What Is the Libido?

The libido motivates behaviors
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Definition: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.

How Does the Libido Influence Behavior?

Freud believed that the id was the only part of personality present from birth. The id, he believed, 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 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.

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.

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 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. 

The Libido and Fixation

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.

View Article Sources
  • Freud, S. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; 1922.
  • Freud, S. On Sexuality. Penguin Books Ltd; 1956.