The Three Components of the Psyche: the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego
In 1923, Sigmund Freud, considered the father of psychoanalysis, posited his theory on the structure of what constitutes an individual’s personality or psyche. He believed that three elements he called the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego, although independent entities, work together to form complex human behaviors over a person’s lifetime. Each element emerges at a different developmental point in a child’s life. According to Freud’s theory, certain parts of the psyche are more basic and primal while other aspects work to keep those urges in check and make them more socially acceptable. Let’s take a look at each part to get a better understanding of how they operate by themselves and then look at how they operate together.
The Id is the only component of the psyche that is present from birth. This part is unconscious and includes instinctive and primitive behaviors. According to Freud, the Id is driven by the pleasure principle which strives for immediate gratification of all wants, needs, and desires. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result can cause a great deal of tension and anxiety. The Id’s primary function so early on is to see that the infant’s needs are met. If the infant is hungry or uncomfortable they will cry until their demands are satisfied. As the child gets older they can be seen wanting to explore the world, wanting to run wherever they want, and touch everything they see. We have seen children take items out of other children’s hands if they desire it at that moment. Young parents will grow weary trying to keep up with the demands of their child from feedings when the child wants to be fed, to be made comfortable when the diaper need changing, and stimulation when the child wants attention. This will continue until other elements of the psyche are developed to counterbalance the insatiable demands. Although as children mature and learn to get a better grip on their Id desires, this part of the psyche remains the same infantile force throughout one’s life. We can see similar behaviors in adults who don’t get their way or are prevented from getting an immediate need met. We learn that we cannot always get what we want when we want it and that it is more socially acceptable to delay gratification and not put our demands on other people.
The Ego is derived from the Id and is formed around the age of three. Where the Id is powered by the pleasure principle, the Ego is driven by the reality principle which acts to tame the unruliness of the Id. The Ego functions in the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious mind and can be said to be “the voice of reason” to mitigate the Id’s desires. As part of the Ego, the reality principal can help formulate the process of delayed gratification which will eventually allow the Id’s behavior to be expressed in a more socially acceptable way. The Ego helps to keep a person grounded in reality and prevents the Id from pulling too far toward our most basic primal urges. A person with a strong Ego is said to be attentive and mindful of their actions and behaviors. Sigmund Freud compared the Id to a horse and the Ego to the horse’s rider with the horse being able to demonstrate its power and strength while the rider provides the horse with stability and direction. Without the rider, the horse would run wild and go wherever it wanted to go. An example may be if you could imagine yourself in a meeting at work and you begin to feel hungry. The impulse of the Id may have you wanting to run out of the meeting to get something to eat (“I want to eat Now!”), but the Ego mitigates the urge and you stay for the rest of the meeting (delayed gratification). The appropriate time to get some food would be after the meeting ends.
The last component of the psyche is the Superego which begins to form around the age of five. The Superego is present in the unconscious, the preconscious, and the conscious mind. The Superego holds the internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from authority figures like our parents and society. It instills a sense of right and wrong and judges certain behaviors as forbidden which could lead to bad consequences. The Superego keeps an eye on our behavior and attempts to suppress the Id’s unacceptable urges. If you give in to the urges of the Id a sense of guilt or shame may ensue. But if you are able to suppress the Id’s primal urges a sense of satisfaction and pride may be acknowledged. An example of the Superego at work may be as follows: You go into a store to buy something and when you are handed your change you notice that the clerk gave you back more money in error. What do you do? If the Superego is at play you will decide to go back and return the money knowing that it was just a simple mistake. If you don’t, your Id just became satisfied that it got something for free. So as the Id wants to be satisfied immediately, the Superego attempts to temper the strong urges and the Ego plays traffic cop in the psyche. Freud used the tern Ego strength to demonstrate how well the Ego functions between the competing forces of the Id and the Superego.
Working Together: The Id, Ego, and Superego
An example of the interaction between forces may go like this: It’s a hot summer day and you feel like having some ice cream, but you have been dieting and trying to avoid anything sweet. You have been good sticking to your diet, but are afraid if you have the ice cream, it may cause a backwards trend. What do you do? Your Id is saying, “Go for it! Now!” The Superego is lecturing, “Well, you know you shouldn’t have it! It’s not good for you and you’ll gain all the weight back. Don’t do it!” Now the Ego is in the middle weighing the situation. Maybe the Superego is right and perhaps you shouldn’t tempt yourself. Maybe the Id is right - why deprive yourself? So the Ego decides that there is probably no harm in having the ice cream, but get a small size and don’t make it a habit. Problem solved. At least that problem is solved. Every day throughout the day this “triumvirate” of forces puts demands on the psyche which have to be resolved one way or another to keep tension and anxiety at bay. Freud believed that a balance between the three components is what keeps homeostasis within the psyche. He further noted that an imbalance between the three could cause maladaptive behavior. Are you the kind of person who is impulsive like the Id and wants everything Now? Do you have a strict Superego that puts harsh prohibitions on all your impulses and desires? Do you have an observing Ego that can balance the two? Knowing the three components of the psyche can help us have a more fulfilling, balanced, and better managed life.