Ego, superego, and id

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Sigmund Freud introduced what would later come to be called the "structural theory" of psychoanalysis in his 1923 book, The Ego and the Id. The structural theory divides the mind into three agencies or "structures:" The "id," the "ego," and the "superego." The unconscious id consists of humanity's most primitive desires to satisfy its biological needs. The superego (also unconscious) contains the socially-induced conscience and counteracts the id with moral and ethical prohibitions. The largely conscious ego functions as mediator between the two.

While Freud's conception of the mind as having different aspects and different levels, conscious and unconscious, greatly advanced understanding of human nature, certain aspects of his model have drawn severe criticism. In particular, his view of the id as primarily driven by sexual desire, and his rejection of spiritual aspects to human nature, led former students, such as Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, to separate from him and develop their own competing theories. Equally, Freud's oppositional view of individual desires (id) and society's needs (superego) has been criticized. Freud's model contains many insights that have led to numerous subsequent advances in psychology. Yet as it stands, it overlooks the spiritual aspect of mind and reifies a theory of psychological dysfunction—the human mind as an arena of conflict—what religions call a state of "fallenness" (Christianity) or "bondage" (Hinduism and Buddhism). The opposition of the id and the superego may be a reflection of a traditional Jewish psychology of fallen human beings, that within each person there is unending conflict between the "evil inclination" (yetzer ha-ra) and the "good inclination" (yetzer ha-tov).[1] Thus, it lacks a theory describing the harmonious functioning of all the mind's faculties in a healthy person.

Freud's structural theory

The ego, superego, and id are the tripartite divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory, compartmentalizing the sphere of mental activity into three energetic components:

  1. The id being the source of psychological energy derived from instinctual needs and drives
  2. The ego being the organized conscious mediator between the internal person and the external reality
  3. The superego being the internalization of the conscious mind, extenuated by rules, conflict, morals, guilt, and so on

In Freud's theory the id corresponds to the unconscious, the ego to the conscious, and the superego to the "preconscious." The conscious mind is what a person is aware of at any given moment (reality). The preconscious may be defined as "available memory." the things a person is not thinking about "right now." but can easily remember (such as moral and social norms). For Freud, however, these two were just the tip of the iceberg: The largest part of the human mind is hidden—unconscious—things that people cannot become aware of easily. These either originate in the unconscious, such as drives and instincts, or they can become "hidden" at some point in life, because people cannot bear to be aware of them, such as memories of trauma.

Of three agencies of the mind, the ego is in the most difficult position. It is at the crossroads of reality, society (represented by the superego), and biology (represented by the id). This is why sometimes the ego, or "I," can feel overwhelmed or threatened by the demands of those parties, and unable to reconcile them all. That feeling is anxiety.


Freud borrowed the term "Id" from the Book of the It (Das Buch vom Es in German) by Georg Groddeck, a pioneer of early psychosomatic medicine. The id (Latin, "it" in English, Es in the original German) represented primary process thinking—our most primitive, need-gratification impulses. It is organized around the primitive drives of sexuality and aggression that arise from the body. Sometimes the word Freud used in German, Triebe, is mistranslated as "instincts," but it literally means "drives." On occasion, Freud also called them "wishes." Drives are translations of basic human needs into motivational forces.

In the id, these drives require instant gratification or release. As one researcher has put it: "Just picture the hungry infant, screaming itself blue. It doesn't 'know' what it wants in any adult sense; it just knows that it wants it and it wants it now. The infant, in the Freudian view, is pure, or nearly pure, id. And the id is nothing if not the psychic representative of biology."[2] But the wish alone cannot satisfy the body, which functions according to the pleasure, or instant gratification, principle. If the need is not satisfied immediately, it becomes stronger and stronger until it breaks into the person's consciousness. In Freud's theory, it is these instinctual impulses or drives, originating in childhood, that are at the root of adult psychological problems.

Freud identified two main forces among the drives and instincts of the id: life (Eros) and death (Thanatos) instincts. Life instincts perpetuate the life of the individual (all the needs connected to survival: Food, water, shelter, and so on), as well as the life of the species (sex). This synergy that motivates our psyches, Freud called libido, "I desire" in Latin. Libido came to mean the sex drive (not any other drive) in particular, because Freud believed that sex was the most important of the needs in the psyche, and since people are social beings, he considered sex the most social of all needs.

Later in life, Freud started to think that next to the life instincts there is a death instinct. This is an unconscious wish to die. Death promises peace, an end to pain, suffering, and all the negative and unpleasant experiences of life. For many people in the world, life is an everyday struggle and full of suffering. Thus, death is the satisfaction of all human needs. Freud might have agreed with the saying, "the first step of a child is the first step towards death." Freud saw evidence of the death instinct in the desire for peace, and in attempts to escape reality through alcohol, drugs, books, and movies. Very directly it presents itself in suicide, and indirectly in aggression, cruelty, and destructiveness.


Ego means I in Latin, the original German word Freud applied was Ich.

In Freud's view, the ego mediates between the id, the superego, and the external world to balance our primitive drives, the moral ideals and taboos, and the limitations of reality. To successfully mediate between all these parties and fulfill its function of adaptation, the ego must be able to enforce the postponement of gratification of the drives and impulses of the id, until such time as the situation (reality) changes or a socially acceptable way to satisfy the drive is found.

Because the id “drives” demand satisfaction and they are often unacceptable to the superego, the ego must establish acceptable conditions. To defend itself from the id's impulses, the ego develops defense mechanisms. These include repression, reaction formation, projection, regression, denial, rationalization, and sublimation. The ego uses such defense mechanisms whenever internal drives threaten to create anxiety, or whenever there is a danger of original, unacceptable impulses to resurface.

Thus, the largely-conscious ego stands in between id and superego, balancing our primitive needs and our moral beliefs. A healthy ego provides the ability to adapt to reality and interact with the outside world in a way that accommodates both id and superego.

Although in his early writings Freud equated the ego with the sense of self, he later began to portray it more as a set of psychological functions such as reality-testing, defense, synthesis of information, memory, and so on.


The "superego" (überich in German) represents our socially-induced conscience and counteracts the id with moral and ethical thoughts. The word "superego" consists of the Latin super (or in German über), meaning "above," or "over," and ego (or ich). So, it actually is "above-ego," the "higher power" of the mind, where the conscience and moral norms reside. Religious people may argue that it is the part of humans where God dwells.

The superego stands in opposition to the desires of the id—fulfillment of our biological desires is often socially unacceptable. There are two reasons why an id impulse can be unacceptable: 1) as a result of a need to postpone gratification until there are reality conditions that make it possible (checking reality for suitable conditions to gratify needs is one of the functions of the ego, as discussed above); 2) as a result of a prohibition imposed by other people (especially parents) and the social environment. The sum of these norms and prohibitions is the content of the superego.

The superego has two sides: conscience and the ego ideal. They function like plus and minus, positive and negative. Conscience involves punishments and warnings; the ego ideal deals with rewards and positive reinforcements.

The superego is based upon the internalization of the world view, norms, and mores children absorb at a young age from their parents and the surrounding environment. As the conscience, it includes our sense of right and wrong, maintaining taboos specific to the child's internalization of parental culture. If the requirements of the superego are not followed, feelings of guilt and/or shame may arise.

According to Freud, the superego arises from the struggle to overcome Oedipal conflict. According to this view, its power is similar to that of an instinctual drive and is a part of the unconscious. Thus, feelings of guilt may arise without any conscious mistake. However, the source of the superego's power lies not in biological needs, but rather in the social pressures the individual experiences.

Development of ego psychology

After Freud, a number of psychoanalysts elaborated on his concept of the ego. Extensive effort was put into detailing the ego's various functions and how they are impaired in psychopathology. Much of their work focused on strengthening the ego so that it could better cope with the pressures from the id, superego, and reality in general.

The central ego functions were originally considered to consist of reality testing, impulse-control, judgment, affect tolerance, defense, and synthetic functioning. Heinz Hartmann made an important conceptual revision to Freud's structural theory, arguing that the healthy ego includes a sphere of autonomous ego functions that are independent of mental conflict. Hartmann believed that psychoanalysis should aim to expand the conflict-free sphere of ego functioning and facilitate "adaptation," that is, more effective mutual regulation of the ego and the environment.

David Rapaport systematized Freud's structural model and Hartmann's revisions of it. Clarifying Freud's work, Rapaport portrayed the mind as divided into "drives" and "structures." According to his model, drives contain fluid energy that pushes for rapid discharge through the immediate gratification of wishes. Because it is rare that wishes can be immediately gratified, the mind develops the capacity to delay gratification or achieve it through detours. Consequently, drive energy becomes tied up in the relatively stable mental structures comprising the ego.

Ego psychologists have taken the approach in different directions. Some, such as Charles Brenner, have contended that the structural model should be abandoned and psychoanalysts should focus exclusively on understanding and treating mental conflict. Others, such as Frederic Busch, have argued for an increasingly nuanced and sophisticated concept of the ego.

A further approach, advocated by Erich Fromm, is that the individual and society are not in opposition to each other. As an individual is a part of society, a large portion of his or her needs and desires is formed by that society. Thus, the id (the instinctive drives and desires) and the superego (norms of society) are not two opposing forces, but interconnected ones. It is the task of psychoanalysis to find harmony in the relationships between an individual and society.


Many psychoanalysts rejected Freud's tripartite structure of the psyche. Two significant examples are Carl Jung and Alfred Adler. Jung, one of Freud's early followers, eventually created a separate school of analytical psychology. His main breaking point with Freud was the nature of the unconscious part of the psyche, in particular the contents of the id. Jung believed that there is a personal part of our unconscious, as well as what he called the "collective unconscious." For Jung, the unconscious was not purely biological, consisting of drives that required repressing, but rather a depository of ancient wisdom, the spiritual heritage of human history. He also introduced the term Persona (an archetype with characteristics similar to the superego), and rejected Freud's distinction between ego and superego.

Alfred Adler, another former student of Freud, also developed his own approach, known as individual psychology. He believed feelings of inferiority and striving for significance to be the motivating forces of human life. Thus, like Jung, he rejected Freud's emphasis on biological drives, primarily sexual desire, as the primary source of motivation.

The major problem with Freud's tripartite theory is his claim that the id (unconscious) is the most important part of the human psyche. Especially problematic is his emphasis on the dominant role that is played by the drives and instincts of the id, and his particular obsession with the sexual drive as the primary basis for all human behavior. This "vision of humanity was not merely diminishing but also impoverishing."[3] Freud's view of the human being as just another animal species, mechanistically governed by unconscious drives and instincts, has been found inadequate. His attempt at "opening all secrets with a single key"[4] greatly oversimplified human nature and behavior.

This aspect of Freud's theory became well-known and popularized with unfortunate results. The idea that even a very young child has sexual impulses and desires (even if it doesn't understand them) has been used as an excuse by child molesters and abusers. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the attribution of all our psychological problems to repressed sexual desires can lead to patients, while undergoing psychoanalysis, "remembering" sexual abuses that never actually happened, and even accusing people of such acts.[5]

Freud's view of the human personality, mired in the powerful sexual drives of the id and frustrated by the superego's internalization of society's restrictions, leaves the ego imprisoned in its own defense mechanisms with no clear avenue to self-fulfillment. Without acknowledging the spiritual component of human life, Freud's unconscious is limited to primitive instincts that serve biological needs, and even the conscience, often viewed as "the voice of God," is reduced to socially imposed restrictions. Regarding biological needs as socially unacceptable and social standards as always restrictive, and thus in opposition to individual desires, is a very pessimistic view of humankind. As individuals fulfill their potential they make greater contributions to the good of the whole society, which then is better able to take care of its constituent members. Thus, as Erich Fromm noted, the id and the superego need not be viewed as opposing forces, but rather as interconnected ones, with the fulfillment of the desires of one depending on the fulfillment of the needs of the other.

Nevertheless, despite such criticisms, Freud's basic idea that the mind is not monolithic, or homogeneous, led to major developments within psychology, and continues to have an enormous influence on our understanding of human nature.


  1. Talmud, Kiddushin 30b.
  2. C. George Boeree, Sigmund Freud Retrieved December 21, 2021.
  3. R.C. Tallis, Burying Freud. Retrieved September 4, 2008.
  4. R. Webster, Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (Basic Books, 1996).
  5. R.C. Tallis, op.cit.

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