The Antilibidinal Ego: Self-Protection Following Trauma

If as a child we suffer severe interpersonal trauma in the form of rejection by a primary-carer or 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.

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 alikened 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 (in relation to this, you may be interested to read my article about ‘self-defeating personality.’

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 (a 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.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)