What is Cathexis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2019
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Cathexis is a component of Freudian psychology believed to be the motivation behind the development of drives and impulses. Freud conceived of cathexis as a form of energy invested by the mind in ideas and ideas. According to Freud, this energy was constantly being generated and utilized by the id and the ego. A related concept, anticathexis, refers to energies diverted and suppressed by the ego.

In order to understand how cathexis works in the Freudian model, it helps to know about the id and ego. The id is the most basic component of personality, present at birth and driven by the fulfillment of basic needs; an infant exhibiting the suckling reflex, for example, is driven by the id. The ego is a component of the personality that develops over time to organize and act on thoughts, while the superego is, in essence, the critic of the mind, exerting moral guidance.


Cathexis can take a variety of forms. One of the simplest is the investment of energy in hunger. The id and ego balance each other out as the ego seeks for the most effective and acceptable way to meet the need for food communicated by the id. If the id develops a desire deemed inappropriate, the ego can repress that desire, in anticathexis, where the energy is opposed because the ego believes it is unrealistic or unhealthy. For example, many cultures have a taboo against cannibalism, and an expression of desire for human flesh from the id would be suppressed by the ego to prevent the mind from acting on it.

The mental energy of cathexis is believed to play a role in the development of desires and drives. Investment of energy in objects and ideas eats up some the energy, while excess may express in a variety of ways. Suppressing the energy can also consume large amounts of energy. People battling desires and urges they feel are inappropriate may develop exhaustion and have difficulty meeting their basic needs as a result of a decrease in mental energy.

Freud's theories about psychology have been a topic of lively debate since they were introduced in the early 20th century and will continue to be topics of discussion. Later analysts have built on Freud's theories and expanded thinking about topics like cathexis, sometimes by integrating it into their own theories and sometimes by actively critiquing Freud's models. Freud's detailed and extensive work continues to have a profound impact on the psychology profession.


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