A key concept from the economic point of view, "cathexis" refers to the process that attaches psychic energy, essentially libido, to an object, whether this is the representation of a person, body part, or psychic element. Implicit in Freud's early works, the idea of cathexis stems directly from the hypothesis of psychic energy. The term first appeared in 1895 in Studies on Hysteria, as well as in "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c ). It then recurs throughout Freud's works.
The term is used to designate various psychic impulses in energic terms. As a result, "cathexis" is also used to refer to organizational psychic impulses, the interplay of symptoms and regressions, and the workings of attention and pain. Freud used it to describe major and modulated quantitative phenomena in symptoms and psychic processes. The term also denotes the binding of psychic energy to interconnected representations in the progressive organization of the psyche. Cathexis relates to the affects, where the issue of the quantum of affect becomes paramount (Freud, 1933a ). A feeling not cathected with energy, or loaded with a certain quantity of affect, does not become fixed in memory. Psychic objects and representations are the result of cathexis. Most psychic mechanisms have to be considered from the economic point of view, that is, in terms of cathexis, decathexis, anticathexis, and hypercathexis. The concept of cathexis thus underpins Freud's entire theory of the constitution of the psyche.
Everything that takes place in the body or the psyche can be an object of cathexis. Real persons are cathected only through the intermediary of the psychic representations constructed of them. Cathexes are objective when they are directed at individuals with a corresponding existence in the external world and are narcissistic when they have meaning only for the subject. Any stable psychic formation, essentially any psychic formation constituted from a stable cathexis, can in turn become the support for a cathexis added to its constituent cathexis.
Every cathexis has an impact on psychic equilibrium because it reduces the quantity of free energy, but the cathexes most constitutive of the psyche are the drive cathexes. Libidinal cathexis of the object of the drive and of the experience of satisfaction obtained in the subject's interaction with that object constitute the most vital internal objects that can support pleasurable ego functioning.
The concept of fixation has to be understood in terms of libidinal cathexes that have remained organized around historically determined objects (in the widest sense). Freud used many different metaphors to describe this process. He used military metaphors to describe how troops (psychic energy) occupy (cathect—the literal meaning of "Besetzung") a particular piece of the psychic territory and how some of these troops remain behind to establish a base for a return of forces that have completed the advance. Freud also used metaphors from banking, deploying an analogy between libidinal cathexes and financial investments. With the metaphor of an amoeba, Freud illustrated how narcissistic and objective cathexes are related: the pseudopodia that the amoeba extends toward objects are currents of object cathexis that can be withdrawn back into the subject and turned into narcissistic cathexes. The stronger the narcissistic fixation, the greater the potential for narcissistic regression.
The concept of displacement too is related to that of cathexis. Quantities of cathected libido, or psychic energy, can be displaced onto other supports. These displacements result from the greater or lesser capacity of cathected libido to detach from its early objects and from its "viscosity" (1916-1917a [1915-1917]).
Cathected psychic energy is essentially libido. In the context of his structural theory, Freud theorized that the id is the source of libido and thus the origin of libidinal cathexes. Freud also posited a form of free energy that can emanate from the ego and hypercathect a particular psychic element. Via this process, the ego essentially comes to direct cathexes. Such free energy is neutral and displaceable energy belonging to hypercathexis, which plays a part in the economy of attention, perception, and the ego's preparation for possible traumas (1940a ). It is Freudian formulations of this kind that formed the basis for ego psychology, which postulates a conflict-free sphere of the ego. The term "hypercathexis" is also used more generally to refer to libidinal intensification of an existing cathexis.
In Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926d ), Freud addressed the issue of psychic pain caused by substantial cathexis directed at a lost object. Freud outlined how a painful bodily lesion imposes a substantial narcissistic cathexis that tends to "empty the ego" (p. 171). He then identified cathexis as the common element in physical and psychic pain: "The intense cathexis of longing which is concentrated on the missed or lost object (a cathexis which steadily mounts up because it cannot be appeased) creates the same economic conditions as are created by the cathexis of pain which is concentrated on the injured part of the body" (p. 171).
See also: Anticathexis; Cathectic energy; Decathexis; Defense mechanisms; Economic point of view; Ego boundaries; Free energy/bound energy; Hypercathexis; Libido; Object; Primal repression; Psychic energy; Transference relationship.
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In classic psychoanalysis, the investment of psychic energy in a person or object connected with the gratification of instincts.
The English word for cathexis—which replaces the German besetzung—is derived from the Greek word for "I occupy." Through the process of cathexis, which Sigmund Freud saw as analogous to the channeling of an electrical charge, the psychic energy of the id is bound to a selection of objects. An infant's earliest cathected objects are his mother's breast, his own mouth, and the process of sucking.
When a cathected object becomes a source of conflict, as parents do during the Oedipal stage, anti-cathexes redirect all thoughts about the object to the unconscious level in order to relieve anxiety. Thus, cathexes originate in the id, while anti-cathexes are formed by the ego and the superego .
Freud believed that most personality processes are regulated by cathexes and anti-cathexes. He considered anti-cathexes as an internal form of frustration, paralleling the external frustration of instincts that one encounters from environmental factors over which one has no control. In the case of anti-cathexis, this frustration is provided internally by one's own psychic mechanisms. However, it cannot occur until one has experienced external frustration, generally in the form of parental discipline. Having been subjected to external controls, one becomes able to develop inner ones.
Cathexes are involved in the repression of memories, which can be recalled either by weakening the anticathexis or strengthening the cathexis. Either process is difficult and may be facilitated by the use of special techniques, including hypnosis , free association , and the interpretation of dreams .
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Hall, Calvin S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
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