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The term mastery has several meanings in psychoanalysis. The first relates to the anal stage in infantile sexual development, as Sigmund Freud described it in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). During this period in the structuring of the personality, the child is becoming better able to exercise muscular control over fecal contents and finds pleasure in the actions of retention and defecation. In "'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d) Freud described three characteristics of the anal stage: order, economy, and obstinacy. All three are marked by mastery, and they result from the sublimation of anal erotism.

It must be noted that anal erotism and mastery of its concomitant excitation are articulated with the loss of an object that is an integral part of the body. The function of mastery thus has to do with the excitation produced in the anal zone at the very moment of defecation and the possible perception of a part of the body that becomes detached from the whole. Anal erotism is commonly associated with sadism and aggressivity: Mastery over an object can be understood as the psychic correspondent to control of the sphincter. Some types of depression can be linked to feelings of powerlessness resulting from an inability to exercise complete control over the inevitable separation from the object. The symbolic equivalency between feces, gifts, and money demonstrated by Freud makes it possible to see, throughout this chain, the importance of phenomena of mastery in gifts, indebtedness, and exchanges.

On the level of fantasy, an expression of mastery is found in fantasmatic scenarios constructed around beating or being beaten, typified by "A Child Is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions" (1919e). The analysis of this fantasy proposed by Freud reveals an unconscious wish to be beaten by the father and refers to the satisfactioninitially maschochistic and secondarily sadisticof this fantasmatic constellation. The fantasy suggests an appeal to a cruel superego that ensures mastery over the ego yet simultaneously procures enjoyment (jouissance ) for it. The terms master and mistress in the erotic tradition foregrounded by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch represent mastery's perverse dimension.

It is worthwhile to establish a conceptual distinction between mastery and dominance. Mastery is more specifically aimed at excitation, whereas in Freudian theory, dominance has the status of an instinct that specifically involves an object or part-object.

Following Roger Dorey in "La relation d'emprise" (1981; The dominance relationship), it can be said that mastery involves and presupposes a relative recognition of alterity as well as a certain renunciation of the object. But this notional differentiation, while essential, is not easy to establish in clinical practice, since fantasies of seduction and beatings express in paradoxical ways the effects of both dominance and mastery. It is thus appropriate to consider the specific allocation, for each individual, of the processes of dominance aimed at conservation of the object and the processes of mastery of excitation that make it possible to maintain new cathexes and identifications. And indeed, it is the perennial nature of the identificatory project that attests to the efficacy of mastery: It is constitutive of the nature of identification, which is always being reshaped into new formations while maintaining the narcissistic quest for domination, although this quest is hidden.

The assurance of mastery involves the ego itself in its relation to the world: Integrating the requirements of the ego ideal, it makes the ego's identificatory project a process that is simultaneously continuous and differentiated. The ego ideal serves as a relay between the subject and his or her community, which serves as a symbolic model in terms of the taboos against murder and incest. The community exerts a mastery to which the subject is submitted, and which the subject must appropriate to signify their membership in the human community.

Finally, it is appropriate to situate the notion of mastery at the very heart of analytic technique. The rules of free association and free-floating attention are fundamental and paradoxical from the point of view of mastery. They indicate a pathway that, at first view, entails letting go of conscious mastery in order to make possible the resurgence of the primary processes that enable unconscious formations to pass into the preconscious. They are also rules of a type of mastery that is specific to the psychoanalytic process, on the part of both analyst and analysand, allowing unconscious representations and affects to be elicited. The issue of mastery in relation to the analyst's counter-transference is essential here in order to limit counter-transferential projection, seduction, or even abuse, so that the analysand can be heard in their authentic relationship to their own unconscious truth.

Marc Bonnet

See also: Anal-sadistic stage; Civilization (Kultur); Conscious processes; Encopresis; Eroticism, anal; Face-to-face situation; Judgment of condemnation; Manic defenses; Mastery, instinct for; Mirror stage; Protective shield, breaking through the; Sadism; Symbolization, process of; Termination.


Dorey, Roger. (1981). La relation d'emprise. Nouvelle Revue de psychanalyse, 24, 117-140. (Reprinted in Le Désir de savoir, Paris: Denoël, 1988.)

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1908d). "Civilized" sexual morality and modern nervous illness. SE, 9: 177-204.

. (1919e). A child is being beaten: A contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions. SE, 17: 175-204.

Guillaumin, Jean. (1983). Psyché. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


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mas·ter·y / ˈmast(ə)rē/ • n. 1. comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment: she played with some mastery. ∎  the action or process of mastering a subject or accomplishment: a child's mastery of language.2. control or superiority over someone or something: man's mastery over nature.