SUPER-EGO 201: I’ve been framed!

In last week’s post, I introduced the idea of the super-ego—that all important aspect of the psyche that guides us between right and wrong and helps us to manage our id impulses in a productive way.  I tried to show how an overly strict, harsh primitive super-ego can wreak havoc in our lives, as we punish ourselves excessively for even minor failures and restrict enjoyment of even modest, healthy pleasures.  A mature super-ego presides over our inner lives with balance, wisdom, and reasonable self-control.   Disciplined fairness.   A firm but gentle hand.

But how shall we understand the psychology of the person who is greatly lacking in discipline?  Who relishes in over-indulgence?  Who always wants a free ride?  The person who would rather slough off than work, who is not bothered by their mess, who shows no remorse for their wrong-doing?  While some people are dominated by these traits, we all feel flashes of them from time to time.

There is a very powerful urge in us as human beings to live out our lives as pampered babies.  We want what we want—and we want it now—and we feel entitled to it—and we resent being asked to work for it, think about it, wait for   it, or make do with something less than exactly what we want.  This is the id in all of its glory.  We might even say it is a subtle element in The American Dream.  We want to work less and have more.  At the extreme, we want to have everything and work for nothing.

At first blush, it is very difficult to see the super-ego in this kind of psychological make-up.  Was it ever there?  And, if it was there, what happened to it?  Has it died?  Has it gone on vacation?  Has it been kidnapped?  How has the critical voice of ordinary conscience been silenced?

If we really pay attention, I think that we will discover that the super-ego has not been silenced at all.  It resonates like thunder.  It sounds like a siren.  But the voice does not come from within.  It comes from the outside.  For people with an apparently weak super-ego, the harsh super-ego has been projected.

Think about it like this.  The lazy teenager who wants to sleep past noon is hounded by parents who knock on the bedroom door, shake him to wake up, and threaten to send him off to boarding school.  The person who has charged up her credit card with tens of thousands of dollars is plagued by calls from the credit card company, debt collectors, and the bank.  The student who parties too hard is punished by poor grades, detention, and probation.   The criminal is always running from The Law.

Projection of the super-ego works like a boomerang.  When we get rid of such essential parts of ourselves, those parts come screaming back at us, with greater force than we ever would have imagined.

What is so striking about the psychology of people with a weak, primitive super-ego is that they do not feel guilty for their mistakes—even though they have committed them!  This is the exact opposite of the psychology of people with harsh, primitive super-egos who feel guilty about crimes they never committed at all!  Instead, the person with a weak super-ego has little awareness of their responsibility for their troubles.   That awareness gets projected, too.  Metaphorically speaking, they complain of unfair treatment, argue that they were framed, appeal their conviction on the grounds of technical errors in the arrest.   They blame others for their plot in life.  The guilt is not theirs.  The blood might be on their hands, but someone else put it there.

When we are in this state of mind, it is a real challenge for us to reclaim our projections.  We get rid of parts of ourselves because they seem frightening, threatening, or too hot to handle.   And so, they seem far too dangerous to take back.  Some people get so stuck in this way of being that it feels nearly impossible to get out.  But if we wish to be more successful in life, we must take back responsibility for our troubles.  We cannot address our troubles unless we claim them as our own.

Our best hope is to get the help of someone who will work with us patiently, firmly, and seriously to take ownership of our problems so that we can do something about them.  In other words, the best kind of parent, teacher, and credit card counselor is the person who has a mature super-ego.  A person who treats us with disciplined fairness rather than harsh punishment.   A person who is motivated to help rather than to judge, to guide rather than to punish.  A person who can help us feel a proper sense of guilt without being overwhelmed by it.

Of all helpers, therapists need to possess and be led by this kind of mature super-ego attitude.  Ruthless criticism has no place in psychotherapy, but helpful critical feedback does.  Over time, a mature super-ego attitude may soften the resistances of those with a weaker super-ego.  They may even come to adopt such an attitude toward themselves.   And that is a real start toward building a more satisfying and effective life.


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