… you? Me? The Id and the Superego?
We use the term “ego” almost every day. You talk about your own ego or someone else’s, you talk about someone being an egomaniac, being egotistical, egomaniacal, egocentric – the list just goes on and on. But where does the term even originate, what does it really mean and what does all that have to do with Sigmund Freud?
Sigismund Schlomo Freud, aka Sigmund Freud, is oftentimes called the “father of psychoanalysis” – a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. He was an Austrian born Jewish neurologist and his theories and definitions of the human psyche and sexuality have been established as core beliefs and pillars of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Freud’s lexicon has become embedded within the vocabulary of western society. Words he introduced through his theories are now used by everyday people – for example, did you know that those are from him – anal (personality), libido, denial, repression, cathartic, Freudian slip, and neurotic….. ?
One of the things that I have always found fascinating about him is that he believed the following: when humans explain their own behaviour to themselves or others – this being a conscious mental activity and as such a conscious mental act – they rarely give a true account of their motivation. This is not because people are deliberately lying. However, we must face the shocking fact that human beings are great deceivers of others and they are even more adept at self-deception. We rationalize what we do, and by rationalizing our conduct we disguise the real reasons for why we behave a certain way.
Basically what that means is that there is more to us than meets the eye, more than just one plain surface. When we understand that we claim to do something for a specific reason – but in fact the reason is a completely different one hidden in our sub-/unconsciousness – we are already looking at 2 levels of the human personality. Freud’s life’s work was the attempt of penetrating this often subtle and elaborate camouflage that obscures the hidden structure and processes of “us”, of the human mind/psyche.
The Human Mind Is An Iceberg
… if that is really so it can leave you wondering if the people we encounter are simply Titanics and depending on where their lives and minds collide with our iceberg – the result is either glorious or desasterous.
But why that analogy? An iceberg? It serves the purpose of making us understand the human psyche as a three-level structure. Imagine what an iceberg looks like. It has a tip, a body above water, and a huge body under water. We should understand the tip as our conscious mind which consists of those thoughts that are the focus of our attention NOW.
The above-water body of the iceberg is to be seen synonymously as the preconscious mind – which is all the information that can be retrieved from memory. And then there is the under-water body – the most significant region for the iceberg and for the human psyche, the UNCONSCIOUS. The analogy of the iceberg is SO perfect because the part of ourselves that is the most important in our decision making and psychological evaluations of the mind is the part that cannot be seen, cannot be grasped, cannot be touched, is more or less hidden from view.
The unconscious mind can be seen as a sort sorage facility for primitive wishes, desires and impulses. For example, if a feeling or desire is too frightening, too painful, too scary – it is “simply” locked away in the unconscious mind. In psychoanalysis, this process is called repression. In reality, it can be the dividing line between for example the impulse to hurt someone – and actually doing it. We repress the desire and even though it is still lurking in the corners of our subconsciousness, we don’t (need to) act on it. Think of how important that ability is! And how important it is to understand that it is those repressed desires that may be the reason for someone actually crossing those lines and becoming a murderer or torturerer or rapist and so on. If we want to understand how all of that really works we have to take a look at what the PSYCHE really is.
Finally, we can talk about the EGO! YAY! 🙂 But not just that. Freud developed a structural model of the mind that consists of 3 entities – the ID (Instincts & desires), the EGO (reality) and the SUPEREGO (Morality).
Our deepest desires. Our best kept secret wishes. Our primal instincts. The ID operates under water (remember the iceberg analogy), at a completely unconscious level and it is reliant on the pleasure principle – in other words, it gains gratification from satisfying our basic instincts. If we believe the theories of Freud then we all are driven by two opposing biological instincts: Eros (the life instinct) and Thanatos (the death instinct). Eros helps us survive. It is kind of like a supervisor for life-sustaining activities – breathing, eating and sex. Eros creates an “energy” which we know better as LIBIDO. Thanatos, the opposing desire, is the set of destructive forces that is present in all human beings. When this energy of Thanatos is directed outward onto others, it is expressed as aggression and violence. Freud believed that IN MOST CASES Eros is stronger than Thanatos, thus enabling people to survive rather than self-destruct.
We. Our sense of self. Or not? In truth, the Ego develops from the ID during infancy. The Ego’s goal is to satisfy the demands of the ID in a safe and socially acceptable way. In other words – we are in essence not the EGO but the ID. The EGO is simply the means to an end and while the ID and it’s desires remain unseen, the EGO lives and thrives in REALITY. It operates in both the conscious and unconscious mind – getting it’s “orders” from the unconscious mind and actually creating a reality from them in the conscious mind.
The internal “parent”, the court of justice, the morality instance. The Superego develops during early childhood and is responsible for ensuring moral standards are followed. The Superego operates on the morality principle and motivates us to behave in a socially responsible and acceptable manner.
Friends Or Enemies? Peaceful Cooperation or War Game?
Now that we have learned that our minds are really split into three parts – the ID, the Ego and the Superego – we should rightfully ask ourselves how those three seperate entities work together as a team. Frankly? More often than not they SUCK. The basic dilemma of all human existence is that each element of the psychic apparatus makes demands upon us that are incompatible with the other two. Inner conflict is inevitable.
What does that mean? Let me give you an example. An 8 year old child – lets call him Joe – who has already developed a sense of whats wrong and whats right isn’t allowed to have candy from his parents. After school, Joe ends up in a candy store with his friends. He doesn’t have money to buy candy and he knows he wouldn’t be allowed to eat them anyway. What happens? Primal desire. He looks at the lollies and the gums and the chocolate treats and literally feels his mouth water. Joe wants candy, desperately, now. Thats his ID talking. He reaches out to grab some candy with the intent of stealing it and thats the moment where the Superego makes itself known. The Superego makes Joe feel guilty because stealing candy and eating it even though your parents said no is a morality no-go! And then?! CONFLICT! RED ALARM BELLS! The Ego must act as a referee and mediate this conflict. How does it do that? With a series of defense mechanisms to prevent it from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety:
- Repression: the EGO represses the desire for candy and bans all thoughts of eating candy to the unconscious mind
- Denial: the EGO blocks things that happen in the outside world from the awareness – if I don’t know they exist then they don’t exist. In our example: There is no candy store, there is no candy, I can’t have it anyway because I have no money
- Projection: the EGO Attributes it’s own unacceptable thoughts, feelings and motives to another person – Joe doesn’t want candy. Bill (his friend) does
- Displacement: the EGO satisfies an impulse with a substitute object – Joe wants candy, can’t have it, eats an apple instead he finds in his backpack
- Regression: a movement back in psychological time to a time before stress – the candy store episode stresses Joe; as a reaction he begins to suck his thumb or poop his pants
- Sublimation: the EGO satisfies an unacceptable impulse with a substitute in a socially acceptable way – not being allowed to have candy makes Joe angry. His Aggression needs an outlet. He can hardly hit the store owner; but he can engage his friends in a rough game of soccer and rid himself of his aggression like that
What does all of this mean for our daily lives? If we learn to understand how our minds work, where our impulses come from and what methods we automatically apply to cope, we will be able to understand our peers better and ourselves and thus avoid a lot of conflict. If we are honest we will have to admit that we are all familiar with the mechanisms listed above. Those are actually GOOD mechanisms because they manage to let us build a bridge and mediate between the ID and the SUPEREGO. The real trouble starts when those mechanisms fail. How often have you heard in a movie or read in a book that someone says to the villain: you have no conscience! Meaning nothing more than: your superego doesn’t work. Or maybe you are a man and you have been accused one too many times by your girlfriend or wife that you “think with your dick”. That would be your ID making a strong appearance 😉
Is it really accurate then if we feel someone is really full of themselves to tell them they have a big EGO? Or would it be more fitting to say: wow, today your ID is acting up! Or hey, dude, get your superego in check, will ya? 😉
I would love to hear from you and whether you have been in situations where you have actually been aware of and felt the inner conflict between the ID and the SUPEREGO – how did you solve it? What does your EGO do to mediate? Let me know! Can’t wait for your comments!