What Is the Superego? A Comprehensive Guide
Call it a moral compass, a little voice inside, or a conscience; Freud called it the superego.
What makes you the person you are? What explains your interests, your fears, your hopes and desires, your moral stances, and your passions in life? The short answer is that you are defined by a mix of life experiences, starting from your first days alive, and by hard wiring of the brain, by synaptic connections and a balance of hormones and chemicals the size of various lobes and cortexes and such.
In striving to understand the emotions and behaviors that arise in a person (or in yourself), it helps to have a few terms that compartmentalize and define different parts of the human psyche. Fortunately, we have had such terms for a bit more than a century now, thanks to an Austrian man whose name you have probably heard before: Sigmund Freud.
Freud, known as the founder of modern psychoanalysis – and in many ways the father of modern psychology – coined the term superego along with ego and id. These three terms together serve to represent a human being’s personality, and by understanding each term more fully, we can gain a better understanding of what explains and motivates a person’s behavior and emotions. Or, in other words, what makes them who they are, or what makes you who you are.
The Id and the Ego
The id, as defined by Sigmund Freud, is arguably the easiest aspect of the human psyche to understand, for we need only look to a wild animal’s behavior to understand it. The id represents our basic, base desires, which are essentially just twofold: to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. The id is the impulse to eat an entire sleeve of cookies or to turn and run from an unpleasant argument. It’s our desire to reach out and embrace someone we find attractive or to hide from someone we fear.
The ego is the conscious self; it is the face you show to the world and the thoughts you are aware you are having. It’s the “you” that everyone sees out there in the world and the you that is processing your emotions as they rise up from within, tempered by all of the experiences you have had. The ego is the actor (and yes, you can take the word at both of its meanings in this context, a person playing a part or simply the person or thing doing an action, e.g.) that engages with the world at large after tempering the input from that animal-like id and from the superego.
So what is the superego?
The Superego, Arguably the Most Important Part of the Human Psyche
Sigmund Freud primarily spoke and wrote in German, so it’s little surprise that his ideas are best expressed in his native language. Freud didn’t use the term “id,” but “Das Es,” which means “the it.” Instead of “ego,” he said “Das Ich,” which means “the I.”
And instead of “superego,” he used the term “Das Über-Ich,” which means in German “the over I.” And that’s really the best way to think of the superego, it is the part of you that watches over you. While unconscious, the superego is the most powerful actor on the human psyche of anyone with a well-developed sense of good and bad, right and wrong, kind and cruel; it is the force that helps keep us living decent lives in which we are stable, contributing members of society.
You can think of it as a moral compass, a “little voice inside your head,” or, more formally, as your conscience.
Where Does the Superego Come From?
Unlike the id, which is essentially a primal force, one over which we can exert control but whose impulses cannot be shaped, the superego is shaped by experiences. And it is chiefly shaped by the experiences a child has in the first five or six years of life, thus our parents have an outsized role in calibrating our moral compasses for us. The superego is molded by what a child sees and hears, by how she is rewarded or punished, by stresses or pleasures. It’s no surprise, then, that children raised by calm, loving parents thrive more often than those raised in unstable, unloving conditions.
Beyond the direct influence of the parents, broader conditions do play a large role in the formation of the superego as well, though. A child raised by caring parents in a safe, quiet neighborhood will have a different tendency to react to circumstances than a child raised by caring parents living in a war zone.
We become, to a large extent, what we repeatedly see and experience.
What Happens When We Go Against Our Own Superego?
Chances are good that you can come to a less than complete stop at a stop sign on a quiet road and not feel badly about it later. After all, no one saw you do it and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cares, yourself included? Now imagine another circumstance in which you were the only one to witness a transgression, be it anything from shoplifting to hit-and-run accident to wire fraud. Imagine you never get caught, yet you’re still plagued with feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse. Why? Because your superego saw the whole thing.
(And for the record, you can also feel these potent emotions when you do get caught for wrongdoing, which means external and internal shaming.)
When we go against our own established moral code, we suffer for it. But that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, for that moral it helps us to re-establish and even strengthen our convictions to doing right – those feelings of regret and remorse confirm that we have a well-developed conscience in the first place!
Now, if someone can transgress without any internal negative emotions, that’s the real problem, and one indicating a poor upbringing or even potentially psychological issues like sociopathy that warrant the attention of a medical health professional.