BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 15, 2021
Superego is a Freudian term to describe the third aspect of the human psyche in Freud's personality theory. The other two aspects are the id (primitive instinctual aspect) and ego (conscious mediator of the id and superego).
The superego, according to Freud's psychoanalytical theory, incorporates the values and morals of society. The superego functions to balance the id's primitive impulses. The superego often consciously experienced as the voice in our heads, drawing attention to moralistic goals.
The superego imposes its power through social emotions such as guilt and shame. While the superego motivates socially moral behaviors, the superego also can hider growth when over active. The superego is driven for moral perfection while ignoring realities. Perhaps, in a way, the functions of the superego drives over critical, perfectionistic expectations, ignoring other basic human needs.
Erik Erickson explains the superego's dangerous moralistic perfectionism this way, "the suspiciousness and evasiveness which is thus mixed in with the all-or-nothing quality of the superego...makes moralistic man a great potential danger to himself and to his fellow men." He continues with his warning, "it is as if morality...became synonymous with vindictiveness..." (1994).
In Freud's theory of psychosexual development, the superego is the last component of personality to develop. The infant first experiences the id as the driving force, followed by the ego, and between the ages of 3-5 years begins the development of superego functions.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
Two Parts of The Superego
The superego is composed of two primary components or systems:
The ego ideal is also referred to as the ideal self. The ego-ideal is an imaginary picture drawn by our expectations of who we think we should be. This internalized image represents career aspirations, how to treat other people, and how to behave as a member of society. These expectations live beneath the surface of consciousness serving as laws we must follow.
Kendra Cherry of verywellmind explains, "obeying these rules leads to feelings of pride, value, and accomplishment. Breaking these rules can result in feelings of guilt" (2020).
Melvin R. Lansky and Andrew P. Morrison describe the ego ideal in slightly more detail, adding that the ego ideal part of "the superego concerned with standards and aspirations. Self-conscious appraisals of ourselves that are discrepant with our aspirations, standards for lovability, and sense of competence, worthiness, and excellence generate shame— the signal of danger to social bonding (i.e., attachment) and to our own assessment of well-being with regard to our ideals" (1997).
While the ego ideal is an internalized set of rules, the conscience represents the motivational aspects of the superego that enforce recognition of these imaginary standards. The conscience serves as a punitive ruler, awarding and punishing deviations.
Professor David L. Robinson describes the extreme attack that superego engages with against the ego, "during an attack, the superego becomes over severe, abuses, humiliates, and ill treats the unfortunate ego, threatens it with punishments, and reproaches it for long forgotten actions" (2011, page 130).
For many of us anxiety ridden folks, we certainly can relate to Robinson's description. Our psychological life makes war with itself and we resolve these conflicts in many healthy and unhealthy ways.
A Few Words from Flourishing Life Society
Freud's concept of personality comprised of the three aspects id, ego, and superego is not geographical locations in the brain but functional processes. Freud's revolutionary theories continue to influence psychology and culture. While Freud correctly identified the self as a complex structure with different goals, He only identified three processes. I believe this woefully undershoots the complexity of our psychological existence.
We can view the psyche from many angles, each angle provides a new grouping of characteristics, complexly and intricately weaved with the other functions of the brain, mind and body. I find that Freud's three aspects provide an effective foundation for untangling the complex web of self. His theory sheds light on conflicting drives, and troublesome imbalances, setting the stage for decades of research on our reactions and adaptations to these internal conflicts.
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Cherry, K. (2020). Understanding the Role of Freud's Superego. Published 5-30-2020. Accessed 7-28-2021.
Erikson, E. H. (1994) Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton & Company; Revised ed. edition.
Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
Lansky, M. R. and Morrison, A. P. (1997) The Widening Scope of Shame. Routledge; 1st edition.
Robinson, D. L. (2011). Brain, Mind and Behaviour: A New Perspective on Human Nature.