Understanding the Id, Ego, and Superego in Psychology
Sigmund Freud would have been a great Hollywood screenwriter. His “story” of personality is one of desire, power, control, and freedom. The plot is complex and the characters compete. Our personalities represent a drama of sorts, acted out in our minds. “You” are a product of how competing mental forces and structures interact. The ancient Greeks thought that all people were actors in the drama of the gods above. For Freud, we are simply actors in the drama of our minds, pushed by desire, pulled by conscience. Underneath the surface, our personalities represent the power struggles going on deep within us.
Three main players carry all of this drama out:
- Id: The seat of our impulses
- Ego: Negotiates with the id, pleases the superego
- Superego: Keeps us on the straight and narrow
Each of these characters has its own idea of what the outcome of the story should be. Their struggles are fueled by powerful motives, and each one is out for itself.
I want, therefore I am
The initial structural component and first character in Freud’s drama of personality is the id. Has an urge, impulse, or desire so strong that it just had to be satisfied ever overpowered you? A new car, sexual desire, a dream job? The answer is probably a resounding “Yes!” Where does such desire come from? According to Freud, desire comes from the part of your personality called the id, located in the expanses of our mind. So look around, and look deep within. Look at your co-workers, look at your boss. It’s in all of us, even the quiet old lady at the bus stop. Underneath that quiet, grandmotherly demeanor lurks a seething cauldron of desire.
The id contains all of our most basic animal and primitive impulses that demand satisfaction. It’s the Mr. Hyde emerging from the restrained Dr. Jekyll. It’s that little devil that sits on your shoulder, whispering temptations and spurring you on. Whenever you see a selfish, spoiled child in the grocery store demanding a toy and throwing a tantrum if he doesn’t get his way, you’ll know that’s the id in action!
The id is a type of “container” that holds our desires. Relentlessly driven by a force Freud called the libido, the collective energy of life’s instincts and will to survive, the id must be satisfied! We’re all born with the id in full force. It’s unregulated and untouched by the constraints of the world outside of our minds. When a baby gets hungry, does she sit quietly and wait until someone remembers to feed her? Anyone who’s ever gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to feed a baby knows the answer to that.
But don’t give the id a bad rap. Where would you be without desire? Your desire pushes you through life; it leads you to seek the things you need to survive. Without it we’d die, or at the very least, we’d be really boring! So keep in mind that a large part of your personality consists of your desires and your attempts to satisfy them.
Enter the ego
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get everything you wanted, whenever and however you wanted it? Unfortunately, most of us know otherwise. We all know how frustrating it can be when a desire goes unmet or gets stifled. Well, you can blame your ego for that. The ego is Freud’s second mental apparatus of personality. The ego’s main function is to mediate between the id’s demands and the external world around us — reality in other words. Does the Rolling Stones’ song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” come to mind?
So far, it seems that, if it wasn’t for reality, we would be a lot more satisfied. Even though the ego finds itself in conflict with the id, satisfaction is not abandoned. The ego is like a sports agent for a really talented athlete. Even though the athlete may demand a multimillion-dollar contract, the agent reminds him that he could price himself out of a job. So the ego negotiates with the id in order to get it what it wants without costing it too much in the long run. The ego accomplishes this important task by converting, diverting, and transforming the powerful forces of the id into more useful and realistic modes of satisfaction. It attempts to harness the id’s power, regulating it in order to achieve satisfaction despite the limits of reality.
The final judgment
As if the ego’s job wasn’t hard enough, playing referee between the id and reality, its performance is under constant scrutiny by a relentless judge, the superego. While the ego negotiates with the id, trying to prevent another tantrum, the superego judges the performance. Superego is another name for your conscience. It expects your ego to be strong and effective in its struggles against the libido’s force.
Usually, our conscience comes from our parents or a parental figure. As we grow, we internalize their standards, those same standards that make us feel so guilty when we tell a lie or cheat on our taxes. But does everyone have a conscience? There are certain people throughout history who have committed such horrible acts of violence that we sometimes wonder if they are void of conscience. How can serial killers such as Ted Bundy or Wayne Williams commit such horrible crimes? A strong bet is that they lack the basic capacity to feel guilt, so nothing really prevents them from acting out their violent fantasies.
A famous psychiatrist once said that evil men do what good men only dream of.