The Antilibidinal Ego: Self-Protection Following Trauma

antilibidinal ego

In the object relations theory of British psychoanalyst W. Ronald D. Fairbairn (1889–1964), the portion of the ego structure is similar to Sigmund Freud’s superego. The antilibidinal ego constitutes a nonpleasure-gratifying, self-deprecatory, or even hostile self-image; it is posited to develop out of the unitary ego present at birth when the infantile libidinal ego (similar to the id) experiences deprivation at the hands of the parent and the infant suppresses his or her frustrated needs. Also called internal saboteur.

APA Dictionary of Psychology

If as a child we suffer severe interpersonal trauma in the form of rejection by a primary carer or a similar experience,  a part of us may ‘split off’ (dissociate) and act as our protector in order to prevent us from becoming the victim of yet further psychological damage. Fairbairn referred to this dissociated part of ourselves as the antilibidinal ego. (Ronald Fairbairn, was a Scottish psychoanalyst, and psychiatrist known especially for the significant part he played in the development of object relations theory. Object relations theory is closely related to psychoanalytic theory and stresses the crucial importance of the effect of family relationships – particularly between the mother and child – on the developing child).

However, the protection that the antilibidinal ego affords us comes at a heavy cost and causes us to experience a terrible emptiness and numbness, our senses and feelings deadened, not fully alive, and as if life is utterly devoid of meaning and nothing, including sex (the term ‘antilibidinal’, at its most literal, refers to loss or removal of the sex drive).

The antilibidinal ego has its effect by making us terrified of exposing ourselves to the possibility of further hurt, disappointment, and rejection so that we feel utterly incapable of participating in life as others do, robbing us of the ability to love, create and take pleasure in life (sometimes referred to as anhedonia). It also persecutes us (having taken on and internalized the invalidating aspects of the person who traumatized us), making us feel worthless and inadequate, thus further ensuring we lack the confidence to properly participate in life (which would expose us to feelings of intolerable emotional and psychological vulnerability, a state of affairs the antilibidinal ego cannot, on any account or under any set of circumstances, tolerate. In this way, it represses its counterpart, the libidinal ego (the concept of the libidinal ego can be likened to Freud’s concept of the id).

The concept of antilibidinal ego is similar (but not identical) to Freud’s concept of the superego and is also sometimes referred to as the internal saboteur. 

Fairbairn regarded psychopathology as a response to the degree of conflict between the antilibidinal ego and the libidinal ego and the strength of the remaining ego (the central ego) which must come to some accommodation with these two antithetical forces.

The interplay between the central ego and the two subsidiary egos (antilibidinal ego and libidinal ego) and resulting psychological tension and conflict gives rise to what Fairbairn called the basic schizoid position (the concept of the basic schizoid position was later developed by Melanie Klein) which Fairbairn came to view as lying at the heart of all human mental and psychological disturbance.

The Self Saboteur (Inner Critic):

“it is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil”

(Fairbairn, 1952, pp. 66-67).

People adversely affected by childhood trauma in ways similar to the description of early life interpersonal trauma described above may find, in their adult life that they are prone to repeat, time and time again, relationship patterns with others that cause them mental pain and suffering (this is what Freud referred to as the ‘repetition compulsion.’). They may also develop addictions. Both are largely unconscious ways of trying to heal severe inner psychological pain.

But why should this occur? 

Young children are completely dependent on their primary caretaker to be protective, loving, and nurturing or, in more simple terms, ‘good.’

When the primary caregiver is abusive, neglectful and non-nurturing, or ‘bad’ the young child’s brain interprets this as a threat to his/her very survival and this feeling is so excruciatingly painful that s/he REPRESSES it and splits off the ‘bad’ parts of the relationship so that they become unconscious which allows him/her to continue to perceive the parent as ‘good’ but at the great cost of psychologically ‘absorbing’ (or in psychological terms, internalizing) the primary caregivers ‘badness’ into his/her own psyche. 

In later life then, in such a case, it is this internalized badness, deriving from the original ‘badness’ of the neglectful and/or abusive parent but pushed down into the unconscious, gives rise to intense self-criticism, deep feelings of shame, self-directed anger and rage, among other painful feelings and emotions.

Just as awareness of the original primary caregiver’s ‘badness’ can be repressed and turned on the self in this way, it can also be projected onto others, perhaps in the form of verbal rage or physical violence. So, when this happens, the repressed awareness of the original primary caregivers ‘badness’ gives rise to criticism of others.

If one is to recover from such psychological problems, an important first step is to realize that the intense self-criticism, etc one experiences is not, as it were, from one’s own voice, but from the internalized ‘voice’ of one’s abusive or neglectful primary carer in early life, the voice that needed to be suppressed in early life for the sake of one’s psychological survival.

The Libidinal Ego And The Love-Hate Cycle:

Fairbairn also described another part of the early life relationship with the abusive and/or neglectful primary caregiver that has been repressed and referred to it as the ‘tantalizing’ part.’ This is the part of the young child that has a profound need to be loved and cared for, or the ‘libidinal ego’ (as opposed to the antilibidinal ego, referred to above). When the libidinal ego is ‘in charge’ we may experience feelings of obsessive love for another person  (or what Fairbairn refers to as the ‘exciting object’) until s/he (the ‘exciting object’) invariably fails to live up to our idealized view of him/her and the antilibidinal ego once again becomes dominant. When this happens, our positive feelings turn into extremely negative ones once again and so the cycle of fluctuating between feelings of love and hate continues.

The processes described above are one of the hallmark features of BPD for which dialectical behavior therapy can be effective at treating. For information about BPD from the NHS, click here. For information about dialectical behavior therapy from the NHS, click here.