To Freud, the id, one’s amoral primal instincts, governs a desire for pleasure, for instant gratification, and the fear of pain; the ego, on the other hand, rational will, accepts that enduring pain or deferring pleasure may be a necessary means to a positive end, and functions as a mediator between the id and the world. He named this idea the reality theory. The super-ego, or one’s conscience, he thought, was a socially responsible opposing force to the id, and capable of harsh cruelty – therein lay one’s sense of guilt or shame. Yet he identified the ego as one’s true source of anxiety, the instrument that plunged unacceptable thoughts below the surface of one’s consciousness, in an effort of self-preservation.
Freud classified various psychological problems as imbalances of these three forces: “Transference neuroses correspond to a conflict between the ego and the id; narcissistic neuroses, to a conflict between the ego and the super ego; and psychoses, to one between the ego and the external world” (The Ego and the Id, 1923). Freud saw the ego and super ego developing as a natural resolution to the Oedipus complex: since we can’t eliminate the parent we view as a romantic rival, our recourse is to identify with him or her, to internalize and absorb his or her authoritarian features.
Video: Excerpted from Freud: The Hidden Nature of Man.