Defusion of the instincts: an insufficiently recognised factor in suicide

Published on 5 February 2023 at 14:22


In his 1920 paper, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud introduced his insight into a ‘death instinct’, a deep dynamic woven into human nature that leads towards death and destruction. In the language of physics, we might think in terms of a vector tending towards entropy and disorder, the second law of thermodynamics. This is countered by another vector towards life and order – Freud’s life instinct.

We know that life mysteriously violates the second law of thermodynamics (at the local level), since it inherently involves processes of increasing order (structure, form, and information) and a reverse of entropy. However, in the process of negative-entropy, we living creatures absorb energy from the earth (via plants) and the sun, thereby increasing entropy elsewhere – and ultimately we too succumb to entropy, die and disintegrate. Thus, the second law of thermodynamics, that entropy always increases is preserved at the broader macro level.

The dynamic of life in relation to the second law of thermodynamics is in essence what Freud was describing. He postulated that for a time the life instinct predominates (negative entropy) and harnesses the death instinct in the service of life. Thus, we use our aggression to consume and shape the environment to our needs for food, shelter, and social order. The capacity to generate entropy is put in the service of creating negative-entropy (order and life). Note that currently a widespread concern is that as the human population has steadily expanded we are accelerating the entropy/disorder of the planet as a whole. 

The question of the fusion of the instincts in this way was not developed further by Freud, but was taken up to some extent by a few of the European analysts who fled to the USA to escape the nazis. They became the ‘ego psychologists’ who sought to promote psychoanalysis as a general psychology, and thereby developed it along lines rather different from those in Europe. A key figure was Edith Jacobson, who wrote clinically rich accounts of her explorations, including a book on psychotic states of depression (1965; 1971).

These analysts, whose work is now mostly overlooked, recognised that fusion of the instincts is necessary for psychological health. It is a process facilitated by the natural nurturing and expressions of love provided by the mother. Nevertheless, the vector of entropy and destruction evokes deep dread – and this is what I think Melanie Klein (1946) meant by the infant’s terror of the death instinct within. Under optimum development, the life and death instincts fuse and the life instinct holds sway, but at times, under certain circumstances, they become defused. This defusion, or splitting, of the instincts is very dangerous, since it leaves a pure and unmodified distillation of death instinct to wreak havoc both within and without (Rosenfeld, 1971). Freud (1917) noted that this can occur in states of melancholia and disrupted mourning, when the pure culture of the death instinct is turned against the self – resulting in self-hatred and destructive attacks on the self.

There is a natural tendency for the instincts to defuse temporarily during adolescence, which is a very dangerous and often destructive developmental period (Jacobson, 1965). However, there are other times when this can happen. It seems that whenever the vector of life, love, and sexuality is severely thwarted, or the person suffers a profound disappointment or wound in matters of the heart, the life instinct may retreat or go into reverse. The vector of death and destruction is them left in free play. In this unmodified state, it may express itself in aggression towards others, a twisting of sexuality towards sadism and masochism, or a silent incubation of deadly illness, or in overt suicide.

This can also occur when the instinct of life is frustrated in more subtle ways. For example, if a person’s family or religious culture is such that the normal creative expression of life and sexuality is suppressed, the death instinct will come to predominate. This gives rise to anti-life and anti-sexuality death-cults – states of mind and perverse spirituality that idealise death.

A similar repression of the life instinct can occur when a person’s development has been predominantly along ‘false self’ lines (as originally outlined by Winnicott, 1960). It is in the nature of life to be continually growing, evolving, and adapting. Life is creative. However, there are those whose true creative essence has been denied expression, eclipsed by a preoccupation with conforming to desired images of self (Mollon, 2020). In these circumstances, the death instinct, the entropy vector, lurks unseen until it seizes its moment to destroy.

These states of defusion of the instincts are not only psychological but are deep energetic phenomena. We can use our energy psychology methods to release the thwarted life instinct, target the experiences of heart-felt pain that caused it to retreat, and allow it once again to claim temporary dominance over the death instinct. We can also use the precise and clear feedback from kinesiology energy testing to determine to what extent a person is living from their core or from a false self position. In these ways we can support and nurture the life instinct. Our work is then an expression of love.

Phil Mollon

Psychoanalyst and Energy Psychotherapist


Freud, S. (1917) Mourning and Melancholia. S.E. 14:237-258. London: Hogarth

Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. S.E. 18. 1-64. London: Hogarth.

Jacobson, E. (1965). The Self and the Object World. London: Hogarth.

Jacobson, E. (1971). Depression: Comparative Studies of Normal, Neurotic, and Psychotic Conditions. New York: International Universities Press.

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. In: Envy and Gratitude: The Writings of Melanie Klein, III. London: Hogarth.

Mollon, P. (2020). Pathologies of the Self. London: Confer.

Rosenfeld, H. (1971). A clinical approach to the psychoanalytic theory of the life and death instincts: an investigation into the aggressive aspects of narcissism. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 52: 169-178

Winnicott, D.W. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. London: Hogarth.