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Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Desire

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Desires, often borne out of unconscious need, drive much of how we feel and hence what we do.

The relationship with loss and lack

Lack and desire are synonymous. When you do not have something and feel a sense of loss, then you are actually feeling desire for that lost thing. Lack implies an incomplete and unachievable wholeness. The resultant desire is a haunting ache that is more than the lust for something more achievable.

Desire relates to the need to possess, to have, to own, to control. We thus lust after people and possessions. Fear of loss and the greed of acquisitive desire are often stimulated by advertising, marketing, etc.

Satisfaction -- or not

We dream that our desires will lead to complete satisfaction and fulfilment, that achieving them will give us lasting happiness.

When we get that which we desire, we seldom achieve a lasting sense of fulfilment. That which is acquired often turns out to be not as perfect as we had idealized. We also still have other desires which now come to the fore and demand our attention.

Our desires are a part of who we are and contribute to our sense of identity. When those desires are fulfilled, then we lose a part of ourselves. Thus fulfilment also brings a sense of loss, which itself is a desire for what has passed.


Desire creates fantasy as we imagine having that which we desire. The power of our imagination is such that these states of reverie are so pleasant that they can replace and become reality. The more we fantasize, the more that reality is relatively dull and unpleasant. Our lives can become very largely constructed by desire, particularly when this practice starts when we are very young.

A dilemma with fantasized existence is that the difference between reality and fantasy becomes so blurred that we are unable to distinguish between the two.

Robert Louis Stephenson said 'It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.' Fantasy is safe as we are in charge of what happens. Fear of disappointment can lead us to stay in the fantasized state, as can self-doubt about our abilities to achieve our desires.


Desire is triggered in Lacan's Mirror phase, where the image of wholeness seen by the baby in the mirror creates a desire for that being. Beyond this phase, Lacan argues that the subject, separated from itself by language, feels a sense of absence, of being not fully present, and thus desires wholeness. He calls this sense of something missing as the 'object petit a'. We constantly put ourselves into the subject positions of language and cultural codes in seeking to fulfil the futile desire for wholeness.

Jacqueline Rose considers all unconscious desire as making identity problematic or 'unfinished'. She says there is 'resistance to identity at the very heart of psychic life'.

Man's desire for woman can be seen as desire for the woman's desire for the phallus.

Lacan uses jouissance to indicate the lost object, that which is unobtainable and which always escapes satisfaction. Rose uses this to show that women have a point of advantage in the overall phallic economy, standing in the place of jouissance and thus being perpetually both desirable and ultimately unobtainable.

Separation in the Oedipus Complex leads to desire as the boy distances himself from the mother yet still yearns for her.

See also

Subject, Mirror phase, Infant sexuality, Desire as an emotion, Psychoanalysis and mourning

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