Freud on the Self

Who does Freud think we are?

3 components to unconscious: id, ego, and superego

Id: The Pleasure Principle. It is the most deeply buried, unconscious part of the personality. It is the source of our basic drives and all our psychological energy. There are only two basic drives: sex and aggression. It operates according tothe Pleasure Principle. If it had its way, it would just irrationally satisfy its drives whenever it wanted.

Ego: This is the "Reality Principle". It is something close to our ordinary sense of self. It is aware of what is possible and what is impossible; it accepts limits, acts practically. The ego finds appropriate ways to satisfy the id. Freud uses the "horse & rider" analogy - the id is the power of the horse, the ego is the control of the rider.

Superego: One might call this the "Morality Principle". The rider isn't alone on the horse. There is also a "riding instructor", a sense that tells you how to ride and what you should and should not do. This (like the id) is unconscious. It is in place by about age 5 or 6. It can be helpful, but it is a terribly harsh instructor. It is always yelling criticism. The superego is also irrational, demanding, and uncompromising, like the id, but while the id hungers for pleasure, the superego hungers for moral perfection.

The ego is in a no-win situation. The more it satisfies one, the less it satisfies the other. The resulting tension of the ego is called anxiety. The ego is always looking for a way to restore equilibrium, to reduce anxiety. As a result, we act in particular ways, or feel certain emotions, or even distort reality.

The ego's attempt to reduce anxiety is a reflex reaction. It is like pulling one's hand away from a hot stove. As well, all this goes on without our realizing it. Our unconcious goes through this process of drives/satisfaction, and hands an order to the conscious self. The conscious self supposes it has had an original, free idea, when in reality it has been conditioned or directed by the unconscious.

Defense Mechanisms

One of the ways the ego tries to reduce anxiety is through what Freud calls "defense mechanisms". There are many of these, but they are similar in that they relieve anxiety by distorting reality, and they are unconscious processes. Because we are unaware of them, we accept what they tell us as being accurate. (Freud's defense mechanisms are: repression, reaction formation, projection, regression, rationalization, displacement, sublimation). Actions produced by defense mechanisms are surely not free actions. How can we act freely when we deceive ourselves about a situation?

Projection: we attribute our own feelings, which we may find unconsciously troubling, to someone else. "I hate the teacher" = "The teacher hates me".

Reaction formation, we convert an impulse into its opposite. Someone who is very angry might convert their anger into being very sweet, passive, and accommodating. The superego is given all the power, and anything aggressive is labelled as evil.


The past is extremely important in all this. We learn our coping mechanisms when we are very young. We do not choose to be the way we are, but we are made to be this way by the interplay between our inner psychological world and the world outside.

All these can be part of
neurosis.