The Psychological Definition of Libido

young woman seductively grabbing young man's tie while she sits on the edge of a bed
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Libido is a term used by in psychoanalytic theory to describe the energy created by the survival and sexual instincts. According to Sigmund Freud, the libido is part of the id and is the driving force of all behavior. While the term libido has taken on an overtly sexual meaning in today's world, to Freud it represented all psychic energy and not just sexual energy.

Freudian Views of the Libido

Freud believed that the id was the only part of personality present from birth. The id, he suggested, was a reservoir of unconscious, primal energy.

The id seeks pleasure and demands the immediate satisfaction of its desires. It is the id that serves as the source of our wants and impulses.

The Libido and the Id

How does the libido function in the id? The id is controlled by what Freud termed the pleasure principle. Essentially, the id directs all of the body's actions and processes to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible.

Because the id is almost entirely unconscious, people are not even aware of many of these urges.

The id demands immediate gratification of even our most basic urges. If the id had its way, you would take what you want, when you want, no matter the situation.

Obviously, this would cause some serious problems. Our wants and desires are not always appropriate, and acting on them could have serious repercussions.

The Influence of the Ego

So what stops people from simply acting upon their most basic instincts and desires?

The ego is the part of personality charged with harnessing the id's libidinal energy and making sure that these urges are expressed in acceptable ways.

The ego is governed by the reality principle, which is focused on helping the person achieve their goals in ways that are realistic and acceptable.

So while the libidinal desires of the id might tell you to grab that donut off of the store shelf and start eating it immediately, the ego reigns in this impulse. Instead, you take the socially acceptable actions of placing the donuts in your cart, paying for them at the register, and taking them home before you finally give in to your urge to eat the tasty treat.

The Role of the Superego

Adding a further complication to this process is the superego.

The ego also must mediate between the basic demands created by the libido as well as the idealistic standards imposed by the superego. The superego is the part of personality that involves the ideals and morals internalized from parents, authority figures and society.

Where the id pushes the ego to maximize pleasure, the superego pushes it to behave morally.

The Libido and Fixation

The way in which libido is expressed depends upon the stage of development a person is in. According to Freud, children develop through a series of psychosexual stages. At each stage, the libido is focused on a specific area. When handled successfully, the child moves to the next stage of development and eventually grows into a healthy, successful adult. 

In some cases, the focus on a person's libidinal energy may remain fixed at an earlier stage of development in what Freud referred to as fixation. When this happens, the libido's energy may be too tied to this developmental stage and the person will remain "stuck" in this stage until the conflict is resolved.

For example, the first stage of Freud 's theory of psychosexual development is the oral stage. During this time, a child's libido is centered on the mouth so activities such as eating, sucking, and drinking are important. If an oral fixation occurs, an adult's libidinal energy will remain focused on this stage, which might result in problems such as nail-biting, drinking, smoking, and other habits.

The Libido's Energy Is Limited

Freud also believed that each individual only had so much libido energy. Because the amount of energy available is limited, he suggested that different mental processes compete for what is available.

For example, Freud suggested that the act of repression, or keeping memories out of conscious awareness, requires a tremendous amount of psychic energy. Any mental process that requires so much energy to maintain has an effect on the mind's ability to function normally.

The goal of psychoanalysis, Freud believed, was to bring the unconscious libidinal urges into conscious awareness. In doing so, such urges could be dealt with consciously without over-relying on the ego's defense mechanisms.

Modern Views of the Libido

Beyond its Freudian origins, the term libido is most often used today in reference to a person's sex drive. The libido involves more than simply the biological desire for sex, but also the psychological and social factors that contribute to sexual activity.

The modern usage of the term libido likely stems from Freud's original use of the term to apply to sexual desire. As Freud continued to develop his ideas, however, he began to view the libido as more than just sexual urges and more of a general life instinct that encompasses survival instincts and other motivations as well.

Some factors that can influence the libido or sex drive:

  • Sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen, create the biological urge for sex and help regulate the libido.
  • Psychological factors that can influence the libido include stress, personality, age, relationship status, lifestyle, and past experiences can also affect a person's desire for intimacy and sex. For example, sexual abuse and trauma can impact libido. Other issues such as body image, self-esteem, and depression can make people desire sex less.
  • Social issues including loneliness, poor relationships, and intimacy issues can also dampen the libido.
  • Medical and health conditions can also influence a person's desire for sex. Medical conditions such as illness, fatigue, and medications can often lower the libido. Sexual disorders including hypoactive sexual drive disorder and female sexual arousal disorder can also lead to lowered libidinal drive.

Boost Your Libido

Low libido is a common problem. Research suggests that 15 percent of men and nearly 33 percent of women experience low sexual desire. However, research has also found that a number of lifestyle changes can help boost libido.

Talk to your doctor. Hormonal changes related to birth control can often result in low libido. Discuss your options with your physician. In some cases, switching to a different birth control pill or method may help. Other medications may also affect your sex drive, so checking your other meds may also be helpful.

Check your stress levels. Excessive stress can impair your libido, so finding ways to relax and cope with stress effectively can improve sex and intimacy.

Exercise. Physical exercise has many positive benefits, including improving the sex drive.

One study found that brief periods of exercise improve physical sexual arousal in women who were taking antidepressants.

A Word From Verywell

The concept of the libido continues to play an important role in psychoanalysis, but the term has taken on a somewhat different meaning in its modern usage. Today, when we talk about the libido, we likely refer to the general idea of the desire for sex.

A number of factors can play a role in the libido beyond biological influences, including psychological and social factors. If you are concerned about your libido, consider talking to your doctor or mental health professional.

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