According to Sigmund Freud, human personality is complex and has more than a single component. In his famous psychoanalytic theory, Freud states that personality is composed of three elements known as the id, the ego, and the superego. These elements work together to create complex human behaviors.
Each component adds its own unique contribution to personality and the three interact in ways that have a powerful influence on an individual. Each element of personality emerges at different points in life.
According to Freud’s theory, certain aspects of your personality are more primal and might pressure you to act upon your most basic urges. Other parts of your personality work to counteract these urges and strive to make you conform to the demands of reality.
Here’s a closer look at each of these key parts of the personality, how they work individually, and how they interact.
- According to Freud, the id is the source of all psychic energy, making it the primary component of personality.
- The id is the only component of personality that is present from birth.
- This aspect of personality is entirely unconscious and includes instinctive and primitive behaviors.
The id is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state of anxiety or tension. For example, an increase in hunger or thirst should produce an immediate attempt to eat or drink.
The id is very important early in life because it ensures that an infant’s needs are met. If the infant is hungry or uncomfortable, they will cry until the demands of the id are satisfied. Young infants are ruled entirely by the id; there is no reasoning with them when these needs demand satisfaction.
Examples of the Id
Imagine trying to convince a baby to wait until lunchtime to eat their meal. The id requires immediate satisfaction, and because the other components of personality are not yet present, the infant will cry until these needs are fulfilled.
However, immediately fulfilling these needs is not always realistic or even possible. If we were ruled entirely by the pleasure principle, we might find ourselves grabbing the things that we want out of other people’s hands to satisfy our cravings.
This behavior would be both disruptive and socially unacceptable. According to Freud, the id tries to resolve the tension created by the pleasure principle through the use of primary process thinking, which involves forming a mental image of the desired object to satisfy the need.
Although people eventually learn to control the id, this part of personality remains the same infantile, primal force throughout life. It is the development of the ego and the superego that allows people to control the id’s basic instincts and act in ways that are both realistic and socially acceptable.
- According to Freud, the ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world.
- The ego functions in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mind.
- The ego is the personality component responsible for dealing with reality.
Everyone has an ego. The term ego is sometimes used to describe your cohesive awareness of your personality, but personality and ego are not the same. The ego represents just one component of your full personality.
The ego operates based on the reality principle, which strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon impulses.
In many cases, the id’s impulses can be satisfied through a process of delayed gratification—the ego will eventually allow the behavior, but only in the appropriate time and place.
The term ego is often used informally to suggest that someone has an inflated sense of self. However, the ego in personality has a positive effect. It is the part of your personality that keeps you grounded in reality and prevents the id and superego from pulling you too far toward your most basic urges or moralistic virtues. Having a strong ego means having a strong sense of self-awareness.
Freud compared the id to a horse and the ego to the horse’s rider. The horse provides power and motion, while the rider provides direction and guidance. Without its rider, the horse would wander wherever it wished and do whatever it pleased. The rider gives the horse directions and commands to get it where it wants it to go.
The ego also discharges tension created by unmet impulses through secondary process thinking, in which the ego tries to find an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id’s primary process.
Examples of the Ego
Imagine that you are stuck in a long meeting at work. You find yourself growing increasingly hungry as the meeting drags on. While the id might compel you to jump up from your seat and rush to the break room for a snack, the ego guides you to sit quietly and wait for the meeting to end.
Instead of acting upon the primal urges of the id, you spend the rest of the meeting imagining yourself eating a cheeseburger. Once the meeting is finally over, you can seek out the object you were imagining and satisfy the demands of the id realistically and appropriately.
The last component of personality to develop is the superego.
- According to Freud, the superego begins to emerge at around age five.
- The superego holds the internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from our parents and society (our sense of right and wrong).
- The superego provides guidelines for making judgments.
The superego has two parts:
- The conscience includes information about things that are viewed as bad by parents and society. These behaviors are often forbidden and lead to bad consequences, punishments, or feelings of guilt and remorse.
- The ego ideal includes the rules and standards for behaviors that the ego aspires to.
The superego tries to perfect and civilize our behavior. It suppresses all id’s unacceptable urges and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather than on realistic principles. The superego is present in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.
Examples of the Superego
For example, if you give in to the urges of the id, the superego is what will cause you to feel a sense of guilt or even shame about your actions. The superego may help you feel good about your behavior when you suppress your most primal urges.
Other examples of the superego include:
- A woman feels an urge to steal office supplies from work. However, her superego counteracts this urge by focusing on the fact that such behaviors are wrong.
- A man realizes that the cashier at the store forgot to charge him for one of the items he had in his cart. He returns to the store to pay for the item because his internalized sense of right and wrong urge him to do so.
- A student forgot to study for a history test and feels an urge to cheat off of a student sitting nearby. Even though he feels like the chances of getting caught are low, he knows that cheating is wrong, so he suppresses the urge.
The Interaction of the Id, Ego, and Superego
When talking about the id, the ego, and the superego, it is important to remember that these are not three separate entities with clearly defined boundaries. These aspects are dynamic and always interacting to influence an individual’s overall personality and behavior.
With many competing forces, it is easy to see how conflict might arise between the id, ego, and superego. Freud used the term ego strength to refer to the ego’s ability to function despite these dueling forces.
A person who has good ego strength can effectively manage these pressures, while a person with too much or too little ego strength can be unyielding or disruptive.
What Happens If There Is an Imbalance?
According to Freud, the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, the ego, and the superego.
If the ego is able to adequately moderate between the demands of reality, the id, and the superego, a healthy and well-adjusted personality emerges. Freud believed that an imbalance between these elements would lead to a maladaptive personality.
For example, an individual with an overly dominant id might become impulsive, uncontrollable, or even criminal. Such an individual acts upon their most basic urges with no concern for whether their behavior is appropriate, acceptable, or legal.
On the other hand, an overly dominant superego might lead to a personality that is extremely moralistic and judgmental. A person ruled by the superego might not be able to accept anything or anyone that they perceive to be “bad” or “immoral.”
A Word From Verywell
Freud’s theory provides one conceptualization of how personality is structured and how the elements of personality function. In Freud’s view, a balance in the dynamic interaction of the id, ego, and superego is necessary for a healthy personality.
While the ego has a tough job to do, it does not have to act alone. Anxiety also plays a role in helping the ego mediate between the demands of the basic urges, moral values, and the real world. When you experience different types of anxiety, defense mechanisms may kick in to help defend the ego and reduce the anxiety you are feeling.