What is the superego in Freudian psychoanalysis?

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

What is the superego? Previously, we’ve introduced the id and the concept of the ego as Freud formulated them in psychoanalysis. But the superego is a little different from both. How we can best define the superego and its function is something that becomes easier if we first summarise or recap what the id and the ego are.

Freud believed that all babies are born with their minds composed purely of the id: that primal, instinctive part of us which is governed by passions and basic needs. The id wants us to achieve pleasure at any cost. Instant gratification is the name of the game for the id. When a baby cries, it’s usually because it’s hungry and wants feeding, or because it’s uncomfortable because its nappy needs changing.

These basic needs and wants are what drive the newborn. But as we grow up and start to develop, we come to realise that we can’t always get what we want, and that instant gratification might not be good for us. The ego is the foil for the id, designed to keep the id’s wilder impulses in check.

But sometimes the ego isn’t able to reason with the id. And it’s important that the id isn’t allowed free rein to get what it wants, in many cases. When you’re angry, your id may be out for blood and want you do murder someone. The ego tries to reason with it and convince it that this would not, as a long-term plan of action, be a good idea. But the id is impulsive and doesn’t care.

This is where the superego can step in and help to check the more extreme impulses of the id. Think of the ego and superego as like the two parents to an unruly kid (or unruly id): one is the chummy one, the parent who tries to make the id see reason about why it can’t always have what it wants.

When this fails, the superego steps in simply disciplines the id, telling it it’s not getting what it wants and that’s that. (Happily, given their shared use of ‘ego’, the ego and superego already sound like they could be married with a kid – sorry, id. And, aptly, Freud conceived of the id as infantile and immature, because it is the only thing our psyches are made up of when we’re very young.)

The ego is the soft touch who tries to appeal to the id’s reasonable side; the superego is the strict parent who simply tells the id what’s happening and will brook no disagreement.

Indeed, this analogy of two parents and a child can be taken further when it comes to understanding the function of the superego. For the superego doesn’t just have the task of managing the id and checking its worst impulses (e.g. sexual desire or aggressive behaviour). The superego must also try to persuade the ego to be more than realistic in its goals, but to try to be moral too.

If the ego is the realist, the superego is the moralist, the strict mother who is also a moral wife who wants to make her husband a better person, as well as her child. (We apologise for the predictable gender roles in this examples: if you prefer, think of the superego as the stern father who sees himself not just as a father to the id but as a head of the household, responsible for ensuring his wife behaves herself too. Although actually, that’s quite a problematic analogy in itself!)

So, that answers the question what is the superego. But why does it develop? The superego doesn’t form at the same time as the ego, but is a slightly later development.

In Freudian psychoanalysis, the superego comes into being only after the child has resolved the Oedipal conflict (at around age 3-6) and realised, in effect, that it is not always possible to get what we want: that it is not always safe to act on our primitive drives and desires, but that it may be better for our long-term happiness and survival if we repress those desires and sublimate them, finding an alternative outlet for our pleasures.

In the Oedipus complex, the male child realises he cannot overcome his father – the rival for his mother’s affection – and develops the fear that his father will castrate him if he discovers his son’s desire for the mother. So the superego develops in order to force the child to forget about trying to win the Oedipal conflict, and instead find another outlet for his desires.

The ideal balance is for the ego to be the strongest of the three: this happens if it satisfies the id’s desires without awakening the strict censure of the superego. This is a tricky balancing act. Too much id, and you grow up to want instant gratification, and always want your own way and will feel annoyed and even angry if this isn’t granted.

Too much influence from the superego, and you’ll grow up to be too strict – both on yourself and probably on others, denying all pleasure and living a puritanical life. So the ego needs to help find a compromise between what’s desired, what’s morally right, and what’s really and truly achievable.

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