Theories of Personality 9th Edition

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34 Part II Psychodynamic Theories

Finding itself surrounded on three sides by divergent and hostile forces, the ego
reacts in a predictable manner—it becomes anxious. It then uses repression and
other defense mechanisms to defend itself against this anxiety (Freud, 1926/1959a).
According to Freud (1933/1964), the ego becomes differentiated from the id
when infants learn to distinguish themselves from the outer world. While the id
remains unchanged, the ego continues to develop strategies for handling the id’s
unrealistic and unrelenting demands for pleasure. At times the ego can control the
powerful, pleasure-seeking id, but at other times it loses control. In comparing the
ego to the id, Freud used the analogy of a person on horseback. The rider checks
and inhibits the greater strength of the horse but is ultimately at the mercy of the
animal. Similarly, the ego must check and inhibit id impulses, but it is more or
less constantly at the mercy of the stronger but more poorly organized id. The ego
has no strength of its own but borrows energy from the id. In spite of this depen-
dence on the id, the ego sometimes comes close to gaining complete control, for
instance, during the prime of life of a psychologically mature person.
As children begin to experience parental rewards and punishments, they learn
what to do in order to gain pleasure and avoid pain. At this young age, pleasure
and pain are ego functions because children have not yet developed a conscience
and ego-ideal: that is, a superego. As children reach the age of 5 or 6 years, they
identify with their parents and begin to learn what they should and should not do.
This is the origin of the superego.

The Superego

In Freudian psychology, the superego, or above-I, represents the moral and ideal aspects
of personality and is guided by the moralistic and idealistic principles as opposed to
the pleasure principle of the id and the realistic principle of the ego. The superego grows
out of the ego, and like the ego, it has no energy of its own. However, the superego
differs from the ego in one important respect—it has no contact with the outside world
and therefore is unrealistic in its demands for perfection (Freud, 1923/1961a).
The superego has two subsystems, the conscience and the ego-ideal. Freud
did not clearly distinguish between these two functions, but, in general, the con-
science results from experiences with punishments for improper behavior and tells
us what we should not do, whereas the ego-ideal develops from experiences with
rewards for proper behavior and tells us what we should do. A primitive conscience
comes into existence when a child conforms to parental standards out of fear of
loss of love or approval. Later, during the Oedipal phase of development, these
ideals are internalized through identification with the mother and father. (We dis-
cuss the Oedipus complex in a later section titled Stages of Development.)
A well-developed superego acts to control sexual and aggressive impulses
through the process of repression. It cannot produce repressions by itself, but it can
order the ego to do so. The superego watches closely over the ego, judging its actions
and intentions. Guilt is the result when the ego acts—or even intends to act—contrary
to the moral standards of the superego. Feelings of inferiority arise when the ego is
unable to meet the superego’s standards of perfection. Guilt, then, is a function of
the conscience, whereas inferiority feelings stem from the ego-ideal (Freud,
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