The Importance of the Superego in Psychology (2024)

Freud's superego is the component of personality that delivers mental reward or punishment for a person's actions. It includes the internalized ideals we've acquired from our parents and society and is responsible for producing feelings of pride and satisfaction as well as feelings of shame and guilt.

In psychology, the superego is one of three components of Freud's theory of personality. The other two components are the id, which is responsible for primitive impulses, and the ego, which is responsible for conscious decision-making. The superego works to suppress the urges of the id and tries to make the ego behave morally rather than realistically.

This article explores Freud's superego and how it interacts with the other components of personality.

The ideals that contribute to the formation of the superego include not just the morals and values that we learn from our parents, but also the ideas of right and wrong that we acquire from society and the culture in which we live.

Parts of the Superego

The superego can be divided into two components: the ego ideal and the conscience.

The Ego Ideal

The ego ideal is the part of the superego that includes the rules and standards for good behaviors. These behaviors include those that are approved of by parental and other authority figures. Obeying these rules leads to feelings of pride, value, and accomplishment. Breaking these rules can result in feelings of guilt.

The ego ideal is often thought of as the image we have of our ideal selves; the people we want to become. It is this image of the ideal individual, often modeled after people that we know, that we hold up as the standard of who we are striving to be.

The Conscience

The conscience is composed of the rules for which behaviors are considered bad. When we engage in actions that conform to the ego ideal, we feel good about ourselves or proud of our accomplishments. When we do things that our conscience considers bad, we experience feelings of guilt.

In Freud's theory of psychosexual development, the superego is the last component of personality to develop. The id is the basic, primal part of personality; it is present from birth. The ego begins to develop during the first three years of a child's life. Finally, the superego starts to emerge around age five.

Goals of the Superego

The primary action of the superego is to suppress entirely any urges or desires of the id that are considered wrong or socially unacceptable. It also tries to force the ego to act morally rather than realistically. Finally, the superego strives for moral perfection, without taking reality into account.

The superego is also present in all three levels of consciousness. Because of this, we can sometimes experience guilt without understanding exactly why we feel that way. When the superego acts in the conscious mind, we are aware of our resulting feelings. If, however, the superego acts unconsciously to punish or suppress the id, we might end up with feelings of guilt and no real understanding of why we feel that way.

The Superego vs. The Ego

Sigmund Freud's daughter Anna Freud wrote that when the superego and the ego are not in conflict, it can be difficult to separate one from the other.

"[The superego's] contents are for the most part conscious and so can be directly arrived at by endopsychic perception," she wrote in her 1936 book, "The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense." "Nevertheless, our picture of the superego always tends to become hazy when harmonious relations exist between it and the ego.

"We then say that the two coincide, i.e. at such moments, the superego is not perceptible as a separate institution either to the subject himself or to an outside observer. Its outlines become clear only when it confronts the ego with hostility or at least with criticism."

"The superego, like the id, becomes perceptible in the state which it produces within the ego: for instance when its criticism evokes a sense of guilt," she wrote. This means a person might only sense the presence of the superego when it causes feelings of reward or punishment.

The Superego in Psychology

Freud believed that neuroses are caused by an overly dominant superego, while psychoses are caused by an overly dominant id. The symptoms occur when the ego tries to regain control from the superego or the id.

Freud's therapeutic approach, called psychoanalysis, sought to uncover repressed emotions or memories in the subconscious mind. He believed techniques like dream analysis could help find the subconscious root of the conflict between the superego and the ego or id. Bringing these memories and emotions into the conscious mind, he believed, would help the person resolve the conflict.

Some elements of psychoanalysis are still used by therapists today, however, ideas about the superego, ego, and id are largely considered outdated and not useful for modern therapeutic practice.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Freud A. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. International Universities Press, Inc; 1946.

  2. Kupfersmid J. Freud's clinical theories then and now. PsychodynPsychiatry. 2019;47(1):81-97. doi;10.1521/pdps.2019.47.1.81

The Importance of the Superego in Psychology (1)

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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