Freud’s The Ego and the Id (TEI) was first published 100 years ago, in April 1923. I am taking this anniversary as an opportunity to think about Freud’s contribution to therapy both historically and in terms of how he influences and has influenced its contemporary manifestations, with particular reference to the concepts of ‘ego’, ‘superego’ and ‘id’, fully articulated in TEI.
Freud continues to be a controversial figure who elicits a whole range of reactions in practitioners and critics, from unbridled enthusiasm to barely disguised contempt. Whether one is a Freud acolyte or a Freud cynic, what cannot be denied is that, like it or not, Freudian concepts have embedded themselves in our culture.
One of the main concepts derived from Freud is the idea that one part of the self is repressed and there is another part which represses. This idea of repression is accepted far beyond the secret chambers of psychoanalysis. And the implication is that there must be forces, internal and external, doing the repressing (Freud, 1991).
For Freud, internally, the repressing part is the ‘conscious’ and what is repressed is the ‘unconscious’: the conscious part doing the repressing represented theoretically by Freud as the ego and the unconscious repressed part often equated with the id (ibid.). For Freud the ‘division of the psychical into what is conscious and is unconscious is the fundamental premiss of psychoanalysis’ (ibid., p. 351).
In Freudian theory the unconscious is seen in two ways: firstly, descriptively as a quality and secondly, dynamically as, for example, the unconscious being a mental state that functions in a particular way in relation to other mental states (ibid.).
Freud conceptualises the mind as composed of systems and represents it as a kind of map. The unconscious is just one of a few systems. In TEI he proposes two types of consciousness: the conscious abbreviated as Cs. and the preconscious abbreviated as Pcs. The Pcs. differs from the Cs. in that it is latent and close to consciousness. The preconscious is not therefore what Freud means by the unconscious, the latter of which he abbreviates as Ucs.: the unconscious for Freud has to be ‘repressed and which is not, in itself and without more ado, capable of becoming conscious’ (ibid., p. 353).
Freud had a long life and a long career and produced a vast amount of work from the late 1880s through to the late 1930s. Inevitably, his theories went through many revisions. The terminologies were also subject to revisions and they can have various meanings depending on when, chronologically, they are being used.
The unconscious, in particular, is a term, which even limited to Freud’s texts, has multiple meanings and multiple implications. Over the breadth of his works it can refer to a quality, a part in a dynamic, or a system. Initially, the unconscious only referred to the repressed part of the psyche (ibid.) but various changes confuse things and quite what the unconscious is and isn’t gets complicated, even a bit messy. For the sake of simplicity and for thinking about the contemporary relevance of Freud’s TEI it is best to think of the unconscious as differentiated from the ego (although this is not perfectly accurate as Freud sometimes explains the ego as partly unconscious) (ibid.).
Ultimately, once Freudian theory gets through all its historical and theoretical wranglings, we are eventually left with the basic idea most therapists and many people are familiar with – the concepts of the ego, the superego and the id (ibid.).
Many of Freud’s ideas are not wholly original and build on the ideas of philosophers from ancient to modern. In TEI the most obvious influence is Nietzsche who had himself written about ‘das Es’ (id/it) and ‘das Ich’ (ego/I) (e.g. Nietzsche, 2002), although Nietzsche comes to different conclusions about the functions of the id and the ego. Other philosophers seen as advancing ideas with remarkable parallels to Freud’s own theories also include Hegel and Schopenhauer (see Cybulska, 2008 and Horan, 2008).
The ego, in Freudian terms, sometimes represents the whole person including the body and sometimes just a part – the latter being how most people think of it in the present day (Freud, 1991). Sometimes it can be thought of as equivalent to the ‘self’ (ibid.).
The superego’s function, in Freudian theory, can be seen ‘to act as “the verdict of the ego ideal by which the ego measures itself”’ (Freud, 1991, p. 348). The ego ideal is gradually built up from infancy into childhood (and I would argue into adolescence and adulthood) by how the person interacts with others and the world and the effects of those interactions on the psyche – what psychoanalysts call ‘object relations’.
Freud, as an originator of therapeutic practices, was highly influential in wanting therapy to be seen and respected as a science. He states in TEI that it is important ‘for psychoanalysis to understand the pathological processes in mental life’ so it can ‘find a place for [pathological processes] in the framework of science’ (Freud, 1991, p. 351). We are still struggling with the fallout from this legacy. Many in the psy-complex are as enthusiastic as ever to be seen as scientists or scientist-practitioners and understand their professional life as one that attempts to ameliorate pathologies conceived as ‘illnesses’ or ‘disorders’. The psychoanalytic tradition is foundational to this alliance with medicine and there is still a prejudice that understanding people’s mental and emotional problems through a medical lens is superior to understanding their problems more holistically and/or relationally. Unfortunately the former conceptualisation often leads to an objectifying stance towards clients/patients/people — in Buber’s terms, an I-It relationship (Buber, 2023). It has also led to the privileging of approaches to therapy which are more accepting of a medical model (diagnosis-treatment-cure) with an expert treating someone with supposedly objective ‘disorders’ with supposedly objective ‘evidence-based treatments’. Those therapists, practising therapies based on a relational perspective, who value therapy as an empathic meeting based on exploration and understanding of the whole person as the means to therapeutic change, are marginalised. And people are obliged to frame their problems in living as some kind of illness or disorder just to talk to someone. This is particularly so in organisations such as the NHS and even more particularly so since the introduction of IAPT in 2008. However, the use of more relational therapies in other organisations, such as private healthcare companies, insurance companies and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) demonstrates that NHS policies in regards to their provision of therapy are most likely political choices, rather than anything truly in the interests of people needing or wanting therapy free at the point of delivery. The battle to make the case for therapy as more of an art/craft than a science continues, with even some psychologists supporting the idea of a ‘Power, Threat, Meaning Framework’ (e.g. Boyle & Johnstone, 2020) which looks towards understanding people via their narratives, in particular ‘adverse childhood experiences’, rather than assuming some kind of biological disease needing pharmaceutical medication is the central concern. Therapists might see such understandings as obvious but, unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to do to get the message through at the wider systemic level. It is a shame Freud was captured by the scientism of his time (and which still persists) as it is inarguable that a narrative understanding of human experience and suffering, in psychology, goes back to him, even if there have been many different spins on the same theme in the cognitive-behavioural, humanistic and transpersonal psychologies ever since.
Freud’s legacy offers us more in his thinking about the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious. Despite different therapies coming up with different terminologies (such as Carl Rogers’s conceptualisation of things either being in or out of awareness) the idea that becoming more fully aware/conscious is a major therapeutic goal runs through therapeutic theories up to the present day. Therapy at its best helps people become more aware/conscious as they decide how to live their lives. Different issues and problems are not necessarily made any easier but if we bring as much awareness/consciousness as we can to meeting personal challenges and opportunities then we can sincerely know that we did the best we could with the awareness/consciousness we had at the time. In that sense I think most therapies are, to some extent, enabling the important task of ‘making the unconscious conscious’ which goes back via Jung to Freud.
The tripartite categorisation of the psyche into ego, id and superego and the theorising about how these three parts dynamically interact was also an innovation which still resonates in different therapies. It could be argued that this was not much more than Plato’s tripartite soul theory dressed up in a more pseudo-scientific terminology. There is maybe something to that charge but Freud revitalised this dynamic conception of the ‘soul’ or the psyche or the self in a way that chimed with the sensibilities and proclivities of the time. Since then others have also played with variations on Plato’s original theme. The most obvious and popular successor to the Freudian tripartite scheme was Eric Berne’s Parent, Adult and Child. There are important differences between Freud’s and Berne’s structural models but it is difficult not to make comparisons: Berne, unsurprisingly, was initially a psychoanalyst. His greatest contribution to the evolution of therapy, in my view, was to transform the pomposity of psychoanalysis into a new type of non-elitist therapy, expressing some of its best ideas with simple concepts, and in simple language rather than the Latinate of psychoanalysis. This allowed Transactional Analysis (TA) at its height to have a mass appeal which psychoanalysis was unlikely to ever gain. Yet, although the terminology of TA is usually designed to be comprehensible, what might be called ‘plain English’, it is a surprisingly complex and comprehensive theory of people as individuals and in groups, organisations and societies.
Following on from TA there have been variations on the idea of the psyche having parts — importantly, not stopping at only three parts (although once you dive into TA a bit more it does not stop at three). My personal favourite is the Voice Dialogue of Hal and Sidra Stone with the conscious/unconscious, persona/shadow division being roughly translated into the idea of selves being either ‘owned’ or ‘disowned’. Voice Dialogue seems to me to give more power back to the person working out their conflicts because, although Voice Dialogue has generic constructs (such as The Controller/Protector) to theoretically underpin its associated techniques, once a session is in progress it is up to the person to name their own parts (rather than have these handed down like they usually are in psychodynamic or TA therapies). More popular and in vogue than Voice Dialogue amongst contemporary practitioners is ‘Internal Family Systems’ (IFS) which seems like a perfectly good system but my preference remains with Voice Dialogue. The development of Dialogical Self Theory (DST), with its ‘I’-positions, furthers the idea of parts, so that they can be conceptualised in even more precise and multitudinous ways, leading to extremely precise and personal understandings. The basic idea put forward in TEI of parts in dynamic relationships with each other however remains the same.
From more comprehensive theoretical subpersonality systems, perhaps the concept which has cut through to most people, certainly most therapists, is the idea of the ‘inner critic’. This parallels, in TA, the Critical Parent, specifically what TA often abbreviates to CP- (as opposed to CP+). Indeed the therapeutic task, when working with negative inner critics (or ‘harsh’ inner critics) — is to transform what they are trying to alert us to from a destructive to a constructive criticism, as well as sometimes challenging their views completely. This is how Voice Dialogue and other systems theorise it is best to deal with the inner critic, via a process of transformation rather than deletion, or in TA terms, a move from CP- to CP+. These more popular and contemporary concepts, however, are all to be found in Freud. For instance in TEI he states:
it may be … the attitude of the ego ideal [inner critic] that determines the severity of a neurotic illness [everything from mild low self-esteem issues to full-blown psychosis]… the normal conscious sense of guilt [e.g. I am a bad person]… is based on the tension between the ego [Adult] and the ego ideal [Inner Critic] and is the expression of a condemnation of the ego [Adult] by its critical [my italics] agency [Inner Critic]. The feelings of inferiority [low self-esteem] so well known in neurotics are presumably not far removed from it. (Freud, 1991, p. 392)
We may not care for the language of ‘neurosis’ or ‘illness’ but contemporary discourse around inner critics and self-esteem are ploughing much the same furrow as Freud was 100 years ago.
Contemporary practitioners might sneer at the deceptively simple concepts of ego, superego and id but they remain useful in attempting to understand ourselves and others and the relationships between us.
In particular we are so used to terms such as ‘repression’, ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ being part of our everyday language we may have forgotten how exciting these ideas and this new language must have been in 1923.
A major fault which we are still grappling with in the provision of therapeutic relationships was the misguided attempt to objectify subjective experience. Of which the inevitable consequence has been to sully some ‘mental health treatments’ with unhelpful ‘I-It’ dynamics rather than a more respectful and dialogical ‘I-Thou’ dynamic.
But we can see Freud’s influence in later developments such as TA, Voice Dialogue, IFS and DST. And ideas such as the ‘inner critic’ have become completely mainstream. TEI, published a century ago, is just one text by Freud, but illustrates well how far his ideas have travelled and have yet to travel in the years to come.
Boyle, M & Johnstone, L. (2020). A Straight Talking Introduction To The Power Threat Meaning Framework: An Alternative To Psychiatric Diagnosis.Monmouth: PCCS Books Ltd.
Buber, M. (2023). I And Thou. Trans. R.G. Smith. Londond: Scribner.
Cybulska, E. (2008). ‘Psychoanalysis & Philosophy (II)’, Philosophy Now, 68 accessed at https://philosophynow.org/issues/68/Psychoanalysis_and_Philosophy_II on 28th February 2023.
Freud, S. (1991). On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works. Vol. 11 of The Penguin Freud Library. General Ed., A. Richards. Trans. from the German by J. Strachey. Harmandsworth: Penguin.
Horan,C. (2008). ‘Psychoanalysis & Philosophy (I)’, Philosophy Now, 68 accessed at htpps://philosophynow.org/issues/68/Psychoanalysis_and_Philosophy_I
Nietzsche, F. (2002). Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future . Trans. Judith Norman, Eds. Rolf Peter Hurstmann & Judith Numan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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