Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Impulse

In group last night, one of the clients "impulsively" disclosed something that she had previously been reluctant to share due to embarrassment/fear of judgment. Then, after getting positive feedback for taking the risk of sharing, she expressed confusion over why it was "good" for her to act on this kind of "impulse," but not good to act on impulses to engage in risky behavior. If impulses can be positive or negative, how can she know when to resist them and when to follow them?

I explained that some impulses come from the problem, while other (perceived) impulses come from the part of the self that is moving toward recovery. When the two sides are fairly equally matched, it can feel like a tug-of-war in the mind (characteristic of ambivalence), with impulsive actions occurring when one side or the other gets the upper hand for a moment.

Freud described these kind of competing impulses in his Drive Theory. Specifically, he identified two opposite drives inherent to all humans, Eros, and Thanatos. Eros is the "life" drive, which strives for self-preservation, and is connected with libido (sexual drive, which creates life), and positive emotional states. Thanatos is the "death" drive, which strives for destruction, and is linked to aggression and unpleasant emotional states. These drives are meant to balance each other out, and exist as a fluid process of interaction, of movement back and forth, with each dominating at various times.

Impulses that arise out of the life drive are more likely to be experienced as creative and healthy (life-giving), while impulses that arise out of the death drive are more likely to be destructive (of self or others). Although we both have both types of impulses, Freud suggested that whether we act on them depends on the working of the Ego and Superego, which together are responsible for making decisions in line with one's values and ideals, as learned from parents and culture. From this perspective, my client may need a stronger Ego, and/or Superego to obtain better control over the drives, so that the overall result is productive rather than destructive.

Now, I'm not typically one to reference Drive Theory in my work or thinking, but it is interesting how it seems to apply here. Let me know how you'd interpret this kind of competing impulses!

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