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Freudian Psychology

Why Freud Matters Now, More Than Ever

The unconscious mind holds the key to why we repeat mistakes and self-sabotage.

Key points

  • The id, superego, and ego are not part of the brain, but are included in Freud's map of the mind, with much of their input in the unconscious.
  • Investigations into the unconscious can help us understand why we fall into certain patterns, repeat relationship mistakes, and self-sabotage.
  • Many symptoms are resistant to treatment until you discover the constructive purpose they serve and replace them with a healthier alternative.

In Part 1 of this series, I offered a brief review of Freud, his understanding of the unconscious, and relevant updates to the psychoanalytic theories and methods he devised. This post will focus on a deeper understanding of the unconscious, and the mind as a whole.

If you open a brain atlas, you'd find identifiable brain regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, as well as individual structures like the hippocampus, and white matter fiber tracts like the inferior longitudinal fasciculus. But nowhere in this brain atlas would you find anything labeled "id," "superego," or "ego." The id, superego, and ego are not officially recognized as brain structures (though psychologists have speculated for decades that the functions they serve have specific correlates in the brain), but that doesn't mean they aren't part of the mind.

Philosophers, scientists, and theologians have debated for millennia whether the brain and the mind are one and the same and whether either could fully explain the mystery of consciousness. Sigmund Freud was trained as a neurophysiologist, studying the structures and functions of the brain, but he later developed a map of the mind that we still use today. As noted in Part 1 of this article series, Freud's most significant contribution to psychology and psychiatry was his description of the unconscious mind and the ways it affects our conscious behavior. He also refined a method—psychoanalysis—for revealing the unconscious to us.

Uwe Kils & Wiska Bodo / Wikimedia Commons
The biggest part of the mind, like an iceberg, out of view, under the surface.
Source: Uwe Kils & Wiska Bodo / Wikimedia Commons

From a Freudian perspective, we can think of the mind as an iceberg, with our conscious awareness being the tip of the iceberg, above the water, and our unconscious being the much larger part, lying out of view, below the surface. As we know from the Titanic, and countless other ships that have capsized from collisions with icebergs, just because you can't see what's below the surface, it doesn't mean it you can't crash into it with dire consequences. So it is with the unconscious.

Why do some people keep choosing relationship partners that are unavailable, exploitative, or abusive, even though they swear they'll never make the same mistake again? Why do other people repeatedly sabotage their jobs or anything else that can truly benefit their lives? The answer is in their unconscious.

Do you know anyone who seems to revel in being miserable? Why would anyone want to be miserable? Have you ever wondered whether someone you know was resistant to treatment because their symptoms actually serve a purpose for them? These are the mysteries of the unconscious.

Before we can understand the unconscious, we must first go back to Freud's model of the mind and briefly describe the three major players: the id, superego, and ego. Freud, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, sought to apply Darwin's theory of evolution to his model of the human mind and behavior (Marcaggi & Guénolé, 2018). Before Darwin, the Western world was still fixated on a Biblical explanation for the appearance of humans on our planet, as per the Genesis creation story. But Freud, having accepted the advances in evolutionary biology of his contemporary, Darwin, sought to use these insights to explain human nature and the human mind: Enter the id.

The Id

Though the id is not recognized as a structure in the human brain, much of what Freud included in his description of the id corresponds to the functions of a number of actual brain structures. Some of these structures include the amygdala, which is involved with aggression, fear (Brink, 2008; Feinstein et al., 2011), sexual desire (Baird et al., 2007), and other emotions; the hypothalamus, which is involved with many of our instinctual drives, like hunger (Theologides, 1976) and sleep (Malenka et al., 2009); and the pituitary gland, which controls the sex drive by mediating androgen output in the brain (He et al., 2013; Höfer et al., 2013). Quite simply, the id can be thought of as the distillation of our strongest biological instincts, imploring us to objectify everything we encounter in the real world to satisfy our primal needs and pleasures (Freud, 1999).

The Superego

In contrast to the id, the superego does not have any clear brain correlates. The superego can be thought of as our conscience, our inner Jiminy Cricket. The superego is continually being refined by the cultural rules, expectations, and norms (RENs) set by the people and institutions that most influence our lives. At a base level, the RENs that inform our superegos are set by the gender-specific groups that socialize us; additionally, our governments, schools, and religious institutions further refine the parameters of our conscious, with each having long lists of do's and don'ts. Governments set the basic laws we agree to live by; schools influence the RENs within professional realms and the culture at large; and religious institutions offer guidelines for their respective faith communities (Freud, 1999).

 John G. Cottone / Mind Cube 3D
The Id, Superego, & Ego with Defense Mechanisms: Above & Below Consciousness
Source: John G. Cottone / Mind Cube 3D

The Ego

For all intents and purposes, the ego can be thought of as the "self," or one's personality. It is shaped by the opposing demands of the id (i.e., one's biological instincts) as well as the superego (i.e., one's internalization of cultural norms and morality). Quite simply, the ego is always between a rock and a hard place, needing to find compromises between two aspects of the mind with opposing demands.

To survive, the ego must perform like a wily politician, finding creative compromises, when possible, but when rational compromises are elusive, it's time to go to Plan B. Plan B is the deployment of defense mechanisms. By now, most people are familiar with the most common defense mechanisms, like denial, repression, and projection, but the list of defense mechanisms is infinite. Essentially, a defense mechanism can be any mental action or behavior outside of one's full conscious awareness that either protects a person from something disturbing or eliminates the immediate tension created by the opposing demands of the id's primal drives and the superego's moral rules (Freud, 1999).

Most often, our defense mechanisms serve a positive, protective purpose, but sometimes they can be overused, becoming symptoms unto themselves. To add further confusion, sometimes symptoms like depression, anxiety, erectile dysfunction, and anorexia are actually defense mechanisms in disguise, whereby a symptom protects an individual from something that is even more threatening than the symptom itself.

For example, I have had numerous male patients with erectile dysfunction for whom their inability to maintain an erection in sexual situations with women served the purpose of rescuing them from the psychological discomfort associated with heterosexual intercourse. In some cases, the anxiety was due to a fear of pregnancy (or related prohibitions against abortion); in others, it was related to an unacknowledged, non-heterosexual orientation; and, yet, in others, it reflected the reality that the patient simply fell out of love with his partner but was too scared to break off the relationship. In this respect, erectile dysfunction, as with many types of symptoms, is resistant to treatment until the protective purpose that the symptom serves is discovered and then replaced with a healthier alternative.

As noted previously, practicing psychotherapy from any of the Freudian traditions is more of an art than a science, and this art involves training the clinical eye to see that which is invisible: the unconscious. For this reason, I believe that training in psychoanalytic or psychodynamic psychotherapy is so valuable, even if a therapist-in-training ultimately decides to practice in a behavioral or cognitive-behavioral style. Behavioral therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy offer many helpful, practical interventions, but an inspection of the unconscious, as is done in one of the Freudian traditions, can be most helpful in determining where those interventions should be aimed.


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