Freud’s Theory of the Mind Individuates Society and Regiments the Individual

Sigmund Freud’s theory of the mind describes the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, the ego and the libido, and ultimately, the individual of the collective within the mind. The pleasure principle that dictates urges in the infant mind is trained and conditioned by the collective into the reality principle, in which an educated ego filters pleasure through conformity with socially prescribed norms. Yet the individuated form of society that manifests in the individual can only sustain itself if the libido consents to a supersession by the ego. When a traumatic experience occurs to an individual or if the libido is not in line with the ego because of unresolved desires, an individual becomes neurotic. Freud suggests that therapeutic methods involve the power of language and storytelling, a process that he calls abreaction. Although at present Freud’s overall psychoanalytic theories have been generally superseded by more empirical therapeutic processes, storytelling as therapy remains important today, notably represented through the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions regarding the end of apartheid in South Africa and after the genocide in Rwanda. The TRCs embrace storytelling as a method of overcoming traumatic experience, following the psychoanalytic prescriptions that Freud determines.

Freud argues that the individual is developed through the collective regimentation of the ego under the reality principle. A normal mind obeys the reality principle, mediating the libidinal impulses in the unconscious through the watchman, a censor that prevents the manifestation of socially undesirable impulses in the conscious. This censorship occurs in all minds, but for some, the libidinal impulses that are undesirable are not properly suppressed by the watchman. In these minds, the individual exhibits neurotic symptoms, somatic expressions of mental pain caused by conservation of mental processes. Freud, borrowing from physics concepts, argues that mental anguish and physical pain are linked and that emotional pain is conserved. That emotional pain, when it cannot be expressed because it is being censored by the watchman and prevented from entering the consciousness, is substituted by physical pain, as in the case of one of Freud’s patients, Elisabeth von R, whose leg pains “always radiated from that particular area of the right thigh… it was on this place that her father used to rest his leg every morning, while she renewed the bandage around it…” (Studies on Hysteria, 148) Because Elisabeth von R had repressed her erotic desire for her brother-in-law and for the man she was in love with in favor of the social pressure to renounce her own desires to take care of her father, she substituted the mental pain from the unconsummated love into the physical pain in her legs.

Freud identifies several states of the self that reflect different states of mind development in individuals. The first manifests in infants, where the libido and its impulses transfer to the consciousness in an uninhibited manner. The infant only acts in the pursuit of pleasure, hence the desire to suck on the mother’s breast, followed by the desire to suck on a thumb, and so on. Following the infant’s recruitment to the collective via training processes such as potty training, in a normally developed individual, the society individuates itself in his mind through the development of the watchman. In such an individual the reality principle rules over the pleasure principle, and the libido is subjected to the logic of the ego. However, in neurotic patients, the ego does not exert control over the libido. Instead, the libido reigns over the unconscious and the ego over the conscious. In such patients the libidinal impulses are not subjected to the reality principle, rather, they are repressed or resisted by the censorship of the watchman but are not resolved. It is here where Freud’s economic view of mental processes comes into play, as the mental energy of the libidinal impulses is substituted to physical pain, hysteria, or other forms of neurosis.

Neurosis and hysteria can also manifest in an unresolved infantile sexual desire and can present itself as latent dream thought through the analyzing the manifest content of dreams. Freud provides the example of the love services dream, where the woman’s latent sexual desire for her son manifests in her dream where she provides services to World War I officers. Freud calls the process by which psychotherapists uncover the causes of their patients’ neuroses dreamwork. Dreamwork is the art of disaggregating and solving the puzzle of the distortions of the manifest content of the dream that mask the latent thought behind it. Furthermore, just as the watchman is acutely involved in censorship of an individual’s impulses, so too does it create the resistance to expressing socially undesirable thoughts in the consciousness. As a result, simply recounting the dream does not always provide the psychotherapist with full information, because the patient’s watchman censors the undesirable content of the dream and prevents the patient from recounting the dream in full. Dreamwork is necessary in order to uncover the full image of the patient’s latent thoughts.

The individuated form of society manifests in the structure of dreams and their repressions. Each individual’s watchman is trained contingent to their social position, however, the manifestation of the ego over the libido individuates each person. Freud argues that the conditioning process that ingrains the reality principle and trains the ego is a dominating force that is explicitly aimed at restraining sexual desire. Social conditioning of the ego enforces a regimented definition of sex as purely for the purposes of reproduction. Civilizational projects necessarily shun the possibility of sexual satisfaction for pleasure due to their inherently uninhibitable and insatiable nature. Infants, who originally operate only on the pleasure principle, are recruited into the collective project by restricting where and when they can derive pleasure. Freud refers to the principle of potty training as the first instance of such a regimentation, preventing the infant from pursuing pleasure in any form. Such regimentation leads to the development of the reality principle operator for the trained ego, as well as what Freud refers to as the “tyranny of genital sex.”

Neurotic patients exhibit a rift in their mind between the conscious and the unconscious and the libido and the ego. Freud claims that psychotherapeutic methods such as abreaction delve into the unconscious and undo the repressive forces the watchman exerts over unsatisfied desires and brings them into the conscious. Such actions do not “cure” the patient of their desires, nor do these actions make a patient happy. Rather, Freud argues that the treatment that can be provided is in the form of externalizing and articulating issues and problems that the patient may not even have known exist. Psychotherapy under such a framework does not expose the recruitment of individuals into the collective through training via the reality principle as necessarily an oppressive force, although civilization is fundamentally restrictive of pleasure seeking that does not involve reproductive sex. 

The resolution of an individual’s misalignment of libido and ego is instantiated within Freud’s field of psychotherapy of mental disorders relating to sexuality. His theory and his field concern patients who exhibit symptoms as a result of sexual frustrations or otherwise undesirable outcomes within the pursuit of sexual pleasure. However, the principles that Freud describes can be seen at work in the contemporary work done in developing countries where groups of people have been subjected to trauma. As a result of the fall of apartheid in South Africa and as a result of the genocide in Rwanda, government organizations have implemented Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in order to bring people involved together and help resolve their trauma. Freud’s theory of the mind explains why TRCs have potential to be effective in treating the latent neurosis that may result from experiencing events like genocide. These regimens are explicitly designed to help individuals begin to talk about their experiences, in effect, abreact the moments of experiencing genocide or apartheid, and begin to overcome that event. The process of TRCs is emblematic of recruiting wayward individuals back into the collective. People who have repressed the experience of going through genocide participate in the TRC and bring that experience to the consciousness. As a result, the commission results in a re-assertion of the ego and its reality principle over the unconscious.

Participants of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Rwanda


Overall, Freud’s theory of the mind depends on the inherent relationship between the individual and the collective within a person’s mind. Each individual has an individuated form of society within him that regulates the flow of unconscious impulses into the conscious by subjecting them to the reality principle. By training the individual through social practices and defining norms of acceptable conduct, the social is responsible for formulating the educated ego. The collective therefore can only exist in its individuated form, reflected in the way that the ego regulates impulses. In cases where the unconscious is not correctly subjected to the conscious, patients become neurotic, and it is the job of the psychotherapist to analyze potential traumas, social pressures, and dreams of that individual to determine the cause of the rift between conscious and unconscious. Once it is identified and explicitly named, the individual overcomes his own resistance and brings the cause of the neurosis into the conscious, where it can be dealt with later. 


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