The Ego, The Superego and The Id
The Ego, The Superego and The Id
The structure of the personality in psychoanalytic theory is threefold. Freud divided it into the id, the ego and the superego. Only the ego is visible, or on the surface one may say, while the id and the superego remain ‘hidden’, below the surface of what we show of our personalities to others, but each has its own effects on the personality nonetheless. This essay seeks to explore these three layers of personality and how they work with one another.
“In Freud’s structural hypothesis, the id is generally recognised as the psychic representative of the drives.” (Berger 1995 p.106) The id represents biological forces and is always present in the personality. The id is governed by the ‘pleasure principle,’ or notion of hedonism (seeking of pleasure). Early in the development of his theory Freud saw sexual energy, or the libido or the life instinct, as the only source of energy for the id. It was this notion that gave rise to the popular conception that psychoanalysis is all about sex.
After the carnage of World War I, however, Freud felt it necessary to add another instinct, or source of energy to the id. So, he proposed ‘Thanatos,’ the death instinct. Thanatos accounts for the instinctual violent urges of humankind. Obviously the rest of the personality would have somehow to deal with these two instincts. It is interesting to note how Hollywood has capitalised on the id; box office success is highly correlated with movies that stress sex, violence, or both.
“We can come nearer to the id with images, and call it chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement. We suppose that it is somewhere in direct contact with somatic processes, takes over from their instinctual needs and gives them mental representation. These instincts fill it with energy, but it has no organisation and no unified will, only an impulsion to obtain satisfaction for the instinctual needs, in accordance with the pleasure principle.” (Hinsie & Campbell, 1970 cited in Berger 1995 p. 106)
The id is a source of energy and should not be retained too much, but at the same time we must contain it, otherwise its’ force and desire for pleasure shall dominate our lives, inhibiting our life progress; our lives would be dominated by impulses. The id knows no values, no good or evil, no morality. The quantitative factor, which is so closely bound up with the pleasure principle, dominates all its processes. We view the id as containing instinctual cathexes seeking discharge. According to Freud, the id constitutes the total psychic apparatus of the newborn; the psychic later splits into three parts adding an ego and superego. Although this view that the psyche is all id at birth has been criticised, what is generally held is that the id precedes the development of the ego and the superego.
The ego is thought to start functioning early in life, around the age of five or six months old and is concerned with the environment. This is because the ego is involved in making sure that the id secures its’ gratifications. (Berger 1995 p.106) After researching the ego, I, as I think many, found its concepts much more complicated than the id. I will try to simplify the central ideas of the ego, as often it helps to make a more precise and understandable picture in one’s own mind. A primary function of the ego is to mediate between the id and the superego, trying to keep them in balance. “The ego is the part of the psychic apparatus which is the mediator between the person and reality,” (Hinsie & Campbell 1970 cited in Berger 1995 p.107) not only this but it functions to perceive and adapt to reality.
Tasks of the ego include such things as perception, motor control and the use of the reality principle. The ego seeks to influence the id and its tendencies by the external world. It also tries to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle, which rules unrestrictedly in the id. Ego represents the common sense and reason whilst the id contains passion. The functional importance of the ego to the id is well captured in an analogy used by Joan Riviere (1962), where it is like “a man on horse back, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse,” with the difference being that the rider tries to do so with his own strength, whilst the ego uses borrowed forces. The ego is “in the habit of transforming the ids will into action as if it were its own.” (Rieviere 1962 p.15)
Speaking broadly, perceptions may have the same significance for the ego as instincts have for the id. At the same time the ego is subject to the influence of the instincts too. As shown by Freud in ‘Civilisation and its discontents’ there are two classes of instincts; one is the sexual instincts known as Eros, and the second is the instinct of death. The death instinct would thus seem to express itself as an instinct of destruction directed against the external world and other organisms. Sadism and masochism are both manifestations of the destructive instinct. Masochism is a union between destructiveness directed inward and sexuality (Freud 1957). It is in sadism, where the death instinct twists the erotic aim in its own sense and at the same time satisfies the erotic urge. “The instinct of destruction, moderated and and tamed, inhibited in its aim, must, when it is directed toward objects, provide the ego with the satisfaction of its vital needs and with control over nature.” (Freud 1957)
The transformation of erotic libido into ego-libido of course involves an abandonment of sexual aims. This highlights an important function of the ego in its relation to Eros. Riviere (1962) explains that by getting hold of the libido from the object cathexes, setting itself up as a sole love-object, and converting the libido of the id, the ego is working in opposition to the purposes of Eros and placing itself at the service of the opposing instinctual impulses. It has to participate in some of the other object-cathexes of the id, so to speak. This implies an importance of the theory of narcissism. At the beginning, all of the libido is collected in the id. The id sends part of this libido out into erotic object-cathexes, where the ego, once grown stronger, tries to gain this object-libido and to force itself on the id as a love object.
The narcissism of the ego is thus a secondary one, which has been withdrawn from objects. Usually, when one is able to trace instinctual impulses back, we find them to be derivatives of Eros. Some creatures die in the act, or after, copulation because “after Eros has been eliminated through the process of satisfaction, the death instinct has a free hand for accomplishing its purposes.” (Riviere 1960 p.37) Freud (1963) sees civilisation as based upon individuals learning to control their sexual urges and finding other ways of getting gratification. But because sexual impulses are powerful, there is always a tension between them and the institutions in society. Civilisation, as Freud points out in ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ (1957), is the cause of many of our miseries: it forces us to give up uninhibited instinctual gratifications (in particular, genital satisfactions and aggressiveness), and it creates guilt. Life consists of the struggle of mankind between Eros and death, between instinct of life and instinct of destruction; this presents the meaning of the evolution of civilisation.
Now we turn to explore the third structure, the superego. According to Freud, the superego is the agency in our psychs involved with conscience, morality and ideal aspirations. The superego consists of two parts, the conscience and the ego-ideal. The conscience is the familiar metaphor of angel and devil on each shoulder. The conscience decides what course of action one should take, what is right and what is wrong, and forces the ego to inhibit the id in pursuit of morally acceptable, not pleasurable or even realistic, goals. The ego ideal is an idealised view of one’s self. Comparisons are made between the ego-ideal and one’s actual behaviour. Both parts of the superego develop with experience with others or through social interactions. According to Freud, a strong superego serves to inhibit the biological instincts of the id, while a weak one gives into the id’s urgings. The superego is part of a trio that controls our urges and desires. The id being the urge at its raw form, the ego filtering the urge (in a very complicated manner!) and the superego is the decider of whether or not the urge can be satisfied immediately or must be put aside for later.
The superego is not created when we are born, rather we are born with the superego and it develops over the course of our life as new rules and regulations are brought to light. The superego is known as the ‘seat of morality,’ part conscious and part unconscious. It is the part of us that induces guilt. In ‘Civilisation and its Discontents,’ this question is posed, “what means does civilisation employ in order to inhibit the aggressiveness which opposes it?” To this, Freud explains that ones aggressiveness is internalised, it is sent back to where it came from, and it is directed toward one’s own ego. “There it’s taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself over against the rest of the ego as superego, and which now, in the form of conscience, is ready to put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals.”
The tension between the harsh superego and the ego is called ‘the sense of guilt.’ Civilisation controls one’s desire for aggression by setting up an agency (the superego) within a person to watch over it and control it. We can compare the superego to a personal watchdog, keeping us in line with the rules of society, sometimes these rules are broken and the superego lets us know by inducing in us a sense of guilt. When we do well, our superego makes us swell with pride and joy.
Our superegos are shaped primarily by the superegos of our grandparents, as they shape our parents’ superegos, who then socialise us and give us our moral sensibilities. The severity of our superegos is not tied to how strict our parents were when raising us, but the way they have dealt with their Oedipus complexes and our internalization of this process. Too complex to fully expand on now, I shall just say that the superego develops, according to psychoanalytic theory, out of our need to deny hostile wishes we have, incestuous in nature, which may simply be described as our Oedipus complexes. I believe the words of David Stevenson (1966) give a clear and concise insight into the superego.
“While the ego may temporarily repress certain urges of the id in fear of punishment, eventually these external sources of punishment are internalised, and the child will not steal a chocolate, even unwatched, because he has taken punishment, right, and wrong into himself. The superego uses guilt and self-reproach as its primary means of enforcement for these rules. But if a person has done something which is acceptable, he experiences pride and self-satisfaction.”
I have discussed the structural relationship within the mental personality, and although very complex, Freud’s work on the ego, superego and id has continued to be greatly studied, respected and used to expend our fields of knowledge.