As my first proper post of 2019 I thought I would start with something light and fluffy… who am I kidding, no I thought I’d have a go at explaining Freud’s theories on the mind and psychic structure. Most people have heard of Sigmund Freud and know that he had a major impact on the world of psychology and was the father of psychoanalysis.
A fundamental part of his ideas is how he saw that the mind is structurally organised. This organisation doesn’t link particular processes to physical parts of the brain, but instead outlines ways in which our mind works in a theoretical way. He suggested there were three main structural domains of consciousness: the conscious, the pre-conscious and the unconscious (please note that he did not use the term sub-conscious, and I will not either).
The conscious part of our mind is where our thinking and perceptions of the world occur; and is fully in our awareness. I know what happens in my conscious mind and it uses my attention. I can draw my attention to, and become consciously aware of my senses. I am using my conscious mind to write this sentence for example. I can also consciously stop and plan what I am going to be having for dinner.
The preconscious is interesting in that things here are not in our awareness, but they are accessible to us. It acts a little bit like a holding facility for our knowledge and memories. If we are lucky, we can retrieve what we need and bring it into our conscious mind. It can however be a little bit unpredictable and unreliable at times. For example, when you are trying to think of a particular word or name and it ends up on the tip of your tongue, and just out of reach of your conscious mind’s grasp. Or when you have the lyrics of a decades old song floating around your head instead of the figures for your important meeting.
The final domain is the unconscious. This is packed to the brim with all of the things that go on out of our awareness. It is interesting that many psychologists argue that the unconscious doesn’t exist, and prefer to relabel things that happen in our brains without our awareness as automatic or autonomous. In this way, it can include autonomous processes such as breathing, our heart beating, and reflex responses. It is impossible to measure the unconscious (as we aren’t aware of it!). For this reason it can be considered as a theoretical concept, rather than an actuality.
The unconscious makes up the largest part of our mind’s structure, and recent research has suggested that even more of our processing happens in the unconscious realm than we first thought. Freud suggested that rather than processes as such, our unconscious is filled with urges and drives that are out of our awareness, and cannot readily come into our awareness (without a lot of work and perhaps therapy). Earlier, I consciously thought about what I would be having for dinner, but I was not consciously aware of how hungry I was up until that point, and I am also not sure why I am craving prawn cocktail crisps.
To make this structure clearer he proposed a topographical way of looking at it, which we can compare to an iceberg. Icebergs are visible at the surface of the water, but most of their mass is hidden underneath. The same is true of our psyche. The conscious forms the tip which is sticking out, the preconscious exists on that boundary with the waves covering and exposing different parts at different times, and the unconscious is everything underneath.
Freud then suggested that our psyche is composed of three psychic components; the id, the super-ego and the ego.
The Id is a completely unconscious part of the psyche. Freud suggested that it is present at birth, and emphasised its high level of control over our thoughts and behaviours. The Id is composed of all of our most basic and primitive instincts and drives. These can include our fears, needs, irrational wishes, sexual desires, fantasies, immoral and unacceptable thoughts, and violent urges. It also houses our shameful and traumatic experiences (which may have been repressed from our conscious mind). Many of these can be divided into two drives which Freud called Thanatos and Eros. Thanatos is the death drive, and so would include desires to harm others or ourselves in some way. Eros is the drive for life, and so would include desires for love, intimacy, sex and passion for life. (I may write a post on these drives in the future to give more detail).
The Id exists to fulfil the pleasure principal. It wants what it wants, and it will try and do whatever it can to get fulfilment. This is a useful thing to be born with as it drives a new born to seek out things like food, water, warmth and attention from a caregiver. As the infant grows, however, and parents exert their influence many of these urges become unacceptable, certainly to the community that the child is living in. Someone who is completely Id driven will simply act on impulse without conscious thought or consideration for others, simply living to fulfil its own needs (which may ultimately include death).
I have chosen to look at this aspect next, as it is in contrast to the Id. Whereas the Id is completely in the unconscious, the Super-ego has a small part that is conscious in nature and can cross the preconscious. It develops after the Id from our interactions with the world, and especially our primary caregivers. If forms in response to the rules, expectations and guidance we are given by external forces. Due to this it aims to prohibit and quell the desires and impulses of the Id. In this way, the child can behave and function in a socially acceptable manner. The way it exerts its control is usually through the tools of shame and guilt. So, my Id might want instant gratification by wolfing down a (or several) bag(s) of prawn cocktail crisps, my Super-ego would be reminding me that I might be seen as being a glutton, and that I will get fat and that I’m a bad person for wanting to eat something so unhealthy (especially after I have done it).
The Super-ego is running on the principal of perfection. It is striving to guide a person towards our ideals and to behave in line with our values and conscience. Someone with a very strong Super-ego would be rigid in their thinking and behaviour, and also be exceptionally self-critical and judgemental, possibly to the point of self-destruction.
The use of the term Ego proposed by Freud is not the same as the use in common parlance. So where as someone might be described as being egotistical or having a massive ego to mean they are full of themselves or have exceptionally high self-esteem., this is not what Freud was referring to. He theorised that the Ego is the part of us that develops throughout child hood to act as a mediator between the Id and Super-ego, which are constantly in conflict. It perfectly crosses the conscious and unconscious (or floats between the two), with many of its processes occurring in awareness. It acts on the reality principal. In this way it seeks to use functions such as judgment, planning, experimentation, learning, remembering, and organising to make sense of the world. In doing so, it is able to provide for the needs of the Id in the most acceptable way, therefore also placating the Super-ego in the process. Some have described the ego in terms of common sense and reasonableness. It develops as we learn about the world through our experiences and relationships with others. So my Ego was able to remind Id that I would be having dinner soon and so I would not be able to have crisp, but I would also not be hungry. I will be eating just enough food, and so my Super-ego doesn’t need to make me feel guilty for my behaviour.
A person with a well-developed ego will have a good sense of themselves, their values and drives, and be able to moderate these in order to function effectively on a day to day basis. They will be able to withstand the conflict between the passions and urges of the Id and the criticism and judgement of the Super-ego. They will not fall prey to the anxiety caused by responding to every Id driven impulse, or the guilt, shame and anxiety handed out by the Super-ego for failing to achieve perfection.
I hope from this brief overview that you can see how Freud viewed our psyche as operating to determine our personalities and behaviours. Those of you that have read pervious blog posts will also be able to draw parallels between this psychic structure and the Ego State model proposed in Transactional Analysis. Although not the same, it can be argued that the Parent Ego sate is similar to the Super-ego in that it can aim to control behaviour through rules and expectations, rewards and punishments. Aspects of the Child Ego state, especially the Free Child, reflect the Id’s desire for pleasure and enjoyment in life. The Adult Ego state has a moderating function similar to the Ego, which is based on an objective evaluation of reality to best provide for a person’s needs.
I hope that I have also shown the importance of a well formed Ego in being able to manage the conflicts and demands of the ID and Super-ego. In much the same way that Transactional Analysis aims to strengthen a person’s Adult Ego state, psychodynamic approaches to therapy can explore a person’s Ego and try to bring some of the unconscious aspects of the Super-ego and Id into awareness. In this way, the Ego is better prepared to manage them and respond in a different way.
Over the next few weeks and months, I want to use this blog to look at a way in which the Ego is able to protect itself from the battle of the Id and Super-ego through utilising processes called Ego Defences.