Freud's Life & Death Instincts

Sigmund Freud’s theory of drives evolved throughout the course of his life and work. He initially described a class of drives known as the life instincts and believed that these drives were responsible for much of our behavior.

Eventually, he came to believe that life instincts alone could not explain all human behavior. With the publication of his book Beyond the Pleasure Principal in 1920, Freud concluded that all instincts fall into one of two major classes: life instincts or death instincts.

Life Instincts (Eros)

Sometimes referred to as sexual instincts, the life instincts are those which deal with basic survival, pleasure, and reproduction. These instincts are essential for sustaining the life of the individual as well as the continuation of the species. While we tend to think of life instincts in term of sexual procreation, these drives also include such things as thirst, hunger, and pain avoidance. The energy created by the life instincts is known as libido.

In his early psychoanalytic theory, Freud proposed that Eros was opposed by forces of the ego (the organized, realistic part of a person's psyche which mediates between desires). In this later views, he maintained that life instincts were opposed by the self-destructive death instincts, known as Thanatos.

The life instincts are focused on the preservation of life, both of the individual and of the species. This drive compels people to engage in actions that sustain their own lives, such as looking after their health and safety. It also exerts itself through sexual drives, motivating people to create and nurture new life.

Positive emotions such as love, affection, prosocial actions, and social cooperation are also associated with the life instincts. These behaviors support both individual well-being and the harmonious existence of a cooperative and healthy society.

Death Instincts (Thanatos)

The concept of the death instincts was initially described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which Freud proposed that “the goal of all life is death.” Freud believed that people typically channel their death instincts outwards. Aggression, for example, arises from the death instincts. Sometimes these instincts towards destruction can be directed inwards, however, which can result in self-harm or suicide.

In support of his theory, Freud noted that people who experience a traumatic event would often reenact that experience. From this, he concluded that people hold an unconscious desire to die but that the life instincts largely temper this wish.

In Freud’s view, the compulsion to repeat was "something that would seem more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it overrides." He further proposed that the death instincts were an extension of that compulsion wherein all living organisms have an instinctive "pressure toward death" which stands in stark contrast to the instinct to survive, procreate, and satisfy desires.

Moreover, when this energy is directed outward toward others, Freud maintained, it is expressed as aggression and violence.

While Freud's theories are not as prominent as they once were, understanding how your own self-preservation and destructive tendencies influence your behavior can be helpful for your well-being. The life instincts might compel you to seek healthy relationships and social support, which are essential for emotional health.

Destructive tendencies, on the other hand, might lead you to engage in actions that are less healthy, such as behaving aggressively or engaging in risky actions. Once you are able to recognize some of these tendencies in yourself, you might be better able to temper these drives and replace negative behaviors with more positive choices.

See you all tomorrow.



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