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I am too severe with myself: the hypertrophic super-ego

I am too severe with myself: the hypertrophic super-ego

The superego represents a sort of internal censor that judges the subject’s acts and desires and is made up of a set of prohibitions and rules that condition behavior.

Ci sono persone che non riescono a perdonarsi nulla, si condannano per ogni minima sbavatura pretendendo da se stesse risultati eccelsi, impeccabili. Secondo la teoria psicoanalitica, è in questo contesto che si manifesta il super io, ma facciamo un passo indietro.

Es, io e super io

Io, es e super io sono le tre istanze (teorizzate da Freud) che muovono i fili della nostra personalità. Secondo il padre della psicoanalisi, l’ES sarebbe la parte più inconscia, più ancestrale e quella connessa puramente alla sfera pulsionale. Secondo le teorie freudiane, noi, alla nascita, siamo governati solo dall’Es perché non abbiamo ancora avuto modo di sviluppare l’Io e il Super Io.

The ego can be described as a “balancer”, it is a largely conscious instance and has the difficult task of managing internal conflicts and pressures from the external environment. A deepening on how these three intrapsychic instances work is available in my article Es, io e super io. In this text we will focus on the role played by the superego.

The role of the superego

Of our psychic apparatus , the super-ego is the only instance that originates completely for the introjection of something external. According to Freud, the superego originates from the internalization of codes of conduct, prohibitions, value schemes (good / bad, good / bad, right / wrong …) that the child assumes from the relationship with the parents .

The superego consists of a heterogeneous set of behavioral models, as well as prohibitions and commands, and represents a hypothetical ideal towards which the subject tends with his behavior.

The development of the superego occurs in a completely unconscious way on the part of the child; but what does it mean that the child “introjects” prohibitions and behavioral rules dictated by the parent?

How the super-ego is formed

The child assimilates as  part of himself  something that is marked from the outside, by the “laws” dictated by the parents and also by the implicit behavior of the parents themselves.

The world of the child is made up of caring figures (mom and dad) and these play a central role in shaping the personality (for better or for worse). When it comes to the  superego , the child will assimilate  the severity, the prohibitions but also the moral values experienced (directly or indirectly) by the parents.

Let’s take a practical example. Let’s say that Andrea is a child who has just turned three and that mom and dad have surprised him to scratch his genitals in public. To such a scene, every parent can have their reaction … there is the parent who jokes about it, the one who horrifies, the one who “doesn’t just do it!”, Who acts with a “punitive slap” … This reaction will have an impact on the development of the superego. Also because parents generally have codes of conduct that keep constant during their child’s education. Here, the child will make those codes his own but not in the form of consciously acquired concepts or “advice to follow” but in the form of an unconscious entity that will become part of his personality structure. This entity will play an important role in articulating behaviors, ambitions, roles and  self-criticality .

According to Freud, the  superego is composed of a consciousness and the ideal of the ego. While conscience is tied to morality and the concept of right and wrong , the ego ideal is tied to our standards . Here, at this point it becomes easy to understand how a rigid and highly developed super ego  can trigger a series of psychological problems and configure real psychopathologies.

Being too strict with yourself

From what has been said so far, some considerations can already be made: those who are too severe with themselves tend to deny their emotional sphere, fear their feelings , their sensations, their impulses … They almost experience the  emotional sphere as an obstacle to productivity and efficiency , this is the effect of a severe and hyper-alert super ego.

When the superego is predominant, the ego is weak and, in fact, dependent on the superego . It follows that the ego becomes dominated by a rigid regulatory system, made up of pretensions and high standards .

In an unbalanced psychic apparatus dominated by the superego, the ego cannot satisfy itself . The reason? The ego cannot even recognize the legitimate needs nor even satisfy them for the simple fact that the ego does not judge the lawfulness of its needs . On the contrary, it is his superego which exercises the function of judgment which manifests itself in all its intransigence, condemning and administering continuous sanctions .

When the ego is well developed, it manages to keep at bay and mitigate the pressure deriving from the superego and the drives of the id, not only that, it also manages to manage the conflicts that come from the outside world. The ego should be “the captain of the ship” able to maintain the route, that is, capable of moving around the world in the direction suitable for satisfying one’s needs by following a principle of reality (ie, acceptance of injustices, any obstacles encountered on the path to a goal …).

The paradox

In some cases, those who have developed a particularly rigid super-ego will be able to live paradoxical situations by swinging from one extreme to the other and experiencing moments of strong transgression. The weak ego obeys its superego, however,  to ease the tensions linked to excessive standards and prohibitions , to recover a minimum of autonomy and also in response to the instincts of the ES, it will tend to rebel periodically against the superego . These moments of rebellion give rise to paradoxical behaviors which, in the second moment, will be  admonished by the same person who committed them ! Moments of “transgression” that the ego itself, subsequently (returned under the full control of the superego) will consider strong failings  and synonymous with weaknesses.

In the conflictual dynamic between the superego and the ego , sometimes a sort of doubt is expressed which embodies the conflict between the need to obey the authority , represented by the superego, and the need to transgress the prohibition . This conflictual dynamic represents a great danger for the ego, therefore it is often denied and transformed (through multiple defense mechanisms, first of all the movement) into  philosophical doubts, ideational problems  or other issues that generate real  mental considerations (ruminations) .

The maternal carelessness and the rigidity of the super-ego

The concept of Superio has evolved strongly in the psychoanalytic landscape where, author after author, we have come to define an increasingly broad and multifaceted scenario.

Very interesting is the theory of the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion who, starting from the footprints left by Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, speaks of the superio as an introjected bad self-object  (1959) due to a lack of maternal containment of the projective identifications of the child .

What does it mean? Also in this context, the super-ego is a component introjected from the outside but not only starting from the norms and values ​​dictated by parental behavior, Wilfred Bion enters specifically into the dyadic mother-child bond.

When the mother is unable to contain the anguish and intense emotions of the baby, these emotions  are reintroduced into the baby  without any process of “processing” and thus constitute a severe internal object with Super Ego functions. In this state of mind, any emotion is hated because it is perceived as too powerful to be contained by the mind. The predominance of this part does not allow an optimal development of the concept of emotional bond favoring the establishment of dysfunctional bonds with the neighbor . Furthermore, the author states that the maternal containment deficit favors the structuring of the Superio and inhibits that of the Ego.

The need to control everything

According to other contemporary authors, being too strict with oneself  could be linked to the failure to internalize a benevolent and compassionate caring figure. If the attachment figure has not allowed us to develop self-compassion, we will tend systematically to deny and condemn all negative experiences, becoming uncompromising or even cynical towards oneself and often towards others. In this context, the need to control everything, even the uncontrollable (what others think and do) could take over.

The need to control everything stems from the lack of trust in one’s resources, which, in turn, is generated by the high standards dictated by a rigid super-ego.

Ego-dystonia dictated by the super-ego

The super-ego generates an ego-dystonia . The person perceives a suffering compared to any psychological symptom that moves away from a goal or an ideal of himself (I must be good, I must always be good at the expense of everything, even my own suffering).

How to trigger a change? The turnaround can start precisely from this: the person could, indeed, should begin to accept any emotion, any symptom of a psychological nature so as not to recognize parts of himself as a problem to be fought. For further information: Why we say “I’m fine” when it is not true

Feelings tied to a rigid ego ideal

With its ideal of the ego, the  superego conditions the subject’s thoughts and behaviors so that this tends precisely to the ideal standard ; the characteristics of this standard will be modeled on the synthesis of the subjects who contributed to the formation of the superego, first of all the parents and other authoritarian figures who represent a continuum of them.

The superego is therefore always involved in controlling the ego and plays a functional role, however, when it is rigid and predominant, it develops a hypercritical sense of self.

As we have seen, the superio is not a well-defined psychic instance, but a series of mental processes formed during childhood and which last throughout life or until further evolutions of the ego.

The superego is indirectly observable when one does not perform an action one would like to perform. Self-criticism is a tangible representation of the action of the super-ego as well as the feeling of not being enough ; according to Freud, is the superior  would also be the source of these feelings:

  • Shame;
  • Guilt
  • Anguish;
  • Fear of punishment;

The sadistic super-ego in the Narcissistic Disorder of perosnality

The superego functions as a kind of self-referential narcissism , it is a supernatural entity to which one appeals to appease one’s anxieties , inducing a permanent illusory state in one’s mind.

According to the author Otto Kernberg, in the narcissistic personality disorder, the ego is composed only of idealized aspects of the self and the object (the others), and for this reason it has become “grandiose”. Thus the narcissistic patient wanders in a reality full of threats , because at any moment the grandiose image he has of himself can be invalidated.

To defend against this risk, the narcissist is forced to maintain a certain emotional distance from others who automatically become the object of anger and devaluation. This strong devaluation of the other, however, is not enough to protect him from negative emotions.

Not everyone knows that the narcissist must deal with feelings of extreme inferiority generated by a sadistic superego , which prescribes only duties. The sadistic super-ego, at the ego level, triggers both an excessive need to be reassured and a strong feeling of envy towards others .

The other is thus both a source of self-esteem (necessary to confirm the idealized aspects of the Self), and a fearful rival with which to compete . All these experiences lead to a deep sense of solitude that Kernberg calls magnificent loneliness . To learn more: defense mechanisms in narcissism.