The cathexis is a peculiar notion in psychology. It’s not used very often and chances are you’ll never encounter it. However, it explains some phenomena we witness every day.
The ego-states of Parent, Adult and Child from Transactional Analysis have become common concepts and a lot of people know about them even if they don’t work in the psychological field. It’s known that a person is, at a given moment, in one of those states, and an exterior observer can easily recognize, if trained, the characteristics of that particular ego-state. But, in Berne’s view, things aren’t in fact so simple.
Imagine that the ego-states function with mental energy. The Adult, the Parent or the Child require not only “instructions” to be loaded, but a lot of energy to support their characteristic behavior, thoughts and emotions. So we’ll look at these ego-states from an energy point of view. This energy is renamed as cathexis, and I’ll try to keep things simple.
Just as an ordinary form of energy, the cathexis moves from one ego-state to the other, so that, at a given moment, at least one ego-state is “loaded”. For instance, if I’m in a professional situation, my Adult is usually loaded, so my behaviour (the way I speak or act), my thoughts and my emotions are the ones of an adult. If I decide to make a joke so as to relax a little the discussion, I load the Child as well, and I let it play and be creative, but it’s the Adult that remains in charge.
But there are those days when life’s grim. I am really sad, my accomplishments are judged to be few, I feel hopeless, helpless and lonely. I go to work. I have to be efficient, I have to help the others, so I load the Adult. I manage to remain assertive, I make decisions, despite the fact that my depressed state is there, deep inside me. Who am I? Am I the Adult that manages the professional demands? Or I’m simply the sad (adapted) Child from the past? Who is the real “me”?
It seems that sometimes I am “me, the Adult” and sometimes I am “me, the Child”. So, who is the real “me”, the real “Self”? The notion of Self implies that there is only one “Real Self”, so the other one must be a “Fake Self”. And from here comes that pursuit of the Asian religions and practices (Buddhism, yoga, etc.) that aim to find the True Self, the Real Self.
In hypnosis, a solution was found to the problem. It seems that there is only one Self, and the rest are auxiliary Egoes. Or masks, or faces, or roles – as in Psychodrama. But how can we tell the difference? I feel myself as being the Adult some days, and then I feel myself as being the Child on different occasions. In other words, my “feeling of myself” changes; my “Self” is not a static notion. The “Self” is a dynamic phenomenon.
In other words, sometimes my feeling of Self is that of a Child, sometimes it shifts to the Adult or even the Parent… while the ego-state I load at a given moment might not be the same. Rephrasing the above situation (at work), in a “good day”, my feeling of Self is Adult and I act in the Adult ego-state or the Child ego-state. In a “bad day”, my feeling of Self is the one of the Adapted Child, while I enact the Adult ego-state.
So, the cathexis moves dynamically from one state to the other, and this generates changes not only in the ego-state, but also in the feeling-of-Self.
How many times in your life you felt that “this is real me” and you made some decisions, and then you asked yourself what the Hell was on your mind… it was just like “you weren’t… yourself”? How many times you were “one with the experience” and afterwards you realized it was just an illusion? Those moments were the ones in which you experienced the dynamic-Self but you didn’t know.
After some time, after you read some books and gather some experience, and after you eventually trash your life, you learn to become an observant of your own life. And one day you begin to see the dynamics of the cathexis. If you know some Schema Therapy as well, you learn to feel and see your own dysfunctional cognitive schemas (patterns) as well. And at that point, while you’re accepting that your sense of Self is dynamic and might shift, you begin to reclaim yourself and your life. You refuse to play over and over again the schemas from your past that originated in your childhood experiences. You choose to put your Adapted Child behind you, accepting it as a part of yourself, but denying to you, for the first time in your life, to feel it as your True Self, perhaps choosing to feel the Free Child as your Real Self instead, and feel young and enthusiastic again… Now, it is You the one who decides who you really want to be, and with what ego-state you associate yourself, and more importantly, in what state you feel your own Self.
By doing so, you refuse to get into those relationships that sound so tempting and “alive” because your are now aware that your feeling-of-Self is in the (abused) Child mode, and you’ll soon wake-up to a different, harsh reality. Or, you refuse to play low because you think you are the (subjugated) Child and you deserve to be unhappy, and you let yourself to shine even if this is a totally different experience for you.
So, are you ready to begin? Regardless of your present ego-state, where do you feel your Self now?
I am in the Adult self, Adult ego-state. Suddenly, I hear a melody, which is associated to a traumatic experience from my past. I begin to feel sadness. This means that I begin to load the ego-state of the Sad Child. And this also means that my cathexis (energy) gradually leaves the Adult state and moves to the Sad Child. I feel the sadness, this means that I experience the ego-state of the Child, but my feeling-of-self is still in the Adult. Then, I become increasingly sad, until I say: I am sad! I’m such an unfortunate human being! This means that “I became one with my experience”, I am totally immersed in the Child. My entire cathexis has left the Adult state, so I’m not only experiencing sadness, I really believe that “I am sad”. I am one with my sadness. Both my ego-state and my feeling-of-Self are in the Child mode. I am myself, yet I am not my Self.