Nowadays the term “libido” is widely used in colloquial language ; in this context this concept is understood as a synonym for desire or sexual impulses.

However, the definition of the libido created by Sigmund Freud does not only refer to sexuality but is broader , and is fundamental to understanding the rest of his theory.

Defining libidinal energy

According to the definition proposed by Sigmund Freud, the libido is the energy of the pulses or instincts that directs all forms of behavior . Initially he affirmed that the libido always had a sexual character and that the rest of the instincts were secondary to that of reproduction; however, as he developed his theory Freud included other types of energy in this concept.

In classical Freudian psychoanalysis the term “libido” is generally used to refer to an affect (or emotion) linked to a specific drive , which can be associated with the Ego or the Self. Later on, this author called “life drive” or “Eros” to the impulses of these classes, and added another different type of drive: the death drive or Thanatos.

The amount of libido available to a given individual’s psyche is limited. Therefore, mental processes compete with each other to produce, and some have a very high cost, and can even interfere with others; for example, Freud stated that the defense mechanism known as repression is especially costly to the mind.

The concept of libido according to Carl Jung

Carl Gustav Jung, founder of the school of analytical psychology, identified the concept of libido with psychic energy in general . It would be the manifestation of vital processes, which often takes the form of a desire. Its origin would be the opposition between dualities in the mind, such as the one we have mentioned between the Ego and the Overself.

Although the definitions of both authors are similar, the Jungian conception of the libido is one of the main points of collision between Jung and Freud : while for the father of psychoanalysis the libidinal energy is basically sexual, Jung and the authors who followed him believed that the libido has a much broader and undifferentiated character.

Nor did Jung agree with Freud’s conception of the mind as a product of the body’s biological substrate. Therefore, we can say that the ideas of the most famous of his disciples are characterized by an even more marked mentalism; in this sense it is important to take into account the great influence that religion exerted on Jung.

The Ello, the Libido and the Pleasure Principle

The libido is contained in the Ello, one of the three structures of the mind described by this author. While the Ego represents the most basic and primitive part of our being, the Self and the Overself emerge throughout development to satisfy the demands of the organism and the environment and to provide us with a moral conscience, respectively.

The Ello is governed by the principle of pleasure; this means that it directs behaviour towards obtaining immediate pleasure. Moreover, this part of the psyche depends on unconscious processes, so that we often do not know what impulses motivate our behaviour.

For its part, the “I” is concerned with obtaining gratification by taking into account the principle of reality. This means that the Self contains the libidinal energy of the It so that its instincts can be satisfied in an adequate way in relation to the rules and demands of the environment, which includes aspects such as long-term reasoning and social judgment.

The Overself serves as a role model for the Self. In this structure reside the social norms and values internalized through interaction with other members of the same social group, in particular parents and other authority figures. Thus, the libido of the Self pushes the Self to obtain pleasure while the Overself prioritizes morality.

The stages of psychosexual development

According to Freud’s theory, the libido is expressed in different ways depending on the stage of development in which the individual is at a particular time. Thus, this author described a series of evolutionary phases that would be common to all human beings; each one of them is related to a specific erogenous zone in which the libido would be focused.

Freud described 5 stages of psychosexual development: the oral phase, in which pleasure is obtained through the mouth; the anal phase; the phallic phase, characterized by the Oedipus complex; the latency period, in which the libido is redirected to non-sexual activities through sublimation; and the genital phase, which corresponds to the arrival of puberty and sexual maturity.

Sometimes libidinal energy stagnates at a stage of development prior to the current one; Freud referred to this as “fixation”. This phenomenon, the origin of discomfort and psychopathology, could derive both from the frustration of libidinal needs in the stage in question and from their excessive satisfaction, which can be equally problematic.

  • To know more: “The 5 stages of psychosexual development of Sigmund Freud”