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3.4: Structure of Personality

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    It is no accident that our discussion of the id, ego, and superego follow immediately after our discussion of the levels of consciousness. In The Ego and the Id (which also discuss the superego, despite not including it in the title; Freud, 1923/1960), Freud begins with a chapter on consciousness and what is unconscious, then follows with a chapter on the ego and the id, and then a chapter on the ego and the superego. It is difficult to discuss the two concepts, levels of consciousness and the psychical apparatus (a term Freud used for the id, ego, and superego), without intertwining them. In addition, these three structures begin as one, the ego develops from the id, and later the superego develops from the ego. As with levels of consciousness, it is inappropriate to think of the id, ego, and superego as actual structures within the brain, rather they are constructs to help us understand the psychodynamic functioning of the mind. Freud acknowledged this lack of understanding, and went so far as to say that even if we could localize them within the brain we wouldn’t necessarily be any closer to understanding how they function (Freud, 1938/1949).

    Id, Ego, Superego

    The oldest aspect of the psyche is the id, which includes all that we inherit at birth, including our temperament and our instincts. The only goal of the id is to satisfy instinctual needs and desires; therefore, it acts according to the pleasure principle. It knows nothing of value judgments, no good, no evil, and no morality at all. It does not change or mature over time. According to Freud, there is nothing in the id except instinctual cathexes seeking discharge (Freud, 1933/1965). The energy associated with these impulses, however, is different from other regions of the mind. It is highly mobile and capable of discharge, and the quality of the discharge seems to be disregarded. This is a very important point, because it means that the id does not need to satisfy its desires in reality. Instead, they can be satisfied through dreams and fantasy.

    Because the id demands satisfaction, and knows nothing of restraint, it is said to operate as a primary process. Since it can be satisfied in unreal ways, if we examine phenomena such as fantasies and dreams we can uncover the nature of the id. It was during his studies on dream-work that Freud developed his understanding of the primary process of the id (Freud, 1923/1960). Actually, we can only know the id through psychoanalysis, since it exists entirely within the unconscious mind. Therefore, we need a secondary process structure in order for the mind to interact with the external world. This structure is found in the ego.

    The ego arises from the id as an intermediary between the id and the external world. The ego functions according to the reality principle, and tries to bring the external world to bear on the impulses of the id. In other words, as the id demands satisfaction it is hindered by the reality of our environment, our societal and cultural norms. The ego postpones satisfaction until the time or the circumstances are appropriate, or it may suppress the id impulses altogether (Freud, 1938/1949). Freud believed that the ego is associated with perception (of reality), in the same way that the id is associated with instinct. The id is passionate, whereas the ego represents reason and common sense. But the id has the energy, the libido, to demand its satisfaction in some way, and the ego can only derive its energy from the id. Freud likened the ego to a horseback rider on a horse named id. The rider cannot always control the far more powerful horse, so the rider attempts to transform the will of the horse as if it were the rider’s own will (Freud, 1923/1960).

    The ego develops in part because it is that portion of the mind impacted by sensory input from the external world. Therefore, it resides partially in the conscious mind, and must serve three tyrannical masters: the id, the external world, and the superego (which we will discuss below). The goals of these three masters are typically at odds with one another, and so the ego’s task is not an easy one (Freud, 1933/1965). The ego approaches this task by monitoring the tension that exists within the mind. This tension arises from internal and external stimuli making demands upon the mind, lowering this tension is felt as pleasurable, and increasing the tension is unpleasant. The id demands immediate reduction of tension, in accordance with its pleasure principle, whereas the ego seeks an appropriate reduction of tension, in accordance with its reality principle. A key point, of course, is that the ego also seeks pleasure. It does not try to deny the impulses of the id, only to transform or delay them. But why does the ego even bother to do that? There are times when pursuing pleasure can get us in serious trouble, but there are also times when we make choices because they seem right to us. These decisions, based on justice, morality, humanism, whatever term you choose, are mediated by the superego.

    According to Freud, the superego is heir to the Oedipus complex (which we will discuss below), and arises as the child abandons their intense attachment to their parents. As a replacement for that attachment, the child begins to identify with their parents, and so incorporates the ideals and moral values of their parents and, later, teachers and other societal role models (Freud, 1933/1965). According to this view, the superego cannot fully develop if the child does not resolve the Oedipus complex, which, as we will discuss below, cannot happen for girls (Note: In addition to further discussion below, the issue of a more balanced female psychology will be discussed again in later chapters). The superego functions across all levels of the conscious and unconscious mind.

    The superego takes two forms: an ego-ideal and a conscience. Freud considered the term ego-ideal as an alternative to the term superego, and it is not until we incorporate the development of conscience that we can recognize ego-ideal and conscience as different aspects of the superego. Indeed, it might be more appropriate, if one reads The Ego and the Id carefully (Freud, 1923/1960), to consider the ego-ideal and conscience as consecutive transformations of that portion of the ego that becomes known in general as the superego. The development of the superego is a complicated process, and seems to derive from the development of the ego itself. For an infant, the attachment to the parents and identification with them is not recognized as something different. The ego is weak, and can do little to restrain the id. As the child grows, the erotic nature of the love for the mother is slowly transformed into identification; the ego grows stronger, and begins to become associated with being a love-object itself. When the ego is capable of presenting itself to the id as an object worthy of love, narcissistic libido is generated and the ego becomes fully formed (Freud, 1923/1960). In other words, the child becomes an individual, aware that they are separate from their parents. There is still an intense attachment to the mother, however, which stems from the early days of breast feeding. The child must eventually lose this intense attachment to the mother, and begin to more fully identify with either the father (for boys) or the mother (for girls). As noted above, this final transformation from attachment to identification should occur during the Oedipus complex, and the ego-ideal arises within the context of the child knowing “I should act like my father” (for boys) or “I should act like my mother” (for girls).

    Although the ego-ideal could represent the culmination of development, Freud believed that one more step came into play. Because of the difficulty the child encounters during the loss of the intense, erotic desires of the Oedipus complex, Freud felt there was more than simply a residue of those love-objects in the mind. He proposed an energetic reaction-formation against the earlier choices. Now, the child incorporates concepts of “I must not act like my father or mother.” Under the influences of authority, schooling, religion, etc., the superego develops an ever stronger conscience against inappropriate behavior. This conscience has a compulsive character and takes the form of a categorical imperative (Freud, 1923/1960). This conscience is our knowledge of right and wrong, and early on it is quite simplistic. There is right and there is wrong (as with Kohlberg’s earliest stages of moral development; Kohlberg, 1963).

    Discussion Question: Do you feel that your behavior is being driven by the unconscious impulses of the id? Do you believe that your moral development (your superego) is the result of internalizing your parent’s views of what is right or wrong? How close are your values to those of your parents?


    We have already taken a look at the challenge faced by the ego in trying to balance the demands of the id, the superego, and the external world. What happens when the demands of these conflicting elements become too much for the ego to deal with? Simply put, we get scared, we experience fear and anxiety as a signal that there is some impending danger. Only the ego can experience anxiety, even if the underlying cause begins with the id or superego. Anxiety arises primarily from libido that has not been utilized. For example, if we are frustrated from fulfilling some id impulse, such as needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of a great movie, the libido cathexed to that impulse grows. This creates tension and the corresponding unpleasant feelings. As the id demands satisfaction, but the ego cannot figure out how to satisfy the id (and you really don’t want to miss the good part of the movie), the fear arises that the id will satisfy itself. Most of us would consider the possibility of going to the bathroom in our pants while at a movie a real danger to our self-esteem, and we could be arrested if we simply went to the bathroom right there in the movie theater. As the ego is reduced to helplessness in its inability to find a reasonable outlet for the impulse of needing to go to the bathroom, anxiety serves the useful and important purpose of warning the ego that the impulse must be satisfied in order to avoid the danger (Freud, 1926/1959). And in support of Freud’s view regarding our sexual nature, who would deny the great pleasure felt upon finally getting to the bathroom?

    Freud described three general types of anxiety. Realistic anxiety involves actual threats to our physical safety. It is similar to fear, in that there is a real and external object that could harm us, but it differs from fear in that we may not be aware of a specific danger. For example, after the famous book Jaws (Benchley, 1974) was made into a movie (the kind of movie that you don’t want to miss the good scenes) many people became anxious about swimming in the ocean, even though there were no specific sharks for them to fear. Still, there are sharks in the ocean, so it might be reasonable to experience some anxiety. Sometimes we are anxious about a real danger, but the anxiety we experience is completely out of proportion in relation to the threat. This suggests that there is an element of neurotic anxiety accompanying the realistic anxiety (Freud, 1926/1959).

    Neurotic anxiety generally arises from an internal danger, the threat that unacceptable id impulses will break through and be acted on by the individual. The ultimate danger that exists is that we really will be harmed as a result of our actions. Therefore, Freud considered there to be a close association between neurotic and realistic anxiety (Freud, 1926/1959). For example, if we are being harassed by a bully, our aggressive id impulse might be to respond by killing this bully. Of course, that could result in going to prison or having the bully’s friends kill us. So the anxiety that our violent id impulse might break out and influence our behavior is associated with the real danger posed by the consequences of that behavior, if it should happen to occur. Therefore, our neurotic anxiety is composed, in part, of our internalized realistic anxiety.

    In a similar way, moral anxiety arises from conflict between our ego and the constraints imposed on it by the superego. Since the superego arises from the internalization of our parent’s teaching us what is or is not appropriate behavior, we again have an association between the internal threat of the superego and the real, external threat of being punished by our parents. Therefore, as with neurotic anxiety, the precursor to our moral anxiety is realistic anxiety, even if our fears are based on our psychological impressions of a situation as opposed to an actual danger (e.g., the fear of castration; Freud, 1926/1959, 1933/1965). Freud (1933/1965) described the relationships this way:

    Thus the ego, driven by the id, confined by the super-ego, repulsed by reality, struggles to master its economic task of bringing about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it; and we can understand how it is that so often we cannot suppress a cry: ‘Life is not easy!’ If the ego is obliged to admit its weakness, it breaks out in anxiety – realistic anxiety regarding the external world, moral anxiety regarding the super-ego and neurotic anxiety regarding the strength of the passions in the id. (pgs. 97-98)

    Freud also described an overall pattern to the development and expression of anxiety and its useful role in life. In early childhood we experience traumatic situations in which we are helpless. Remember that Freud believed that psychic reality is every bit as significant as actual reality (Freud, 1900/1995), so the nature of these traumatic events is subject to individual perception. As the child’s capacity for self-preservation develops, the child learns to recognize dangerous situations. Rather than waiting passively to be threatened or harmed, an older child or an adult will respond actively. The initial response is anxiety, but anxiety is a warning of danger in anticipation of experiencing helplessness once again. In a sense, the ego is recreating to the helplessness of infancy, but it does so in the hope that now the ego will have at its command some means of dealing with the situation. Therefore, anxiety has hopefully transformed from a passive response in infancy to an active and protective response in later childhood and/or adulthood (Freud, 1926/1959).

    Discussion Question: What makes you anxious, and how do you respond to those feelings?

    Defense Mechanisms

    We will cover defense mechanisms only briefly in this chapter. Although Freud talked about a wide variety of defense mechanisms during his career, he left it to his daughter Anna to literally write the book on The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (Anna Freud, 1936/1966). Freud himself discussed primarily two defense mechanisms: repression and regression. The recognition of these defense mechanisms was essential to the development of psychoanalysis, and they are the only two defenses mentioned by Freud in The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914/1995). The purpose of these defense mechanisms is to protect the ego during the early years of life, when the ego has not adequately developed in its ability to control the libidinal impulses of the id. Thus, defense mechanisms serve a useful function at first, but later prove inadequate when the re-animation of the sexual life is reinforced following puberty (Freud, 1938/1949). Similarly, in adult life, defense mechanisms are useful in the short-term, but since they do not deal with problems directly they must eventually prove inadequate.

    Freud identified repression as one of the key elements establishing psychoanalysis as unique from the cathartic method he had been working on thanks to the contributions of Josef Breuer (Freud, 1914/1995). Indeed, according to Freud, his own contributions that transformed Breuer’s cathartic method into psychoanalysis were repression, resistance, infantile sexuality, and dream analysis for the understanding of the unconscious mind. The value of repression cannot be underestimated:

    The theory of repression is the pillar upon which the edifice of psychoanalysis rests. It is really the most essential part of it, and yet, it is nothing but the theoretical expression of an experience which can be repeatedly observed whenever one analyses a neurotic without the aid of hypnosis. One is then confronted with a resistance which opposes and blocks the analytic work by causing failures of memory. This resistance was always covered by the use of hypnosis; the history of psychoanalysis proper, therefore, starts with the technical innovation of the rejections of hypnosis. (pg. 907; Freud, 1914/1995)

    The resistance Freud is referring to here is the defense mechanism of repression, which is the means by which the ego refuses to associate itself with an unacceptable instinctual impulse generated by the id. The ego is able to keep the “reprehensible” impulse from entering into the conscious mind (Freud, 1926/1959). But an important question arises: What then happens to this impulse seeking satisfaction? There are several possibilities, and Freud himself considered the answer to be rather complex. One thing that might happen is that the ego attempts to shift the libido cathexed to the impulse toward release as anxiety (Freud, 1926/1959). However, anxiety is unpleasant, and the id demands satisfaction in accordance with its pleasure principle. Therefore, this procedure is doomed to failure (and, therefore, the development of neurosis). There are, of course, alternatives that can occur prior to the failure of this initial defense. The ego may find some acceptable alternative to the impulse through the other defense mechanisms, such as sublimation or reaction-formation.

    Regression can be seen when an individual engages in behavior typical of an earlier stage of development. As Freud and Breuer tried to work out the causes of their patient’s neuroses by using the cathartic method, they repeatedly found that they could not help their patients by focusing on the actual event that had led to a crisis. Instead, their patients inevitably made associations between the traumatic event and earlier experiences. Initially, these earlier experiences went back to puberty, and ultimately they went back to early childhood. Although Breuer favored some physiological explanation of this phenomenon, Freud insisted that it was psychological, and he termed the process regression (Freud, 1914/1995). According to Freud:

    This regressive direction became an important characteristic of the analysis. It was proved that psychoanalysis could not clear up anything actual, except by going back to something in the past. (pg. 903)

    This page titled 3.4: Structure of Personality is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.