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In Freud's first theory of the instincts (or drives), the ego-instincts were contrasted with the sexual ones. In psychic conflict, a portion of instinctual energy is placed at the service of the ego. But even though their aim is the self-preservation and the self-affirmation of the individual, the ego-instincts nevertheless provide anaclitic support to the sexual drive. Freud later replaced this first opposition by another, that between the life instinct and the death instinct, assigning both the ego-instincts and the sexual instincts to Eros (the life instinct).

The term appeared first in the Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society for March 10, 1910, where it was stated that reaction was made up of the "vicissitudes of the ego instincts," and soon after in Freud's "The Psycho-Analytic View of Psychogenic Disturbance of Vision" (1910i): "From the point of view of our attempted explanation, a quite specially important part is played by the undeniable opposition between the [instincts] which subserve sexuality, the attainment of sexual pleasure, and those other [instincts] which have as their aim the self-preservation of the individualthe ego-[instincts]" (p. 214). Freud stated the idea more clearly apropos of the Schreber case: "We regard the [instinct] as being the concept on the frontier-line between the somatic and the mental, and see in it the psychical representative of organic forces. Further, we accept the popular distinction between ego-[instinct] and a sexual [instinct]; for such a distinction seems to agree with the biological conception that the individual has a double orientation, aiming on the one hand at self-preservation and on the other at the preservation of the species" (1911c [1910], p. 74). The sources of the ego-instinct are excitations emanating from the great organic functions, such as nutrition and vision, that ensure the continuation of life. The ego-instinct is thus quickly obliged to take the reality principle into account, and this consideration gives rise to the idea of a reality-ego that "need do nothing but strive for what is useful and guard itself against damage" (1911b, p. 223).

Thanks to Freud's researches into narcissism, the notion that instinctual pressure was a kind of energy (earlier described as "interest"), led to the idea that ego-libido, or narcissistic libido, was the "great reservoir" from which object-cathexis is sent out and into which it may be withdrawn. The object of the ego-instincts is at first the object of need (food), and later anything that can contribute not only to strengthening the ego's own operations, but also to inhibiting the primary process by the binding of ideas. Thus, secondarily, the ego becomes the object of libidinal cathexis. Its aim is self-preservation and the self-affirmation of the individual.

In 1915, Freud, showed that "only primal [instincts]those which cannot be further dissectedcan lay claim to importance" (1915c, p. 124). He then distinguished between two classes of primal instincts: "the ego, or self-preservative, [instincts] and the sexual [instincts]" (p. 124). The sexual instincts are at first "attached to the [instincts] of self-preservation, from which they only gradually become separated; in their choice of object, too, they follow the paths that are indicated to them by the ego-instincts" (p. 126).

In "A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis" (1917a [1916]), Freud drew a parallel between the libido, as the force of the sexual drives, and hunger and the will to power as the power of the ego-instincts. He then derived a certain category of neuroses from the conflict between the ego-instincts and the sexual instincts. Since the introduction of narcissism in 1914, however, he had contrasted two types of libido connected with the sexual drives, one type that was directed towards the object and the other that was directed towards the ego. The opposition between object-libido and ego-libido eventually replaced the distinction between ego-instincts and sexual instincts and paved the way for Freud's final theory of the instincts.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), where Freud formulated his theory of the death instinct, he wrote: "The upshot of our enquiry so far has been the drawing of a sharp distinction between the 'ego-instincts' and the sexual instincts, and the view that the former exercise pressure towards death and the latter towards a prolongation of life. But this conclusion is bound to be unsatisfactory in many respects even to ourselves" (1920g, p. 44).

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), Freud elaborated on the antithesis between ego-instincts and the object-instincts (p. 117). Then, in "The Dissection of the Psychical Personality," the thirty-first lecture of the New Introductory Lectures (1933a [1932]), he specifically named the ego-instincts as a resisting force, insofar as they repelled and repressed the claims of sexual life (p. 57). In the thirty-second lecture, "Anxiety and Instinctual Life," he attributed to the ego-instincts the same qualities as to the sexual instincts, apart from hunger and thirst, which were "inflexible, admit of no delay, [and] are imperative" (p. 97).

Though Freud continued to contrast ego-instincts and sexual instincts until 1920, the dualism between the life and death instincts inevitably relegated the ego-instincts to a subsidiary note. But some ambiguity remained, however, in Freud's second topography (or "structural theory"), for in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), he subsumed the ego-instincts under the death instinct while still maintaining that they were at least partly libidinal in character.

Pierre Delion

See also: Amae, concept of; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Drive/instinct; Ego; Ego autonomy; Ego-libido/object-libido; Hatred; Need for causality; Psychogenic blindness; Regression; Schiller and psychoanalysis; Self-preservation; Suicide.


Freud, Sigmund. (1910i). The psycho-analytic view of psychogenic disturbance of vision. SE, 11: 209-218.

. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1911c [1910]). Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (Dementia paranoids). SE, 12: 1-82.

. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

. (1917a [1916]). A difficulty in the path of psychoanalysis. SE, 17: 135-144.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

(1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Nunberg, Hermann, and Federn, Ernst. (1962-1975). Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. New York: International Universities Press.

Further Reading

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth, and Bethelard, Faith. (1999). The hidden history of the ego instincts. Psychoanalytic Review, 86, 823-852.