In the 1920s, the Austrian neurologist and psychologist, Sigmund Freud, first introduced the idea of the ego, id, and superego as the building blocks of human personality. As far as Freud was concerned, these three elements contribute to how we see and interact with the world. The interaction between the id, ego, and superego also influence why humans act as they do. This theory is called Freud's structural model of the psyche.
According to Freud, the id is the root of our psychic energy. This part of the psyche reacts on instinct and primitive needs: hunger, want, sex drive, and aggression. The id exists exclusively according to the "pleasure principle," and makes all of its decisions based on this. We might refer to this as immediate gratification, regardless of the consequences.
The influence of the Pleasure Principle means that if the id wants something and does not get it immediately, it can create a state of anxiety or tension. Freud believed that humans were born with this urge, as this is how babies operate. A baby is ruled completely by the id and requires immediate satisfaction -- if they do not get it, they cry until they do. This reaction is essential for survival early in life.
As humans age, they learn to control their id. Though it always exerts its influence over personality, particularly when chasing pleasure, it is tempered by the interplay of the ego and superego, which together enable people to behave in reasonable and socially acceptable ways.
According to Freud, the ego develops from the id. It is the part of the human personality that is responsible for dealing with reality, and it develops as we grow. The ego exists according to the "reality principle," the capability to measure the pros and cons of a situation before acting on an impulse.
The reality principle instructs the ego to measure the costs and benefits before doing something. The id alerts us to our want of something, and the ego delays gratification until the appropriate time to satisfy it. Freud compared the id and the ego to a horse and its rider. The rider (the ego) can control and guide the horse (the id) to where it can eat and drink and thus satisfy its needs.
The easiest way for the ego to govern the id is by creating a situation of delayed gratification. Imagine you're in the middle of a meeting and you get hungry. The id will encourage you to get up immediately and find something to eat. However, the ego can control the situation by delaying gratification and letting your id know that there will be food soon. And so you wait until the end of the meeting and go for lunch. The ego finds and locates a real-world option to satisfy the needs of the id.
The superego is the part of the personality where we keep our morals and ethics. It's home to our internalized sense of right and wrong we get from society, caregivers, and the community. According to Freud, the superego begins to develop at around five years of age. This part of the psyche is also how we determine guidelines for judgments and decision-making.
The superego helps keep our behaviors in check thanks to its dual nature. The Ego Ideal is the gold standard of personal behavior. We know that if we behave in this way, we will feel pride, satisfaction, and accomplishment. The Conscience is the gatekeeper against our worst behaviors. We know that if we cross our conscience, we will feel guilt, shame, and remorse. The superego takes everything about how we behave and sets an idealistic standard for being the best self possible.
Freud's creation of the id, ego, and superego was about explaining human behavior. While they are each responsible for a different part of our behaviors, they are not separate entities. Instead, they regularly interact with and override each other. When they operate smoothly, Freud believed a person could enjoy a peaceful life and a balanced sense of self.
However, if the interactions between the id, ego, and superego become too difficult, this can cause internal conflict. Freud coined the phrase "ego strength" to describe how the ego can continue to function and exist in the real world, despite the struggle between the id and the superego. As Freud saw it, a person with ego strength remains balanced. With too little ego strength, they can become disruptive and chaotic or too unyielding.
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