Understanding Siegmund Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego
In order to understand Sigmund Freud’s psycho-analytic theory we must first enter into the mind of this great and revolutionary psychologist, which is not an easy task to do considering that many of his theories and experiments have paved the way for not only the psychologist on which Freud had great influence but also for modern psychology altogether.
Understanding Freud is crucial for us to know why people act in a certain way and how we can detect and explain that specific behavior because we are surrounded every day by the people we know and people we don’t know and few of us really sat down and thought to ourselves why really do people act the way they do.
Our first task is to dwell a little deeper into Freud’s personal life so we can find out more about this well-known but also controversial figure before we dissect his theory of human personality.
Then we will explain certain topics related to Ego and why it is important to understand Freud.
So without further ado, I will like to welcome you to the beautiful and ingenious mind that is of Sigmund Freud.
WHO WAS SIGMUND FREUD?
Born on the sixth of May 1856, in Freiberg, Austria, Freud has spent most of his life in Vienna, from when he was 4 years old up until when he turned 82 when he needed to escape Austria because of the Second World War.
In the year of 1885, Freud left Vienna and went to Paris where he learned hypnosis from the famous French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot who had a great influence on Freud leading him to start studying the origins of hysteria by using hypnosis.
As a result, Freud started to do his research on the unconscious and actually became the pioneer of Psychoanalysis.
He gave great importance to human sexuality which later made his theory disputed many times by other psychologists.
Although a controversial figure in psychology he definitely influenced some of the rising psychologists back in the day such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav Jung, and they both left Freud’s International Psychoanalytical Association in Vienna and started working on their own fields of study.
His most remarkable works are:
- The Interpretation of Dreams – 1899.
- The Psychopathology of Everyday Life – 1904.
- Totem and Taboo – 1913.
- Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis – 1921.
His daughter, Anna Freud, continued the path of her father and later became of the leading experts in understanding the theory of the Ego.
LEVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
In order for us to understand the Id, Ego, and Superego, first, we need to see in what level of our conscious state are they located and which parts of our brain fall into what category.
There are three levels of our consciousness:
- Conscious level – This level is just the tip of the iceberg as Freud would have said it and this is where our logic, thoughts, and perception are located.
- Preconscious level – In this level we start to scratch the surface of our Ego and elements such as our memories, morals, values, and ideas tend to fall into place here.
- Unconscious level – This is by far the deepest point of our mind and home of the Superego and our Id which is at the very bottom of this iceberg we call our mind. Here we can find our stored information, need of self-love, avoidance of guilt and at the very bottom our fears, selfish needs, and violent urges.
It sounds a bit scary dwelling this deep into our own mind but with the proper understanding of Freud’s theory, we can at least have a better picture about how our behavior is determined and transmitted towards ourselves and other people.
And now without further ado, we should start to go step-by-step in explaining what these parts of our mind are and what do they actually represent in Freud’s theory.
The Id represents our biological self-image and is a reservoir of our total psychical energy.
As an inherent and unconscious part of our personality, the Id is the bearer of our instincts and strives to please our needs and by doing so it frees us from unpleasant tension without postponement.
The basic principle which the Id is led by is the principle of pleasure.
The processes which are carried out in the Id for the purpose of pleasure are:
- Reflexes – They are the automatic, inherited reactions of the organism to an external stimulus which are carried out without our conscience.
- Primary processes – Are the mental activities directed at the fulfillment of our desires at a phantasmal level (our dreams, fantasies, etc.), and even though they aren’t fulfilling our desires, the fantasies are bringing temporary pleasantness to the organism.
Our Id doesn’t follow the rules of social bans, moral norms, demands of reality, rational reasoning and logical operations.
It is not impacted by external experience, meaning it doesn’t evolve but rather maintains its position in its original, inherited form.
We could say that the Id is irrational and that contradictory and unrealistic ideas don’t seem to be a problem for it – it has no internal limitations.
Desires are for the Id the only reality which is accepted, that being said the behavior which is led solely on the principles of the If are manifested as antisocial or even psychotic and could get criticism from other people as being abnormal or illogical.
The Ego is our psychological self-image and its main function is to coordinate the Id’s demands with reality. The basic principle of the Ego is the reality which is accomplished by secondary processes.
Secondary processes include cognitive functions which are led by logic and rationality in regards to external influence. These cognitive functions are:
Even though the principle of reality is counteracting in regards to the principle of pleasure, which as we said seeks the fulfillment of our needs without postponement, the Ego actually enables more successful fulfillment of our needs without consequences by setting our desires aside for the opportunity of a more willing and conscious control of behavior.
Theorists who belonged to the School of Ego-psychology and who were influenced a lot by Freud, for example, Anna Freud (his daughter), Heinz Hartmann and David Rapaport, have developed an understanding of the role and basic functions of the Ego which includes:
- Adaptive-inhibitory functions – Sometimes called the executive functions, these functions include reality testing, impulse control, frustration tolerance, postponement, movement and defense mechanisms.
- Synthetic-integrative functions – These functions include synthesis, neutralization and secondary processes.
Some of these functions have a primary autonomy aren’t derived from conflicts and they are carried out through our conciseness – cognitive processes; while other processes, for example, defense mechanisms are carried out in our unconsciousness.
The Ego gradually differentiates itself from the Id through introjection of the parents which function is to fulfill the desires of the child. The Ego gets its energy from the Id in a way which makes their relationship interdependent.
Freud made an example for this correlation with the correlation of a horse and the rider by comparing the Id with a horse which uses its energy in order to get to the finish line and the Ego with the rider who leads him to a specific direction.
The Superego is our social self-image and it represents the social component of our personality.
It is the carrier of our social values and moral. It is directed by the principle of perfection in order to achieve the needs of our personality in a socially desirable way.
The basic components of the Superego are:
- Conscience – It is made up of moral values and principles within a certain social environment which are considered to be allowed and also a feeling of what is forbidden or unwanted in our behavior. Breaking or following these social rules cause either a feeling of guilt of pride.
- Ego Ideal – It’s a part of the Superego containing the goals we strive to achieve. These goals may seem to be unattainable if they are set unrealistically high.
At the age of five, the Superego is in the process of developing in the child’s behavior by identification with the parents.
The child begins to take on the moral norms and ideals, bans and demands which the parents require by speaking to the child directly and verbally or through their own behavior so that these external principles become a part of the child’s internal structure.
Knowing that these principles are a part of the parent’s own Superego which has been passed down to them by their own parents in this way the Superego is inherited.
Punishments and rewards, which the parents direct to their child’s behavior, are transformed into a feeling of pride or guilt within the child.
- The feeling of guilt is a consequence of disconnection from the Conscience.
- The feeling of inferiority is a consequence of disconnection from the Ego Ideal.
In this way the Superego acts like an inner parent, meaning that the desired behavior is being manifested in the child’s normal behavior and the bans are being respected and understood without the need of the parents telling the child what to do.
The function of the Superego isn’t to postpone the requests of the Id like the Ego, but instead, it rejects and bans unwanted sexual and aggressive impulses.
In addition, the Superego replaces real goals with moral and idealistic ones, presuming the principles of reality to the principles of perfection.
If the Superego is too strict, the behavior of that person manifests in rigid conduct in real situations, having oftentimes a feeling of guilt and strict judgment towards oneself or to others.
THE RELATIONS BETWEEN ID, EGO, AND SUPEREGO
You will often hear that the Ego is “the servant of three masters” mainly because it has the function to integrate requests of the Id, Superego, and reality.
If the Ego successfully, at the same time, satisfies the needs of the Id on a socially acceptable way then there won’t be any conflicts between these instances.
A healthy personality can make a balance between the contradictory requests of the three elements and can successfully consolidate its biological, psychological and social nature.
If the balance of energy isn’t evenly distributed it can lead to intrapsychic conflicts and problems in behavior.
If the Id takes control, and the weakened Ego and Superego can’t restrain it, the person experiencing this will start to act impulsively and will without postponement try to satisfy his/her needs.
A person with a strong and dominant Ego seems to be calculated, rational and cold, on the other side, a person who has a too strong Superego are prone to self-judgment, high –standards and a feeling of inferiority and self-criticism, putting oneself in constant conflict with the environment.
The concepts connected to the dynamics of our personality refer to the question of motivation.
Freud thought that the basic trigger of our behavior is our tendency to satisfy our urges and to reduce tension which originates from postponement or prevention of our need to satisfy our urges.
Our urges have two aspects attached to them:
- The needs of our physical condition.
- Our wishes or demands which show the psychological representation of our biological needs.
The dynamics of personality determines the order of the energy used and arranged between the Id, Ego, and Superego and depending on which instance holds more energy, it will be the more dominant in our behavior at the expense of the other two instances.
At birth, our entire energy is based on the Id and later the capability of the Ego to examine the reality and identify the objects which could bring satisfaction to our needs is put to the test. With this process, making our energy become bound to the Ego becomes a possibility.
The Ego uses its energy as a way to prevent unsocial, immoral and irrational means of satisfying our needs.
Even the Superego works on finding ways to bind some of the energy for itself by using the mechanism of identification with our parents.
In order for us to understand the dynamics of personality, it is very important to mention the concept of anxiety and ways to conquer it.
Freud, in his early studies, thought that anxiety is a direct consequence of releasing inhibitory and libido energy.
Later in his studies, he states that anxiety is a consequence of fear that our sexual and aggressive urges can get out of control.
Fear or anxiety is a signal of an upcoming danger that our unallowed impulses could burst into our consciousness which makes the Ego activate its defense mechanisms and remove the danger.
- Neurotic anxiety – It develops when the Ego and the Id come into conflict.
- Moral anxiety – The conflict of the Ego and the Superego can cause a feeling of shame or guilt when moral and social norms are broken, which makes the punishment we give ourselves to be worse than the judgments and sanctions we endure from others.
- Real anxiety – It is the rational fear of a real threat.
It is common to find these types of anxieties to intertwine, so a person can manifest its neurotic anxiety to the outside world or to a real threat.
Knowing that the threat is coming from outside, like for example phobias, can make the person get control of his/her anxiety by avoiding such situations.
EGO DEFENSE MECHANISMS
Freud wrote a lot about anxiety and how the mind can cope with the problems it brings such as dread, tension, repressed feelings, traumatic memories, desires, and experiences.
He thought that in order to protect the Ego, the human brain developed what he named The Ego defense mechanisms:
- Repression – The lack of recall of an emotionally painful memory.
- Denial – The forceful refusal to acknowledge an emotionally painful memory.
- Reaction Formation – Expressing the opposite of what we really feel, when it would feel too painful to express the real feeling.
- Projection – The attribution of our own unacceptable thoughts or feelings towards another person.
- Displacement – The redirection of aggressive or sexual impulses from a forbidden action or object onto a less dangerous one.
- Rationalization – Explaining and intellectually justifying our impulsive behavior.
- Regression – The act of reverting to an earlier, less sophisticated behavior.
- Sublimation – Channeling aggressive or sexual energy into positive, constructive activities such as producing art or writing.
EGOISM AND FREUD
We often hear the word egoism without knowing what it means and maybe if we even know the meaning, I doubt that everyone knows what it means in Freud’s language.
For Freud, when a person is acting self-centered it doesn’t mean that his Ego is strong, rather that it’s the cause of a strong narcissistic libido.
And what he means by that is that the Ego is more related to our sense of reality and rational thinking than thinking that the world revolves around us.
Through our early childhood, the libido is oriented around our own body and Freud called this primary narcissism.
Later the libido bonds itself to other people, mainly our parents and transforms itself into a narcissistic investment in love.
When we hit puberty, the libido is once again oriented towards our body and ourselves meaning it went back into its original state and this Freud named secondary narcissism.
Love and narcissism can intertwine in situations when the person is in the process of choosing an object of love or the person he loves which suits his Ego Ideal – something which the person aspires to be in the part of his own Superego.
He even said in one of his discussion about love that in order for us to love others we first have to love ourselves and this is a fact no one can dispute because without self-love we would start to criticize people for being happy and honest meaning human envy is the real source of being self-centered.
How the concept of Ego was transformed into a synonym for selfish and narcissistic behavior remains a mystery but I hope that we’ve shed some light on this topic by this brief explanation.
WHY FREUD IS IMPORTANT IN TODAY’S WORLD
Freud set the bar so high for other psychologists mainly because his theory of Id, Ego, and Superego remain undisputed for little over a century opposed to his other theories which have made a lot of debates and were later dismissed with proper evidence.
But Freud really did explain his concepts really well and they are alive and well even today, mainly because when you read Freud’s work and try to understand what he was talking about you really start to notice which instance is stronger in some people and which one is weaker.
For example, I would say that may Ego tends to be stronger than my Id mainly because I remain cool in stressful situations and always try to evaluate my decisions before I act.
Some people just can’t control their desires and tend to satisfy their needs no matter what which suggests a strong Id.
Use this to your advantage when you communicate with other people or have just met someone new in order to know how they would react in certain situations and it will surely make your life much less complicated and any conflict could be easily avoided.
Considering all that we’ve said today, understanding Freud is crucial mainly because he has shed light on human behavior and also is very helpful in understanding what goes on in our mind and why we act as we do in certain situations.
I know that no one, except a psychologist, can say that reading Freud is fun mainly because he really did have some weird ideas and concepts that turned out to be complete nonsense but even those concepts have had an impact in psychology because they’ve opened up a debate.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this explanation of Freud’s theory and really recommend you read some of his work because he is always going to be one of the most impactful psychologists in history.
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