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The Superego

Priscilla Roth

Everyone breaks rules. But what is the disapproving voice inside our heads that chides and criticises us for it? In psychoanalysis, this voice is called the superego, which Freud conceived as the infantile internalising of parental authority. This book examines how important the superego is in passing on moral standards from one generation to the next - but at the same time, how it can lead to distressing states of mind from which many people suffer, particularly depression.

The Very Harsh Superego Inside
One of the most important areas to look at when exploring how the superego works, is the relative gentleness or harshness of any particular person's superego. A healthy person has a superego which by and large helps him to feel good about himself and punishes him by making him feel guilty only when he behaves badly. A healthy superego is like a kind but also a firm parent: it has rules, but it is also forgiving of transgressions. It can be reasoned with and mitigated: if I behave badly, recognize that I have behaved badly, and try to make reparation, my superego usually gives me some credit for it and forgives me. Reparation - trying to make good some damage you've done - is related to the religious and spiritual notion of redemption; it always implies a recognition of guilt and a wish to repair the damage.

Someone persecuted by an excessively harsh superego could be seen as unconsciously cowering under an unstable mountain of guilt. To recognize its scale, or to attempt the slightest reduction of its terrible weight, is to risk an anhiliating avalanche of shame. Such unfortunate people, unable to make any move that would allow the process of reparation to begin, are doomed to endless reproach and attack from within.

People whose superego is this cruel usually have to get rid of it one way or another otherwise, they are in great danger of hurting themselves or others. In extreme cases, reltionships are damaged, acute depression causes difficulties at work. At its worst, suicide or even murder can seem to be the only way to silence the remorseless internal assault.

The Superego Located Outside in Someone Else

As we can see, sometimes when the superego is too fierce - when guilt feels too awful to bear - people project their superego outside themselves into someone else. What this means is that they locate the criticizing voices in somebody else and experience the criticism as coming from that other person. The person they feel is criticizing them may not be criticizing them at all. A peculiar look, or a chance remark, or a missed opportunity to telephone can all seem like signs of someone being critical and censorious. Thinking someone else is persecuting you or finding fault with you can be a terrible experience, but nothing like as painful as hating yourself, a situation from which there can be no respite. Sometimes people can become quite paranoid as a defense against their own unconscious guilt.

Here is an example. Helene Deutsch writes about a patient of hers who was unable to pay her analytic fees for some time. The patient, instead of being grateful for the analyst' patience , became extremely agressive. She began searching through the past couple of years of analysis, 'remembering' slights from the analyst, ways the analyst had misunderstood her or mistreated her ; Dr. Deutsch describes these as

'a flood of minor incidents that had occurred during the analysis and which she was able to twist to suit her purposes ... She maintained, for instance, that her analysis, and her whole future, had already been ruined by a telephone conversation which had curtailed her session by a few minutes...(and she insisted that) I had done this because of my deep antipathy for her. By casting this blame on me she was able to keep herslef free from guilt and therefore also free from depression'. Helene Deutsch, p. 204

This example demonstrates a way in which people can fend off feelings of guilt by blaming others for persecuting or criticizing them. Thus somebody else is identified as the persecutor, and that somebody is the one who ought to feel guilty.

The Superego Inside Oneself but Directed at Someone Outside

This is a common way of dealing with a harsh superego - instead of allowing it to persecute himself, the person turns it towards other people in his life and persecutes them. James Thurber wrote a story about a man whose son was afraid of other children. The man urges his son to stand up to the bullies; he insists that the boy has to fight them. The little boy tries to do what his father wants but as he confronts the bullies he gets too afraid and runs away. The father's reaction is to shout at his son, to bully the boy every bit as badly as the bullies did: You sniveling creep! You good-for-nothing little coward!'

We can understand this story as a story about the father's unsuccessful fight with his own bullying superego. We can guess that the man has had some experience of being denigrated and belittled in his own mind by a very cruel and bullying part of himself which tells him he's a coward and no good and useless and a pathetic baby. This voice may come from his own actual father, but it is now inside him, always threatening him with harsh criticism and contempt. So what does he do about this awful situation? He gets rid of this voice directed at himself and turns it on his son; his son becomes the object of his contempt and he himself is free from criticism.

We all know people like this; people who strike us as bossy or forbidding or 'headmistressy'. They manage to make us feel small, or clumsy or stupid. Next time you run into one, it may help to remember that they are more than likely getting rid of their own bad feelings by putting them into you.

Reference
Deutsch, Helene (1965) Neuroses and Character Types: Clinical Psychoanalytic Studies New York: International Universities Press

Priscilla Roth is a training analyst at the British Institute of Psychoanalysis, and a child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, London. This extract is from her book The Superego, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, published by Icon Books.

Ideas In Psychoanalysis
edited by Ivan Ward Icon Books £3.99

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