Trauma and the pleasure principle

manhandstoheadMany who study trauma from a psychoanalytic perspective turn to Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) in order to make sense of the apparent desire of people to repeat unpleasant experiences.  Why, the sensible person wonders, would a traumatized person keep repeating a horrible experience, whether it be war-time trauma, or the trauma of an abusive childhood?  In this context, the term “repeating” covers multiple forms of repetition, from flashbacks and nightmares, to acting-out an original trauma, in which, for example, a woman who was abused as a young girl continues to choose abusive partners.

Freud begins Beyond the Pleasure Principle with what he calls the traumatic neuroses, brought about by accidents and wartime trauma.  However, he quickly turns from “the dark and dismal topic of traumatic neurosis,” to children’s play (pp. 50-52).  The reader is at first disappointed.  Should not Freud have paid more than passing attention to the psychological suffering of so many who had just returned from a war that inflicted immense psychic suffering on its combatants?  He does, but one has to search for it.  Or create it. 

Why repeat unpleasant experiences?

Freud’s first answer to why people repeat unpleasant experiences is that the repetition is an attempt to master an experience that was originally too immediate, too intense, or simply too difficult to bear, such as the abandonment of a child by its mother. 

In the case of children’s play it seems readily comprehensible to us that the child also repeats unpleasurable experiences, because by thus being active he gains far more thorough-going control of the relevant powerful experience than was possible when he was merely its passive recipient. (p. 75)

Freud was commenting on his grandson’s fort/da game,  in which the child threw a spool of string away and then reeled in back in his mother’s absence.  Or more frequently he just threw his toys away, as though to say “See, I don’t need you anymore.  You’re not leaving.  I’m sending you away.” 

The death drive

Freud seems unsatisfied with his own answer, for Freud was never comfortable with the idea of an independent instinct or drive for mastery or control (Beyond, p. 54).  Not mastery but the death drive is Freud’s explanation of life beyond the pleasure principle.

Trauma incites the death drive (Todestrieb), the urge of the organism to return to an original inorganic state.  One sees this in Freud’s speculation about the nirvana principle, which he interprets as the desire for the cessation of stimulation and tension.  If the stimulation and tension is too great, too painful, then nirvana becomes inseparable from death.  (Beyond, p. 95)  Nirvana represents the peace of the womb, or the grave.     

Life, says Freud, is but a detour on the trip from birth to death, and trauma may make life so unbearable that a short-cut is tempting (Beyond, pp. 61, 95).  One no longer wants to continue on the long detour through life to death.  The repetition compulsion is a way of acting-out this desire to return to the most primitive state because it is a desire to return, and return, and return, ultimately to a state of non-being. 

Not pleasure but attachment

Freud was puzzled by the repetition of traumatic experiences because he believed that pleasure is what we seek above all else.  It’s not true, and it makes a difference.  What we seek is attachment, a secure connection to others.  Life is not a detour from death.  Life is an excursion from attachments that represent safety.  As John Bowlby, founder of attachment theory put it.

All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure (s) (p. 62).

People who care for us and love us are a secure base.  So are familiar people, places, sights, and smells.  As we get older, sharing the values represented by these people also becomes a mode of attachment. 

There is as Freud recognized, something conservative about the drives, something that longs for familiarity.  But it is not the familiarity of death.  It is the familiarity of familiar others, others who care.  Trauma is the destruction of attachment.  Erich Lindemann defines trauma as “the sudden, uncontrollable disruption of affiliative bonds.”  Trauma happens when our attachments to everything we value are spoiled or destroyed.  People, values of honor and duty, a sense of purpose in life—all of these are worthy of attachment.  And all may be annihilated in a moment, or else through a long, grinding loss, whether it is what we learn at war, or what we learn at home. 

In the absence of attachment, trauma happens.  Trauma is the absence of attachment, or more usually its disruption.  From this perspective, the only difference between PTSD and C-PTSD  (chronic PTSD, which develops over years, usually as the result of abuse and neglect) is the suddenness of disillusion.  But in both the disillusion is often total.

Where we start is where we end up 

Who are human beings: creatures who seek their own pleasure above all else, or creatures who seek secure attachment to others?  As we decide this question, so we decide the most important elements of our explanations of trauma, or most anything else.  Of course, pleasure and attachment are compatible.  There is great pleasure in attachment, and attachment brings great pleasure.  What makes Beyond the Pleasure Principle such an important work is that Freud attempts to move from pleasure to attachment without ever saying so, stopping in midstream, so to speak, with the primacy of repetition, nirvana and death.  All are substitutes for lost attachments.

Perhaps the most telling moment is Freud’s rather lengthy study of Aristophanes’ account of the origin of love in Plato’s Symposium (Beyond Pleasure, p. 95, and note 72).  What is it that makes one person long lovingly for another, asks Aristophanes?  And what makes the person who has found love say that he or she feels suddenly whole?  The reason we love is because we lack.   

The purely sexual pleasures of their friendship could hardly account for the huge delight in one’s company.  That fact is that both their souls are longing for a something else—a something to which they can neither of them put a name.

Imagine, continues Aristophanes, that Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods, spoke to a pair of lovers as they lay together.  “Tell me, my dear creatures, what do you really want with one another?”  And suppose they didn’t know what to say, and he went on, How would you like to be rolled into one, so that you could always be together, day and night, and never be parted again? . . . . We can be sure, gentlemen, that no lover on earth would dream of refusing such an offer, for not one of them could imagine a happier fate.  Indeed, they would be convinced that this was just what they’d been waiting for—to be merged, that is, into an utter oneness with the beloved. (Plato, Symposium 192c-e)

Trauma annihilates attachment, putting symptoms in its place

Between his grandson’s game and Aristophanes’ myth, one finds in Beyond the Pleasure Principle recognition that secure and loving attachments are the most important things in the world.  If so, then severe trauma is doubly disastrous.  It shatters not just our attachments now, but our ability to hold onto our memories of attachment met.  And in their place trauma itself becomes an object of attachment.

Or rather, the symptoms of trauma become objects of attachment, the only objects dependable enough to trust.  Unlike other people, the symptoms of trauma will always be there, a reliable if relentless companion, one who represents all we have lost. 

Why would anyone hold onto the terrible symptoms of trauma?  Because life without them is worse, a life with no bonds at all.  For trauma does not just obliterate actual people, such as loved ones, including comrades in war.  Trauma obliterates our ability to rely on people, for it reveals that any bond can be broken in an instant, and any relationship can be abused.    

Freud was right.  The drives are conservative, and what they would hold onto at almost any price is the attachments that allow us to feel we belong to this world.  When these attachments are broken, when trauma makes it impossible to continue to invest in our memories of attachments met, we rely on the most dependable part of our shattered selves: our symptoms. 


If this way of thinking is right, then Freud’s fascination with his grandson’s play is iconic, representing a shift from strictly internal conflict as the source of neurosis (such as the Oedipal conflict), to a focus on the traumas of everyday life, which almost always involve separation.  Seen from this perspective, the “traumatic neuroses” are the adult expression of an unmastered separation.  That is, a separation for which we cannot creatively compensate.  A separation so painful that the imitation of death is preferable.  Traumatic symptoms are this imitation.  


John Bowlby, A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In Beyond the Please Principle and Other Writings, ed. Adam Phillips, 45-102.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  [I find the Penguin translations superior to the Standard Edition, closer in tone to the original German, which was not Latinate.]   

Erich Lindemann, Symptomatology and management of acute grief.  In American Journal of Psychiatry (1944), 101: 141–149.



Comments (5)

  1. Well reasoned and well articulated. It is experientially logical to conjecture that if one’s primary reality is experienced as traumatic plus subsequent defining experiences are repetitions of similar traumas (theme and variations) then Reality is essentially experienced as Traumatic. Take away the trauma – i.e. if a prisoner was unexpectedly released from twenty years of solitary confinement, set free into the sunlight – without an adequate period of transition – surely the outcome would not likely be gratifying. The odds are that such a newly freed person would wish to go back to his dark cell.

  2. Well reasoned and well articulated. It is experientially logical to conjecture that if one’s primary reality is experienced as traumatic plus subsequent defining experiences are repetitions of similar trauumas (theme and variations) then Reality is essentially experienced as Traumatic. Take away the trauma – i.e. if a prisoner was unexpectedly released from twenty years of solitary confinement, set free into the sunlight – without an adequate period of transition – surely the outcome would not likely be gratifying. The odds are that such a newly freed person would wish to go back to his dark cell.


      Dear William Gibbs, your example reminds me of the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who would want nothing so much as to return to what they think is real. I don’t think it’s quite that way with trauma, but the known, even when it’s really bad, is sometimes more attractive than the unknown. Fred

  3. Ethan

    Thank you for this writing.

    I am slightly confused as to trauma symptoms being described as dependable: does that mean they are things the traumatised know the nature of and are under our control; meaning they aren’t as unpredictable as human relationships, so won’t hurt them any more than they have before?

    Interestingly, Buddhism(which I personally really enjoy) focuses heavily on releasing attachment due to impermanence. I wonder if philosophies can meet and may be a better solution to these copious mental health diagnoses which share so many similarities.

    Once again, thank you.


      Ethan, by dependable I mean that the experience of trauma can be relied upon more than can the experience of love and related emotions. We become attached to our traumas because they are there..

      I like the theory of Buddhism, but in practice I’m too much a creature of attachment for it to work for me. I suppose I’m a stoic. Thanks. Fred

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