A NEW THEORY OF LIBIDO AND NARCISSISM
Although I present this theory as new, it is actually implicit in Freud’s original 1905 ‘Three essays on the theory of sexuality’, outlining the vicissitudes of the libido, its development through the various erogenous zones, and its capacity for being blocked, diverted, or regressed. Since then, most psychoanalysts have long abandoned the libido theory, focusing instead on issues of attachment, ‘object relations’, and various environmental, relational, and cultural perspectives. Those within the Melanie Kleinian tradition, still very influential in Britain, have given emphasis to the aggressive drives and the ‘death instinct’, the conflict between love and hate, rather than libido.
My revised theory is in essence extremely simple, but it can explain many peculiarities of human sexuality and perverse forms of hidden pleasure in strange destructive activities and in suffering.
The basic idea is that we can think of libido as a quantity of pleasure, an energy field that we invest in the body, in other people, in ideas and activities, in the self-image, and in other images and symbols. Like a liquid, this quantity of libidinal pleasure can be directed along many potential paths but cannot be eliminated. If it cannot be invested in ordinary and natural pleasures, it will attach to whatever it can. The crucial new element in this way of thinking is that there will always be a quantity of pleasure. Pleasure cannot be eliminated, but it may be hidden, secretive, and in some instances bizarre.
Careful exploration in a clinical setting will reveal that those who suffer with emotional illness, inhibitions and symptoms, maladaptive patterns of behaviour, and unhappy relationships and self-sabotage, will be deriving a hidden and secret pleasure in their suffering. This can prove a substantial obstacle to resolution and healing – and indeed can be in some instances deadly. Whatever circumstances constrain the person will become invested with the libido of pleasure. It is important to appreciate that this pleasure is both unconscious and inevitable.
As one client remarked, "when there is so much pain around, you might as well find some pleasure in it".
This is why sexuality and the libido of pleasure will become organised around the deepest wounds to the self, forming compulsive patterns of perverse sexuality, often involving fetishism and power plays of sadism and masochism. If healthy forward development is blocked, libidinal pleasure will become attached to whatever is available – even if what is available is only an absence of pleasure, and thus a hidden pleasure in suffering.
If a person has suffered a great deal of rejection and humiliation in childhood, these are the experiences that will be cathected with libidinal pleasure. This is not a choice. It is what happens. Such developments may add to a person’s feelings of shame.
Libido may be regarded as analogous to the kind of climbing plant that will attach to whatever is available. It is an energy of pleasure - but if there is no actual pleasure to cathect, it will attach to pain. In this analogy, it is like a plant that can never be destroyed. No matter how unfavourable the environment, it will always strive to grow and attach to whatever it can.
When libidinal pleasure is invested in activities and experiences that are not inherently or naturally pleasurable, we may think of the libido as reversed - thus bringing it within the scope of other psychological reversals addressed within energy psychotherapy.
Libido should not be considered in opposition to aggression, since libidinal pleasure can be attached to aggression, sadism and masochism. Libido is not love, but it can be entwined with love. Libido is the energetic quantity of pleasure.
As Freud originally described, in his 1905 Three Essays, libido develops through various bodily zones. The first is focused on the mouth, the oral stage – which can include the aggressive pleasure of biting. Next is the anal stage – the anus as an erogenous zone, along with pleasure in the muscular control of the sphincter. Somewhat later, the child’s pleasure may come to focus on the genitals and masturbation, and this can include exhibitionist pleasure. Eventually, in healthy development, libidinal pleasure becomes organised around the desire for mutually satisfying lovemaking with another person. When the healthy forward movement of libidinal development is blocked, either for reasons of internal conflicts and inhibitions, or because of external constraints, the focus of libidinal pleasure may regress to earlier stages. Even in healthy development, a degree of libidinal pleasure remains attached to earlier stages.
In addition to the body, another focus of libidinal pleasure can be the self-image. This is not a healthy libidinal locus. It leads to a narcissistically inflated ‘grandiose self’ and a sense of entitlement and superiority. Part of the self-image is the body-image – and there can be libidinal pleasure not so much in the body itself but in its appearance and admiration by others. More hidden libidinal investments may be in a person’s image of their own morality and goodness – and here we have the activities commonly termed ‘virtue signalling’. Abstract images, such as a flag or other representations of a country or a political party, may also be invested with libido and thereby idealised. The person then experiences pleasure in being linked to this idealised object. As Kohut (1971) described, in healthy development, early forms of libidinal investment in a grandiose self-image become gradually transmuted into reality-based ambitions, whilst early idealisations and transformed into enduring ideals and values (Mollon, 2002, 2020).
The important point is that there will always be libidinal pleasure – but the location of that libidinal investment of pleasure is highly diverse. Sometimes it becomes invested in profoundly destructive phenomena. A therapeutic task can be to help the person surrender the hidden libidinal pleasure in harmful or self-sabotaging behaviours, so that it becomes available for investment in healthy and natural pursuits. These healthy investments of libido usually involve constructive work and interactions with other beings (whether human, plant or animal) and loving relationships of reciprocity. I have found that the methods of energy psychotherapy, including Blue Diamond Healing, can be very helpful in this process.
For those practitioners who use energy psychotherapy, here is a brief suggestion. This procedure may be most appropriate after other relevant work has been done on the presenting problem - and when that problem persists nevertheless. Energy test the client to the statement "I have hidden/secret pleasure in X" (X being the problem). If yes, test the statement "I am willing to be free of that hidden pleasure, releasing it for healthier pleasures". If yes, then use the Blue Diamond field (Mollon, 2022) to release this. Acupoint tapping may also be effective. If the energy test indicates no, then treat this like any other reversal, tapping the side of the hand and putting this into appropriate words. Another helpful and revealing energy test can be to the statement 'there is reversed libido in my system'.
Note that there may be splits in the personality - a healthy part co-existing with an 'ill' part. Thus the reversed libido and secret pleasures in the problem may exist only in one part. Energy testing can clarify these points.
Addressing hidden addictive pleasures and reversed libido can be crucial in resolving some conditions that appear quite entrenched.
Freud, S. (1905) Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 7:123-246
Kohut, H. (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York. International Universities Press.
Mollon, P. (2002). Releasing the Self. The Healing Legacy of Heinz Kohut. London. Whurr/Wiley.
Mollon, P. (2020). Pathologies of the Self. London. Confer.
Mollon, P. (2022). Blue Diamond Healing. Exploring Transpersonal and Transdimensional Aspects of Energy Psychotherapy. London. Karnac.
Phil Mollon PhD