What is Psychoanalysis? – The Ego, the Id and the Superego

Freud discovered a mind at war with itself.

These films are intended to facilitate first encounters with Freud’s thought.

If you’re studying the psychodynamic approach, this resource is for you!

In this episode:

  • A fractured self
  • Id, Ego, Superego
  • Why did Freud develop a new model?
  • Devils and angels
  • People fall ill of their moral ideals
  • A horse and a rider
  • The ego is like a politician
  • The goal of psychoanalysis: stop the ego being so silly

factsheet (PDF) accompanies this series.


The human being that emerges from psychoanalysis is not a human being that is at peace with itself. It is a human being that is divided, split, that is in conflict with itself, and that doesn’t know itself completely.

There is a kind of, in a way, a new vision of what it is to be human that emerges through psychoanalysis which recognises conflict as fundamental. Freud’s fundamental view of humans is that they are incessantly at war with themselves, inside their own mind.

So that model of conflict and of division within, of a sort of fractured self, is fundamentally important.

Freud has two models of the mind. In the first model he distinguishes between perception-consciousness, what he calls the preconscious, and the unconscious. In the second model he distinguishes between the ego, the id, and superego.

The id refers to the cluster of drives, that push for immediate satisfaction. It’s governed by the pleasure principle. It wants things here and now, regardless of the consequences, and if it doesn’t get it then it screams or has a tantrum.

So if the id’s associated with the drives and with getting satisfaction however, in whatever form, then the ego has to deal with that and say: ‘You can’t do it that way, but maybe you can do it this way’. It’s a negotiating agency. And then you’ve got the superego on the other side, which is to do with conscience and law, which says: ‘No, you can’t try and do anything ever. You’ve got to be perfect. You’ve got to be all right.’ And so the ego’s got to mediate that too. It’s about how to makes these two, the law and the drives, how to make that liveable.

One of the difficulties in the later model of ego, id, and superego, and one off the reason why it doesn’t just map onto the earlier model of conscious, unconscious, preconscious, is that Freud thought that a part of the ego was also unconscious to itself. So there could be, as it were, something going on in the ego that’s repressing thoughts and yet that very fact, or that very process, might be unconscious within the ego. He thought of the ego as split between a conscious and an unconscious part.

And then he also realised that when, as a result of identifications with our parents, we form ideals that we want to match, ideals of ourselves, these agencies are not all conscious. So that the unconscious is actually spread over the whole area of the mind.

Sometimes I think we can oversimplify it by thinking about these three little figures running about in our minds. The id represents normal, childish desires and pleasures, and to demonise those by calling it a devil, I don’t think is a good idea. And with the superego as an angel, I think that is even more problematic because many of the demands of the superego are quite tyrannical and nonsensical.

People talk about it as conscience, a kind of, internalised version of conscience, but that makes it sound rather sanitised. So one of the features of the superego is that is seems to be the voice of conscience and morality, but it’s actually a passionately sadistic and hating voice in my ear, telling me what to do. You know, the idea of the superego being something quite, potentially perverse. That it’s an agency that can even get enjoyment from making the person suffer, from watching them fail to live up to an ideal, for instance.

What Freud was saying was that people fall ill of their moral ideals. And we ought to question their moral ideals.

But the superego is built out of the orders, and the instructions and the diktats and the words of your primary carers: and ‘you should’ and ‘you shouldn’t’, and ‘you must’ and ‘you mustn’t’, et cetera. And so the exact words and beliefs and ideals of your parents are what your superego is built out of.

Let’s take an example: Take a person who, a man who, whose job was outside, in the street, say he was a merchant at a market stall. He developed panic attacks when going into work, and only in the summer, and in the end he couldn’t go into work at all in the summer. What emerged in the analysis was that he was told as a young boy, when he became interested in girls and used to look, ‘You mustn’t stare at a woman.’ Now, in the summer, lots of slightly clad, very pretty young women, girls came to his market stall, and he found it impossible not to look. So to fulfil this moral demand of the superego of which he wasn’t aware, not initially, all he could do in the end was to avoid the situation completely. So he was unable to work because of his strict superego. If people have a moral ideal, that doesn’t enable them to live, then they’re going to suffer.

In a way any symptom, any psychological symptom, would be an example of the ego breaking down, so, you know, whether it’s a phobia, or an obsession with handwashing, or an inability to go to work, or depression. All those things are signs that the ego just isn’t coping and isn’t managing to find a suitable compromise.

The second model of the mind that Freud came up with, the one that distinguishes between the ego, the id, and the superego, which also became the most popular one, has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is, and I think Freud himself noticed that towards the end of his life, is that it gives pride of place to the ego. Freud draws the analogy between a horse and a rider and the ego and the id. The id is a horse: a strong animal, full of energy, and the rider tries to rein in the horse, to direct it along a pathway that the rider chooses. and, more often than not, that works. However, sometimes the horse has a mind of its own and it chooses its own way, and the ego, the rider, just follows and pretends that it’s going where it wants to go where it’s the horse that’s making the decision. And this gives us a bit of a problem with the ego because our egos are often giving us a false idea about who we are and what we can see.

The ego is always a bit of a hokey construction. It’s always a bit silly. It’s always just trying to make everything ok and make everything look good. It’s a bit like politicians saying: ‘We don’t want to be seen to da da da da.’ They don’t mind actually doing it but they don’t want to be seen to do it. The ego is something a bit like that. So, some of the things the ego might bring when someone comes is a story about themselves. A typical one would be: ‘I had a very happy childhood. My mother and father got on very well.’ It’s a story that, with a question, may prove to not be the whole story. And it’s the ego, it’s job has been to censor some of these darker aspects of people’s lives. There’s no idea of propping up the ego. It’s just: stop the ego being so silly.