Psychic Energy, Freud, Libido, Oh My!

Why did Freud Even Use Energies?

The freudian concept of psychic energies isn’t really new. It’s a very similar concept to chi, prana and other energies of various traditions. This is because the ancient traditions of chinese medicine, yoga, huna all that were concerned with subjective experience, just like psychoanalysis.

One has to realize that human beings in general  don’t think in facts and science – they think in stories and metaphor.  And each time period has a dominant metaphor based on current technologies.

Electromagnetism and  ‘energies’ were the dominant metaphor of Freuds time, and allowed him to explain and explore subjective experience in ways that are impossible to do even now without the use of metaphor or hypothetical constructs. This is why the concept of energies was so useful in psychoanalysis, even though nowadays  most psychoanalytic therapists don’t use it anymore because of it’s association with things like chi and yoga.

It allowed Freud to explore and explain subjective experience, and create a working framework or model for his drive theory and is still effectively used in some psychoanalytic schools such as bioenergetic analysis.

It’s basically a metaphor

Most conventional psychoanalysts will agree that the concept of psychic energy does not agree with modern neurolobiological data, and is nothing more than a hypothetical construct to be used to explore the mind.
Psychology is litered with such hypothetical constructs that describe something that does not exist in reality because we can’t observe and quantify the mind. Things like percetion, motivation, id, ego, are all hypothetical constructs – metaphors for the working of the mind.

One  has to realize that in Freud’s days they didn’t have the sophisticated equipment we have now, and so they could only infer what’s happening in our mind through observation. Freud himself was sad about the fact that he couldn’t study the mind from a subjective scientific basis, but he accepted it and developed sophisticated methodologies to explore the subjective facet of our experience. He constructed a metaphor to create a working model in the mind which could describe all the instincts and drives he discovered.  Libido is only one of those metaphors.

It’s very important to acknowledge the tremendous value of metaphors. Human beings think in metaphors and metaphors shape our lives and cognition. They also increase our understanding of concepts.

This is why this metaphor of ‘energies’ was not only used in psychoanalysis but also in pretty much every other spiritual and healing discipline that dealt with subjective experience 

The one problem with metaphors is that while they are helpful and useful they sometimes lead to errors of thought, which psychoanalysis and all energetic disciplines are guilty of.  Incidentally it’s important to note that the one psychodynamic school that still to this day puts great emphasis on metaphor is bioenergetic analysis. Indeed many therapists in that sch0ol try to connect basically everything with  the concept of energies, even more so than reichian therapists. And it’s not a bad thing. The energetic metaphor works in their very humanistic perspective, but at the same time it makes it rather hard to do the work on your own, this is why I personally like to omit energies when creating self-help methods- they are to confusing to to many people nowadays.

Energies Create An Economic Model Of The Mind In Which  Repression Makes You Poor

Libido is primarily a metaphor of economy – it’s basically the currency of the psyche. Interestingly the chinese and the yogis have used chi and prana also as a metaphor for economy, especially when it comes to sexuality. Ejaculation was said to ‘diminish energy’ and in turn practices were developed that aimed to  remove ejaculation and as such conserve psychic energy, which according to the ancient chinese, you had a limited amount. (Just like libido). And an energetic’ imbalance’ was thought to be the root cause for all psychic illnesses. Interestingly this is the very same reason that practitioners of chinese medicine and yoga give for the development of psychological problems. Which again indicates that energies are an universal metaphor.  And indeed various energy healers, reiki practitioners and other alternative practitioners reference Freuds early writings as evidence for the validity of their practices. 

Freud wanted his energy concept to be scientific. And so he based his metaphor for the energy of the drives on a the law of thermodynamics. The law of thermodynamics states that energy can’t be generated from a vacuum, and instead comes from a different form of energy. This law that he directly borrowed from physics appealed to Freud because it gave his endeavours an aura of science.  In the very same way that quantum physics is used to give an aura of science to various new age practices.

So you had a currency called libido which you’ve spend on various different things such as love, anger, hatred. You’ve bought all of those psychic activities with libido and  according to Freud if you’re a bad psychic accountant you’ll develop a neurosis.

According to Freud the biggest thread to this energetic economy was repression, as it required a constant expenditure of energy,  and  as such kept us from realizing our full potential as human beings. This is pretty much the reason why psychoanalytic therapists were so much into recovering memories, catharsis etc. – they believed uncovering repressions was the key to healing.

Libido Is All About Drives

This is the most important thing one has to understand about Freudian theory- it was all based on instincts.  This is the stuff that libido is made off. Freud was always identified as a medical doctor, and as such he wanted to create a biological model of the mind. But the problem was that Freud wanted to study subjective experience and help people with psychological problems, and you simply couldn’t observe the brain directly back then, so he created a metaphor.

But it still was a metaphor for intrinsic biological drives that drive us. According to Freud it was the primitive part of our subconscious mind, that which he called the “id” that drove all our actions and was the source of our ‘energy’ (libido), and so to describe the workings of the ID Freud created the metaphor of libido.

It’s important to note that for years scientists have actually downplayed the roles of drives. It’s only relatively recently that they’ve discovered that the old Freudian drives have their parallel in the lymbic system. Five basic drives have been identifies:

  • rage,
  • panic,
  • separation distress,
  • lust,
  • seeking. (which is very similar to libido)

It is interesting to note that neurological studies found out that the same  brain structure responsible for  the ‘seeking’ emotion (which is basically libido) is also responsible for the creation of dreams. So Freud was not that far of when he said that dreams were created by libido. This to me proves the value of the subjective exploration of the human mind, and gives value to the concept of energies as a tool for subjective exploration.

Thanatos And Eros – Freud’s Yin And Yang

For me it is amazing how similar Freud’s ideas are to the chinese concept of yin and yang. Further along the in his career Freud created the concept of eros and thanatos – the drive for death and love, which is strickingly similar to the eastern concept of yin and yang

Freud’s Yin is Thanatos, the drive towards the peace of death and towards aggression. While his Yang is Eros, the drive towards love, pleasure and sexuality. Because those forces are basically opposed to one another Freud acknowledged that a conflict is inedible, and that an individual should strive towards balance.

This concept is pretty much identical with the model on which chinese medicine relies on. It also aims to ‘rebalance disrupted energies’, and as such it’s a very similar model of the mind.

The Definition Of Libido And Psychic Energy

One has to understand that the concept of libido in psychoanalysis is something that changed over the years of the evolution of psychoanalysis. Additionally it was never clearly defined by Freud or Jung. It was more speculation than anything else.

Roger Kennedy tried to create a clear definition of libido.

The libido is a theoretical concept, or ‘convention’, which aims to help make sense of the psychosexual field, however vague and unmeasurable it may be; it represents one aspect of Freud’s thought, his wish to make psychoanalysis an organised and even ‘scientific’ study of psychosexual phenomena

Jung very openly admitted the fact that his concept of psychic energy is not clearly defined  In “The Concept of Libido” :

We are seeking to replace the reciprocal action of co-ordinated psychic faculties by an energy conceived to be homogenous. We thus take cognizance of the justified criticism that the psychoanalytic school is operating with a mystical conception of libido. For this reason I must dispel the illusion that the psychoanalytic school has a clearly understood and concrete conception of libido. I maintain that the libido with which we operate is not only not concrete or known, but is a complete X, a pure hypothesis, a model or counter, and is no more concretely conceivable than the energy known to the world of physics … Libido is intended simply as a name for the energy which manifests itself in the life process and is perceived subjectively as conation or desire.

It’s interesting that it was the concept of libido that caused the split between Jung and Freud. Jung proposed an energy which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with sexuality. While Freud associated libido primarily  with sexuality, which he expresses in his text “The Libido Theory”

LIBIDO is a term used in the theory of the instincts for describing the dynamic manifestation of sexuality.

So the main difference between Freud and Jung is that he did not accept the Freudian theory of Eros and Thanatos. He also did not believe that neurotic problems are caused solely by  sexuality (Freud’s libido) and family history. Instead, Jung postulated that ones personal mythology and relationship to history was far more important. This is why Jungs energies were all encompassing. They were far more similar to the eastern concept of Chi, although they still were constricted to the mental plane.

One has to remember that even at his time Jung’s ideas were considered too mystical and too  associated with occultism. This also why he’s so appealing to New Agers and occultists such as Israel Regadie- he essentially tried to bring ‘their thing’ into psychoanalysis, so it’s normal for him to be their best friend.

Interestingly Freuds theory of libido is strikingly similar to many intepretations of the chakras.

Chakras are considered by many people to be metaphors for various stages of development., and similarly the theory of libido is very strictly linked to development

According to Freud we go through various phases in which our libido is fixed in different areas of our body. In the oral phase it’s centered in the oral zone, in the anal phase it’s centered in the anus and in the genital phase it’s centered in the genitals. This energetic metaphor is very, very similar to the metaphor of having an energy ‘stuck’ in a certain chakra. And they are used by therapists pretty much in the same exact way. 

Let me quickly describe them:

Oral phase

When we are babies we get most of our pleasure from the mouth. We suck on our mothers breasts and basically experience the world through sucking. Freud thought that sucking on a mothers breast was basically an expression of the babies sexuality, and that his libidal energies focused on there. If the energy got ‘fixated’ on this phase it would lead to perversions such as masturbating in public or the desire to suck someone off.

Anal phase

It’s amazing how much importance Freud attributed to toilet training. For him it was the major goal of being a toddler- to learn that one thing. According to Freud this is the period in which the conflict between the primal part of our psyche and the requirements of society started. A child wants to let go and defacate whenever it wants, while society (his parents) want him to hold it in and defacate when and where it’s appropriate.
I would like to jokingly remark that a person ‘fully freed from social conditioning’ would poop whenever and wherever he wants, which is actually what many feral children do.
The anal phase is basically the root of the popular phrase “you’re so anal”. According to psychoanalysis if you’re fixated on this stage you have a problem with letting go and might actually be obsessed with cleanliness, or on the flip side you could be a total slob who doesn’t care about his hygiene.
It’s amazing how similar this is to the energetic explanation of chinese medicine in which a ‘deficit’ of energies does x and an ‘overabundance of energies’ does Y.
Freud also linked sadism and masochism to this stage. Basically if your ‘energy was stuck’ in this period you’ll develop the behaviour of a toddler. And what does a toddler do when he doesn’t get what he wants? He bites he hits.

Phalic stage

Freud is rightfully associated with a dick. He was pretty much obsessed with it. You guys have to remember that back in Freud’s day sexuality was not so accepted as it was now. When a 5 year old was cought playing with his penis he was punished.

If you read any psychoanalytic book you might read the term ‘castration anxiety’. This was a very real fear for children in Freud’s time since at that time it was very common for mothers and fathers to threaten children to cut off their dick if they cought them masturbating. There were even fun songs about it that substituted thumb sucking for masturbating

So ‘castration anxiety’ was a very real fear of boys of Freud’s period. It was normal for him to include it in the study of subjective experience he called psychoanalysis.

Additionally, Freud speculated that many children don’t believe this threat until they see that girls don’t have a penis. According to him  some children might think to themselves “Oh no, girls had their penises cut off…”

It’s interesting to note that Freud essentially considered all anxiety to come from this castration thread.  Which of course doesn’t make sense now, since threatening to cut a child’s penis has come out of fashion lately, and yet people still have anxiety.
(One has to realize that many western therapists still use this as the basis of their activity. Suddenly chakras, meridians, and other eastern concepts don’t sound so implausible no?)
At this ‘energetic stage of development’ Freud also postulated that there’s an Oedipal conflict in the child’s unconscious. The child has the desire to posses the parent of the opposite sex, and as such has a feeling of hate for the parent of the same sex. If the conflict is not resolved by reconciling the anger and love one feels for the parent of the opposite sex, ones energies are fixated in this stage. (Yes, whenever you hear the word ‘fixation’ one can imagine an energetic fixation)
Freud postulated that people who prefer masturbation to ‘real sex’ have their ‘energies stuck’ in this period.

Latency stage

According to Freud from the age of 7 to puberty shame, disgust, and morality repress sexual feelings and force boys to play with boys and girls to play with girls. This continues on until puberty

Genital Stage

According to Freud hormones break the repression of childhood and force the boys and girls to resolve their oedipal conflict by relinguishing their attraction to their parents (yeah), and instead focusing on the opposite sex. If one fails to do that he/ she becomes neurotic

Interestingly Chakras Are Also A Developmental Theory

While Freud’s stage of development are not that commonly used (You can see why- Today they even sound stupid), a similar theory proposed by erickson is still popular today it just extends from birth to old age, and is not so sexualized.
What’s important here to note that chakras are a similar developmental theory, it’s just that it focuses on ones spiritual/moral development

  1. The root chakra symbolizes one basic urges of defacating and eating
  2. The sex chakra symbolizes ones sexuality
  3. The mulahdara symbolizes ones strive for power and prestige
  4. The anahata symbolizes love and interpersonal relationships
  5. The vishudha symbolizes communication and ‘right speech’
  6. Ajna symbolizes intuition, creativity, and psychic abilities
  7. Swadhisthana symbolizes transcendence and divinity.

It’s basically a continuum of spiritual development, in which you first have to balance the ‘lower chakras’ in order to take enjoy the ‘higher chakras’ to the fullest. In a way it’s very similar to maslow’s pyramid of desires.

Anodea Judith, Carl Jung,   and many other western theorists wrote extensively about how Chakras can be thought of as a theory of development. An energetic metaphor for ones journey towards self-improvement and ‘spiritual development’.
It really isn’t a suprise that both Freud and the Ancients have used an energetic metaphor to describe development. Energies are something we always return to when we try to explain something when we don’t really know how it works. This was proven in numerous studies on children.. So essentially Freud’s psychic energy is far more similar to chi and prana than one might initially think. It’s used for basically the same thing- as an explanatory framework or metaphor used to explain something we can’t yet measure, or  to put it simply -subjective experience.


There’s a striking parallel between the Freudian concept of sublimation and chinese medicine.  Freud basically said that society doesn’t allow us to freely express our sexuality we have to channel it into more ‘creative’ endeavours. The surgeon channels his sexuality into surgery, while the painter channels it into art.  Freud even postulated that the Mona Lisa was essentially an expression of Leonardo Davinci’s sublimation of his sexual feelings towards his mother.

One has to realize that sublimation was not considered ‘bad’ by Freud. It was a requirement for us to live in civilized society. And actually it’s considered a very good thing  in many spiritual systems.

Which makes sense: spiritual systems do not want you to go around fucking all day. They want you to meditate all day, so the sublimation of sexual feelings into god was viewed as something desirable.  This is why Brahmacharya which was essentially celibacy with the aim of sublimation, was so  popular in yoga back in the day.

Orgone And Libido

The main difference between libido, reichian orgone and lowenian bioenergetics is that libido was considered to be only a mental energy. Psychoanalysis was essentially a dualistic science- it believed in the mind-body duality and it also wanted to distance it’s energy from chi,qi and other energies of the east.

So the main difference between chi, qi and libido is that libido was considered to be only of the mind, while chi-qi was considered to be of the whole of the universe, and in turn the human being was considered as being intrinsically interconnected with the universe, since they both were driven by the same energy.

Incidentally this is the reason why reich’s theories of orgone are so strikingly similar to the eastern theories of chi. It comes from the fact that once you allow the libido concept to spread to the body and world it essentially becomes indistinguishable from chi, which is precisely what Wilhelm Reich did. One has to remember that this psychoanalytic theorist not only believed that Orgone(his version of libido) was an observable energy in the body but was also observable in the universe and could be used to  make it rain, for example.

In turn his successor Alexander Lowen limited himself to the body (at least in his books) and this is the primary reason why he was treated more seriously. (He essentially did not try to make it rain using a machine, and he didn’t try to cure cancer using an ‘orgone accumulator’, so he was less controversial).

Lowen extended libido only to the body, not to the world, and unlike Reich he did not try to understand the ‘physical expression’ of libido. (Reich for example tried to find bions – authentic physical evidence for orgone)

The reason bioenergetics and orgone are not that popular in conventional psychology is that  libido in psychoanalysis was considered to be only a metaphor for the economic model of the mind, which is a much less radical and challenging to accepted paradigms , and therefore a less controversial claim than that of Reich or even Lowen.


Main Reasons Why Some Psychoanalysts Still Hold Onto The Energetic Metaphor

It is true that most psychoanalytic therapists don’t use the energetic metaphor anymore. But the ones that do have their reasons. Here are the main ones:

  • One day in the future, psychical energy will bemeasurable.
  • At some point in the future, the model willallow a connection with other sciences, especially neurophysiological science.
  • We are in need of this model to provide orderand to systematise clinical data.
  • It is leading to new insights.


Neuropsychoanalysis- From Energies To Hard Science

As a finishing thought I want to say that Psychoanalysis started as a study of subjective experience because back in the day we couldn’t really study the brain directly. Freud knew that and so he willingly ‘downgraded himself’ from a strict scientist (he was a neurologist) to an explorer of the subjective facet of experience.

It’s only relatively recently that neuroscience actually acknowladge some of Freuds discoveries, such as the existance of unconscious learning, drives, and defenesae mechanisms. And indeed there’s now a whole field of study calleed ‘neuropsychoanalysis‘ which tries to reconcile the study of subjective experience, is what psychoanalysis always aimed to be, with modern neuroscience.

Interestingly this pretty much applies to yoga, chinese medicie, huna and pretty much every study of subjective experience. All started as pretty much unscientific disciplines that aimed to study the subjective area of our mind. It’s only recently that they tried to integrate the findings of neuroscience with their subjective findings.
I personally believe that in the future the concepts of yoga, chinese medicine and various other spiritual systems will be explored scientifically, and just like psychoanalysis they will ‘graduate’ from having to rely on metaphors into a truly scientific study of subjective experience, and I’ll talk more about it in a book about the scientific analysis of the concept of energies that I’m writing now. If you’re interested in it, please subscribe to be informed when it launches.

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About the Author ()

Hello I’m Matt Pepliński, the lies in alternative medicine have literary given me psychosis and as such I created this site to take the pseudo out of pseudoscience to make it actually useful in your life.