Understanding Libido


Dear Dr. Myrtle,

I thought I understood that libido was an uncontrollable force that we essentially get dragged around by. Your sex counselor says that I can do things to change my libido, but is that true? How can I change something that acts ON me?


Libido is your personal, sexual psychic force. Because we are only semiconscious of this force, our conscious minds are not completely in control of the psychic force itself. However, although we are always in control of how we act in response to the drive, it is the less-than-conscious aspect that accounts for why it feels pushy, or external.

Unknown to many people, it is true that what we do with our every moment and choices in our lives influences our unconscious psyche. In that way, how we live and think is the influence that Ellen, our sex counselor, is describing.

People use the word "libido" and talk about libido quite a bit: 

“She has a super high libido.” 

“He doesn’t have any libido.”  

“I lost my libido after we had a baby.”

But do we understand what the word means, really? Libido is a word that we assume we understand, but the whole concept and it's relationship to other features of sexual arousal is difficult to appreciate fully. Consider your answers to the following hypothetical cases:

  1. Is a person who’s physically and mentally exhausted from life really lacking libido, or are they just tired and need sleep?
  2. Does a person who does everything they can not to be sexual have high libido, or low libido? (Hint: what is an aversive drive? Something that prevents particular outcomes.)

The key to the answers is that Libido = psychic energy. In the first case, if someone doesn't have energy because they are exhausted, they feel low energy in all sorts of ways, including having low sexual psychic energy. Sleep and nurturance is often the first priority, and understandably so.
In the second case, we're talking about someone with a strong, overwhelming intent focused on sexuality, but with the ultimate goal of not being sexual. Technically, a strongly aversive sexual drive (not to be sexual) is an indication of a very strong libido, even though the outcome isn’t pro-sexual, it’s anti-sexual. In this case, the person is very, very interested in sex (and may spend a lot of time thinking about sexuality), with the goal of not behaving sexually.

In common usage, libido equals interest or desire. 
Libido is the mind part of sex: the desire part of the process that may lead you into further sexual play.  Without psychic energy one doesn’t contemplate, and may not initiate. Libido doesn’t compel action, but it is part of the consciousness around sexual sensations. The decisions of our executive brain can always act, or not act, on suggested libidinous sexual actions.
Libido wells up from a number of different stimuli.  Sometimes, a rush of sensation in your genitals will be transmitted to your brain, and as awareness of the sensation trickles in, you start thinking, “hey, a little more of that would feel good.” Other types of sensation could be an arousing image, memory or smell. Your brain might process that sensation and lead you to say, “I’d like to pursue something sexual right now.”  Sometimes it’s a gesture or touch from a loved one that triggers a desire for more. 

Where did the word libido come from?
Libido is a word that Dr. Sigmund Freud developed in the early 1900’s that describes sexual urges and drives as sexual psychic energy.  Dr. Karl Jung further developed the concept, suggesting that personality transforms daily experiences into psychic energy, some of which is sexual. 

What is libido, technically?
Conceptually, libido is multi-faceted. Wrapped up in one word, libido, are:

  • thoughts, 
  • desires (sexual arousal), 
  • memories,
  • rewards,
  • survival instincts (protective arousal), 
  • intentions, and
  • actions.

How we express a sexual action is complicated mass of mixed rewards, stress reactions, physical capacity, hopes, dreams and memories, all balled up and wrapped around today.

Understanding someone’s libido is more than just looking at the outcome of sexual events or actions. Libido is also the push and pull of conscious and unconscious psychic moments, reactions to physical capacities and limitations, interactions of external evaluation (whether self- or other- evaluations of appearance and body image), all influenced further by split-second decisions based on continuous safety assessments.

We influence our libido more than it influences us.
It’s important to realize that libido isn’t a passive THING that acts upon us. Libido is constantly influenced by the choices we make, and our experiences. We are all unique, and our past experiences, interpretation of those experiences and unique psychological and physical selves determine what role and intensity libido will play in our lives.
This is an important concept, because the reality is that the way you live your life--what you take on, care for, or avoid--determines how much sexual psychic energy you have to bring to the next day. If you believe sexual psychic energy is something unmodified that acts on a helpless you, then libido will feel foreign, mysterious, and something you can’t do anything about. When we begin to understand the whole concept, we can notice and experience small and constant shifts in libido, and can choose life actions which help nudge libidinous energy higher or lower.
I hope this helps. If you're interested in more information, see other posts on The Three Facets of Libido.


Take Care,


Dr. Myrtle