Fixation and How it Impacts Behavior

Fixation is an unconscious process that originates in childhood and can persist into adulthood. We're going to explore how it manifests itself and if it's possible to resolve the conflicts it raises.
Fixation and How it Impacts Behavior
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 11 June, 2023

Fixation is a psychoanalytic concept that was proposed by Sigmund Freud and developed by subsequent therapists. It refers to the unconscious process by which an individual gets stuck at an early stage of psychosexual development.

When fixation is present, the individual exhibits irrational behavior in a specific area. Moreover, it’s extremely difficult for them to get rid of it. For example, they might develop an oral fixation. This corresponds to the phase of oral development when the mouth is the main source of pleasure. So, these individuals might not to be able to stop biting their nails, eating or drinking excessively, or smoking.

Sigmund Freud thought that this process was a sign of unresolved conflicts at a certain stage of development. As a result, the individual experiences an obsessive attachment to people, objects, or behaviors that persists from childhood into adulthood.

“Fixation causes the libido to bind itself strongly to people or images, to reproduce a certain mode of satisfaction, to remain organized according to the characteristic structure of one of its evolutionary phases. The fixation can be manifest and current or constitute a prevailing virtuality that opens the path to a regression for the subject .”

-Sigmund Freud-

The origin of fixation

Sigmund Freud believed that, during childhood, psychosexual development goes through a series of stages. Each phase is characterized by the fact that libidinal energy (attention) is focused on a specific part of the body. This gives way to a series of pleasures, but also tensions that must be resolved before moving on to the next stage.

The three phases of psychosexual development proposed by Freud are as follows:

  • Oral. The libido is centered in the mouth. It refers to the act of receiving from others and its symbolic referent is either ‘ingesting’ or ‘not letting in’. It’s resolved with weaning.
  • Anal. The libido is centered in the anus. It refers to the act of giving to others and its symbolic referent is that of either ‘letting out’ or ‘retaining’. It culminates when the child is able to control their sphincter, without anxiety.
  • Phallic. The libido is centered in the genitals. It includes giving and receiving and its symbolic reference is to either ‘exchange’ or ‘keep for oneself’. It’s resolved when the so-called Oedipus complex is overcome, and the limits of sexuality are learned.

As can be seen, each stage of fixation consists of a focus on pleasure and, at the same time, a form of resolution. If the latter doesn’t occur, then fixation appears.

Girl biting her nails, representing fixation
Nail biting is a characteristic behavior of people who haven’t overcome an oral fixation.

The effects of fixation

The effects depend on how each phase of psychosexual development was experienced and resolved. If the stage isn’t completely resolved, the individual becomes stuck at that point in their development. The same happens when they experience one of these stages in a particularly intense or conflictive way.

As we mentioned earlier, the oral type fixation could result in a series of irrational and compulsive behaviors in the oral area. For example, eating too much or too little food. However, it can also express itself as excessively passive or receptive behaviors.

If the fixation is of the anal type, Freud claimed that it leads to the formation of two kinds of personalities:

  • Anal-retentive. This corresponds to cases in which toilet training was excessively strict. It leads to individuals becoming obsessed with rules and order.
  • Expulsive-anal. It refers to the cases in which the child was barely trained to control their sphincter. The result is a disorganized and neglectful personality.

Finally, the resolution of the phallic phase occurs when the child starts to identify with the parent of the same sex and gives up trying to occupy their place in relation to the parent of the opposite sex. When this isn’t achieved, problems such as aggressive sexuality, exhibitionism, etc. appear.

Young man obsessed with order
Obsessive organizational behavior responds to anal-type fixations.

How to overcome fixation behaviors

Fixation can manifest itself in many ways and in different intensities. Sometimes, as we mentioned earlier, it might only be expressed in the habit of biting the nails. This isn’t a particularly serious problem and if the individual should choose to attend therapy, it’ll only be to deepen their knowledge on the subject.

On the other hand, obsessions that limit the individual’s life in an important way are the kinds of problems that require professional help. In psychoanalysis, the aim is to identify the unresolved childhood conflict and resolve it. The psychoanalyst can help by employing the process of transference.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.