Self-In-A-Box: Freud’s Neurosis & The Relationship Between the Individual and the Collective

In Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud analyzes the human psyche in part by examining and explaining psychotic disorders, particularly in terms of their physical manifestations in the real world and how these symptoms indicate underlying relationships to internal conflicts. But why are we so conflicted? By breaking down individual case studies, Freud paints a picture of the individual as a combination of biological, innate desires layered with an internalized perception of society’s expectations and obligations. When we choose to resist our biological and sexual needs in favor of alignment with society’s expectations, we become anxious and sick. Thus, Freud conceptualizes the neurosis as a result of conflict between individual and collective. By parsing the nature of this conflict, we can deduce more about his ideas about the relationship between the two.

Freud doesn’t use “individual” and “collective” in those words — he explains the individual in terms of the ego, and the collective in terms of the society. The ego is the psychic “I” – it is malleable and pulled in different directions by motives internal and external. The internal motivations are attributed to sexual desires, and the external ones are motivated by the ego’s conception of what society wants from it. “Society” is more loosely defined, but it is some organization of a collective with rules, standards, and obligations. These requirements are in place because society has a project: civilization. Civilization is built from the blood, sweat, and tears of humans, and requires us to set aside our rampant sexual desires in favor of work. As Freud puts it:

“The motive of human society is in the last resort an economic one; since it does not possess enough provisions to keep its members alive unless they work, it must restrict the number of its members and divert their energies from sexual activity to work” (Freud 386).

In other words, there’s a trade-off: in order for the society to construct civilization, the ego must align itself with society’s rules instead of its sexual desires (characterized by the libido, which is a manifestation of our ever-present, internal sexual desires). Libido or society? Individual or collective?

A neurosis occurs when there is a conflict between the ego and the libido–when an impulse from the libido is challenged by the societal norms for appropriate behavior that the ego has internalized and works to uphold in the individual. When the unconscious conflict of energy occurs, the thought is repressed, in order to avoid the mental stress, which these conflicts cause. However, this preventative process comes at a cost to the individual. Due to the fact that these thoughts do not come to consciousness, where they would be able to be rejected or accepted by the individual, their energy builds up in the unconscious and manifests, in a distorted manner, as neurotic symptoms. As Freud writes:

“We already know from Breuer’s observation that there is a precondition for the existence of a symptom: some mental process must not have been brought to an end normally–so that it could become conscious. The symptom is a substitute for what did not happen at that point” (364).

The goal of psychoanalytic therapy, therefore, is to assist the patient in bringing their mental conflicts up from the unconscious to the conscious, which releases the pressure caused by the process of repressing, and resultingly, their symptoms cease to occur. Essentially, by being able to acknowledge that one’s thoughts and feelings are in opposition to what society has deemed to be acceptable, then the individual is able to move forward without the internal tumult that causes neurotic behavior. However, if an individual is unconsciously preventing thoughts at odds with society from reaching consciousness, then they are liable to develop neurotic symptoms.

To illuminate the relationship of individual and collective and how their interactions can result in neurosis, Freud takes the example of the caretaker’s daughter and the landlord’s daughter. The caretaker’s daughter is of a lower class than the landlord’s daughter, so she is subject to fewer rules about her sexuality and feels freer to explore it and do with it what she wants. The landlord’s daughter, on the other hand, must repress her sexual instincts in order to follow the rules. Though in early lives, they may freely sexually explore each other and themselves (by masturbating, for example), the caretaker’s daughter would continue to do so unrestricted and give it up naturally, whereas the landlord’s daughter’s education would impress upon her the idea that sexual activity of that sort was wrong and she would force herself not to do it. The problem is that she inevitably wants to masturbate and isn’t able to, creating a conflict that will result in later difficulty to engage in sex later. As Freud puts it: “From the suggestions offered to it, [the landlord’s daughter’s] ego constructed ideals of feminine purity and abstinence which are incompatible with sexual activity; her intellectual education reduced her interest in the feminine part which she was destined to play. Owing to this higher moral and intellectual development of her ego she came into conflict with the demands of her sexuality” (440). Her early idea that femininity and propriety do not align with sexual activity cause her to develop a neurosis, whereas the caretaker’s daughter leads a healthy sex life. In terms of collective and individual, there is conflict when the needs of the collective impinge upon the needs of the individual: in this way, the individual is trapped by the demands of the collective and forced to become something that is unnatural and unhealthy.


In order for the development of society to occurthe project of civilizationindividuals must forgo their own desires and yield to this greater good. By examining the causes and consequences of the collective holding control over the individual, in the manner of the ego mediating the libido, we are afforded a more complete understanding of the interactions between the individual and the collective. This analysis leads us to ask: What are the implications of belonging to a society that advances itself at the expense of its members?

Theme: Individual/Collective (Section 20)


One thought on “Self-In-A-Box: Freud’s Neurosis & The Relationship Between the Individual and the Collective

  1. I really liked this blog post and the diagrams used to support it! I also agree that libido and its repression coincide with the individual and the collective respectively. I think one of the implications of Freud’s argument given that society was supporting itself at the cost of its members was that these members develop neuroses, that all the members of society are neurotic in some way. Some individuals may think that their desires are in line with that of society’s and that they are not repressed but the only individuals who would truly qualify as that would be those, who as infants potty trained themselves out of individual desire without any external influences, and so forth.
    -Jason Lin


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