What Is a Freudian Slip?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 07, 2022
5 min read

Fans of the popular American sitcom Friends, do you remember the moment when Ross spoke his ex-girlfriend Rachel’s name while reciting his wedding vows instead of the name of his bride, Emily?

He’s probably not the only one to goof up at such a major life event. We’ve all had moments when we ended up embarrassing ourselves because we meant to say one thing but actually said something totally different.

But why does this happen, and what is it called? Read on to learn all you need to know about Freudian slip psychology, why we make these slips, and how to avoid them.

A Freudian slip is a verbal error that you may make while speaking or writing. It's commonly known as a slip of the tongue. In colloquial terms, it’s when you unintentionally blurt out something different from what you originally intended to say. A Freudian slip is an extremely common phenomenon that can happen to anyone speaking any language. 

The medical term for Freudian slip is parapraxis. The American Psychological Association defines a Freudian slip as “an unconscious error or oversight in writing, speech, or action that is held to be caused by unacceptable impulses breaking through the ego’s defenses and exposing the individual’s true wishes or feelings”.

Freudian slips are named after the renowned Austrian medical practitioner Sigmund Freud, who is considered the father of psychoanalysis. According to him, Freudian slips may reflect the repressed contents of your unconscious mind

Freud first studied this phenomenon in a young man who would drop some words when quoting a particular phrase from Virgil’s Latin epic poem Aeneid. Freud used psychoanalysis to determine that this man had a negative association with blood due to a personal experience, and this phrase would unconsciously remind him of blood, which was why he tended to misquote it.

Freud went on to discuss this phenomenon in his 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and coined the term fehlleistungen, which means mistake or faulty action. This term was then translated to English by James Strachey, who called it the Freudian slip.

Even before Freud, William Shakespeare is believed to have described the Freudian slip phenomenon in several of his famous works.

Freudian slips can be of different types based on the trigger for your slip of the tongue. These include:

  • Mental errors. In this case, you most likely have forgotten or are misremembering something because you’re not thinking clearly or are forgetful or distracted, resulting in speech errors.
  • Repression. In this case, you could be trying to forget a traumatic or stressful incident but may be reminded of it by something in your surroundings, causing you to verbalize incorrectly.
  • Avoidance. In this case, you may be avoiding something stressful like an activity or a person, and you end up unintentionally blurting out something about it since it’s been subconsciously bothering you.

Some common Freudian slip examples include saying the wrong name (e.g., calling your current partner by your ex’s name or calling your teacher your mom), misquoting or misinterpreting a written or spoken word, and using the wrong word (e.g., when Ted Kennedy used the word “breast” instead of “best” in a speech).

There are many reasons why Freudian slips may occur. 

The most popular and well-researched theory is that Freudian slips represent your suppressed thoughts. When a certain part of your brain wants to hide or avoid a particular thought, another part of your mind steps in to confirm whether you’ve successfully hidden that thought, thus reactivating the very same thought. In such cases, the harder we try to avoid thinking of something, the more likely we are to unintentionally verbalize it, causing a Freudian slip.

Another theory is related to the way your brain processes language. Although you self-edit your thoughts for errors and appropriateness before vocalizing them, most people still make around one or two mistakes for every 1,000 words they utter on average. This means that if you speak around 150 words a minute, you’ll make around seven to 22 verbal errors in a usual day, depending on how talkative you are. Thus, verbal mistakes might just be an unavoidable part of human communication. 

Other reasons why Freudian slips may happen include being distracted, sleep-deprived, or easily influenced by someone else’s thoughts, behaviors, or actions (the power of suggestion).

So, are Freudian slips real? They are, but they may not necessarily have deep or meaningful subconscious implications on every occasion.

Here are some psychologist-recommended strategies to clear your mind and avoid Freudian slips:

Avoid multitasking. Freudian slips often happen because your brain is overworked. Doing too many things at the same time can overstimulate your mind and split your focus. A greater mental load has also been found to increase thoughts of death in people, which is one of the most unwanted and dreaded thoughts. To avoid unnecessary negative thoughts, don’t take up too many things at the same time, and rest your mind at regular intervals.

Gradual exposure. You might have many things that you want to avoid thinking about. But the more you avoid them, the more you might be unconsciously reminded of them. Instead, consider accepting these thoughts. They may be painful or uncomfortable to deal with at first. But as you let yourself face these thoughts in a controlled way, they’re likely to resolve themselves and not bother you anymore.

Find a distraction. If you’re just not ready to deal with something, then it might be better to find a distracting thought or activity that takes up all your attention. In this way, you can avoid the added pressure of being forced to confront something before you’re willing and temporarily eliminate the stress of whatever was bothering you by simply keeping your mind occupied.

Postpone the thought. If some thoughts feel inevitable and you can’t seem to get rid of them, then it might be a good idea to set some time aside in the day to focus exclusively on them. For example, you could assign a particular time or day to worry about whatever is currently bothering you and then tell yourself that you won’t think about it until the designated time. This can keep you from obsessing about a particular concern all day long and help improve your productivity. 

Mindfulness and meditation. If you haven’t tried it already, it might be a good idea to introduce meditation and mindfulness practices to your daily routine. This can calm your mind, improve mental control, and keep your mind's focus in the present so that you aren’t bothered by unwanted thoughts or past and future concerns.