Freud’s Theory of the Id, Ego and Superego: Lost in Translation

After I had graduated from college with a degree in English Literature, I took an extension course in Introductory Psychology; with five years of therapy under my belt, I had decided to begin graduate school in order to become a psychotherapist and I needed some basic coursework in that area.  I well remember the day the instructor delivered his lecture on Freudian psychology, explaining the tri-partite division of the mind into id, ego and superego.  With great scorn, he presented Freud’s theory as if those well-known terms represented actual sectors of the brain; I believe he even drew a pie-chart on the chalkboard, reducing Freud’s insights to an absurdly simplistic form, and mocked it. I don’t think the instructor’s attitude was particularly rare.  Freud has gone into disrepute — for some legitimate reasons, I suppose; but having read and re-read all 24 volumes of Freud’s works, and taught them repeatedly to graduate students, I’m full of regret that more people don’t understand how truly amazing, insightful and ground-breaking a thinker he was.  He also won the Goethe Prize for Literature — he’s a fabulous writer.

One of the challenges of reading Freud is the official translation into English, prepared under the supervision of James Strachey at the British Psychoanalytic Institute, between 1943 and 1974.  While a meticulous piece of scholarship, and an indispensable resource for anyone truly interested in Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud regularly substitutes clinical-scientific words for the everyday expressive language employed by Freud in German. One of the most important of these concerns the translation of das Es, das Ich and das Uber-Ich into the id, ego and super-ego, respectively.  (These terms actually go back to earlier efforts by Ernest Jones to bring Freud to the English-speaking world; Strachey and his team adopted those translations as they had already gained acceptance.)  A literal translation would be “the I”, “the It”, and “the Over-I”.   Those terms have a very different feel — less conceptual and scientific, more in the realm of our actual experience.

As you probably know, the id is the repository of the “instincts” — another bad translation.  In German, Freud uses the word Trieb, which comes from trieben, meaning “to push.”  “Drives” would be a somewhat better translation, but still doesn’t quite capture it.  I’ve seen Trieb rendered as “physical urge,” and that gets closer to my own understanding:  the bodily needs and urges that are a part of our physiology and which sometimes feel as if they have a “mind” of their own.  Consider one of my favorite examples, hunger.  There are times when the physical need for food becomes so imperative that we can’t focus on anything else.  Ever said, “I’m so hungry I can hardly think”?  To the sentient self, the consciousness we think of as “I”, such an urge can feel like a threat to our other goals or intentions. It makes any activity beyond efforts to satisfy the physical need nearly impossible.  I’m confident this is the relationship Freud meant to describe as existing between the ego and the id.

Of course, he more famously wrote about the sexual urges when discussing the id.  Again, consider periods of time when you have gone for a long while without having sex or masturbating.  For most of us, a point comes when we will find it difficult to think of anything else.  The urge to have sex sometimes may feel as if it takes us over.  Eventually, we’ll feel compelled to seek out a sexual partner or provide ourselves with an orgasm.  As pleasurable as this usually feels, having sex or masturbating sometimes represents an efforts to get the sexual urge “out of the way” so that we can get on with our life.  In this way, the physical urges sometimes seem like “the It” that makes it difficult for “the I” to function.

In recent years, it seems to me that the superego has gotten a bad rap, becoming synonymous with harshness and punishment.   Just as many people can’t distinguish between exercising judgment vs. being judgmental, most of us don’t perceive the positive aspects of the superego.  In simple terms, we can think of the superego, the Over-I, as standing in the way of the It.  Sometimes that’s a very useful thing to be able to do.  No, you can’t have another bowl of ice cream; you’re already overweight and the doctor said you need to lower your cholesterol. Or imagine the situation where you are powerfully attracted to your sister’s husband, or your best friend’s wife.  Yes, the Over-I represents internalized parental and societal values, but it may also reflect a kind of enlightened long-term self-interest:  by stopping the gratification of physical urges that might be pleasurable in the moment, we save ourselves from inflicting damage on relationships we value.  The Over-I, in its best sense, is a type of internal parent looking out for our welfare, especially at times when the It can be our own worst enemy.  The It isn’t conscious or aware; it has no conception of consequences and is therefore indifferent to them.

I think part of the reason why “superego” has become such a negative term — synonymous with “harsh superego” — concerns the revolution in mores and values that gathered steam during the 1960s and has had an enormous influence on the cultural milieu since then.  The legitimate revolt against oppressive authority during that era has, for many people, morphed into a more generalized hatred of authority of any kind, including one’s own standards and values.  I’ve known people who rejected all “superego” forms of judgment, engaged in an alternative lifestyle, and years later feel a great deal of shame and guilt about their past.  I’m always worried that I sound like a prude when I discuss these issues, but I do feel that attempting to live without a superego, without a conscience that stands in the way (at appropriate moments) of our mindless physical urges, is ill-advised.  Doing “whatever you feel” isn’t always the best course of action.

Finding Your Own Way:

When you hear the word “superego”, what does it connote to you?  Do you think of it as something negative, harsh and punitive?  If so, how do you think you came to have that impression?

So many of us suffer from a harsh and perfectionistic superego, but can you identify the positive aspects of your Over-I?  On a daily basis, our superego has to step in to direct our actions:  That’s enough time on Facebook.  Probably better not have another glass of wine.  If you stay up to watch that 11:00 movie, you’ll be exhausted tomorrow. Beyond the superego who always finds fault with you, who believes you never do anything right, is there also an Over-I that guides your behavior in constructive ways?

The super-ego in a sense represents the internalized parent; maybe there’s a part of you that isn’t merely critical but cares deeply about your welfare — a positive, loving parent inside.  The superego not only sets standards but can also be a source of good feeling when we meet them.  Not all standards are harsh and perfectionistic.  To set the bar (realistically) high and meet the goal can help us to earn authentic self-esteemi.e., the approval of our superego.  Can you think of examples from your own life where you met your goals and felt great about yourself?  Surely the Over-I was involved.

When harsh perfectionism dominates, it usually connects to immense psychological damage and powerful feelings of basic shame.  In those cases, rather than feeling good about ourselves when we meet the standards of the Over-I (impossible), we seek narcissistic sources of gratification in order to deny shame and escape our cruel Over-I.   Are you able to provide yourself with approval, or do you lean heavily on others to make you feel that you’re acceptable?

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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15 Responses to Freud’s Theory of the Id, Ego and Superego: Lost in Translation

  1. Evan says:

    My question about the Over-I is how the ‘external’ becomes ‘internal’. The process by which some social practises and values become ‘me’ while others remain alien. Does this mean that the Over-I can become part of the I in Freud’s terms?

    Perhaps this question is more static than Freud’s intention.

    I do think that TA’s ego-states are a good up-dating of Freud’s idea.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Answering that question would involve a long discussion of the process of “identification”. And I agree that it can sound more static than Freud intended. I believe these are concepts or constructs that can be useful in understanding the mind but there’s a danger in getting too concrete about it. I doubt that there is a hard-and-fast line between what is felt as “I” and “over-I”. Id, ego and super-ego as a model is simply an approximation to the actual experience-in-itself.

  2. A Reader says:

    Glad to read that you appreciate the greatness of Sigmund Freud. I am waiting patiently for you to write about his “Traumdeutung”, his wonderful book on dreams and dream analysing – “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”! (More often than not, I`d say)
    There is an old italian proverb saying that translators are traitors. Although the translator is doing his job with the utmost care it is in many cases an impossible task to do the original justice.

    Like Evan I some times find it useful to think in terms of Child,Adult and Parent . And I`ve often tried to comfort myself by thinking of Thomas A Harris who advised (either in “you are ok, i am ok” or “staying ok”) that one should ask oneself, when feeling bad , why is my parent hurting my child?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      What I’d like to do is take one very evocative dream and do a thorough analysis of it as a post. I don’t think I could do justice to ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ — it’s such an amazing book.

  3. Nini says:

    As a native German and great fan of both – Freud and Jung I definitely have to agree with what you said about the translations and their slightly different tones compared to the original German versions. I also think whenever refering to texts and models from a different time period it pays to know a bit more about the society and culture at the time as it explains why certain aspects had to be put in a specific way back then.

    Freud’s theory on the divided mind most certainly is quite impressive and still a very good model to illustrate how humans “function”. Staying in that frame: I personally have a rather relaxed relationship to my “Über-Ich” and I think that I have to thank my passion for philosophy for it. I spend 8 years in University learning the great art of “thinking”. We were tought how to stay objective (as good as we can) , how to differenciate, to change from a micro to a macro perspective (and the other way around) and overtake other positions, how to apply logic, how to think anticipatively and be skeptic in order to deduce flaws in theories and be able to find plausible solutions to questions. I consider these “thinking techniques” a very valuable toolset for approaching situations in life. It seems to also have a great impact on how the “Über ich” interacts with the ego – I believe the result is a higher tolerance and abilty to adapt when necessary.

    It would be great to hear your opinon on the impact of wisdom on people’s minds. I am not refering to self help book wisdom, that tells people randomly what to do and not to do or how to live. What I am interested in would be your theories on how wisdom can be used as a resource for people, not a defense mechanism that wards off emotions.

    Kind regards
    Nini

    PS:
    Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher from 400 years ago, said something along the lines of “Thinking properly”goes hand in hand with “feeling entirely” . He really has a point, hasnt he?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I haven’t read Spinoza since graduate school … thanks for that wonderful quote. Somewhere else on the site, I quoted an instructor of mine who once said that the goal of in-depth psychotherapy should be to help our clients feel deeply and think clearly. I’ve always thought that was an elegant and apt way of summing it up. Maybe he’d been reading Spinoza.

  4. An excellent exploration of the basics. And I would hearitly agree that a lot of people can’t distinguish between exercising judgement and being judgmental! Two very different things, with two very different outcomes.

  5. Marla Estes says:

    I really appreciate your description of the “terrain” above….in working w/ my own Super Ego/Over-I, it is challenging to keep its kind of “daemon” properties (ala “The Golden Compass”) and soften the voice that can make being “inside myself” inhospitable.

  6. Mary says:

    I must say your work is very thoughtful, well written and insightful – as many of Freud’s works were. Something that has interested me is Freud’s writing about the attainment of “true happiness”. I am curious as to what extent you think language is intrinsic to Freud’s theories regarding the attainment of “true happiness”? His theories (those that I’m aware of anyway) seem to rely upon satisfaction of the “id” “ego” and “super ego” would they be quite different depending on ones interpretation of words?
    Looking forward to your thoughts :)
    K

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’m not sure what you’re referring to by “true happiness.” As far as I know, he didn’t believe in attaining happiness because society demands so much renunciation of our instinctual urges that we’re in a continual state of “discontent.” I don’t think this particular view would have changed with a different translation.

      • Mary says:

        Perhaps I’m just confused, but I seem to remember Freud saying “true happiness” could be achieved first by avoiding all the causes that bring unhappiness (including society’s renunciation of our instinctual urges ..and countless other things) followed by satisfaction – most often instantaneous – of pent-up needs which have reached great intensity.

        It seems that true happiness is impossible because of the paradoxical nature of subconscious “happiness” (via the gratification of a sensual impulse) leading to the distress of knowing one has surrendered some defense of “egoistic” control as a result of submitting to the organismic appetites. – Language as it is used to describe the perceptual.

        Since the ego and superego, of necessity, rely upon reason/rational systems to identify goals specific to their more “abstract” aims/objectives, language (being an essential partner in the construction of (the experience of) reasoned thought) would be intrinsic to ones interpretation of Freudian theories.

        I believe Freud’s conclusion that we are doomed to “chronic unhappiness” would remain the same regardless (not because its impossible but because of the unlikelihood that we could meet the requirements without bringing parts of our psyche into conflict). If Freud believed it was possible, how do you think language would alter one’s ability to satisfy the id, ego and superego ?

  7. Sanna says:

    Mr. Burgo, what do you think about the idea that Über-Ich and Es (I´m writing here in German because I am a native German) are deeply connected? Philosopher and THE cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek pointed out this aspect in his movie “The pervert´s guide to cinema”. – Maybe you already know it – it´s a remarkable film analyzing movie classics through a psychoanalytic, especially lacanian, view. In that movie he is refering to a scene from Hitchcocks “Psycho”!

    Just take a look it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKH6FmPV1_o

    Maybe this is also why we think of the superego as a harsh and obscene agency?

    Keenly looking forward to reading your thoughts!

    Sanna

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Sanna, I wish I had time to address this issue in depth, but right now, I’m overwhelmed with my other commitments.

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