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, he presented the concept of cathexis with the German word Besetzung. In English, Freud translated the word as ‘interest.’ However, when James Strachey translated Freud’s works into English, he chose the word ‘cathexis‘ instead of ‘interest.’ Cathexis stuck.
Cathexis, or interest, is an important element of motivation. Basically, our focus, attention, and expended energy is a cathexis of sorts. When we focus attention 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 Love
In relation to romantic interests, M. Scott Peck, in his best selling book the Road Less Travelled, describes cathexis as “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).
A Few Closing Words
In conclusion, we cathect energy. By and large, this is an unconscious process. Just like defense mechanisms, the concept extends beyond Freudian psychoanalyst theory. We, however, can see Freud’s extensive use of the concept throughout his writings (i.e. projection, death instinct, ego ideal, etc…). Yet, for us personally, we can use the concept to better understand where we cast our attention. With effort, we can pull the unknown to the light through mindful attention, adjust where needed, refocusing attention on the things that matter.
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.