According to Sigmund Freud, human personality is complex and has more than a single component. In his famous psychoanalytic theory, Freud states that personality is composed of three elements known as the id, the ego, and the superego. These elements work together to create complex human behaviors.1
Each component adds its own unique contribution to personality and the three interact in ways that have a powerful influence on an individual. Each element of personality emerges at different points in life.
According to Freud’s theory, certain aspects of your personality are more primal and might pressure you to act upon your most basic urges. Other parts of your personality work to counteract these urges and strive to make you conform to the demands of reality.
Here’s a closer look at each of these key parts of the personality, how they work individually, and how they interact.
- According to Freud, the id is the source of all psychic energy, making it the primary component of personality.1
- The id is the only component of personality that is present from birth.
- This aspect of personality is entirely unconscious and includes instinctive and primitive behaviors.
The id is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs.1 If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state anxiety or tension. For example, an increase in hunger or thirst should produce an immediate attempt to eat or drink.
- According to Freud, The ego develops from the id and ensures that the impulses of the id can be expressed in a manner acceptable in the real world.2
- The ego functions in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mind.
- The ego is the component of personality that is responsible for dealing with reality3
The ego operates based on the reality principle, which strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon impulses.
In many cases, the id’s impulses can be satisfied through a process of delayed gratification—the ego will eventually allow the behavior, but only in the appropriate time and place.1
Freud compared the id to a horse and the ego to the horse’s rider. The horse provides the power and motion, while the rider provides direction and guidance. Without its rider, the horse may simply wander wherever it wished and do whatever it pleased. The rider gives the horse directions and commands to get it to go where the rider wants it to go.
The ego also discharges tension created by unmet impulses through secondary process thinking, in which the ego tries to find an object in the real world that matches the mental image created by the id’s primary process.4
Instead of acting upon the primal urges of the id, you spend the rest of the meeting imagining yourself eating a cheeseburger. Once the meeting is finally over, you can seek out the object you were imagining and satisfy the demands of the id in a realistic and appropriate manner.
The last component of personality to develop is the superego.
- According to Freud, the superego begins to emerge at around age five.
- The superego holds the internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from our parents and society (our sense of right and wrong).1
- The superego provides guidelines for making judgments.
The superego has two parts:
- The conscience includes information about things that are viewed as bad by parents and society. These behaviors are often forbidden and lead to bad consequences, punishments, or feelings of guilt and remorse.5
- The ego ideal includes the rules and standards for behaviors that the ego aspires to.5
The superego tries to perfect and civilize our behavior. It works to suppress all unacceptable urges of the id and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather that upon realistic principles. The superego is present in the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.
The Interaction of the Id, Ego, and Superego
When talking about the id, the ego, and the superego, it is important to remember that these are not three separate entities with clearly defined boundaries. These aspects are dynamic and always interacting to influence an individual’s overall personality and behavior.
A person who has good ego strength can effectively manage these pressures, while a person with too much or too little ego strength can be unyielding or disruptive.
What Happens If There Is an Imbalance?
According to Freud, the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, the ego, and the superego.7
If the ego is able to adequately moderate between the demands of reality, the id, and the superego, a healthy and well-adjusted personality emerges. Freud believed that an imbalance between these elements would lead to a maladaptive personality.
For example, an individual with an overly dominant id might become impulsive, uncontrollable, or even criminal. Such an individual acts upon their most basic urges with no concern for whether their behavior is appropriate, acceptable, or legal.
On the other hand, an overly dominant superego might lead to a personality that is extremely moralistic and judgmental. A person ruled by the superego might not be able to accept anything or anyone that they perceive to be “bad” or “immoral.”
A Word From Verywell
Freud’s theory provides one conceptualization of how personality is structured and how the elements of personality function. In Freud’s view, a balance in the dynamic interaction of the id, ego, and superego is necessary for a healthy personality.
While the ego has a tough job to do, it does not have to act alone. Anxiety also plays a role in helping the ego mediate between the demands of the basic urges, moral values, and the real world. When you experience different types of anxiety, defense mechanisms may kick in to help defend the ego and reduce the anxiety you are feeling.