Need for Punishment

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The need for punishment is an internal need of some individuals to seek out painful or humiliating situations and to take pleasure in them. For Laplanche and Pontalis (1973), basic to such behavior is a link to the death drive.

Freud referred to the need for punishment for the first time in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) in discussing "punishment dreams." Such dreams are the fulfillment of an unconscious desire to be punished for a suppressed or forbidden impulse.

The need for punishment directs the sadism found in all libidinal urges toward the ego. Feelings of guilt can develop only when the subject, in an ambivalent state in which love and hate both subsist, attempts to find an equilibrium. When repression leads to neurosis, the libidinal tendencies are transformed into symptoms, and aggression becomes a feeling of guilt.

It is always possible to distinguish the feeling of guilt as such from the need to atone. The first expresses a yearning to refind the (annihilated) lost object, while the second expresses a need for punishment after the subject repeats the act. The feeling of guilt is therefore in the service of an unsatisfied object-libido; the need to atone is related to eroticized destructive drives and is directed against the ego. The need for punishment is a consequence of the feeling of guilt, even though they seem closely linked and have common phylogenetic roots.

Suffering and inclinations toward self-punishment are expressions of a tendency toward self-annihilation. This tendency reaches its culmination in the suicide of a melancholic, whom the need for punishment comes to dominate to such an extent that he could commit a real crime solely to justify his torment and obtain relief by atonement.

Many authors do not clearly distinguish between the need for punishment and other notions such as moral masochism and negative therapeutic reaction, which they consider to be part of the need for punishment.

LeÓn Grinberg

See also: Basic Neurosis, TheOral Regression and Psychic Masochism ; Castration complex; Civilization and Its Discontents ; "Dostoyevsky and Parricide"; Ego psychology; Guilt, feelings of; Law and psychoanalysis; Masochism; Moral masochism; Negative therapeutic reaction; Parricide; Punishment, dream of; Reparation; Self-punishment; Superego.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1973). The language of psycho-analysis (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1967)

Further Reading

Alexander, Franz. (1929). The need for punishment and the death instinct., International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10, 256-269.

Fenichel, Otto. (1928). The clinical aspect of the need for punishment. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 9, 47-70.

Nunberg, Henry. (1926). The sense of guilt and the need for punishment. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 7, 420-433.