Id, Ego, & Superego – For Understanding and Self-Reflection

I have learned that we all have various inner thoughts and instincts that drive us, but what exactly are they, and how do they work?  Sigmund Freud’s three-part human personality theory can help explain how the id, ego, and superego play distinctive roles in the development of our personalities and our lives.

The id, ego, and superego are the three parts of human personality theory.  Historically, working with psychiatric patients led to Freud’s discovery of a psychoanalytic theory that includes the id, ego, and superego.  The id is unconscious instinct, ego is mediator, and superego is moral conscience. 

Have you ever listened to the voices in your head and wondered who they are?  What keeps you in line and helps you make moral choices? Understanding Freud’s personality theory can guide our self-reflection and help us better understand why we are the way we are.  

What Is the Three-part Human Personality Theory?

A three-part human personality theory was coined in 1923 by Sigmund Freud and included the id, ego, and superego.  They are considered systems in the brain rather than physical parts. Freud’s personality theory provides the building blocks for psychoanalysis that drives modern psychotherapy.  

According to Freud’s theory, the interactions and conflicts among the id, ego, and superego influence human behavior and personality development. Striking a balance between these three components is essential for healthy psychological functioning. A well-developed ego can successfully navigate between the demands of the id and the superego, allowing for adaptive and socially acceptable behavior.

Simple Scrabble Pieces - Id, Ego, and Superego - Gone Minimal
Simple Scrabble Pieces

The History and Origin of Freud’s Ego-theory

Sigmund Freud was a neurologist from Austria and the founder of psychoanalysis. He graduated with a medical degree in 1881, then worked as a doctor at Vienna General Hospital. 

Working with psychiatric patients, he researched and published several papers on neuropathology.  Freud utilized free association in his private practice to encourage his clients with psychological disorders to talk openly and discover unconscious ideas, which he called psychoanalysis. 

One client, in particular, led Freud to realize the conscious, preconscious (subconscious), and unconscious regions due to repressed traumatic experiences.  He would eventually break these down into deeper structures, including the id, ego, and superego.

A healthy ego is in charge of situations and balances the id and superego.

Exploring the Id, Ego, & Superego

Much of the three-part human personality theory is based on instincts around the aggressive and sexual drive, pleasure principle, and gratification, according to authors Sarah E. Lantz and Sagarika Ray of Nassau University Medical Center. The id, ego, and superego work together in our minds to create our personal and individual behaviors. 

But what does each one do, exactly?  Let’s look at how the id, ego, and superego work independently to make us who we are.

  1. Id – The id is the part of the mind responsible for aggressive and sexual drives, memories, and instincts.  It controls our unconscious thoughts, impulses, urges, and libido.  This refers to much more than our sexual drive — it’s also for a range of ideas from art appreciation to instincts for survival.  The id is also about things that feel good.
  2. Ego – The ego is the mediator between the id and super-ego.  It is influenced by external factors, including environment, people, and good and bad experiences.  Professors Lepoutre, Fernandez, Chevalier, Lenormand, and Guerin discuss the ego as being several things, from integrating with our environment to defining our true self.  The ego considers the id and super-ego in conjunction with societal norms and rules when making behavioral decisions.
  3. Superego – The superego is our moral conscience or the part that drives us to do the right things.  It is learned from our parents and caregivers and incorporates societal morals and values.  The super-ego is also responsible for controlling our unconscious impulses.  This keeps us in “check” and in line with society’s acceptable behavior.
A Simple Reflection - Ed, Ego, and Superego - Gone Minimal
A Simple Reflection

Examples of the Id, Ego, & Superego

Now that we have discussed what the id, ego, and superego are, you’re probably wondering how each of them looks.  Here are some examples of each and how they affect your drive.

Examples of Id

  1. The 8-year-old child could not pay attention in class because he needed to go to the bathroom.  His attention improved after relieving himself.
  2. The baby was fussy due to hunger, but once fed, the baby was content and fell asleep.
  3. Lauren went grocery shopping while hungry and ate a banana from produce while she finished her shopping.

Examples of Ego

  1. Max was eating dinner at a restaurant with his girlfriend.  They were getting ready to leave, and Max’s girlfriend needed a to-go box. So she waited patiently for the waitress to bring a box rather than get one herself.
  2. Jennifer led a work group when two members started bickering over task distribution.  Jennifer was frustrated and wanted to yell at them but knew that would only worsen things. So she took a few deep breaths and encouraged a group discussion.

Developing a healthy ego is essential to living a good life and maintaining good relationships with others.

Examples of Superego

  1. Eileen was shopping in an expensive department store when she noticed some lipstick she wanted.  She could sneak it into her purse because there were no employees around and get away with it, but she decided she didn’t need the lipstick, and stealing it would be wrong.
  2. Dylan participated in the marching band in high school, but he was failing algebra.  He thought about cheating on an upcoming algebra test so he wouldn’t fail and could continue to participate in band, but realized it wouldn’t be right and studied instead.
A Man Studying - Id, Ego, and Superego - Gone Minimal
A Man Studying

What a Healthy Ego Looks Like

A healthy ego is in charge of situations and balances the id and superego.  The ego is seeking pleasure and avoiding pain but is realistic about how to go about achieving those things.  A healthy ego is being satisfied and keeping the id and ego intact.

Developing a Healthy Ego

Developing a healthy ego is essential to living a good life and maintaining good relationships with others.  It begins in childhood with how we interact with our parents or caregivers.  This means learning what’s right and wrong, how to understand and empathize with others, and how to love.  When we have healthy relationships with our parents as children, we’re more likely to develop a healthy ego. 

When we don’t have that as children, it can easily throw things out of balance and must evolve later in life.  Seeking help from mental health professionals can assist with developing a healthy ego in older children and adults.  Through talk, play, and trusting relationships with others, a healthy ego can be developed and strengthened in later stages of life.

A Man and Woman Simply Laughing - Id, Ego, and Superego - Gone Minimal
A Man and Woman Simply Laughing

The Id, Ego, &  Superego Iceberg Metaphor

The iceberg metaphor is commonly used to look at the id, ego, and superego.  Almost half of the ego is above water, or conscious, as is a small fraction of the superego.  The preconscious is just below the water level and contains a fraction of the superego and the ego. 

Even deeper is the unconscious, which includes a small fraction of the ego, about half of the superego, and all of the id.  Outside of the water, we have conscious control over those portions of the ego and superego, while what is underwater has minimal to no conscious control.

In this helpful video, learn about the most enduring and important ideas introduced by Sigmund Freud and explore the personality structures of the id, ego, and superego.

Related Insights

Is the superego conscious or unconscious?

The superego is unconscious, also known as the voice of conscience, and focuses on doing the right thing and self-criticism.

What happens if the superego is too strong?

If the superego is too strong, one may become overly moralistic and judgmental.  In this case, if the person perceives someone as immoral or bad, they cannot accept them.

How does the superego develop?

The superego develops in childhood, generally by age five, and is the response to punishments and approvals from parents or caregivers.  The child internalizes moral standards taught by the parents to develop their superego.

How do I strengthen my superego?

You strengthen your superego through life experiences and events that lead to learning rules.  The superego can also be supported by confronting unconscious inner conflicts and controlling urges.

How Real People’s Relationships with Their Parents/Caregivers Affected Their Development of Friendships With Others

I asked friends and family to describe their relationships with their parents or caregivers and how they thought that influenced their development of relationships with others.  Here is a table representing the percentages of their responses and what I learned from the poll about the relationships of real people. 

Parental Relationships and the Development of Friendships
23% of people polled had good relationships with their parents and developed many friendships
16% of people polled had divorced parents and developed distrust in others and few friendships
30% of people polled had a single mom and developed distrust in men and a few close friendships
8% of people polled had their father pass away during childhood and had a good relationship with their mother who drank alcohol but developed alcohol and marriage problems
23% of people polled had great relationships with their parents and developed a happy and healthy marriage and family
How Parental Relationships Affect the Development of Friendships

Other Resources:

Final Thoughts

The id, ego, and superego are central to our identity and everything we do and say.  Creating safe and comforting relationships with our children and providing them with good examples of right and wrong is paramount to raising well-adjusted children. 

It’s also important to realize when we have difficult situations and experiences that affect our thoughts and seek help to work through them.  Keeping that balance between the id, ego, and superego helps us to be good citizens and maintain beneficial relationships with others.

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