (much like the Id), merely thinking of doing something will be rewarded or punished as if one had done it. Thoughts equal deeds. Reward is pride and punishment is guilt or feeling inferior.

The Super Ego is a product of socialization and carries on cultural traditions. Its major function is to guard society from “dangerous” Id impulses, especially sexual and aggressive ones. Freud had a very pessimistic view of humankind—seeing us as largely driven and impotent victims of our own instincts. At best, instinct can only be controlled or sublimated: turned into substitute channels of gratification. His emphasis was also on the past pushing us; Adler and others pointed out the importance of the pull of the future.

The dynamic view of Freud continues with the distribution of energy through the Id, Ego and Super Ego. Ideally, the Ego is the executive of the personality, realistically satisfying some of the impulses of the Id and some of the demands of the Super Ego. Freud felt the Ego developed from the Id. Some Neo-Freudians see the Ego as existent from the beginning, side by side with the Id—a position of greater power. The Ego gains energy from the Id primarily through identification. The Id functions through wish- fulfillment: images of objects which may bear little relation to reality. The Ego identifies the object in the external world and incorporates the energy the Id had invested in the image.

The Ego is particularly concerned with managing anxiety which is experienced as discomfort. Freud divided anxiety into three kinds: reality anxiety (resulting from the perception of danger in the external world); neurotic anxiety (perception of danger from the instincts; fear of being overwhelmed, going into impulsive action) and moral anxiety (perception of danger from the conscience, punished by guilt or shame). Anxiety is a warning to the Ego that it is in peril: from without or from within.

As an individual matures, the Ego becomes increasingly adept at dealing with frustration and anxiety and with managing the Id and Super Ego. One way in which the Ego may deal with anxiety is through Defense Mechanisms.

In classical Freudian theory, defense mechanisms, by definition, deny, falsify or distort reality and impede the development of the personality. However, Kroeber and others have suggested that we can speak of “neurotic” defense mechanisms in terms of classical definitions, but also consider defense mechanisms which are adaptive and a part of normal development. They might be called coping mechanisms. In Kroeber’s formulation, he makes the following distinctions:

Defense Mechanisms

Coping Mechanisms

Rigid, channeled compelled

Flexible, involving choice, purposeful

Pushed from past

Pulled by future

Current situation distorted

Consider reality of present situation

Larger amount of wish fulfillment and unconscious

Larger amount of logical thinking conscious and preconscious

Assume it is possible and necessary to totally remove disturbing feelings; may be magical thinking

Do what meets the needs of the individual, may lessen disturbing feelings

Impulses gratified only indirectly or by subterfuge.

Impulses satisfied in open, orderly and moderate ways.

Kroeber discusses the ten major defense mechanisms and suggests parallel coping mechanisms for each. He emphasizes the defensive and coping mechanisms probably have a common origin in attempts by the infant to deal with her/his external and internal reality. Given individuals probably utilize some defense mechanisms and some coping mechanisms and some mixtures. A definition of mental health might be the predominance of coping over defensive behaviors.

The Defense

Coping Mechanism

ISOLATION: keeping apart ideas that emotionally belong together, severing ideas and emotions which are normally linked together.

OBJECTIVITY: separation of ideas and feelings to achieve an objective evaluation or judgment in appropriate situations. Individual can separate feelings when s/he is of two minds.

INTELLECTUALIZATION: Person avoids emotions and impulses by dealing only with words and abstractions.

INTELLECTUALITY: Even in emotional situations, person can think, be aware, analyze impartially and rise above limits of environment, self, and experience. Free rein to thoughts.

RATIONALIZATION: Plausible explanations for behavior and/or intention are offered which allow for private gratification, but are imprecise and omit crucial parts of the actual situation.

LOGICAL ANALYSIS: Person analyzes the causal aspects of the situation personal or otherwise, very thoroughly and carefully. Person is systematic and careful.

DENIAL: Individual refuses to face thoughts, feelings or perceptions that would be painful. Pain, danger in present, future, or past : not there.

CONCENTRATION: Individual is able to set aside disturbing or attractive thoughts and feelings to deal with present task. Person can turn to those thoughts, feelings if desired.

PROJECTION: Person sees an objectionable internal quality as a part of another person or the environment, instead of seeing it as a part of the self.

EMPATHY: Person puts self in the place of the other, is able to imagine how the other feels. Takes others' feelings into consideration in relationships.

DOUBT AND INDECISION: Person doubts own perceptions and judgments, is unable to make up one's mind and commit oneself to a course of action. Hopes problems will go away or be solved by others. Describes situations and feelings with endless qualifying.

TOLERANCE OF AMBIGUITY: Individual can handle conflicting feelings and thoughts; capable of qualified judgments. Able to consider "both-and" as well as "either-or". Does not need to commit self to a clear-cut decision in a complicated situation.

REGRESSION: Person indulges in age- inappropriate behavior (e.g. wistful, evasive, ingratiating) to avoid responsibility, aggression and unpleasant demands from others or self.

PLAYFULNESS: Individual utilizes feelings and ideas from past experience that are not directly required by the immediate situation to help solve problems and handle situations and enjoy life. Person uses preconscious in rich, flexible way.

DISPLACEMENT: Person temporarily and unsuccessfully represses unacceptable impulses or feelings in terms of their original situation or objects, but they find expression in some other situation. May displace in time or in objects.

SUBLIMATION: Person finds ways and means which are moderate, socially acceptable, and satisfying for the expression of primitive impulses.

REACTION FORMATION: Person transforms impulses and feelings into their opposites, resulting in a more or less permanent behavior change with occasional breakthroughs of the original impulse.

SUBSTITUTION: Energy from primitive impulses is appropriated in a secure manner so that moderate, civilized opposites are evident.

REPRESSION: Total inhibition of feeling and/or idea. Repressed material is revealed only by symbolic manifestations (e.g. in dreams).

SUPPRESSION: Impulses are delayed and controlled until an appropriate time, place and object.

These definitions bear out Kroeber’s original premise of defense mechanisms being less situationally and societally appropriate, more fixed and more past-defined than coping mechanisms. As in astrology, the energy can be misused and abused.

My world-view sees the horoscope as a symbolic blueprint of the energies of an individual. I see consciousness as the energy of human experience. A chart describes various paths and forms that energy can take. Like Freud and Helmholtz, I do not believe that energy is destroyed; only transformed. Unlike Freud, I carry that beyond this lifetime.

I do not agree with Freud’s pessimistic view of humankind: propelled by uncivilized instincts and driven by the past. Human beings may indeed have an aggressive and a sexual drive, but I am sure we also have an instinct towards self-actualization—growth and the realization of our full potentials. And with Adler, Kroeber and others, I feel the pull of the future (of possibility) is as strong as the push from the past. I suspect we have other innate tendencies or instincts, e.g. a drive for competence (manifested as Letter Six of our astrological alphabet.) Theoretically, of course, we could assign one or more drives to each letter of our astrological alphabet. In a sense, perhaps that is what some key words are. If one is wedded to a model of drives, perhaps that would be a useful exercise. I do think astrology delineates at least twelve major psychological forms of expression and being, twelve psychic roads to channel our energies which manifest on the physical plane in a multitude of ways.

I absolutely agree with Freud’s principles of unconsciousness and psychic determinism in that nothing happens by chance. I do NOT see everything as past-determined. I do believe we create our own realities, that all that “happens” to us is purposeful and meaningful, albeit our motivations are often at least partially unconscious.

I tend to suspect Freud’s division of developmental stages (Oral, Anal, etc.) His delineation of the Oedipal conflict has been questioned repeatedly, especially in cross-cultural studies. However, I think humans do go through developmental stages (though much modified by different cultures). It may be that a study of major transit cycles in terms of psychological expression will give us more data. Several of Erik Erickson’s stages suggest some correlation (at least for me) to the Saturn cycle, e.g. “Industry vs. Inferiority” around age seven.

I find Freud’s division of personality into the Id, Ego and Super Ego somewhat limited because it only has three parts. Astrology offers us twelve sides to life and personality. We could attempt to “translate” Freud into astrology, e.g. the Conscience has attributes of Letter Ten; the Ego Ideal of Letters Nine and Twelve, etc. But that is dangerous, as such translations generally abuse one system or both. Since astrology’s conceptualization is so much broader, I prefer to stick to it.

Freud’s work on defense mechanisms is where I admire him most. I think his insight into neurotic defenses was incredible. I also feel, like Kroeber and others, we need to conceptualize non-neurotic defenses—what Kroeber calls coping mechanisms. I suspect all of us are born with the potential to learn all coping mechanisms. Through role models, experience, and conditioning, most of us come to rely on some mechanisms more and others less or not at all. After a time, we are into (inflexible) defense mechanisms rather than (flexibly) choosing the appropriate coping mechanism.

Certain of the defense mechanisms seem to fit well into the horoscope. Isolation, Intellectualization and Rationalization are all potential problems for charts heavy in Air (perhaps backed by Earth). It seems even more likely when Water is surrounded and outweighed by Air. The corresponding coping mechanisms of Objectivity, Intellectuality and Logical Analysis are all potential strengths of Air (which Earth can support).

Denial and Repression seem more likely with strong Water with its sensitivity to pain and association with the Unconscious, perhaps with some Air mixed in for the ease in detachment. We might expect some Earth mixed in to get strong Concentration and the discipline of Suppression, although I suspect Water (and Air) are capable on their own as well.

The way in which Zip Dobyns and I refer to projection is slightly different from Freud’s. Rather than assuming people “unrealistically” see undesirable attributes of themselves in others, as Freud did, we assume individuals are drawn to, attract (in our meaningful universe) other people who realistically and actually do manifest those qualities the projecting people are uncomfortable with.

Projection is possible all over a horoscope, but is most likely in the Seventh and Eighth Houses of the chart. Here, all too commonly, in the houses of “other people, partners, mates” people are prone to giving away parts of themselves to those around them. E.g., A person with the Moon in the Seventh projects his/her need for dependency/nurturance into potential partners. S/he complains about clinging vine partners who never give him/her enough space. Yet s/he continues to choose this kind of partner because the partner is expressing FOR the individual a part of her/his personality which the individual “chooses” not to acknowledge or manifest. (Of course, that “choice” may be unconscious.)

If one is into projection: in the Second, we project into money, possessions and the physical world. In the Third, we can project into siblings and other collateral relatives. In the Fourth, we can project into our home and early nurturing figure (usually Mom). In the Fifth, we can give parts of ourselves away to lovers and children; in the Sixth to co-workers. With the Ninth, we can lay it all on God, while the Tenth allows us to project onto authority figures (usually including Dad) and the Establishment. Within the Eleventh, we can give away to our friends, social causes and groups of all kinds. And in the Twelfth, all our disliked qualities are relegated to “secret enemies” or other victims.

One problem with projection is that many astrologers encourage it. Too many forget each person is the WHOLE chart. Such astrologers “give away” houses and planets to significant others and discourage the client from experiencing her/his full potential and diversity. (For fuller discussion, see “Astrology, Women and Men” in Sag. 1978 issue.) The easiest way to recognize projection is through exaggeration. If we are refusing to deal with a part of ourselves, we will be attracted to that quality in others—but IN EXCESS. The more we deny our own needs to nurture or be dependent, the more we will attract overly nurturant, overly dependent people, etc.

The coping mechanisms of Empathy may be heightened by emphasis on the Seventh and Eighth Houses, although Water in general seems to indicate the potential for empathy.

Doubt, Indecision is a classic problem for Libra (Letter Seven in general). I also suspect it as a possibility in charts full of air and water and oppositions and quincunxes: giving the likelihood of having conflicting, oppositional ideas and feelings in many areas. Someone who has integrated this has the strength of Tolerance of Ambiguity.

Displacement is generally a case of doing something in an inappropriate time or place. The action may be totally appropriate elsewhere. We have the potential for Displacement all over most charts—wherever we have mixtures. E.g., Air deal with ideas and people, understands and accepts. Earth deals with things and often criticizes, manipulates and changes them. Earth-Air mixtures may go into criticizing and trying to change our friends and peers and/or accepting and understanding (but not working and doing) on our job. Neither is likely to be received well, yet each action is highly appropriate in the right place and time. With the coping mechanism of Sublimation, we choose what is appropriate in a given situation, while meeting our needs (desires, drives) as fully as possible.

The description of Reaction Formation certainly suggests the opposition and polarity principles. I like the metaphor of the seesaw for the common tendency to flip from one extreme to the other in a polar principle. It is also common to express one end of the polar principle more vehemently because we are fighting the urge to do the other unconsciously. For example, we are most emphatic in our need for freedom when our repressed need for closeness has maneuvered us into an emotional involvement.

People with an emphasis on the first four letters of the astrological alphabet might, theoretically, have a greater capacity for Regression and Playfulness. In general, Fire and Air are the fun-loving, expressive elements, including a keen sense of humor. Emphasis on 1, 3, 9, and 11 may go to the extreme of the practical joker. But since all defense mechanisms by definition involve a good bit of unconsciousness, Water has to be featured in some way in the horoscope. Water could also be involved in Regression since its alternative forms of expression include dependence and nurturance, and Regression often implies a return to a childlike, dependent state.

In my practice, I find the concepts of energy that transforms but never dies; an unconscious; a totally meaningful psychic universe; projection; displacement; intellectualization; rationalization; and repression (with its main danger the eventual outcome of physical illness) especially useful. It is my hope that you as readers will cull what is valuable and useful for you in your reality.

Thank you for listening, thinking and caring.


Brenner, Charles, M.D., An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957.

Hall, Calvin S., A Primer of Freudian Psychology, New York, World Pub. Co., 1954.

Kroeber, Theodore C., “The Coping Functions of the Ego Mechanisms,” IN: White, Robert W. and Katherine F. Bruner, Editors, The Study of Lives, New York, Atherton Press (Prentice-Hall), 1964.

Copyright © 1979 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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