1 minute read


In classic psychoanalysis, the investment of psychic energy in a person or object connected with the gratification of instincts.

The English word for cathexis—which replaces the German besetzung—is derived from the Greek word for "I occupy." Through the process of cathexis, which Sigmund Freud saw as analogous to the channeling of an electrical charge, the psychic energy of the id is bound to a selection of objects. An infant's earliest cathected objects are his mother's breast, his own mouth, and the process of sucking.

When a cathected object becomes a source of conflict, as parents do during the Oedipal stage, anti-cathexes redirect all thoughts about the object to the unconscious level in order to relieve anxiety. Thus, cathexes originate in the id, while anti-cathexes are formed by the ego and the superego.

Freud believed that most personality processes are regulated by cathexes and anti-cathexes. He considered anti-cathexes as an internal form of frustration, paralleling the external frustration of instincts that one encounters from environmental factors over which one has no control. In the case of anti-cathexis, this frustration is provided internally by one's own psychic mechanisms. However, it cannot occur until one has experienced external frustration, generally in the form of parental discipline. Having been subjected to external controls, one becomes able to develop inner ones.

Cathexes are involved in the repression of memories, which can be recalled either by weakening the anticathexis or strengthening the cathexis. Either process is difficult and may be facilitated by the use of special techniques, including hypnosis, free association, and the interpretation of dreams.

Further Reading

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press, 1962.

Firestone, Robert. Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1989.

Goleman, Daniel. Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self-Deception. New York : Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Hall, Calvin S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage