Are you the sort of person that feels a little frisson or thrill whenever you hear about a major fatality? Don’t worry, you’re not a psychopath, but you might just be confirming Freud’s death drive.
Sigmund Freud’s Life Instinct and Death Drive
Sigmund Freud theorised that we all have two major opposing forces working within our psyche; a life instinct (Eros) and a death drive (Thanatos). Eros pulls us towards life and sex, pleasure, survival, creativity and regrowth. Thanatos pulls us towards death and destruction. Whichever dominates overall depends on our environment growing up.
Freud based his theory on the main drives of sex and aggression that dominate our lives. He believed that aggressive behaviour represents the death drive. Freud stipulated that this death drive is present in all animals. We all have this universal desire to return to an inanimate state.
Now, this sounds a little like psychobabble. I mean, who really wants to die and return to an inanimate state? Well, the best way I can describe Freud’s death drive is by imagining you are standing on the top of a very high building. You are looking over the side. The death drive is that compulsion to step over into the air. It’s that strange, weird feeling of being drawn to the edge of danger.
The death drive can affect individuals and groups of people. For example, those that undertake high-risk sports such as free-climbing or sky diving on a regular basis. Anyone who puts their lives in danger time and time again until they fulfil their ultimate goal – death. There are also destructive behaviours like smoking, excessive drinking or substance abuse.
The Roots of Freud’s Theory
Freud was a doctor and had been working with soldiers returning from WW1. The general consensus was that survivors from such terrible events would have a renewed vigour for life. In other words, their life instinct would go into over-drive after witnessing such death and destruction on an industrial scale.
But Freud discovered that this was not the case. In fact, the majority of returning soldiers appeared to experience the opposite. These survivors seemed to be compelled to repeat their traumatic experiences in their dreams.
Freud surmised that because these soldiers could not come to terms or digest their horrific experiences, they were driven to replay them in their minds. Freud believed they were trying to ready themselves for the horrors to come. Of course, now we know those soldiers were suffering from PTSD.
Freud’s Death Drive, Self-Destruction and Suicide
So why is all this important? You would think that Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos would relate to the way we die, but it’s not. It’s about how we live, how we go through life. Freud believed that we all go through a period of self-destruction. Some people have longer and more intense periods than others. When this drive is turned inwards, it results in suicide. If it turns outwards, we behave in an aggressive manner to others.
This aggressive behaviour is played out in all walks of life, from politics to pop culture. Every day we hear of online bullying, animal cruelty, slandering of political opponents, bitching of someone’s weight or appearance, slut-shaming.
Most of us direct this death drive outwards, towards other people. But some direct it to themselves. Those that do will use critical statements about themselves. Their inner voices are disparaging and self-deprecating. They have a self-attacking voice that constantly interrupts their thoughts. Moreover, there is a link between these self-destructive thoughts and suicide.
FAST stands for the Firestone Assessment of Suicide Thoughts. It was developed by psychologist Richard Firestone to examine a possible link between self-destructive thoughts and suicide attempts.
Examples of Self-Destructive Inner Voices
One documentary charted the aftermath of survivors of suicide. It concentrated on three survivors, Susan, Trish and Kevin.
Susan describes a ‘snide’ voice that spoke to her immediately before her attempt to end her life. These are examples of what it said:
- “Who would care if you weren’t around?”
- “You thought you mattered, you don’t matter now. You don’t matter … If you don’t matter, what does matter? Nothing matters.”
- “What are you waking up for?”
These are examples of Trish’s inner voice:
- “Your own family doesn’t love you.”
- “You’re alone, you’ll die alone. You’ll always be alone.”
- “The only thing you can do is go and kill yourself.”
Kevin recalls the things his inner voice said just before he jumped off the Golden Gate bridge:
- “I’m a burden to my family and friends.”
- “I’m hurting them with this bipolar, this, this annoying nuisance of a guy.”
We already know that language is incredibly powerful in how it shapes our mood. In fact, there are huge differences between the words an optimist and a pessimist use. So, how can we be made aware of our inner voices? That the words we use can change how we feel?
How Our Inner Voices Can Change Our Death Drive
Psychologist Robert Firestone has developed Voice Therapy.
“Voice Therapy is a process of giving language or spoken words to negative thought patterns that are at the core of an individual’s maladaptive or self-destructive behaviour.” Robert Firestone
The basic premise of this therapy is to verbalise these destructive inner voices in the second person. For example, instead of ‘I’m stupid, I’m worthless’ changing this to ‘You’re stupid, you are worthless.’
This is important because it opens up a dialogue between the person and this second voice. Using the second person often results in an emotional inner exchange.
Frequently, this will then lead to a further realisation of where the criticism originated. For example, typical reactions include ‘That’s what my mother always told me’ or ‘I always had that feeling at home.’
In voice therapy, the patient would then be asked to confront the voice. During this time insights into their childhood will come to the fore. The patient will start to understand where their self-limiting behaviour comes from. Once they understand that, they recognise the negative thoughts that force their self-destructive behaviour. By addressing these negative thoughts, they can go on to change their behaviour.
The good thing about the theory of Freud’s death drive is that we can use it to keep a check on our own mental health. In addition, it is beneficial to understand that these thoughts are a normal part of our psyches, but that we can change them if needed.
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