The desire – drive dissonance and why you can’t always get what you want.

The desire – drive dissonance and why you can’t always get what you want.

Sigmund Freud[1]and the birth of psychoanalysis gave rise to the idea of a “drive” and “drive theory”, (in German “trieb” and “Triebtheorie”. )[2] A drive, in this sense, is a psychical phenomenon that represents an unconscious motivation or instinct[3] in the subject’s psychology. The two most prominent of these drives for Freud are Eros, the sexual creative drive, and Thanatos, the aggressive and destructive death drive (Toedestrieb).[4] An important feature, maybe the most essential characteristic of a drive, is its psychical orientation and distinction from the physiological instinct. It is a uniquely psychological phenomenon.

What Freud wished to call attention to by speaking of Trieb instead of Instinkt, I believe, is that human sexual behaviour is characterized by the fact that it is anything but stereotyped, as witness the sexual behaviour of children, the sexual fantasies and symptoms of neurotic patients, and the variety of sexual perversions.” [5]

This idea was expanded and amplified by the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.[6] Where Lacan amplified, or arguably changed, classical Freudian drive theory, is in the notion that drives are structured to remain inherently unsatisfied.[7] At first blush this is not all that different from Freud’s theory as drive as the psychical form of the instinct would naturally only be satisfied for a time and then naturally would reactivate as a form of desire. Lacan’s view is slightly more pessimistic, in that the drive is simply and perennially dissatisfied/unfulfilled.  It has as its object or telos the enrolled, engaged and anxious subject.

To some degree these distinctions, at least from the limited perspective of this post, are in the realm of fine grained theory. Either way, the drive exerts an ongoing, unconscious, affective and anxiety provoking, effect. This is most noticeable in the experience of unfulfilled desire.

The above noted, I do think the Lacanian perspective is immensely useful. Specifically, the idea that the drive leads desire to circulate around an absence. Not, importantly, an absence that can ever be fulfilled. The drive sustains itself and the subject’s (your) enjoyment “Jouissance” precisely through the unfulfilled desire. In other words, the unconscious drive does not walk hand in hand with the conscious desire to the desire’s stated object, i.e. that which it claims will fulfil it. On the contrary, the drive sustains itself and a certain perverse enjoyment on the part of the subject, through ensuring that desire’s object always remains unrealised.

The above may be true when applied to the category of desire generally, that seems to be Lacan’s stance. Whether or not this is the case, it certainly is an accurate description of neurotic desire. This is the desire that remains perennially, and sometimes inexplicably, unfulfilled.

What are the implications?

To put things simply, our desires are frequently insincere. A mirage, designed to keep us on a certain treadmill of ineffective actions – relative to the realisation of the desire, self-sabotage and frustration. We “sincerely” believe, or at least convince ourselves, of certain “heartfelt” desires. And yet, in these cases, the desired object/ outcome/experience remains elusively out of reach. On occasion, in our more lucid moments, we may recognise how we, ourselves, act against this realisation of this desire. These insights though are typically not enduring. We soon fall back into our state of wanting, chronic anxiety and perennial anticipation. We rationalise the desire-sabotaging behaviour as something that simply needs to be worked through, opposed, or understood so that it no longer short circuits our desire.

Over time though, it is a good idea to become suspicious of perennially unfulfilled desire. Consider, at least, the possibility that the sincere desire, or more accurately, drive, is the state of desiring itself, more specifically, of the experience of desiring and not having the desire met, of unfulfilled desire.  This is not as strange or counter intuitive as it seems at first. There are certain obvious situations where the Jouissance or enjoyment is in the experience of (as yet) unfulfilled desire. A good example is the enjoyment one derives from eating a really good meal, prior to being full. Once one is full, one’s appetite is satiated, the capacity to enjoy the meal is absent. As long as one remains hungry, one can continue to enjoy the experience of eating. Sex, the register of Jouissance, is the exemplar here. As long as one remains in an amorous state, one can enjoy the experience of love making. But the climax brings with it not only the pinnacle of pleasure but, also, its simultaneous demise, “Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.”[8]

In the cases of appetites, be it for love or food, among others, provided one can skirt addiction, delayed gratification has virtue. This is part of the reasoning behind certain Tantric practices. However, in the case of perennially unfulfilled desire, this is a vice rather than virtue. Here the interminably delayed fulfilment of the desire causes the subject anxiety, shame and recrimination, from others and oneself.

Let me illustrate this idea by way of a personal example.

I am not what one would refer to as a great holiday kind of person. I have seen the ads, read the brochure and even spent time on Trip Advisor. As a kid, back in the day of big budget cinema ads, I drooled, like everyone else, over the amazing time those beautiful people were having on the Mainstay advert. You remember the slogan, “You can stay as you are for the rest of your life, or, you can change to Mainstay.” I wanted to change. Honestly, I did. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to drink Mainstay Cane and then party with those beautiful people in bikinis, on a boat moored just off some tropical island. I’m not perverse that way, I want to be happy and get happy and live happy as much as the next guy. Or, at least, that was certainly the way I thought about myself.

But alas, somewhere between there and here, then and now, the shiny eyed teenage boy and the cantankerous middle-aged man that writes this post, something changed. Not to put too fine a point on it, I fucking hate holidays. And so, it was, I would save up for, plan and go on holidays, suffering the illusion that this would be the source of joy. I guess, to be completely honest, there was some fun in it, which was the planning and anticipation. The holidays themselves though, were, with few exceptions, torture. I simply never had fun, found pleasure or escape or enchantment, in these experiences, these so called “holidays”.

On the contrary, my normally low level of anxiety and misery would skyrocket into a full-blown depression, combined with exponentially increased anxiety; basically, I was all round miserable and much more so than normal.  To make matters worse, as though this wasn’t bad enough on its own, I was mystified at being in this state. If I was even a marginally better Catholic I would have whipped myself every morning and evening with a small, purpose designed, rod (like a little whip in other words). Here I was, spending my hard-earned money, my scarce leave time, surrounded by the people I loved most in the world, and all I prayed every night was for this sojourn into hell to be over sooner rather than later. As soon as the good Lord would permit such a character building mini-crucifixion to be over, that is.

Although I stopped short of this salutary good-Catholic-practice, literal self-flagellation, I psychically indulged in it. I whipped myself for my misery. I was miserable, and the pinnacle of that misery was my shame and sense of inadequacy at my incapacity for a joyful holiday experience. Not only was I miserable, but I was miserable about being miserable!

Subsequently, I learnt from psychoanalysis that this is a universal feature of the human condition, self-judgment about being miserable, about one’s suffering. The moment one enters a process with a group of people, where each confesses his or her personal misery to the group, the relief that washes over everyone present is visible. The liberating insight that suffering is part of the human condition and one is not alienated by it, cut off from his fellow man, but through this connected to a the other as brother to brother, and sister to sister.

Over time and armed with this knowledge and, frankly speaking, permission, it dawned on me that it was not only holidays I hate. My natural disposition is irascible and I hate quite a few things: other people, parties, any social event, small talk, sport, politics, the great outdoors, shopping malls, anyway you get the idea, I won’t go on. The thing of it is though, the rub, is that for many years, decades of my adult life, I lacked this inestimably valuable insight.

This is an example of how the drive-desire dissonance operates. At the conscious explicit level, I believed that the experience was desirable, that it would be the source of joy. Simultaneously, the actual experience was of an absence of the anticipated pleasure. This gap or void is what Lacan speaks of in his work on desire. Desire circumnavigates an empty space. To quote from Žižek, it is “less than nothing”.[9]

What, if anything, can be done about this?

If we consider this as more than merely a commentary of the human condition, a kind of brokenness which does not lend itself to repair but only acceptance, how might we proceed.

What this situation exposes, as mentioned earlier, is a certain insincerity. The drive -desire dissonance reflects a lack of internal transparency, honesty and cohesion. This is indicative of the split between the conscious and unconscious registers of the psyche. Whilst we may aspire to honesty, what we usually mean by this and is limited to the conscious register. Psychoanalysis is the science of identifying this lack of internal cohesion, understanding it and attempting to create synthesis between this pre-existing conscious-unconscious polarity and dissonance. To put this in a nutshell, psychoanalysis is the science of honesty. Taking the aspiration of honesty and applying a self-reflective method to its realisation.

The desire-drive dissonance is a case in point. Treating honesty as a North Star, one approach is to give up the pretence of the stated desire. To stop playing the drive-desire game. The drive and the ongoing behaviour, self-recrimination and compulsion associated with the drive, have enrolled your stated desire as a part of the psychic drama that is acted out. Without this unfulfilled desire, the inner tension and conflict subside. The drive no longer realises the affective response that sustains it. You, the subject, in this case, will experience relief and liberation. Of course, to realise this relief and enact this technique comes as a high price – you need to let go of your desire!  And we do not choose our desires, they choose us. Meaning that they are not easy to let go of.

Often all that sustains us are our desires. In that sense, hope is a tyrannising impulse, it enslaves you.[10] Your life may be crappy, but you live in the hope that once your desire is realised it will be significantly better – worth living or you will be happy or some such idea. Without considering the merits of this aspiration i.e. whether or not you will in fact be happy once your desire is realised, certainly right now you are both unhappy and in a state of perennial anxiety, whilst your desire remains elusively out of reach. Nevertheless, it is a sustaining fiction. One of the ways we identify ourselves is through our hopes, dreams and aspirations. Consequently, I mitigate my brokenness through the fiction of my desire and thereby perpetuate the drive.

The above acknowledged, if you are, through whatever means, able to release yourself from the tyrannising desire you will effectively interrupt the drive and neurosis. You will create reflective space and free up libido that can be used to creatively re-imagine and reconstitute your identity and narrative.  One possible foothold to achieve this, is to reflect on the justification for the desire. Often – Lacan would say, always – our desires are imposed upon us by others. In other words, consider carefully the merits of the justification for your desire. You may find in some cases that the desire itself is based on a flawed premise or set of premises. One should not be convinced something is right, simply because you want it. Returning to earlier example of the desire to be happy whilst on holiday. Liberating myself from that demand has brought me significant relief, and ironically, made me much happier! I do not think this is atypical, and without offering any guarantees, suggest that your relief, should you liberate yourself for the tyrannising desire, will be similar.

I will leave it there. Unlike those television documentaries where you are admonished -do not try this at home! I encourage you to try this at home, or on holiday, or in your relationships, wherever you are in the grips of the drive -desire dissonance.


Until we speak again,



[1] 1856 – 1939; the founder of psychoanalysis and mentor for a time to Jung. Referred to as the “the inventor of the modern mind” (Kramer, 2006), for the ubiquitous assimilation of psychoanalytic theory and concepts in 20th century culture.

[2] In psychology, a drive theory or drive doctrine is a theory that attempts to define, analyze, or classify the psychological drives. A drive is an “excitatory state produced by a homeostatic disturbance”, an instinctual need that has the power of driving the behaviour of an individual.

Drive theory is based on the principle that organisms are born with certain psychological needs and that a negative state of tension is created when these needs are not satisfied. When a need is satisfied, drive is reduced and the organism returns to a state of homeostasis and relaxation. According to the theory, drive tends to increase over time and operates on a feedback control system, much like a thermostat.

[3] “In psychology and the natural sciences, instinct is the inherent inclination of a living organism towards natural instinctive behaviour that is a ‘fixed’ pattern of response. A sequence of actions without variation, carried out in response to a stimulus.” (Erwin, 2002)

[4] Freud, 1920, ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’.

[5] (Brenner, 2008, 708)

[6] 1901 – 1981, Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has been called “the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud”. Significant work also being done on drive theory by Donald Winnicott, specifically, objects relation theory, which is a more socialised, inter-subjective, view of drive theory.

[7] “The subject not only continuously moves towards an object to satisfy its unmet needs and contain its anxiety, it does so precisely because it lacks an object that could satisfy it.” (Demir)

[8] The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had

Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell. (Shakespeare, sonnet, 129).

A sonnet my late teacher, Chatilon Coque, had me read aloud a good 100 times!

[9] Žižek, 2012, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the shadow of Dialectical Materialism

[10] My favourite stand-up comedian has to be Louis C K. He plays on this idea in one of his skits. What keeps us going in certain intolerable situations, how bad do things need to get before you take your own life. Like, don’t complain that much, there is always another option. Nothing is actually necessity if you let go of the demand that one must live no matter what.

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Comments (6)

  • Zoltan Reply

    Stephen, thank you for another insightful article. I am also pleased to get a little of Lacan’s ideas which I have found generally impenetrable.

    With thanks,


    July 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm
  • Linda Hawkins Reply

    Blown away! Firstly, exceptionally well written and explained ‘cantankerous middle-aged man’. Last week I looked at ‘On this day’ – memories that facebook so nonchalantly spews into our news feeds every now and then. Over the last month, I had this realisation that I have spent the better part of my adult life renovating: both my life and my home. Facebook confirmed this for me in pictures. Photographs I took and posted over the years. They documented the massive projects I have taken on. Constant builders, rubble, change. I’ve always looked at the symbolism of the entire process and drawn fabulous conclusions that made me feel more sane and safe than donning the cloak of an out of control superhuman serial renovator. I also looked at why I was doing it and who I was doing it for. Whether I was living the renovation because all I could see was ‘the broken’ – which kept me locked in the fixing of it all. Whether I was doing it because I thought that everyone else saw me as broken. For a longest of time, most of my adult life, I’ve renovated. Tried to fix ‘it all’. In my own life and in my home. Or did I? Was the drive to renovate to experience the change and the renewal – or was it to challenge myself to the brink of being overwhelmed? Of gasping for breath? Of being terrified by the size of the project taken on. Hmmmm…. Thank you for this.

    July 8, 2017 at 6:41 pm
  • Charmaine Host Reply

    I think this is brilliant – I have had to work to get my head round it but it explains a lot about the persistent let down of holidays! As a Christian it also says something to me about what Jesus talked about ‘those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life (for my sake) will find it.’

    July 10, 2017 at 6:48 pm
  • Lesley A Reply

    I had a most profound epiphany day before yesterday – the day before I read this very insightful article. And it was precisely about how I have been doing something pretty much all my life that deep down I did not like to do or even really want to do but felt – through socialisation and imposed expectations that I internalised – that I should do. It was the unconscious becoming conscious. (I hope I am getting it right here, I think I am.) My epiphany so blew me away I had to lie down a while to absorb it. Your article has confirmed and reiterated it for me. Thank you. Some would call it synchronicity. I have read it twice already and about to read it a third time. The sonnet I have read at least 20 times. Aiming for 100 (let see what happens) 🙂

    July 10, 2017 at 10:04 pm
  • Iko Vrić Reply

    Thank you for exposing your self and your history in a brave and thoughtful manner. It helps a lot.

    March 18, 2018 at 12:21 pm
  • Richard Smith Reply

    Many thanks -this is the the clearest account I have read of something that I have suffered from. It chimes so strongly with my experience. In my own case this was in the area of relationships with women. The attachment, the idealisation – the desperate need for something that I was unconsciously sabotaging and the extraordinary power driving this. I descended into alcoholism. The process that you so clearly describe can be seen as an addictive cycle. The understanding of Life Script has been very important for my recovery – but also the process of recovery has been experiential – in the sense of re-experiencing this process (that has been painful!) -in order integrate myself.

    April 7, 2019 at 10:39 am

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