Monday, April 21, 2008

Conflict as Central to Freud and Psychoanalysis 2

My last two posts were about the growth in complexity of Freud's notion of the psyche.  As he progressed in his research and in his clinical work he began to realise that the human mind is way more complex than he had at first thought.  He realised early in the 1920s that the topographical model of the psyche was not complex enough to do justice to the intricacy of the human mind.  In the second last post before this one I alluded to the fact that Freud had begun to see that the unconscious wishes and impulses are in conflict with our very defences and that not just the impulses and wishes were unconscious but also our very defences seemed to be so too.  Hence he needed to complement his topographical model with a structural one of the mind.  As Mitchell and Black so well put it: "When Freud began to perceive the basic conflictual seam in the psyche as not between conscious and unconscious but inside the unconscious itself, a new model, the structural model, became necessary to delineate the primary constituents of mind." (Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, Basic Books, 1995,  20)

The Structural Model

This is the model with which practically everyone who knows even a little about Freud is acquainted with, at least with his terminology which has entered common parlance, namely Id, Ego and Superego.  These according to Freud are the major components of the self or mind or personality, call it what you will for the moment.  It is very important to note that this structural model puts these three major components in the unconscious.  (At least so argue Mitchell and Black, though some authors would argue that the Ego is conscious while the Superego straddles all three strata Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious.)  These Ego, Id and Superego are not topographical regions or layers as it were as we saw in his previous model.  Rather they are distinct agencies at war or in conflict with one another.  Hence my title above and my reference to conflict in the last two posts before this one. Freud said of the Id that it is "a cauldron full of seething excitations." (quoted Mitchell and Black, op.cit., 20).  Remember, as I have already pointed out, that Freud was a Darwinian, a fervent atheist who sought to reduce whatever humankind is to some scientific understanding.   Humankind is little more than a very sophisticated animal.  Indeed for Freud human beings were not yet fully evolved.  Hence there was a split or a rift in their very nature.  In other words human beings were torn between their dark bestial motives (Id) and civilized conduct and demeanour (mores and manners and morals of society).  On the one hand then there was humankind's animal nature (Id) and its cultural aspirations.  Hence humans are literally driven to seek pleasure, but society and civilization reign this rapaciousness in because control of passions is necessary - otherwise there would be murder, rape and strife of all kinds.  Hence human beings in civilized society learned quickly to conceal both from themselves and others these base bestial motivations. Moreover, with the aid of internalised parental rules and regulations the Superego (a type of Conscience) is formed.  The Ego, with the aid of this Superego represses, regulates and reigns in the bestial impulses of the Id.  In this way safety both of the self and others and society at large is maintained to the greatest extent humanly possible.  Again Mitchell and Black put it succinctly:

The result is a mind largely unknown to itself, filled with secrets and disavowed impulses, sexual and aggressive.  It is the pressure of those impulses in the "return of the repressed" that creates neurotic symptoms whose code Freud felt he had broken. (op. cit., 21)

Now I shall look at these three aspects or components of the psyche one by one.


1. The Id (Latin for "It")

This is the most primordial or most primitive part of the psyche.  It is biologically determined and it operates on the Pleasure Principle which I have described at length in a previous post - Principles.   It seeks pleasure and avoids pain.  It is concerned with immediate gratification and can be quite destructive.  It contains all those basic animal and instinctual drives concerned with the sexual, the aggressive and the satisfaction of all bodily needs.  In other words the Id is the psychic representative of our biology or of our biological or organic make-up.  It is basically irrational and impulsive.  In the newborn baby all the processes are Id processes - for the baby it's simply want want want. Hence much tension is created for the baby if desires go unsatisfied.  This tension can only be released through the satisfaction of needs (real solutions like feeding etc) and (b) through fantasy.  If we were ruled entirely by the pleasure principle, we might find ourselves grabbing things we want out of other people's hands to satisfy our own cravings. This sort of behaviour would be both disruptive and socially unacceptable. According to Freud, the id tries to resolve the tension created by the pleasure principle through the primary process, which involves forming a mental image of the desired object as a way of satisfying the need.  (For my own discussion of primary and secondary processes see this post: Processes ) Dr Anthony Storr underlines the fact that the Id is the oldest part of the mind from which the other structures are derived.  He goes on to quote Freud: "The id contains everything that is inherited, that is present at birth, that is laid down in the constitution..." (Quoted: Freud: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2001, 60) The Id functions in the irrational and emotional part of the mind. It contains all the basic needs and feelings. It is the source for libido (psychic energy). And it has only one rule and that is the “pleasure principle”: “I want it and I want it all now” - Principles In transactional analysis, Id equates to "Child".

2.   The Ego: (Latin for "I")

The Ego operates on the Reality Principle which I have discussed elsewhere - Principles. It seeks to control the Id's demands until the appropriate time and place.  The key word associated with the Ego is balance.  As the infant develops and attempts to adapt to the demands of the outside world, the Ego emerges.  It operates as I have said on what's termed the Reality Principle.  This means essentially that the Ego delays gratification of needs until the appropriate time and place.  Another way of talking about the balancing role of the Ego is to state that it is rather like an executive or a manager of the personality.   We may say that it attempts to strike a balance between the realities of the outside world and the irrational self-seeking drives of the Id.  The prime function of the Ego is self-preservation.  Once again I find Storr quite clear in his explanation here.  He quotes Freud as saying that "the Ego is first and foremost a bodily ego." (quoted op.cit. above, 60-61).  By this, Storr explains, Freud means that the Ego, being originally derived from sensations springing from the surface of the body (and hence from the outside world), is a projection of the surface of the body. The Ego realises the need for compromise and negotiates between the Id and the Superego.  The Ego's job is to get the Id's pleasures but to be reasonable and bear the long-term consequences in mind.  The Ego denies both instant gratification and pious delaying of gratification.  The term ego-strength is the term used to refer to how well the ego copes with these conflicting forces.  To undertake its work of planning,  thinking and controlling the Id, the Ego uses some of the Id's libidinal energy.  In transactional analysis, Ego equates to "Adult".   The ego is the component of personality that is responsible for dealing with reality. According to Freud, the ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world. The ego functions in both the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mind (giving the lie to those that state that the ego is purely conscious). The ego also discharges tension created by unmet impulses through the secondary process, in which the ego tries to find an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id's primary process.

3 The Superego: (Latin for "Over-I")

This term refers to the moral or Right and Wrong deciding aspect of the personality.  It emerges in the young child between the ages of 4 to 6 years.  With this aspect of the personality the growing child internalizes the moral sanctions, rules and inhibitions, even taboos which exist in the surrounding culture.  In short the Superego can be regarded as the product of repeated conditioning by parental injunctions and the criticism indeed of all significant others or adults. The Superego is the last part of the mind to develop.  It might be called the moral part of the mind. The Superego becomes an embodiment of parental and societal values. It stores and enforces rules. It constantly strives for perfection, even though this perfection ideal may be quite far from reality or possibility.  Its power to enforce rules comes from its ability to create anxiety.  The WIKI succinctly describes the role of the Superego thus:

Freud's theory implies that the super-ego is a symbolic internalization of the father figure and cultural regulations. The super-ego tends to stand in opposition to the desires of the id because of their conflicting objectives, and its aggressiveness towards the ego. The super-ego acts as the conscience, maintaining our sense of morality and proscription from taboos. Its formation takes place during the dissolution of the Oedipus complex and is formed by an identification with and internalization of the father figure after the little boy cannot successfully hold the mother as a love-object out of fear of castration.

The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on — in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt (The Ego and the Id, 1923).

In Sigmund Freud's work Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) he also discusses the concept of a "cultural super-ego". The concept of super-ego and the Oedipus complex is subject to criticism for its sexism. Women, who are considered to be already castrated, do not identify with the father, and therefore form a weak super-ego, leaving them susceptible to immorality and sexual identity complications.

(see the following link for the rest of the WIKI article: Structural Model)

In a healthy person, according to Freud, the Ego is the strongest so that it can satisfy the needs of the Id, not upset the Superego, and still take into consideration the reality of every situation.  Not an easy job by any means, but if the Id gets too strong, impulses and self gratification take over the person's life.  If the Superego becomes too strong, the person would be driven by rigid morals, would be judgmental and unbending in his or her interactions with the world. 

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