The ego has the following functions:
(a) To satisfy the nutritional needs of the body and protect against injury.
(b) To adjust the wishes of the id to the demands of reality.
(c) To enforce repression.
(d) To coordinate the antagonistic strivings of the id and the superego.
Freud, in his introductory lectures, compared the id and the ego to that of the rider and the horse respectively. The id which is the representative of the horse provides energy and the movements of the horse are controlled by the ego.
The ego, to block and check the impulses coming from the id, uses its own supply of the psychic energy. This opposition of the ego energy to the id energy is called counter cathersis.
Anna Freud (1946) gives the description of this struggle between the id and the ego in the following lines:
” …impulses run the risk of incurring the displeasure of institutions essentially alien to them. They are exposed to criticism and rejection and have to submit to every kind of modification. Peaceful relations between the neighbouring powers are at an end.
The instinctual impulses continue to pursue their aims with their own peculiar tenacity and energy and they make hostile incursions into the ego in the hope of overthrowing it by a surprise attack.
The ego on its side becomes suspicious; it proceeds to counter attack and to invade the territory of the id. Its purpose is to put the instincts permanently out of action by means of appropriate defensive measures designed to secure its own boundaries.”
But this is not always true, Sometimes the id refuses to be controlled by the ego and runs in any direction it likes, just as the horse sometimes does not obey the man, so the harmony breaks and the man becomes abnormal.
The superego is the further development of the id. As the human child .grows and comes in contact with the rules, regulations, standards, Values and codes of the society, another aspect of his personality develops. This is called the superego, popularly known as the conscience or the moral principle.
It is partly conscious and mainly unconscious. The superego represents the dos and don’ts of our society. In other words, the superego is the moral and judicial branch of personality. It represents the ideal rather than the real and it strives for perfection rather than for reality or for pleasure. The super ego is the introjection and representative of the parents and the embodiment of all social restrictions and moral, ethical values.
As popularly believed, it is not really built up on the model of parents’ superego. It becomes the vehicle of tradition and of all the age long values which have been handed down in the way from generation to generation.
When the child is small, he has no superego. He is not aware of the moral principles, values and norms of the society. But as the child grows up, in the process of social interaction, he internalizes all the restrictions of the society which are told and taught to him by his parents and teachers. Thus, he develops a conscience within himself.
Hence, it has been observed that as one acts towards his parents, similarly, he acts towards the superego. The superego is a much severe representative of the realities. It contains the ideals which we set for our own behaviours and standards, but to which we rarely reach.
The normal human being has a superego which consists of all the normal restrictions. The superego enforces to action the moralities, prohibitions and social standards in the individual which is planted in him by his parents, teachers and social group.
It is viewed by Brown (1949) that the superego is the chief force making for the socialisation of the individual. Until the superego develops, the individual would have no socialized conscience and no competitive ideal. This he learns from the society. It is through the superego that the child learns what is good and virtuous and what is bad and sinful.
The superego exercises its power over the ego. It represses all the instinctual and antisocial desires through the ego though not directly. It gives warning to the ego in the form of anxiety and controls the ego activities. It decides which libidinal activities are permissible. In the earlier stage it is hard, rigid and severe task master a dictator over the child.
The superego gives the signal to the ego in the form of anxiety that here there is something unreasonable which produces a kind of subjective and psychological anxiety and guilt feeling. Since it refers almost to the conscience of the individual, it creates feelings of guilt, remorse and anxiety. Thus it is called by Freud as the ego ideal.
That is to say, it contains the ideals that we fix for our own behaviour. Then the ego after getting the warning signal represses or suppresses those desires which are not accepted by the superego.
No doubt this ego ideal is a precipitation of the old idea of parents which indicates his admiration for his parents.
Development of the Superego:
The superego takes a long period of development from birth up to the age of 7 to 8 years. It develops gradually with the development of socialisation and growth of personality.
In the beginning the infant is mainly guided by id desires and so there is no internal principle. But gradually with the socialisation of personality he comes to know the dos and donts of the society. He is not allowed to do whatever he likes and desires. He is sometimes punished when he does not obey the principles of the society.
Through threat and punishment he is taught to control his id desires which are not acceptable by the society. The parents exercise their external power over the child for the development of internalised standards and superego. Though the child hesitates to sacrifice all his irrational wishes and urges, he tries to give up most of them partly out of affection for the parents and partly for fear of punishment.
As the child grows up, the external restriction of the parents are introjected. Through this mechanism the superego takes the place of parental function. The parents may not be present to be the punishing authorities, but the superego acts as a representative of the parents and it is formed after the image of the parents and other family members. The superego observes, guides and threatens the ego just as the parents act before the child’s superego is developed.
Therefore, according to some the superego is said to be the internal parent. It is viewed that the standards embodied in the parents influence became re-erected in the child’s own unconscious forming the nucleus of the superego. This provides the criticism of what should and what should not be repressed.
The unconscious conscience begins to work here which directs and regularises the desire of the ego. When the parents want to force upon the child ways to make him an ideal one in the society a time may come when the child would revolt to it.
This leads to reaction formation. In some cases the children of strict parents turn to criminals due to this reaction formation. They turn to criminals as a revolt against the accepted laws of the society.
Hence too much of strictness and rigidity on the part of the parents and guardians lead to unconscience rejection of the principle of parents and hence a weak superego develops.
However, these are only exceptional cases. In majority of children the ego is formed after the image of parents. Thus, the superego develops as a result of the introjection and identification with the parents. Referring to the development of superego, Freud has remarked that “superego is the heir to oedipus complex”. In other words, the superego matures in the child at a time when the oedipus complex is passing away. It is at this time that the superego comes to function. But until oedipus complex has not passed out completely the superego will not be able to attain its full development.
In the beginning the superego is very rigid, unbending and a hard task master, but as more and more new material is incorporated in the superego, it begins to lose its severity, its dogmatism and its narrowness of outlook.
The establishment of the superego can be described as a successful instance of identification with the parental function. This new creation of a superior function within the ego is closely bound up with the fate of the oedipus complex, so that the superego appears as the heir of that emotional tie which is of such importance for the childhood.
If the overcoming of the oedipus complex is not completely successful, the superego does not attain the full strength. During the course of its growth, the superego also takes over the place of his parents and guardians.
Describing the role played by the Id, Ego, and Superego in human personality Freud has remarked. “The id is primarily basically conditioned, the ego is ‘primarily conditioned to the physical environment and the superego is primarily sociologically and cultural condition.” There is all the while a constant struggle between the forces of the id desiring the satisfaction of sexual and aggressive urges and the superego which is the representative of the conscience and social regulations.
The poor ego has to serve a very hard task by acting as a mediator between these two forces and trying to maintain a balance by satisfying some of the id desires and fulfilling some of the super ego desires. For example, the id of the individual wants to view a picture just before the final examination. The superego says “no don’t see the picture, you have your examinations.” The ego makes an adjustment between the two wishes by taking a decision that the picture will be viewed after the examination is over.
Somebody wants to beat his enemy, the superego says no. You should not do it, it is illogical and unacceptable by the society. The ego says yes, I can beat, but he is more powerful, he has many friends and so he might give me a severe beating and hence let me not beat him.
In this way, the ego tries to maintain a balance between the id and the superego desires by using some sort of defence mechanism or by delaying it for some time and thereby is able to resolve the conflict arising out of id and superego desire. Such are the examples of conflict in the conscious level of the individual’s personality. But there are also several unconscious conflicts of which the individual is not conscious or aware.
Freud has compared the id with the horse, the ego with the driver and the superego, the back seat driver. The ego has the most complex task of serving three masters, i.e., the Id, the Superego and the external reality, and reconcile the claims and order of the three. In a normal adult personality according to Brown, there is a fairly harmonious balance maintained between the Id, the Ego and the Superego and the external reality. But on the contrary, if the ego is weak and unable to resolve the conflict and maintain a balance between these three forces, because of the divergent and contradictory demands it breaks down and thus the personality is disorganised and the individual becomes abnormal.
When either the id tries to dominate or the reality is lost, the ego breaks down and there is onset of anxiety. It is the first symptom or danger signal for any mental disease due to disorganisation of personality.
This anxiety can be of three types:
(a) Reality anxiety:
Reality anxiety arises in the face of external world. It occurs to many of us in our day to day life. Reality anxiety is not unhealthy as often found in many normal people. It does not lead to abnormality because the factors causing reality anxieties can be altered. Reality anxiety is not unhealthy. It is often found in normal people.
Reality anxiety facilitates learning and improves performance. If only a couple of weeks are left for the examination and the candidate speeds up with revision work, it is due to the reality anxiety which is really helpful.
(b) Moral anxiety:
It is experienced in the face of the superego when the superego thinks that these acts which the ego wants to fulfill are illegal, immoral and sinful. The superego causes anxiety by always pushing the ego to be only moral and moral.
(c) Neurotic anxiety:
Neurotic anxiety is caused by id desires. It occurs in the face of the id. When the sexual and aggressive urges demanded to be fulfilled by the id are not fulfilled due to the restrictions imposed by the superego and the ego, the self experiences neurotic anxiety. For instance, before the examination a student instead of preparing for the examination and speeding up with the revision work becomes nervous and is unable to proceed with preparation, it is a case of neurotic anxiety.
Reality anxiety is not unhealthy and dangerous for personality. But the anxieties arising out of id and superego are dangerous because the factors having anxiety cannot be avoided since the id and superego are not under control.
When the id desires overpower the superego desires and the ego is not able to control it or the vice-versa, the level of anxiety increases, there is disorganisation and Final breakdown of the harmony of personality leading to mental illness.
On the contrary, in a normal, balanced and well integrated personality the ego succeeds in maintaining harmonious relationship between the id, superego and the reality principle.
Conflicts occur throughout life and mild conflicts are frequently experienced by normal individuals. But in extreme and severe cases of conflicts and specially when the conflicts could not be resolved, the self is diverted into parts and there is thus a multiple personality.
The id is fully unconscious, the ego is fully conscious and the superego is mainly unconscious and partly conscious. Most part of our mind is unconscious. This view of Freud has given a severe blow to the belief of mankind that we are so rational, we are aware of what we are doing and so on.
In fact, about 90 per cent of the human mind is full of unconscious ideas and storehouse of repressed, suppressed and buried thoughts. Freud has compared the human mind with an iceberg, 9/10th part of which remains inside water and only 1/10th part on the surface. This further suggests how much of our personality is unknown to us and how less we know about ourselves.
Economical Behaviour of the Ego:
The conflict between the id, superego and external reality because of contradictory and divergent demands is resolved by the ego. The behaviour of an “individual is the outcome of this struggle taking place in the unconscious, subconscious and conscious level. The normal resolution of the conflicts leads to balanced, organized and finally normal personality.
For this dynamic resolution of conflict to enable an individual to lead a normal life in this society, the ego has to use certain means which is called the economical aspects of behaviour. By minimum expenditure of energy when the ego tries to resolve the conflicts, it refers to the economical aspects of behaviour. Usually, by the help of various defence mechanisms the ego tries to maintain a balance between the id and the superego desire in an economic fashion without much expenditure of energy.
Sometimes, however, excessive use of certain defence mechanisms may lead to various types of mental abnormalities. But even if mental abnormality is not terrible and unfortunate for a human personality, yet it is economical.
Only by doing so as Brown views, the individual is able to continue as an intact organism. He is able to continue and leave a tolerable life in this world even with some symptoms. For instance, a psychic patient who is not conscious of his disease and mental symptoms and who has no touch with the reality is able to avoid suicide by the development of psychotic symptoms.
Whatever the world may think of him, but he is completely unaware of the disorganisation of his personality, of his anxieties, of his depression etc. He leads a life like any normal human being completely oblivious of his environment, surroundings and symptoms which are said to be maladaptive and faulty reactions.