Libido


Libido is the term that the noted founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, used to label the sexual drive or sexual instinct. He noted that the sexual drive is characterized by a gradual buildup to a peak of intensity, followed by a sudden decrease of excitement.

As he studied this process in his patients, Freud concluded that various activities like eating and drinking, as well as urination and defecation share this common pattern. Consequently, he regarded these behaviors as sexual or libidinous as well.

Freud also became interested in the development of the libido, which he saw as the basic and most powerful human drive. He believed that the development of the libido involved several distinct and identifiable stages.

Learn more about Freud's theory on how libido develops in the next section.

Freud's Theory on How Libido Develops

During infancy, he noted, sexual drive is focused on the mouth, primarily manifested in sucking. He labeled this the oral stage of libidinous development. During the second and third years of a child's life, as the child is undergoing toilet training, focus and erotically tinged pleasure shifts to rectal functions. Freud labeled this the anal stage.

Later, during puberty, focus shifts again to the sex organs, a period of development he labeled the phallic stage in the maturation of the libido.

During the later stage of development, libidinal drives focus at first on the parent of the opposite sex and add an erotic coloring to the child's experience of his/her parents. Parental disapproval of uncontrolled libidinal drive, Freud believed,leads to the development of a human psyche that is made up of three components; the id, the ego and the superego. He concluded that the id, or basic set of instincts and drives (including the libido but also other drives like aggression), provides the psychic energy needed to initiate activities.

The ego, an executive function, directs the day-to-day fulfillment of libidinous and other desires in socially acceptable and achievable ways.

The superego labels the learned and internalized social standards of behavior, including an awareness of banned or punishable behaviors. During wakeful periods, strong boundaries separate these three arenas, but during sleep and fantasy the boundaries weaken, giving rise to open expression of otherwise controlled libidinous desires. Conscious awareness of these unrestrained desires and fantasies can cause the person to feel sexual guilt or shame.

Freud believed that an individual's personality is established early on in life and is determined by the ways in which basic drives and impulses such as libido are satisfied. Failure to satisfy libidinal and other drives leads to their repression with resulting consequences for the development of an individual's personality and psychological health.

Subsequent generations of psychoanalysts questioned Freud's work on the libido. Several stressed the point that Freud had overemphasized biological development and underemphasized the impact of cultural and social factors on sexual attitudes and practices.

Copyright 2002 Sinclair Intimacy Institute

An Alternative Theory on Libido

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, broke with Freud's view of the libido by rejecting the idea that sexual experiences during infancy are the principal determinants of adult emotional problems.

Jung developed an alternative theory of the libido that viewed the will to live rather than sexual desire as the strongest drive. Jung emphasized the distinction between introverted and extroverted personality types.

Extroversion typifies individuals whose attention is strongly directed (but not exclusively) outward from themselves to other people and to the world around them.

Extroverts tend to feel comfortable in social situations and tend to be gregarious.

Introversion labels the opposite characteristics, including directing attention inward toward internal processes and thoughts. Introverts tend to be self-reliant, introspective, thoughtful and comparatively uncomfortable in large social groups. Jung used the term libido to label the mental energy responsible for creating and sustaining introversion/extroversion. He did not believe individuals were strictly introverted or extroverted, but tended to mix these qualities in varying amounts.

Many contemporary psychologists view libido as a basic human potential that, while rooted in human biology (e.g., hormones), is shaped largely by culture and experience.

In other words, the basic human drive to reproduce and the biologically based potential to derive pleasure from behaviors associated with physical contact (e.g., nerve endings in the skin and mucous membranes) are given shape and form by one's experiences growing up in a particular family within a particular society. How sexual motivations are structured, and through which acts sexual drives are fulfilled, as well as whether certain behaviors are labeled and avoided as inappropriate, are determined primarily by these social influences.

Copyright 2002 Sinclair Intimacy Institute

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