Ego and the superego

Psychology was a branch of philosophy before it broke away into a distinctive discipline over the last century. At the time when psychology was beginning to develop from its post-renaissance past, several schools formed. These schools had their own particular theories and views on what the nature and scope of psychology should be about. In addition, each particular school had their own methodology that they advocated for studying psychological phenomena. The first approach that originated was proposed by the functionalists. They believed that psychology should be the study of cognitive processes.

During the same period, the structural school of psychology was gaining support. The Structuralists held that psychology should be the study of the conscious experience as well as the structures that are concerned with the conscious. Additional other schools formed, most noticeably because of there discontent with the views that were available. The schools that were developed offered alternative views on the subject of psychology.

Predominantly, these included Freud’s psychoanalytic school, Watson’s behaviourist school and a German school known as the Gestalt. Psychologists’ around at the time tended to associate themselves with the particular school that they believed was accurate for explaining psychological phenomena. However, in contemporary psychological study, the original schools no longer exists, instead their contributions are evident in modern psychological approaches. Principally, because of the heterogeneity of psychological subject matter and individual differences, advocating one particular school became impractical and unfeasible. The modern approaches were, as a result, formed to offer a wide diversity of different views that could be applied to specific psychological areas.

2.0 Psychodynamic approach Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) is the fundamental figure behind the existence of the psychodynamic approach. His psychoanalytic theory is essentially the foundation for much of psychodynamic principles. Psychologists’ who support the psychodynamic approach argue that motivation and early childhood experience have a significant impact within an individual’s personality later on in adulthood.

They believe that the unconscious mind is the cause, or rather, the influence behind all conscious behaviours. However, while Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is considered extremely useful in some respects, a considerable amount of Freud’s assertions and contentions were very much controversial and questionable. This, as a result, encouraged his supporters to break away from his original potent psychoanalytic theory into a much less direct view of the psychoanalytic assumptions. The psychoanalysts’ who did this are were known as post-Freudians. Several of the post-Freudians’ were to also to have a significant impact on psychodynamic ideologies.

2.1 Psychoanalytic theory: Freud was a trained psychiatrist and specialised specifically in neurology. In his psychiatric work he dealt with mostly neurotic patients. His preferred methodology for analysing his patients was the case study. Indeed, his case study investigations were the predominant practicality behind his psychoanalytic theory. Typically, in treating his clients he would use his self developed psychoanalysis techniques that were able to access unconscious thoughts; well at least that is what he claimed. On doing so he maintained that he was able to diagnosis and treat mental disorders that had arisen in the individuals’ unconscious mind.

2.2 Structure of the personality Freud had a view that the personality was constructed of three theoretical parts, namely, the id, ego and the superego. These parts are referred as to theoretical because they are not actual neurological functions situated in the brain. Nonetheless Freud argued that each part has its own particular functions and that in healthy and mature personalities the parts combine to produce well-balanced, integrated behaviour.

The Id: The id is biologically determined and is the part of the personality that controls instinctive drives such as the Eros, Thanatos and the libido. It operates on what psychologists refer to as the ‘pleasure principle’. That is, it seeks to acquire pleasure and avoid pain. Discontented desires create tension and psychoanalysts believe the release of it is either through real solutions or fantasy. The Ego: The ego is a function that develops from birth. It operates on the ‘reality principle’: that it to say, satisfactions of the ids needs and demands are not allowed to be fulfilled unless the time and place is appropriate. Its function is to achieve a balance from the urges of both if the id and the superego.

The Superego: at about the age of four or five the third part of the personality develops. This, of course, is referred to as the superego. The superego is essentially the part of the personality that represents on what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ based on the social norms and moral sanctions of the individual’s environment. It is largely unconscious and has two components; the ego ideal and the conscious. The ego ideal’s function is to determine what’s right and proper, whereas the conscious monitors inappropriate material that comes out from the id and it prevents the impulses from reaching the consciousness of the ego.

2.3 Freud argued that the three parts of the personality are in constant conflict, with the id attempting to gain fulfilment of impulses and the superego setting extremely high moral standards. The ego’s function is to balance both these parts to ensure the personality continues to develop healthy. However, unresolved conflicts result in anxiety that can show itself in dreams and defence mechanisms.

2.4 Defence Mechanisms Over the years from Freud conducting therapy he claimed that he came across what he deemed as ‘defence mechanisms’; these are unconscious strategies to protect the ego from anxiety and guilt. Defence mechanisms are deceptive to both the unconsciousness and consciousness. They prevent individuals from being occupied by temporary threats or disturbances and indeed they can be extremely useful in short-term situations when we face conflict. However, in the long-term relying on defence mechanisms is unhealthy and detrimental to the personality. Defence mechanisms are perhaps one of the most accepted features of the psychoanalytic theory because they are clearly defined and evidence exists that supports the existence of them.

In Freud’s study he came across several mechanisms that he claimed existed in the personality including repression, denial displacement, rationalisation, reaction-formation, identification, sublimation, regression, and projection (see box 2.5 for examples). 2.6 The three levels of the psyche Freud distinguished three modes of the mind, each of which operates either on the conscious, preconscious or in the unconscious. The conscious is the part of the mind that represents all our thoughts and feelings which we are aware of at a given moment. It is situated in the ego and it’s organised through logic and reason.

Its primary function is to avoid danger and to ensure behaviour is socially acceptable. Freud argued that anxiety occurs when the conscious is predominated with impulses that seek to fulfil unconscious desires. Conversely, the preconscious stores thoughts that are not available to us at a given time but are accessible. It acts sort of like a filter, only allowing acceptable unconscious thoughts to enter consciousness and in the process discarding unacceptable wishes. Finally, the unconscious is the largest part of the mind, much of the information stored in it is inaccessible except only through the use of psychoanalytic therapies such as transference and dream analysis. (See appendix 1 for diagram showing the relationship between the three levels of consciousness)

2.7 The development of the personality Freud believed that children pass through a series of psychosexual stages that immediately begin when the child is born. He proposed that during each stage the libido is directed to a different body part. Each particular stage is subject to problems that have to be overcome to ensure that the personality functions properly later in adulthood. Failure to overcome the problems, however, results in fixation, or affects the development of the stage.

Freud argued that fixation results in the individual retaining certain characteristics from the fixated stage later on in adulthood, additionally, in certain cases he claimed that the effects could cause neurosis. Successful handling of the problems in each stage results in a personality in adulthood that is well-balanced and healthy, well; at least that’s what Freud claimed.

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