Life and Death Instincts

During Freud's self-analysis, he came to be familiar with his own explorations of existence. His theories of "drives" evolved throughout his life and work, but it was during this period that he proposed a class of drives known as the life instincts (Jaffe, 1982). Later, Freud amended this theory, suggesting that life instincts could not alone explain all human behavior. He revised his earlier assumption of life instincts and determined that all instincts fall into one of two major classes: life instincts or death instincts. Freud believed that these drives, or instincts, were as influential on one's behavior as were the id, ego, and superego.

Life instincts are those that deal with basic survival, pleasure, and reproduction. These instincts are important for sustaining the life of the individual as well as the continuation of the species. While they are often called sexual instincts, these drives also include such things as thirst, hunger, and pain avoidance. The energy created by the life instincts is known as the libido. Behaviors commonly associated with the life instinct include love, cooperation, and other prosocial actions (Jaffe, 1982).

Initially described in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud (1920/1955) stated that "the goal of all life is death" (p. 38). He noted that after people experience a traumatic event, they often reenact the experience, and these reenactments contradict the presentation of the life instincts. He concluded that people hold an unconscious desire to die but that this wish is largely tempered by the life instincts. In Freud's view, self-destructive behavior is an expression of the energy created by the death instincts. When this energy is directed inward, it appears as masochism and self-loathing. If directed outward onto others, it is expressed as aggression and violence (Jaffe, 1982).

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