Freud and the Fight of the Subpersonalities

Part IV of Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us

Image from Rutledge

Freud’s unconscious is a site of dramatic struggle between subpersonalities. The Id, the Super-Ego, and the Ego have been described as a gorilla and a schoolmarm fighting in a dark cellar, refereed by a nervous bank clerk. Deals are struck between the three, resulting in character and neurosis.

Welcome to part four of my series, in which I follow the argument of John Rowan in Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us (1990). Here, I’ll summarize the way Freud’s schools of thought approaches subpersonalities, the people inside us.

The Id, or the gorilla, if you will, represents your instinctual desires. Its only concern is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Contrary impulses exist side by side in the Id. It is not concerned with making sense.

The Super-Ego, or the schoolmarm, represents cultural rules that have been accepted as a check on the Id. The Super-Ego is the part of you that says no to your desires. It nags at you, saying you never do anything right. Freud saw the super-ego as the voice of childhood caretakers taken into the psyche in a process called introjection. It’s important to note, though, that introjection is not an injection. The Super-Ego is not your actual mother inside your head. It’s a child’s version of the mother, warped by a child’s limited conception of the world. Super-Egos tend to be harsher and less reasonable than most mothers ever are. They’re a curse, but a necessary one that means well.

Pity the poor Ego that must come in between those two and try to broker deals. It wants to please the Id in realistic ways that will bring long-term benefit, rather than grief. It employs defense mechanisms to cover up or redirect Id impulses that seem dangerous. Some of these are better than others. An immature Ego has no choice but to use primitive defenses such as delusion and denial. These get the job done at the cost of making you that much less in touch with reality. Later, some marginally better defenses are deployed, such as acting out, passive-aggression, and projection, followed by various varieties of repression and displacement. More healthy or mature Egos eventually learn that altruism, anticipation, humor, and sublimation work better and have fewer negative side effects.

The whole point of Freudian psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious, to bring the battle between the Id and Super-Ego into the light of day, so the Ego can develop better defenses. To do this, the analyst must overcome the resistance of the Ego which already has his own way of doing things and prefers to please the Super-Ego by keeping the Id locked in the basement of the psyche.

If you’re familiar with Internal Family Systems (IFS), which I addressed in part three, it might be tempting to replace Freud’s terms with those of Richard Schwartz. They don’t match up exactly. The Id resembles IFS Exiles and a mature Ego is the same as the IFS Self, but Schwartz enriches our understanding of the immature Ego by personifying all its defenses. The more primitive defenses are called Firefighters, while the more advanced defenses are Managers.

The Freudian analyst is always on the lookout for transference. She wants to spot that gorilla and schoolmarm when they begin to fight, so she can bring it into the light. Classically, it’s just a matter of time before the patient casts the analyst into the role of the Super-Ego, expecting his therapist to be just another agent of social control. The analyst has got to be alert enough to not take the bait and adept at turning whatever interaction occurred towards the deeper issues it enacts.

Freudian psychoanalysis will never achieve the status of an evidence-based psychotherapy because Freudians set their goals on objectives that are not readily measurable. They know that, just as soon as some symptoms abate, others will take their place as the Ego erects different defenses, like an infernal game of Whack-a-Mole. They’re more interested in hunting the big game and rebuilding underlying structures that frame neuroses. Freudian psychoanalysis also takes time, lots of time because the analyst is essentially lying in wait for a transference to come along in such a way that she can address.

Freudians have splintered into a dozen or so factions, each with their own story to tell about how the subpersonalities emerge and the fight that ensues when they do. Among others, there’s Lacan; the Ego Psychology of Kernberg; the Object Relations of Bion, Klein, and Erikson; the Self-Psychology of Kohut; Relational Psychoanalysis of Sullivan; Interpersonal-Relational Psychoanalysis, and the highly structured, hard-ass psychoanalysis of Langs. I’m particularly interested in Winnicott, who first observed transitional objects, or security blankets. These are objects that the child uses as a mother substitute when the mother is unavailable. A blanket or a Teddy Bear work well, but when the child’s idea of her mother is internalized and forms into a subpersonality, that works better.

All the various factions of Freudianism have become hidebound and doctrinaire, prone to vicious infighting as only family can be. They protect their turf with impenetrable jargon and arduous initiation. Freudian schools have come to resemble the teeming, anarchic subpersonalities within us. However, there have been several attempts to open up Freudian theory so that its wisdom can be more readily communicated. Schwartz has done this with IFS, and so has Eric Berne and his Transactional Analysis.

Berne takes the Super-Ego, the Ego, and the Id and replaces them with more relatable terms of Inner Parent, Adult, and Child, respectively. He then describes in great detail how these three subpersonalities interact with the corresponding subpersonalities of others, often utilizing scripts and games. This reveals that the fight that goes on between your ears, spills out into the street where you carry on the fight in your relationships. Unlike Freud, Berne doesn’t stop with the three subpersonalities. Each of the three have their own subpersonalities. There’s not just one Parent. There are two, the Critical Parent and the Nurturing Parent. The Adult has two sides. The Photographic Adult who records the here and now and the Combining Adult that makes calculations from the data. The Child can appear many ways. The Free Child, the Compliant Child, the Rebellious Child, and the Little Professor, who is constantly asking questions, trying to figure things out, and explain what happened to others. Students of Berne have added even more. This proliferation of subpersonalities captures the richness and variety of inner life far better that Freud could ever do with his mere three.

I have mixed feelings about these lists of common subpersonalities. On one hand, having the list can help you in your search to find them and facilitate the process of identifying your own cast of characters, so that you can begin to relate to them. On the other hand, it’s one thing to recognize a subpersonality, and it’s another thing to know one. Real therapy is more than just checking things off a list and making sure you have your token Little Professor. It’s about entering a dialogue with the subpersonalities, so you can broker agreements between them. For all the abundance of Berne’s work, it is heavier on description than prescription. We must continue our survey of the psychotherapies of subpersonalities before we find one that shows what to do with them.

Next, I will attempt to cover one school I haven’t mentioned, derived from Freud, Jungian Psychoanalysis.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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