From New World Encyclopedia

Part of a series of articles on

Psychosexual development
Psychosocial development
Conscious • Preconscious
Id, ego, and super-ego
Libido • Drive
Transference • Resistance
Defense mechanism

Important Figures
Sigmund FreudCarl Jung
Alfred AdlerOtto Rank
Anna FreudMargaret Mahler
Karen HorneyJacques Lacan
Ronald Fairbairn • Melanie Klein
Harry Stack Sullivan
Erik Erikson • Nancy Chodorow

Schools of Thought
Self psychology • Lacanian
Analytical psychology
Object relations
Interpersonal • Relational
Attachment • Ego psychology

Psychology Portal

Libido, etymologically rooted in Old Latin libido (desire, lust) from libere (to be pleasing, to please) was originally defined as a primal psychic energy and emotion that, according to Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, is associated with instinctual biological urges and which manifest themselves in various human activities, most notably fulfilling sexual instincts. The concept of libido was taken up by Freud's close friend and student Carl Jung, who eventually sought to de-sexualize libido so that it might define a broader range of psychic, creative energies and pursuits (which eventually led to the breakdown of the two men's relationship). Ultimately, libido has carried on its original, Freudian meaning and become synonymous with "sexual drive," as it is more commonly known as in the medical field. However, libido is no longer viewed as the almost exclusive force propelling personality development as in Freud's view. While sexual desire is a powerful force, human beings are not slaves to this drive but are both subject to other forces, including socialization, and also able to use their reason and other capabilities to discern their optimal course of action in their lives.

Freudian Perspective


Freud defined the term libido psychoanalytically in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: "We have defined the concept of libido as a quantitatively variable force which could serve as a measure of processes and transformations occurring in the field of sexual excitation" (Freud 1905).

Freud based the psychoanalytic notion of libido on infantile sexuality: "The fact of the existence of sexual needs in human beings and animals is expressed in biology by the assumption of a 'sexual instinct', on the analogy of the instinct of nutrition, that is of hunger. Everyday language possesses no counterpart to the word 'hunger', but science makes use of the word 'libido' for that purpose" (Freud 1905).

Freud argued that the libido develops in individuals by changing its object, claiming that humans are born "polymorphously perverse," meaning that any number of objects could be a source of pleasure. He further argued that, as humans developed, they become fixated on different and specific objects through their stages of development. Building on the work of Karl Abraham, Freud developed the idea of a series of developmental phases in which the libido fixates on different erogenous zones—first in the oral stage (exemplified by an infant's pleasure in nursing), then in the anal stage (exemplified by a toddler's pleasure in controlling his or her bowels), then in the phallic stage, through a latency stage in which the libido is dormant, to its reemergence at puberty in the genital stage.

Freud pointed out that this sexual drive often comes into conflict with the conventions of the superego and its society, and that the need to conform to society while controlling the libido can manifest in tension and disturbance that Freud labeled neurosis. According to followers of Freudian psychology, the energy of libido can be diverted from its immediate sexual aims into socially acceptable endeavors, a process called sublimation, though Freud himself always emphasized the risks associated with sublimation of the instincts when it takes place at the expense of the sexual and deprives the subject of immediate satisfaction.

It was Carl Jung's studies on psychosis that led Freud to deepen and develop his own theory of the libido (into object-libido and ego-libido), which had hitherto been regarded solely as the energetic expression of the outwardly-directed sexual drives, leading to a break with his former student. At a period when there was a clear theoretical distinction between the sexual drives and the self-preservative drives, the case of the psychotic, cut off from reality and withdrawn into the self, seemed to substantiate the view (held by Jung) that the libido could be separated from sexuality and therefore had to be considered as a form of energy that was close to Henri Bergson's concept of élan vital.


Freud identified libido as the energy associated with eros. In ancient Greece the word Eros referred to love and the god of love. In his final theory of the drives, Sigmund Freud made eros a fundamental concept referring to the life instincts (narcissism and object libido), whose goals were the preservation, binding, and union of the organism into increasingly larger units, related to but not synonymous with libidinal energy and love.

The term eros, understood as a life instinct antagonistic to the death instinct, appeared for the first time in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud used it to establish a dynamic polarity that would define a new instinctual dualism. Freud wrote, "Our speculations have suggested that eros operates from the beginning of life and appears as a 'life instinct' in opposition to the 'death instinct' which was brought into being by the coming to life of inorganic substance. These speculations seek to solve the riddle of life by supposing that these two instincts were struggling with each other from the very first" (Freud 1920). In this essay Freud refers to the doctrine of the Greek physician and philosopher Empedocles of Agrigento (c. 490-430 B.C.E.), for whom the production of all things results from the interplay of two forces, Love and Discord, conceived of as the impersonal forces of attraction and repulsion.

Although the concept of eros, properly speaking, emerged late in Freud's work, this did not prevent him from claiming that all his earlier discoveries about sexuality can be seen in terms of eros. Psychoanalysis showed that sexuality did not conceal "impulsion towards a union of the two sexes or towards producing a pleasurable sensation in the genitals" (Freud 1920), and that sexuality was thus different from geniality.


Thanatos, from Greek θάνατος "death," was the personification of death in Greek mythology, whose Roman equivalent was Mors. A creature of particular darkness, he was a son of Nyx ("night") and twin of Hypnos ("sleep"). For Freud, thanatos (although he himself never used this term) signaled a desire to give up the struggle of life and return to quiescence and the grave, and was therefore identified as the death drive/instinct. This should not be confused with the concept destrudo, which is the energy of the destructive impulse (the opposite of libido).

The psychoanalytic antagonist to the life drive/instinct eros, thanatos was first identified by Sigmund Freud when he began considering the experience of trauma and traumatic events (particularly those experienced by World War I veterans). The most curious feature of highly unpleasant experiences for Freud was that subjects often tended to repeat or re-enact them. This appeared to violate the pleasure principle, "the drive of an individual to maximize his or her pleasure." Freud found this repetition of unpleasant events in the most ordinary of circumstances, even in children's play (such as the celebrated Fort/Da—"Here/Gone"—game played by Freud's grandson). After hypothesizing a number of causes (particularly the idea that we repeat traumatic events in order to master them after the fact), Freud considered the existence of a fundamental "death wish" or "death instinct," referring to an individual's own need to die. Organisms, according to this idea, are driven to return to a pre-organic, inanimate state—but they wish to do so in their own way.


Destrudo in Freudian psychology is the energy of the destructive impulse. It is the opposite of libido. While libido is the urge to create, an energy that arises from the Eros (or "life") drive, destrudo is the urge to destroy both oneself and everything else. According to Sigmund Freud, destrudo arises from the death drive (thanatos), which also is the source of aggression.

Destrudo is a lesser-known aspect of Freud's theory, and is usually ignored in place of more well-known and well-defined theories of human emotion. The Freudian concept of "destrudo" is one of a group of concepts that appeared fleetingly in his work and subsequently disappeared. Freud always resisted an energy specifically associated with the death drive (thanatos), even though the term "destrudo" makes its appearance in The Ego and the Id (Freud 1923). He subsequently abandoned use of the term "destrudo," which would have risked implying the existence of an energy dualism, which runs counter to his monistic view of psychic energy as libido.

Jungian Perspective of Libido

For Freud, libido was the mere drive for sex that accounted for most unconscious motivation. However, Carl Jung, a Swiss physician, psychiatrist, and founder of analytical psychology, thought that libido could encompass a wider range of creative, psychic energies besides sexuality, such as hunger or the simple will to survive.

This divergence in their views on libido reflected the rising tensions between Jung and Freud. Jung eventually came to believe that Freud's view of the human "unconscious mind" placed too great an emphasis on sexuality in relation to human behavior and to psychological complexes. Jung believed that the unconscious also had a creative capacity, serving a positive role essential to human society and culture. Although Freud at one time had seemed to hope that Jung would carry "Freudianism" into the future, there was a parting of the ways.

Contemporary Definition

A common definition of libido includes these entries[1]:

  1. instinctual psychic energy that in psychoanalytic theory is derived from primitive biological urges (as for sexual pleasure or self-preservation) and that is expressed in conscious activity
  2. sexual drive

The term libido is considered synonymous to an individual's sexual drive in the medical field, and as such has come to be associated more with the second definition.

Lack of sex drive (lack of libido) is extremely common in women, but quite rare in men. Even men with erectile dysfunction (ED) usually have a perfectly normal sex drive. In rare cases in which men experience lack of libido, the causes can be physically attributed to alcoholism, abuse of illegal drugs, use of prescribed drugs, obesity, and hormone imbalance. Psychologically, lack of libido can be traced to depression, stress, latent homosexuality, and serious relationship problems with their wife or sexual partner.

The American Medical Association estimated that several million U.S. women suffer from what U.S. doctors prefer to call "female sexual arousal disorder" or FSAD.[2] The physical causes are similar to those suffered by men, but include anemia and post-partum coolness (extremely common loss of libido that occurs after childbirth). Psychologically, in addition to the causes suffered by men, women may also be susceptible due to anxiety, past sexual abuse, and stressful living conditions (such as living with parents or in-laws).

Reduction in libido may also derive from the presence of environmental stress factors, such as prolonged exposure to elevated sound levels or bright light.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Libido
  2. Delvin, Davin. Lack of Sex Drive Retrieved December 17, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Freud, Sigmund. [1920] 2003. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 0393007693
  • Freud, Sigmund. [1923] 1962. The Ego and the Id. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 0393001423
  • Freud, Sigmund. [1905] 2000. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Basic Books. ISBN 0465097081
  • Froböse, Gabriele, Rolf Froböse and Michael Gross (Translator). 2006. Lust and Love: Is it more than Chemistry? Royal Society of Chemistry. ISBN 0854048677
  • Lacan, Jacques. 1998. "From love to the libido" in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393317757


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