Freud on Mourning and Melancholia-(1917)

A Summary of Freud’s paper Mourning and Melancholia (1917) Image

Freud, S.(1917) compares the phenomenon of mourning after the loss and death of a close loved one to the phenomenon of melancholia /depression. Freud explains, they both share a similar outward affect on the subject and are both due to similar environmental influences. The inhibition, “absorbedness” of the ego, and the disinterest  in the external world is evident in both, mourning and melancholia equally.

Despite their similarities, Freud states, there are some fundamental differences; mourning is recognized as a healthy and normal process that is necessary for the recovery of the loss and would not be seen as a pathology nor  a need for medical intervention. However, melancholia, is an abnormal pathology, and a dangerous illness due to its suicidal tendency.

Upon closer observation, melancholia has some additional feature that are absent in mourning:

A) In melancholia there is no apparent “object-loss” to the subject and to the observer. And even when the subject can identify the “object-loss” he/she can’t identify what “about it” is so disturbing and bothersome.

B) In melancholia there is a loss of self regard. The self-regard is presented as worthless and despicable, and in this regard it appears that the loss is in regards to his/hers actual ego itself.

C) In addition the loss in melancholia is an unconscious one as oppose to mourning which is a conscious and apparent process.

There are other characteristics of melancholia that manifest in the somatic realm:

A) A difficulty with nourishment, digesting, etc.

B) A difficulty with sleeping. These two somatic symptoms need to be explored and understood within the depth of the melancholic condition.

Freud explains, the difficulty and painfulness of both the mourning and melancholic process, is due to the fixation of libidinal cathaxes on  the love-object which is no longer available. The unavailability is either because of physical extinction or because of a “slight coming from the love object” which causes the libido to discontinue its interest in the past love object. The slight or insult can be new or an ongoing uncertainty about the love object and now with the now with the criticism the previous ambivalence is heightened.  The disinterest in the previous love and the past passionate feelings causes internal conflict. The libido is now faced with conflicting forces between the lost admiration for “object-love” and the past “libidinal drive” of wanting to stay connected with the previous love-object. When the libidinal drive is too forceful the subject will return to the love object not in reality but in a hallucinatory representation. Thus the subject will enter psychosis. Freud observes, although the negative self-regard and self-reproach that the subject presents can be easily “challenged” and disproven by an observer, this approach would be useless and fruitless from a clinical, therapeutic, and research point of view.  What is vital from a “clinical”, “scientific” and “therapeutic” standpoint is to understand his subjective and psychological statements regarding his self and his self-accusation.

Freud grapples with another seemingly contradiction within the melancholia’s condition. Although the subject presents his ego as worthless, despicable, and inferior the subject doesn’t appear to feel shameful in front of others the way the typical subjects reacts when feeling remorse and self-reproach. Freud actually finds an opposite characteristic in the melancholic patient, where the patient seems to want to communicate excessively, and searches for opportunities in self-exposure. This contradiction, Freud explains, will be vital part in discovering and understanding the true condition and mechanics of melancholia. 

Ego Ideal

Freud elaborates on the self-accusation and self-criticism that the melancholic is faced with. It appears that the accuser is an external independent agency. This independent part of the ego is controlling and dictating the rest of the ego. The ego is being dominated by a split off part of the ego which criticizes and dehumanizes its counterpart as a foreign bad ego. This independent split off agency is referred to  as the “ego ideal”, which constantly watches over the ego and censors its decisions. The process of censure is referred to as the conscience. This is similar to the pathological condition of paranoia where the individual hears others telling him what to do. So the ego is divided and one part work against the other. The ego ideal works against the ordinary ego.

Freud uses a keen observation to answer the above contradiction between the self-reproach of melancholia and his seemingly shameless feeling around others.

The observation is as follows:

Close observation to the content of the criticism and self-reproach, will demonstrate that the subject is not actually talking about himself/herself.  Rather he/she is actually talking about another individual in his environment, a person that he/she once loved, or should have loved, or was supposed to love, who possessed or believed the patient to posses these precise criticisms  the subject is now talking about. Now, the activation of mourning begins with the loss of an object that has been the libidinal-object, the aim of the libidinal cathexes. However, in melancholia the loss begins with being slighted or criticized by the loved person and therefore the person is rejected. With the loss of the person the libido is left hanging with no object to place itself on. In the healthy circumstance the old object will shortly be replaced with a new object and thus end the process of mourning. However in melancholia the “libidinal object/person” becomes internalized and identified with the ego itself and all the ambivalence towards the objects is now directed towards the ego itself. The ego is thus treated as an object and can now be the object of hatred and criticism.

This leads us to the conclusion that the subject is actually stating hatred and hostility of an external love object/person that has now shifted internally from an external object/person to the ego itself. This process takes place with the “identification of the love object/person.”  Freud explains identification as the subject regresses from an attachment relationship to a narcissistic extension where the object/person becomes interjected and part and parcel of the ego. Thus the ego ideal can become sadistic toward the ego as an outsider. And the ego is treated like an external object/person of hate and disgust, which can eventually lead to suicide.


Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, 237-258

—(1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

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