I haven’t asked my mom about it, but I assume that as a baby, I was unable to complete Sigmund Freud’s “oral” stage of development. Judging by the chew-holes in the majority of my T-shirts, sticking those giant plastic keys into my baby mouth really must’ve gotten me off. According to Freud, it may have destined me to a life of smoking cigarettes and chewing pens — an “oral fixation,” the first of his five theorized stages of psychosexual development.
Or so I’ve always thought.
While Freud published these theories 115 years ago, in 1905, anal and oral fixations are often treated like gospel. It’s the reason why some people are described as being “anal” or “anal-retentive.”
Of course, tons of Freud’s theories have long been disproven. Where does the science stand on oral and anal fixations, and are we ignorant for keeping them in use?
I asked Mark Rego, clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, where contemporary psychiatry comes down on oral and anal.
First and foremost, says Rego, we should celebrate and appreciate Frued’s legacy.
“Concepts like the unconscious, different stages of development and different ways of dealing with thoughts and their accompanying feelings all either originated with Freud or were developed by him into what we know today,” he says. “Additionally, the idea of sitting privately with a professional and speaking openly about what concerns us — along with many of the details that make up the process of psychotherapy — also comes exclusively from Freud.”
That said, the more practical parts of his theories have not held water over the years. “Psychologists have tried in vain to find the ego, the psychosexual stages of development with the well-known love affair we all have with our mothers, and penis envy among women,” Rego says.
Anal and oral fixations fall squarely into this second category: B.S. “Freud’s idea was that habits we had in childhood, such as fasciation with putting things in our mouths or being disgusted by our bowel habits, would carry over into adulthood if we were ‘fixated’ in these stages of development.”
But, he says, “there is no evidence that these developmental processes — and thus, fixations — exist.”
In other words, it’s a plainly outdated idea that there are “oral people” who are “more dependent on others and use things like cigars to satisfy the oral need, and ‘anal people’ who are obsessive and concerned with clean and dirty, right and wrong and other black-and-white issues,” Rego says.
And yet, much like the conspiracy theories, people hold onto them. “The perseverance of Freudian thinking has two components,” Rego says. “First is the belief that our upbringing is what makes us who we are, when in fact genes and experiences outside the home matter just as much. Therefore, people prefer these early-life theories.”
Second, he continues, “is the sense that our lives have meaning, so if something goes wrong with our minds it must come from meaning or beliefs.” And there is actual danger in people continuing to believe in these theories: Many are founded on the false idea that people with mental disorders do not get better. “This is tragic in any situation, but especially when someone is really suffering or impaired, such as with depression or a serious mental illness,” Rego says.
So what does it mean for people like me who just can’t… stop… fucking… chewing? Well, there’s a name for an extreme version of my compulsion: pica. “As with any habit, it may increase with anxiety,” Rego says. “But there is no deeper meaning, nor does it mark any tendency toward some psychiatric or psychological problem.”
Whew. Maybe I’m not that screwed up.
Ultimately, Freud is still a fascinating and critical subject in the history of psychology and mental health. But arguing the validity of his fixation theories “is like arguing why the world is not flat,” Rego says.
“No one in the sciences” believes them, and “there is no controversy in science about these,” Rego concludes. “So it’s time we bury them with the rest of his outdated ideas.”