By Malika Noor Mehta
Artwork by Amar Chaurasia
Neurologist and psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud was a complicated man. Somewhat misogynistic (a product of his time, perhaps), and widely critiqued by activists in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Supposedly, a champion of cocaine for medical uses and an addict, himself. Oh, and apparently, he impregnated his sister-in-law. A colourful man, to say the least.
Despite Freud’s somewhat flawed personal history, he remains the father of psychoanalysis. While the Freudian language is no longer propagated in the field, his theories are still contemplated and discussed. In particular, his ideas pertaining to human personality development have remained relevant, and have somehow even found their way into popular culture.
If you type “Id, Ego and Superego” into Google, you will invariably come across several pop-psychology articles. You may even stumble upon a depiction of the Simpsons: Homer, motivated by unrestrained pleasure and primordial urges, represents the Id; Marge, the ever-practical realistic, represents the Ego; and finally, Lisa, beholden to her conscience and the most ethical way forward, represents the Superego.
And there we have it – the Simpsons perfectly summarize one Freud’s most revolutionary theories about human personality development. Yet, several questions remain: what are the Id, Ego and Superego? How do they influence each other? And why are we still so fascinated by his theories?
Freud describes the Id as the primal, instinctive part of the human personality. The Id is driven by what he calls the Pleasure Principle. This aspect of the human psyche strives to fulfil our urges, needs and desires including thirst, hunger, sexual pleasure etc. For instance, if someone is completely controlled by the Id, they may steal a bottle out of a baby’s hand to quench that all-consuming thirst, disregarding all notions of social etiquette. The Id is the instinctual impulse.
This component of human personality is critical during early childhood. An infant is driven by basic urges – eat, sleep...poop. The child will cry until the need is met. Imagine trying to reason with a 9-month-old to wait till dinner for a bottle of milk.
The Id demands immediate gratification, but fulfilling these needs is not always realistic, safe or appropriate. If human beings were entirely dominated by the Pleasure Principle, we might satisfy our cravings by hurting, or at least, angering other people. According to Freud, in order to control the Id, the human psyche creates the Ego, the manager of the mind.
Our Ego speaks to our sense of self. This is true of both, the colloquial use of the term today as well as the way in which Freud defined the concept in the 1920s. The Ego regulates our impulses. It functions based on what Freud calls the Reality Principle which turns the Id’s primal desires into socially acceptable actions and reactions. The Reality Principle helps us assess the costs and benefits of certain behaviours and thoughts.
Imagine you are attending an important meeting. Suddenly, you start to feel hungry. The Id demands that you get up and grab the closest morsel of food, even if it means grabbing that biscuit straight out of your boss’s hands. The Ego, however, ensures that you do not risk getting fired simply because your stomach is growling. It will allow you to satisfy your need for food but at an appropriate time and place. This concept of delayed gratification is fundamental to human beings and healthy personality development.
Freud uses a famous analogy to describe the relationship between the Id and the Ego. He explains that the Id is like a wild horse, powerful and impulsive. The Ego is the horse-rider who directs the horse, guiding him away from danger. Without the rider, the horse may get lost or fall prey to temptation.
Professor Neetu Sarin, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and professor at Ambedkar University Delhi, explains the Ego as an aspect of our personality that is “always developing.”
She states, “The Ego is shaped by our experiences at home, in our education, at our workplace. It develops in relationship to the world – in relation to people, phenomena, systems, each of which has some internal value.”
As such, the Ego perceives reality. Therefore, its most important function is to strike a balance between primal instinct determined by the Id and social ethics, understood by the Superego.
Freud explains that the Superego begins to develop around age 5. This component of human personality functions as our conscience. The Superego assesses the information we glean from our community and helps us formulate our values and ideals.
Professor Sarin explains that “Superego is more the voice of ethics rather than morality. We employ a moral code when someone external is looking. Ethics, however, is about inherent integrity; it is the internally located force that guides us.”
While the Superego certainly develops in relation to society, it does not fear society. “Rather, it possesses a certain reverence of authority which helps sublimate the instinctual impulse of the Id, not because an observer is examining us, but rather, because of our internal ethical motivations,” explains Professor Sarin.
The relationship between the Id, Ego and Superego
Each component of the human personality is critical. The Ego, however, is the guide that balances our instinctual impulses and our social callings. Professor Sarin says,
“I am not going to be totally self-indulgent (Id), nor I am going to be completely socially compliant (Superego). The Ego performs that delicate dance of integrating Id and Superego. This is necessary. If I am only in service of the world, I could become neurotic. If I am only in service of myself, I could become narcissistic. We all have the ability to embrace these two distinct aspects of ourselves, but it is the Ego that balances us so that we are not arrested to a singular position (neurosis or narcissism).”
“It is a misnomer to say that a narcissist has an ‘inflated ego.’ In fact, their Ego is severely underdeveloped.”
The concept of narcissism as it pertains to the Ego is fascinating. Most often, narcissists have a fractured relationship with their caregivers. Particularly in their early years, narcissists are often deprived of the love and attention all children require. As such, they develop the ability to rely upon themselves at a very young age. Professor Sarin states, “It is a misnomer to say that a narcissist has an ‘inflated ego.’ In fact, their Ego is severely underdeveloped.” It is precisely this underdevelopment that causes an imbalance between narcissists’ self-indulgent, self-affirming, self-aggrandizing instincts, and their miscomprehension of social norms and etiquette. In fact, they do not have strong Egos at all.
In the realm of mental health, Ego Strength is a phrase used to describe a person’s ability to retain a sense of self even when confronted by discomfort, distress or disaster. Developing robust defence and coping mechanisms are indications that the Ego is indeed strong.
The Ego works in service of the Id and the Superego, consistently trying to prevent “the disintegration of the human personality,” explains Professor Sarin. Without the Ego, there could certainly be social mayhem, but simultaneously, our internal beings would also fall victim to a certain rawness that only hurts us. “When I employ my Ego Strength, instead of using the Id’s impulses, I actually consider what I want from the world, and figure out how to go out there and get it,” says Professor Sarin.
A mental health professional might be able to discern the strength of a person’s Ego by examining how they communicate. The clarity of articulation, the fluency of thought, and the manner in which they speak, all demonstrate their sense of self. This person must also have the ability to respond meaningfully to another being, while still holding onto their internal thoughts. This is the balancing act performed by the Ego – considering the self while also paying attention to the outsider, without losing control.
Alternatively, if communication is used as a form of “evacuation” it indicates a weaker Ego, explains Professor Sarin. In this case, communication serves solely as a release, a catharsis, a vent. Instead of an internal dialogue directing the conversation, an external monologue occurs, free-flowing and uncontrolled. This indicates a less developed Ego.
The Cultural Ego
Freud’s ideas on human personality development remain as relevant today as they were 100 years ago because we, as a society, still struggle with the inherent balancing act conducted by Ego. As a whole, we remain uncomfortable in grey areas, spaces where the answers remain unclear or undefined. We are searching for the black or white, the either-or, the yes or no. Yet, the whole purpose of the Ego is to remain somewhere in the middle and tolerate ambivalence.
Professor Sarin states, “When we use ‘splitting’ (of thoughts, people and things into stark categories), we demonstrate how the necessary porousness between our states of mind does not exist.” Today, we are uncomfortable integrating religions or allowing individuals to choose their gender and sexuality, or accepting that there does not need to be a dichotomy between individual rights and government authority. We are uncomfortable with greyness, and therefore, our Egos’ strength is invariably decreasing. In order to return to a state of fortitude, we must ultimately accept the ever-changing, fluid nature of our world.
About the Author
Malika Noor Mehta is a mental health entrepreneur. Before the pandemic, she was engaged in creating a fellowship program that placed mental health counsellors in low-cost schools in Mumbai. Her interest in mental health stems from her teaching experience at Teach for India and her time in Jordan and Greece, creating trauma-sensitive education programs for Syrian refugees. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, she loves to write and take photographs.
Inputs from Dr Neetu Sarin. Dr Sarin is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and professor at Ambedkar University Delhi.