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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Super-Ego Today

In my April column of the Presidio Sentinel, I talk about the term that Sigmund Freud coined: the Super-Ego (click here to access). What it means for us in daily life when we "suffer" from an overbearing Super-Ego, you find below:

Feeling guilty quickly and often? Finding yourself blushing easily, trying to hide your true self? Being convinced that if others really knew you, they would not have anything to do with you AND feeling bad about it (the AND rules out any sociopathic tendencies)?

If the answer is yes to one or more, chances are your super-ego is having a tight grip on you. The role of the super-ego is ultimately to make any kind of culture and art possible. It holds communities and societies together and makes them possible. The super-ego tells us not to steal, lie, kill or betray.

I like to think of the budding super-ego when a child gets feedback about its behavior all day long. It is as simple as reward or punishment. Punishment can be from severe (bodily or emotional harm) to mild (not getting an expected reward) and anything in between. A reward can also be from big (say a trip to Disney Land) to small (not being punished) and anything in between. The child observes all of the given feedback all the time and learns from the combination of its own behavior and the response to it from the bonded person (most often the parent). That way the super-ego is starting to grow. This means that eventually, the parent (whoever does the punishing or rewarding) does not have to be present anymore for the child to act in order to get the reward. The process has been internalized and the super-ego has been born.

After years of this, by the time we are adults we have a thorough understanding of cultural and societal rules, of how to treat others and about morals and ethics. It is a part of us, it feels very familiar and safe. What we often don´t consider is that we also take on other characteristics from the bonded person via that channel. For example, if we have a shy and easily intimidated mother, we might perceive being shy and sort of passive as a value, something we are unconsciously striving for. Wanting to please our parents usually stays with us, even once the parents are deceased. All of that is happening without our awareness. Our world view is so familiar and dear to us that we don´t see it just like we don´t see the very air we breath.

Therapy or self-help books, coaching or heart-to-heart talks with friends can bring up questions about how and who we are, about how our super-ego has us act. This is a good opportunity to question what we want to keep and what we would like to change. Any of the learned behaviors and the underlying values can be re-examined and adjusted to be of more benefit to us today, to help us create a fulfilled and meaningful life.

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