Freud's Oedipus Complex Theory: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 Who Is Oedipus?
  • 0:28 The Oedipus Complex
  • 4:45 Development
  • 5:40 Why Is It Important?
  • 7:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Fleming
In this lesson, explore Freud's theory of unconscious desires through the Oedipus complex, which Freud - and many other psychologists, too - feel identifies and explains a vital aspect of our psycho-sexual development.

Who is Oedipus?

Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex is taken from the Greek 5th century B.C. mythological character, Oedipus. According to the myth - as well as the 429 B.C. play Oedipus the King by Sophocles - Oedipus unknowingly murders his father and marries his own mother. The story of Oedipus has been reworked countless times throughout Western culture and serves as the basis of Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex.

The Oedipus Complex

Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex describes the ideas and emotions which exist within the unconscious mind of children concerning their desire to possess their mothers sexually and kill their fathers. Freud believed that this complex occurred in both male and female children, with both sexes wishing to possess their mothers and eliminate the threat of their fathers who they competed with for the attention of their mothers.

Freud believed that the Oedipus complex occurred during what he referred to as the phallic stage of development, the third of the five stages of a child's psychosexual development that Freud identified, which occurs when a child is between the ages of three and six. During this vital stage of a child's psychosexual development, Freud theorized that the child's genitals served as his or her primary source of pleasure, thus it is during this stage that a child begins to become sexual and recognize him or herself as a sexual being.

During this stage, as Freud contended, a child develops for him or herself a distinct sexual identity as a 'boy' or 'girl' and begins to recognize the physical and social differences between men and women. This realization, Freud believed, changes the dynamic between a child and his or her parents. According to Freud's theory, children then direct their developing sexual desire toward their mother and begin to view their fathers as rivals for the mother's attention.

Children, then, unconsciously wish to possess their mothers sexually in the manner that they realize their father seems to and subconsciously wish to eliminate their fathers. Freud believed that children realize, however, that their fathers are stronger than they are and cannot be eliminated. This realization, Freud believed, causes a great deal of unconscious anxiety within children. Freud felt that this anxiety - which occurred entirely unconsciously - manifested itself in different ways for boys and girls: for boys, this anxiety developed into a castration complex, a deep rooted, unconscious fear that their stronger fathers will take away their masculinity in order to eliminate the threat they pose to the attention of their mothers. For girls, this anxiety developed into penis envy, a deep-rooted resentment of the power of their father's masculinity, which they realize they lack.

Freud believed that there were unconscious defense mechanisms children used to begin to provide resolution to their Oedipal anxieties. These defense mechanisms include repression, which involves a child blocking from their minds impulses, desires and ideas related to their Oedipus complexes and identification, through which a child begins to take on the characteristics of the same-sex parent. By identifying with and taking on the characteristics of his father, Freud felt that a boy diminishes his innate fear of castration because his likeness to his father will protect him from his father's anger in their rivalry for the mother. By identifying with the mother, Freud contended that a girl aligns herself with someone who also does not possess a penis, thus no longer positioning them as antagonists.

Freud believed that if the Oedipus complex goes unresolved and a child is unable to move on to the next stage of psychosexual development, a boy will become an aggressive, macho man and that a girl will become either overly sexually seductive or submissive to men. Children who remain fixated in the Oedipal stage of their psychosexual development, Freud believed, might remain fixated upon their mothers and fathers into their adulthood, which will result in a variety of other psychological problems.

Freud believed it was up to parents to properly handle and resolve their children's Oedipus complexes by allowing their same-sex children to identify with them and learn how to properly mirror their behavior and learn how to properly act within society. In essence, Freud felt that parents, in order to help their children overcome their Oedipus complexes, must encourage their same-sex children to identify with them and mirror their actions and behaviors. By allowing and encouraging their children to identify with them, parents help their children to form super-egos, which is an inner moral authority and internalization of the same sex parent's identity and character.

Freud's Development of the Oedipus Complex Theory

Freud first developed his theory of the Oedipus complex in the late 19th century while undertaking an extensive self-analysis of his childhood and his relationship with his own parents. While exploring his own feelings towards his parents, Sophocles' 'Oedipus Rex' was being performed throughout Europe to a great deal of popular interest. Freud believed that the play's overwhelming popularity over the previous 25 centuries served as evidence of the existence of the underlying Oedipus complex throughout Western civilization.

Freud felt that part of the appeal of the story of Oedipus was that it identified an unconscious anxiety that most adults had experienced in their lives. Over several years, Freud found evidence of the Oedipus complex in the subconscious and unconscious minds of several patients he treated for various psychological disorders. Freud found that many of his patients suffered from unresolved Oedipus complexes due to a failure to identify with same-sex parents and develop a super-ego.

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