The Superego

The third structure of personality, the superego, is the internal representative of the rules and restrictions of family and society, originating based on the authority of the father. Freud regarded it as the civilizing force that tames our savage nature (Frank, 1999)- It generates guilt when we act contrary to its rules. In addition, the superego presents us with an ego ideal, which is an image of what we would like to be, our internal stan dards. Because the superego develops at a young age, it represents an immature and rigid form of morality. In psychoanalytic jargon, the superego is "archaic" and largely unconscious. Freud argued that our sense of guilt is often out of touch with current reality, representing the immature understandings of a young child.

Anna Freud (1935) gives examples that illustrate the archaic nature of the superego. One case is a man who, as a child, stole sweets. He was taught not to do so and internalized the prohibition in his superego. As an adolescent, he blushed with guilt eveiy time he ate sweets, even though they were no longer forbidden (p. 97). In another case, a woman could not select "an occupation which would necessitate sharing a room with companions" (p. 99) because of an early punishment for nakedness. In both these cases, the superego was based on parental restrictions in childhood and failed to adapt to the adult situation.

Sigmund Freud dismissed much religion as similarly immature. For Freud, mature ethics are not achieved through the superego but rather through the ego, the only structure of personality that adapts to current reality.

The id, ego, and superego do not always coexist peacefully. The id demands immediate satisfaction of drives, while the superego threatens guilt if any pleasurable satisfaction of immoral impulses is attempted. Thus there is intrapsychic conflict. The ego tries to repress unacceptable desires, but it does not always succeed. The repressed materials have energy, and this energy tries to return the repressed material to consciousness. It is like an ice cube that is pushed completely under the surface of the water: It keeps bobbing up again. Like a forgotten bill or dentist appointment, repressed material threatens to return. Because pain is associated with repressed material, we keep tiying to repress it, like a hand pushing the ice back under the water. The ego tries to reconcile the conflicting demands of the id and superego while at the same time taking into account external reality with its limited opportunities for drive satisfaction.

Freud understood these phenomena in terms of his energy hypothesis. Repression of unacceptable thoughts or impulses requires psychic energy. The force of the impulse that seeks expression must not exceed the repressive force or repression will fail and the repressed material will become conscious. The more energy tied up in such intrapsychic conflict, the less available for dealing with current reality.

Although the energy hypothesis is generally dismissed as an outdated metaphor from nineteenth centuiy physics, it does aptly describe the experience of exhaustion that can come from unresolved psychological stress or from the ego's need to direct activities (the "executive function of the ego," in Freud's language). Muraven, Tice, and Baumeis-ter (1998) report that requiring experimental subjects to suppress their thoughts (about a white bear) or emotions led to impaired performance on a variety of experimental tasks (such as squeezing a handgrip and solving anagrams), as though their energy had been depleted by the effort of self-regulation. In another study, they found that experimental subjects gave up sooner when tiying to solve problems if they had earlier forced themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolates—a choice that seems to have depleted their ego of energy (Baumeister et al., 1998). Emotional suppression also has adverse effects on performance in laboratory tasks (Baumeister et al., 1998), and in life.

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