BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 21, 2022
Object cathexis is a Freudian term still used as a central concept in psychoanalytic theory. In Psychoanalytic theory, cathexis is the process of allocating psychic energy (mental or emotional) to a person, object, or idea.
Freud thought of cathecting as a major characteristic of the life drive (1990). In Freud's original writings the concept of cathexis was presented in German by the word Besetzung. In English, Freud translated the word as 'interest.' However, when James Strachey translated Freud's works into English, he chose to use the word 'cathexis' instead of 'interest.'
Cathexis, or interest, is an important element of motivation. Our focus, attention, and expended energy is a cathexis of sorts. When it is focused outward on an object, such as an intimate partner, we invest energy in the relationship. However, when we solely focus our interest inward our cathexis is characteristic of narcissism.
Object Cathexis in psychoanalytic theory refers to the investment of psychic energy in objects outside of the self. The object can be a person, goal, idea, or activity.
Object Cathexis in Love
In relation to romantic interests, M. Scott Peck, in his best selling book the Road Less Travelled, describes cathexis this way, "the feeling of love is the emotion that accompanies the experience of cathecting. Cathecting...is the process by which an object becomes important to us. Once cathected, the object, commonly referred to as a 'love object,' is invested with our energy as if it were part of ourselves, and this relationship between us and the invested object is called Cathexis" (2012).
Object Cathexis in Narcissism
In Freud's paper on narcissism, he explains that "narcissism arises through the drawing in of object-cathexes." The drawing in is a defensive response to the frustration of outside objects. Freud speculated that the withdrawing interest from outside objects leads to reallocating the energy internally into the ego (2019, p. 119).
In the Ego and Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud suggests that the fear of overwhelming instinctual drives during adolescents motivates a defensive withdrawal of cathexis from the object world, which leads to "narcissistic, psychotic, or near psychotic withdrawal." Anna Freud explains that once the "storm of puberty" has abated, "the object-libidinal world can be recathected and the narcissistic pattern relinquished" (Reich, 1953, p. 42).
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Freud, Sigmund (1990) The Ego and the Id. W. W. Norton & Company; The Standard edition.
Gosmann, Uta (2019). Lost to Himself: Narcissus and Freud's Theory of Narcissism Reinterpreted. The Psychoanalytic Review, 106(2), 113-130.
Peck, M. Scott (2012). The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. Touchstone; Anniversary Edition.
REICH, A. (1953). NARCISSISTIC OBJECT CHOICE IN WOMEN. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1(1), 22-44.