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The term self-preservation in its simplest definition describes both the set of behaviors by means of which individuals attempt to preserve their own existence and the psychical processes that establish these behaviors.

In an initial period of his work Freud associated these behaviors with the sexual instincts. He claimed that a person's life is conditioned by two major forces: self-preservation instincts, by means of which people preserve their own existence, and sexual instincts, by means of which they ensure the survival of the species. This, he asserted, was fundamental biological data, adding that, as simple observation illustrates, they can be opposed in conflicts that result in the essentials of psychic dynamics.

Although the notion of "self-preservation" itself did not appear until later, we find it foreshadowed as early as 1895 in "A Project for a Scientific Psychology" (Freud, 1950a), in which Freud accords major importance to attention viewed as the cathexis of perception and thought processes by the ego for the purpose of adaptation. He did not however explicitly formulate his thesis until 1910 in an article on "The Psychoanalytic View of Psychogenic Disturbance of Vision" (1910i, pp. 209-218), where he evoked "the undeniable opposition between the instincts which subserve sexuality, the attainment of sexual pleasure, and those other instincts, which have as their aim the self-preservation of the individual, the ego instincts" (p. 214). He was to return to this question and discuss it in greater detail in "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915c, p. 124): "I have proposed that two groups of such primal instincts should be distinguished: the ego, or self-preservative, instincts and the sexual instincts." He added cautiously—and somewhat short of his earlier affirmation that it was "fundamental biological data"—that it was merely a working hypothesis.

In this passage we notice that in accordance with the approach opened up in the "Project," he considers "self-preservative instincts" and "ego instincts" as being equivalent terms and that they are indeed instincts. However, "As the poet has said, all the organic instincts [. . .] may be classified as 'hunger' or 'love' " (1910i, p. 214-215). This brings up the question as to what is a purely organic need (Berdürfnis), what is instinctive behavior (Instinkt, in the sense of preformed and automatically executed behavior), and what is drive (Trieb, in the sense of a "borderline-concept" between the organic and the psychic). Freud was to be much more explicit on this question in relation to psychosexuality than in relation to self-preservation, which was relegated somewhat to the rear of his theoretical preoccupations. This opposition-complementarity nevertheless plays an important role in the theory that the sexual instincts are connected to the self-preservation instincts, based on the first case of sucking (1905d), and in the opposition between the pleasure principle and the reality principle: the ego instincts force the way to the reality principle, whereas the sexual instincts remain much more durably in the service of the pleasure principle (1911b).

With the arrival of the structural theory and the second theory of instincts opposing life instincts and death instincts, the question takes on new dimensions. All instincts are now seen as libidinal whereas the ego—at the expense of its largely unconscious function—more clearly takes charge of all adaptive functions (in the service of one of its "masters," the reality of the external world, though simultaneously tyrannized by the other two, the id and the superego). The result is that, in the structural theory with the notion of conflict among the agencies, the status of the notion of "self-preservation" becomes relatively uncertain and the expression "ego instincts" tends to disappear from Freudian vocabulary.

However, several post-Freudian trends have again highlighted the value of the notions of self-preservation instincts and ego instincts, particularly the Paris psychosomatic school.[1]