Blog Short #155: Is Your Superego a Friend or Foe?
Photo by Nastassia Samal, Courtesy of iStock Photo
Is your superego pounding you to death? I’m assuming here that you know what a superego is. You may know if you’ve had a psychology course or read up on it, but you may just know it as the voice in your head that tells you when you’re headed in the wrong direction.
This week, I’m describing the superego’s functions and talking about what it means to have a harsh superego and what you can do to soften it and make it more useful.
What is the Superego?
The superego is the part of your personality that keeps track of the rules, values, and beliefs you’ve internalized growing up. Your parents have the greatest impact on how your superego develops and operates, but you also draw from your community and the social norms that are part of your culture.
There are two aspects of the superego. These are your “conscience” and your “ego-ideal.” Let’s start with the ego ideal.
1. The Ego-Ideal
Most of us have an ego ideal, although you may not be aware of yours or haven’t labeled it that way.
It’s your image of the perfect person – the model you wish to emulate or become. It’s what and who you aspire to, including the values you hold dear and rules and standards for how you should behave.
Sometimes, your ego ideal is a real person you admire because you respect their values and how they conduct themselves.
Your ego ideal may be a composite of various people who express the personality characteristics you find worthy. You may want to be empathetic like your mom, have moral strength like your grandfather, or stand up for what you believe like your father.
You might emulate a public figure who you feel is principled and lives a moral life.
It’s your ideal of the person you strive to be.
2. Your Conscience
The other aspect of your superego is your conscience.
Your conscience is the rule-keeper that guides your actions and behaviors in keeping with your ego ideal.
It’s that voice that says “uh-uh” when you’re vacillating toward behavior that strays away from those rules and values. It suppresses desires that lead to socially unacceptable, immoral, or harmful conduct.
Your conscience is responsible for the guilt you feel when you deviate from principles you’ve established as part of your ego ideal.
It’s the voice in your head that objects when you have the impulse to say something mean to someone, or steal some pens from the office supply cabinet and take them home, or tell a white lie to avoid looking bad.
It’s there to ensure that what you do aligns with your ideals and values.
What happens when your superego is overly harsh?
Your superego is necessary and helpful because it keeps you on the right path to develop and thrive. However, when it’s overly harsh, it obstructs your development and holds you back.
An easy way to think of a harsh superego is to picture a loud, stern authority figure (could be a parent, coach, or boss) yelling at you with an angry, distorted expression and jabbing at you in the air with a pointed finger.
Just think of a super-critical, unfeeling person who chastises you relentlessly, always pointing out your deficits.
Your superego can be like that, only it’s inside you and coming from you. It’s your voice telling you everything that’s wrong with you – you’re lazy, a failure, uncaring, unsuccessful, unlovable, stupid, and any other horrible attributes you might assign to yourself. It lands on you with a thud when you make a mistake and won’t let up even after you’ve corrected it.
The Other Side of the Coin
Having a harsh superego can also make you harsh with other people.
You might have unrealistic expectations of others or chronic judgmental thoughts and interpretations of their behavior. You might not display it outwardly, but internally, that voice in your head is dishing out the same harsh commentary on other people’s behavior as yours.
If someone complains regularly about what’s wrong with other people and focuses excessively on their “poor” behavior, most likely, they apply that same harsh judgment to themselves, even if not verbalized or conscious.
In other words, if you’re harsh with yourself, you’re likely the same when it comes to other people, even if you don’t think so or don’t recognize it. That makes sense because your superego is an equal-opportunity taskmaster.
What makes for a healthy Superego?
I always think of the superego as the parent in my head.
Using that image helps a little bit to formulate what a healthy superego is. Just imagine what a good parent would do to help you strengthen your conscience, define your values, and conduct yourself accordingly.
How does a parent help a child develop those aspects of his personality?
Very simply, by using both compassion and discipline together.
Imagine a parent who’s caring, accepting, and offers unconditional love while also establishing rules, teaching values, and applying limits to behavior that isn’t acceptable. This parent expects mistakes and teaches children how to repair and improve without attacking their sense of worth.
A good superego works like that.
The voice is friendly and on your side, yet holds you accountable for living up to your values, conscience, and moral standards. It’s compassionate when you struggle or falter.
When you treat yourself this way, you treat others the same. You can acknowledge a lack of values and harmful behavior without attacking and with a sense of compassion.
That doesn’t mean you excuse abusive, unconscionable behavior. Not at all. But it isn’t accompanied by hatred and a desire for revenge. Instead, you set limits on yourself and others when necessary.
So, how do you cultivate a healthy superego?
1. Step One
The first step is to examine your superego, and you can do this best by watching your thoughts and perceptions of yourself.
- How harsh are you?
- How effectively do you use that voice to improve without demolishing your self-worth?
- Are you both compassionate and firm with yourself?
2. Step Two
Examine your ego ideal.
- What are the characteristics?
- What values?
- What principles?
- Who do you aspire to be, and what does that look like?
Write it out. When you write it, you’ll get more clear on it.
3. Step Three
Now ask, how solid is my conscience?
- What’s your sense of right and wrong?
- How clear is it?
- And does your behavior align with the rules and values that your conscience upholds?
- How far or how often do you stray, and how do you react when you do?
- Do you make amends and change behaviors, or do you justify?
If your superego is very harsh, you might justify to escape the guilt that descends upon you when you make a mistake. Conversely, you might attack someone else for the same behavior, yet you don’t recognize that discrepancy.
Neither of those approaches will help you. Work toward being compassionate with yourself while also being honest about what you need to work on. Set boundaries for yourself on behavior that’s unacceptable, and repair mistakes as they occur. But when you struggle or fall, get back up and do better without beating yourself up.
Just keep in mind that being overly harsh will make things worse, not better.
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,
P.S. If you want to know more about how to be your own best parent, read this article.