It is well-known that Sigmund Freud made huge contributions to the world of psychology. One of his most renowned theories is based on personality – an interesting concept.

His theory of personality was based on his extensive work with his patients, as well as the observation of human behaviour. In this article, we look at Freud’s theory on personality, and its relevance and impact on mental health.


Freud’s theory of personality is based on the idea that there are three components of personality – the ID, the Ego, and the Superego [1]. Each of these areas will be explored in more detail below.

Freud likened personality to an iceberg; an individual can only see a small piece of personality (i.e. the tip of the iceberg above the water), with most hidden away from view (like the iceberg).

The tip of the iceberg refers to what a person is aware of, and the forefront of the mind – as they are aware, it is considered to be the “conscious mind“. But under the water, there is an “unconscious mind” – where hidden thoughts, memories, feelings and desires are present [1].

A visual representation of Freud’s iceberg

The Id

The id resides in the unconscious mind. Freud suggested that the id is the personality component which controls an individual’s urges, needs and desires – with the energy in the id working to satisfy these areas.

The id aims for pleasure – with immediate gratification needed to complete this. The id of a person will drive an individual to reach these pleasurable outcomes as quickly as possible. This can work two ways however – the id may compel an individual to avoid something – such as illicit substances [1].

Read More: Freud’s Theory of the Id and Mental Health

The Ego

One may wonder how the mind makes someone avoid something. Freud believes that this can be explained by the ego. The ego has the task of organising our thoughts to make our mind process learning in a coherent fashion.

In doing this, it is able to resolve any problems facing the id – such as whether or not to engage in a certain behaviour. Freud suggests that the ego steps in to help a person weigh up the positives and negatives of any given situation – and think about the consequences of certain actions.

Therefore, the role of the ego is to help stabilise an individual’s thoughts to the extent where they can make sensible decisions. Part of the ego however tries to impose high standards or desires into our behaviour – which falls into the superego [1].

Read More: Freud’s Theory of the Ego and Mental Health

The Superego

The superego is generally seen as a person’s conscience – or, as Freud put it – the “parent in our head”. The superego, like any caring parent, is watching us, analysing us, and helps to judge the desires of the id.

For instance, if someone was at a party and they were offered a substance, the id would be compelled to take the substance due to the high they would potentially encounter. But the superego suggests that is wrong, and that it is dangerous.

The ego provides the middle ground between the two, and comes to a rational decision. But in order to achieve a positive decision – the ego must engage in certain mental tricks, which help push harmful impulses in the unconscious mind [1].

Read More: Freud’s Theory of the Superego and Mental Health

The link to mental health

According to Freud, mental disturbance arises when the ego isn’t able to maintain its control of the id and the superego. Perhaps their impulses become too strong, and they engage in harmful behaviour. Freud’s theory states that this disparity between the three states is often caused by trauma from early childhood.

Freud’s work on personality has largely been replaced by more contemporary ideas and research – with advances in technology and research methods leading to different understandings of personality. For example, research in the last few decades has shown harmful impulses are caused by problems in certain brain regions – with genetic variations the cause of this, rather than early childhood trauma.

Yet modern research – including brain scans and live observations of the brain – has suggested three systems exist in the brain. These are the approach system, the avoidance system, and the inhibition system. As the names suggest, there are actually many similarities with current theories and Freud’s theory.

The approach system relates to the way an individual responds to potential rewards, and its aim for gratification of needs – similar to Freud’s idea of the id. The avoidance system responds to potential threats, which usually leads to a person avoiding such situations – like the ego may propose. In the inhibition system, the mind attempts to resolve any problems and judge potential decisions – like the superego reputedly would. This enables a person to not make harmful, impulsive decisions. This belief has partly borne out of research into animals, and how their brains react to certain stimuli.

Some theories suggest that conditions like substance-related disorders can be caused by a weak inhibition system – leading to a person not having their impulses controlled. This may also be relevant for instances like mania, and some forms of anxiety.

Whether or not early childhood trauma contributes to this is unknown. It is also believed that environmental and genetic factors can affect a person’s mental state.


As mentioned, advances in science and research have shown promise in helping us to understand the effect that brain structures have in mental health. But Freud’s theories are still relevant, and continue to be used.

Moreover, there are certainly overlapping factors in the theories of Freud and the more modern-day approach. In any case, research will continue, all of which helps tackle the problem of a distressed emotional state. You can see our list of articles about Freud here.

See Also


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[1] Freud, S., & Hall, G. S. (1920). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. Boni and Liveright: New York.