Understanding the Role of Freud's Superego

Father teaching son right from wrong
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According to Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the superego is the component of personality composed of the internalized ideals that we have acquired from our parents and society. The superego works to suppress the urges of the id and tries to make the ego behave morally, rather than realistically.

In Freud's theory of psychosexual development, the superego is the last component of personality to develop. The id is the basic, primal part of personality; it is present from birth. The ego begins to develop during the first three years of a child's life. Finally, the superego starts to emerge around age five.

The ideals that contribute to the formation of the superego include not just the morals and values that we learn from our parents, but also the ideas of right and wrong that we acquire from society and the culture in which we live.

Parts of the Superego

In psychology, the superego can be further divided into two components: the ego ideal and the conscience (which may be more familiar as a concept).

The Ego Ideal

The ego ideal is the part of the superego that includes the rules and standards for good behaviors. These behaviors include those that are approved of by parental and other authority figures. Obeying these rules leads to feelings of pride, value, and accomplishment. Breaking these rules can result in feelings of guilt.

The ego ideal is often thought of as the image we have of our ideal selves—the people we want to become. It is this image of the ideal individual, often modeled after people that we know, that we hold up as the standard of who we are striving to be.

The Conscience

The conscience is composed of the rules for which behaviors are considered bad. When we engage in actions that conform to the ego ideal, we feel good about ourselves or proud of our accomplishments. When we do things that our conscience considers bad, we experience feelings of guilt.

Goals of the Superego

The primary action of the superego is to suppress entirely any urges or desires of the id that are considered wrong or socially unacceptable. It also tries to force the ego to act morally rather than realistically. Finally, the superego strives for moral perfections, without taking reality into account.

The superego is also present in all three levels of consciousness. Because of this, we can sometimes experience guilt without understanding exactly why we feel that way. When the superego acts in the conscious mind, we are aware of our resulting feelings. If, however, the superego acts unconsciously to punish or suppress the id, we might end up with feelings of guilt and no real understanding of why we feel that way.

"[The superego's] contents are for the most part conscious and so can be directly arrived at by endopsychic perception. Nevertheless, our picture of the superego always tends to become hazy when harmonious relations exist between it and the ego.

"We then say that the two coincide, i.e. at such moments, the superego is not perceptible as a separate institution either to the subject himself or to an outside observer. Its outlines become clear only when it confronts the ego with hostility or at least with criticism," wrote Anna Freud in her 1936 book, "The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense."

"The superego, like the id, becomes perceptible in the state which it produces within the ego: for instance when its criticism evokes a sense of guilt," Anna Freud explained.

1 Source
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  1. Freud A. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. International Universities Press, Inc; 1946.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."