‘KNOW THYSELF’- The Oedipus Complex and Emotional Instability

Lida Prypchan
4 min readFeb 11, 2019

In 1897 Freud began what can be considered the most heroic act of his life — the psychoanalysis of his own subconscious. The ancient oracle of Delphi had from ancient times encouraged philosophers and thinking persons to pursue the maxim “Know thyself,” but unconsciously resisting, none of them ever managed to achieve it as fully as Freud. The subconscious, the existence of which had already been surmised, was still obscure. The words of Heraclitus were still considered true, “The human mind is a distant, inaccessible territory, which cannot be explored.” It was no sudden conclusion, but a gradual intuition dawning within Freud that one must first analyze oneself before being in a position to pursue any research. For three or four years the researcher will suffer from increasing emotional instability, but eventually he will achieve a greater degree of serenity and stability, which will free him to continue his research dispassionately. Two types of investigation arise that are intimately related with his self-analysis: dream interpretation and childhood sexuality.

As Freud continued his research, he began to recognize in himself a certain amount of residual childhood sexuality. He believed he had uncovered the fact that in childhood he had experienced an excessive love for his mother and consequent jealousy of his father. His knowledge of Greek literature brought to mind immediately the tragedy of Oedipus Rex, which he interpreted as an undeniable confirmation of his theory. Oedipus — the son of Laius King of Thebes and his wife Jocasta — is the protagonist of the Greek legend in which Oedipus kills his father without realizing it, marries his mother without knowing who she is, sires two children by her, then, upon learning that he has married his own mother tears out his eyes. For Freud, Oedipus’ act of blinding himself represented an expiation of his sin.

According to Freud, children experience the Oedipal stage between the ages of three to six. Characteristic of this stage is an excessive love for the mother and jealousy of the father, who is considered a rival. All this results in confusion because although loving and admiring the father, the child views him with jealousy as if he were a rival. This Oedipal complex is resolved by a closer relationship between father and son, better communication and identification with the parent. Through this relationship the child assimilates his father’s identity and behavior, thus resolving his conflict.

According to Freud, everyone without exception passes through this stage and retains some trace of the Oedipus complex until adult life. However, whether an individual will become a more or less normal or neurotic person depends upon the extent to which this conflict has been resolved. The Oedipus complex must be curbed. However, while the normal person has to make only a little effort to resolve this conflict, a sick person will be forced to focus most of his energy upon overcoming it. Freud believed the Oedipus complex to be at the root of all neuroses and the main cause of an unconscious guilt complex. It could be explained as follows: a child feels guilty for harboring contradictory and destructive feelings for his father; this is intensified because the child loves and admires his father; he is subconsciously afraid that his punishment, when his father learns of his feelings, will be castration. Eventually the child experiences extreme anxiety that he will be found out and castrated, lose his mother and forfeit his father’s love and attention. This can all be resolved depending on the relationship the child establishes with his father. If a closer father/son relationship is later achieved, the child will be able to resolve the conflict. However, if there are family problems the child will increasingly seek refuge with the maternal figure and distance himself from the paternal figure, so the conflict will remain latent in the background. During this phase the paternal figure is essential for the child since until now the child has had only a primitive conscience: if he resists his impulses and behaves it is only because he is afraid of punishment from an outside source. In identifying with his father, the child imitates, assimilates and absorbs behavior, standards and taboos from his father, thus developing his own conscience.

Freud eventually realized, however, that many of the problems encountered in the early stages of a child’s development could be determining factors in the subsequent resolution of an Oedipus complex. An adequate cure for the Oedipus complex depends on various factors. The child’s innate constitution is important. Extreme reactions to his behavior during this stage often cause disturbances. Excessive punishments from parents or over-indulgence of their child’s feelings are of no help in resolving emotional problems. No strict guidelines can be established for handling children at this stage of their development.

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Lida Prypchan

Psychiatrist & Writer — Writing and meditating at the intersection of psychiatry, philosophy, Buddhism and the arts. More information at www.lidaprypchan.com