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-esteem — i.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?