What Freud Meant by the Ego, the Id and the Superego

The three parts of every mind

- 6 min read

Image of an iceberg as an analogy for the human mind with the ego fully above the surface, the id fully below it and the superego stretching above and below the water level

According to the father of psychology Sigmund Freud, there are three parts of the human psyche: the ego, the id and the superego. These are originally Latin terms meaning ‘I’, ‘it’ and ‘upper-I’.

The iceberg is a common illustration of this triple structure of the mind. The part of the iceberg above water corresponds to the conscious parts of the mind. On the other hand, everything beneath the surface is unconscious.

The ego is above the water; the id is beneath. The superego is a bit above and a bit below⁠—partly conscious and partly unconscious. Each part has its own nature and role within the mind. The conflicting interests of these three are the driving force of all human conflicts.

Id/ ‘the it’

“There is nothing in the id that could be compared with negation…nothing in the id which corresponds to the idea of time”⁠
Sigmund Freud

In the beginning, there was the id. It is the only one of the three parts we are born with. The others develop later out of the id. This part of the mind is all nature and no nurture. Down here all the physiological, animal drives, impulses and instincts run wild.

You can think of the id as the animal in you. Its voice is loud when you are hungry, when you are horny or anytime you see red. It contains libido which is the primary instinctual energy.

The id is not organised according to logic. You can have contradictory impulses existing side by side without cancelling each other out. Take for example a hungover person who wants to drink and also wants not to move. These impulses contradict each other but they are both coming from the same place.

The organising principle of the id is the pleasure principle⁠—it works by what feels good. What society thinks doesn’t matter; reality doesn’t matter. The id is about desire and pleasure. Everything else is irrelevant.

According to psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, there is a quirk to the original German word for the id that got lost in translation. The original German term ‘das Es’ is neuter. That is to say that unlike der Mann⁠—the man⁠—or die Frau⁠—the woman⁠—das Es is neither masculine nor feminine. The same goes for the German word for child ‘das Kind’:

Thus in German the word’ child’ (das Kind) is of neuter gender. During their early years all Germans have the experience of being referred to by means of the neuter pronoun ‘es’ (Latin: ‘id’). This, fact gives the phrase ‘das Es’ a special feeling, reminding the German reader that this is how he was referred to before he learned to repress many of his sexual, aggressive, and otherwise asocial impulses […] it reminds him of a time when his entire existence was dominated by the ‘it’. These memories, even when one is not conscious of them, permit a much more immediate empathy with what Freud meant when he used this term for the unconscious.

We often think of the powerful impulses which overwhelm us as the devil on our shoulder. It is difficult to have sympathy for the devil. Making a devil and an ‘it’ of the unconscious is not the foundation of a great relationship.

But this connection between the id and the child helps. When a child throws a temper tantrum in the sweets and confectionery aisle, we don’t think of them as evil. We say they don’t know better. That is a helpful attitude to cultivate towards the id.

It is not trying to derail you and it is not scheming against you. The id is pure nature burning inside you. It’s a furnace of desire. Those desires may not align with the agenda of the superego or reality, but that’s not the concern of the id.

The tantrum-throwing child isn’t evil. That’s not to say you should indulge them. It means their inability to control their desire is understandable.

Traits:
      • Engine of desires, impulses, and drives
      • Pleasure-seeking
      • Unresponsive to demands of reality and social mores
      • Contrary impulses can exist side by side
      • Selfish and wilful
      • Strong emotions
      • Short-term thinking⁠—instant gratification
      • The inner child/devil on your shoulder
      • The pleasure principle
      • Home of libido
Mechanism:
      • Desire and temptation. If you want it badly enough, you will do it

Superego/ ‘the upper-I’

Where the id is ‘I want’, the superego is ‘I should’. The superego is the counterbalance to the id in the psyche. It has two parts: the conscience and the ego ideal.

The conscience is the integrated shoulds and should-nots of our culture. It is the moral code internalised from our parents and society. If we fail to adhere to this moral code, the superego punishes us with feelings of guilt and shame.

When the id says I don’t want to go to bed, the superego says ‘you must go to bed, and what is more, you must brush your teeth as well’.

The ego ideal is the other side of the superego. This is the inner vision of your best self. Aligning with your ego ideal leads to feelings of pride, value and accomplishment.

The superego is not concerned with instant gratification like the id. This part of the mind turns on long-term thinking. Everything it does is an attempt to align you with your ideal self and to steer you away from bad behaviours. It’s always trying to move you towards what you should be. You can think of the superego as the angel on your shoulder.

Traits:
      • Strives to act in a socially acceptable manner
      • Guilt, shame and inadequacy
      • Internalised voice of authority from parents and society
      • Long-term thinking
      • Inner parent/angel on the shoulder
Mechanism:
      • feeling bad to curb your enthusiasm. If you feel bad enough, you will take heed of it
      • Pride and feelings of value and accomplishment as you align with it

Ego/‘the I’

Black and white image of a womans face and a vector outline of a human head beside each other against a black background.

The ego has got an even worse reputation than the superego. It’s become a slur and a punching bag for everything that’s wrong in the world.

One reason for this is due to the translation of Freud’s concept into English. In the original German, the ego is ‘das Ich’ which means ‘the I’. Unlike ego, it is not a foreign or a technical word but something a German would hear and use every day of their lives. The disconnection between the term ego and everyday language paved the way for the errant evolution in English-speaking countries.

But this reputation shows a lot of ingratitude. The ego is nothing more or less than the ‘I’ of the individual. It is your conscious thinking mind that you identify with. And it has a tough job.

The ego has to serve three masters. It has the should of the superego and the impulses of the id to contend with as we know. And as if holding its ground between this rock and that hard place wasn’t complicated enough, it also has to serve reality.

These three masters lead to ego around in a loop. Sometimes the id and reality tug one way and superego tugs the other way⁠—think of youth culture and peer pressure. Sometimes reality sides with the superego but the id is determined to go the opposite direction⁠—a common situation in crime.

The ego is the balancer. Ideally, it is the judging faculty evaluating which course to take. Sometimes it’s just the slave to the loudest voice⁠—be it id or superego.

Consciousness itself was born out of this conflict of interests. The id in you bubbles up with impulses, and the superego tries to tug you the other way. Out of this conflict, the ego arises. The ego’s job is to adjudicate between the many demands. The ego casts the deciding vote.

Traits:
      • The ego is the reality principle
      • Serves three masters: id, superego and external world
      • Task is to find balance between the internal drives and the external reality while satisfying the id and superego
      • Judgement, decision-making, conscious thinking and evaluation

These are the three parts of your mind according to Freud. The id tells you what you want, the superego tells you what you should do, and your ego makes the final call. The happiest days are when your superego and id are in alignment with reality, and everything moves swimmingly. As we all know, such days are rare. The journey of life is learning to find the biting point where everyone at the table leaves content.

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