I know, I know. Whenever I mention an old-fashioned term like “super-ego,” people roll their eyes and picture Sigmund Freud, scratching his beard, smoking his pipe, talking about little boys wanting to have sex with their mothers. They start thinking about all of the worst caricatures of psychoanalysis—patients lying on the couch, whining about their problems, telling their dreams–going on and on, for years and years, never getting better, but just making the analysts rich. Come on, they say. Does anyone really believe that stuff anymore?
Well, the truth is that some of Sigmund Freud’s ideas have not stood the test of time, limited as they were by the infancy of the psychological and biological sciences of his time–and biased by the lens of his own personality as well as 19th century Vienna that was his cultural context. His attitudes toward religion, women, the influence of biology in mental illness, as well as the technique of psychoanalysis itself have been questioned, criticized, and revised over the past 120 years.
But, as psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer put it, Freud was a pioneer. And it is not the job of a pioneer to say the last word but the first word on a particular subject. And, indeed, many of Freud’s discoveries proved to be incredibly fruitful first steps in our search to understand the human psyche.
One of Freud’s most useful discoveries was that of the super-ego. He noticed that most people have a very strict moral sense—what is right and what is wrong—a sense of conscience that is evident in children as early as the age of 4 or 5. Freud thought that the super-ego developed as a result of internalizing the morals of the parents as well as the culture at large.
But Freud saw something deeper that he found quite fascinating. He found that children, as well as adults, have a super-ego that is much more strict and harsh than the parents ever were. For example, to the child who was testing the limits about his bedtime the father might have said, firmly, “Son, it’s time to go to bed.” But the child may experience this as “Son, you are a bad, bad boy and I am going to punish you severely if you do not do as I say.” The internal father is an exaggerated version of the external father—the super-ego is a father on psychological steroids!
Truly, this was Freud’s great discovery. Our external experiences are filtered through a very powerful unconscious lens. Our view of our parents (as well as other authority figures like police officers, pastors, teachers, and psychotherapists) is greatly distorted by the filter of unconscious processes–and our tendency is to view these authority figures as much more severe than they actually are. Inside, we feel like we are under the thumb of ruthless dictators—exacting, demanding, and punishing.
Freud theorized that the root of this distortion is the power of the id. The more we wish to be naughty, greedy, cruel, lazy, and indulgent, the stronger the opposing force must be to keep ourselves in check. The super-ego is not a stand-alone character in the internal world. It is in dialogue with the id—the little angel on one shoulder telling us to do the right thing (super-ego), the little demon on the other shoulder telling us to do wrong (id). He believed that the super-ego was necessary to keep the id reined in, otherwise we would be carried away by our insatiable urges for pleasure and never develop a more adult, responsible character.
I don’t know about you, but I find that I live out this kind of crazy drama in my head on a regular basis. I get a phone call from the doctor, and I assume that I have cancer. One of the senior analysts at the institute wants to speak with me, and I assume that I am in big, fat trouble. I go to the dentist for my first cleaning in two years, and I assume that he is going to tell me I’m a bad patient and that I will be punished for my negligence by having a mouthful of cavities. I am less careful with how much I spend, or eat, or drink, or say, and I assume that the end of the world is about to come.
Psychoanalyst James Strachey, a contemporary of Freud, believed that the super-ego is so critical to healthy psychological functioning that the main goal of psychoanalysis should be modification of the super-ego. What he meant is that a good analysis softens the harshness of that internal judge. Hopefully, we become more able to judge ourselves in the realm of conscious reality rather than under the influence of the primitive, authoritarian, largely unconscious super-ego.
Modification of the super-ego means that our shortcomings are put in better perspective. An internal shift takes place from a super-ego that is a ruthless judge to one who is fair and reasonable. We grow a conscience that is firm yet understanding, that sets limits but with flexibility. We learn to call a spade just a spade, and view the molehill as just a molehill. To the primitive super-ego, a mistake is a capital offense worthy of the death penalty. To the modified, more mature super-ego, it is seen more for what it is, a mistake worthy of correction or perhaps just a word of caution.
We all need to have a sense of discipline, of what is right and wrong. I think it is fairly obvious that we have some troubles in life when a weak super-ego is overpowered by a strong id and we do not regulate our impulses very well. Less obvious, however, are the ways in which we create a lot of suffering in life by being too strict with ourselves, by having a rigid, harsh super-ego in the driver’s seat. We need to find a balance.
There is a framed picture in my office waiting room that captures this dynamic so aptly. It says, “Everything in moderation. Including moderation.” These are words to live by.