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Id, Ego, and Superego: Understanding Freud’s Theory

Id, Ego, and Superego: Understanding Freud’s Theory

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The Id | The Ego | The Superego | Interaction | Examples | Influence | FAQ

The id, ego, and superego are the three elements of personality described by Sigmund Freud in his theory of personality. According to Freud, the interaction of these three parts of the personality influences how people think and behave. 

The id drives our needs and desires, and the superego strives for morality and perfection. The ego is the mediator between the two that tries to fulfill the needs of the id and the superego while accounting for the demands of reality.

To understand Freud’s theory, it is essential to understand how he described each of these components of personality. This article describes Freud’s theory of the id, ego, and superego and explores how these three aspects of personality interact.

Read more: What Is Personality Psychology

What Is the Id?

Freud believed that the id was the most basic and primal component of personality. It is the only part of the personality that is present at birth.

The id controls all of a person’s instinctual behaviors. Since the id is primitive and instinctual, it operates on an unconscious level. 

Freud suggested the mind was much like an iceberg. The part you can see above the surface is the conscious mind, while the much large part of the ice below the surface represents the unconscious, which is where the id can be found.

Also, it is guided by what Freud referred to as the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle works to pursue the immediate gratification of any need or desire that a person has. For example, feelings of hunger produce an immediate desire for food. When these needs are not met, people may experience feelings of anxiety, tension, or unease. 

However, not every need or want that a person experiences can be satisfied immediately. If you were to try to satisfy an urge at the wrong time in the wrong setting, you might find yourself behaving in ways that are inappropriate or socially unacceptable. So there needs to be something to help moderate the primitive demands of the id, which is where the next part of personality comes in: the ego.

What Is the Ego?

Freud described the ego as a part of personality that allows the id’s desires to be expressed in a realistic and acceptable way. The ego develops from the id, but has been modified by the influence of the real world.

It operates on what Freud described as the reality principle. Where the id’s demands are unconscious,  unrealistic, or unacceptable, the ego’s goal is to fulfill those desires in a way that accounts for reality. This means assessing the situation and weighing the pros and cons of taking action. 

Freud compared the relationship of the ego and id to that of a rider and horse. The horse is the powerful force that propels the two forward, but the rider controls the direction and course that they follow.

Sometimes, this might mean waiting to fulfill a need until you are in the right time and place, a process known as delayed gratification. For example, if you are tired, the ego would keep you from taking a nap until you are home in a bed instead of drifting off in the middle of the work day.

What Is the Superego?

The superego is part of personality that strives for moral behavior. It is made up of all the internalized beliefs, values, and morals that people learn from their parents and their society. It is the last component of personality to form and usually begins to emerge sometime between the ages of three and five. 

The superego plays a vital role in decision-making and judgments.

Freud suggested that the superego is made up of two components:

  • The conscience: This part of the superego is concerned with things considered bad, inappropriate, or immoral. Doing things that go against the conscience can trigger negative consequences, such as being punished or experiencing a sense of guilt.
  • The ego ideal: This is the idealized self that an individual aspires to. In other words, it is what we believe we should be doing, how we feel we should behave, and how we think we should treat others.

The goal of the superego is to suppress the primitive urges of the id. If the superego had its way, you would live up to the high idealistic standards without ever giving into the urges and demands of the primal id.

How the Id, Ego, and Superego Interact

The id, ego, and superego don’t function separately and independently. Instead, they overlap and interact in various ways to influence how people think, feel, and behave. 

These forces are dynamic and always shifting. Sometimes the demands of the id might take precedence. In other cases, it might be the superego that takes the lead. In every situation, the ego serves as the mediator trying to strike a balance between the demands of the id, the superego, and reality. 

Ego strength is what Freud called the ego’s ability to manage these competing forces effectively. Having poor ego strength means that you might give in to your impulses more frequently, while having too much might mean an inability to adapt and compromise.

Read More: What Is a Type A Personality?

Examples of the Id, Ego, and Superego

Here are some common examples of the id, ego, and superego in action:

Eating a piece of cake:

  • The id: I want to eat the cake because it looks delicious and I feel hungry.
  • The superego: I shouldn’t eat the cake because it’s unhealthy and goes against my diet.
  • The ego: I can eat a small piece of cake as a treat, but I will balance it out by eating healthy for the rest of the day.

Having a crush on someone:

  • The id: I want to express my attraction to the person and be intimate with them.
  • The superego: I shouldn’t act on my attraction because it could harm the person or go against my moral values.
  • The ego: I can express my interest in the person in an appropriate way while also respecting their boundaries.

Being stuck in traffic:

  • The id: I want to get home quickly and feel frustrated by the traffic.
  • The superego: I should be patient and calm, and not get angry or aggressive towards other drivers.
  • The ego: I can acknowledge my frustration and find ways to cope with it, such as listening to music or taking deep breaths while driving safely and courteously.

These are just a few examples, but the id, ego, and superego constantly interact and influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in countless ways throughout our lives.

Influence of the Id, Ego, and Superego

It is important to recognize that Freud’s concept of the id, ego, and superego is a theory and not actual physical regions of the human brain. 

Freud’s theories are generally viewed as interesting but flawed by today’s standards. However, researchers have also pointed out that the id, ego, and superego described by Freud are closely aligned to the concepts of the unconscious, conscious, and metacognition structure of the mind that is currently studied in the field of neuroscience. 

Impact of the Id, Ego, and Superego on Therapy

The concept of the id, ego, and superego is still relevant in modern psychology and therapy, although it has been expanded and modified over time. Today, many therapists use psychodynamic approaches that draw on Freudian concepts, including the id, ego, and superego, to help individuals better understand their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

One way that the id, ego, and superego concept is applied in modern therapy is by exploring unconscious conflicts and unresolved emotions that contribute to psychological distress. For example, a therapist may help a client uncover and process past traumas impacting their current behavior and emotions. By understanding these conflicts, the therapist can work with them to develop more effective coping strategies.

Another way in which the concept is applied is by helping individuals develop a stronger sense of self-awareness and self-reflection. By examining their own thoughts and behaviors, individuals can learn to understand better the motivations and desires that are driving them. In doing so, they can develop a more balanced and integrated sense of self.

Takeaway: While the specific applications of the id, ego, and superego concepts may vary depending on the therapist and the approach used, exploring and balancing unconscious forces remains a central focus in many forms of modern psychology and therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

How are the id, ego, and superego related to one another?

Freud believed that each of these three components of personality represents a distinct component, but they interact with one another to form an individual’s personality and direct behavior. The id provides the drives for behavior, the superego strives for moral perfection, and the ego works to strike a balance between those two needs and the demands of reality.

A healthy, well-functioning personality is all about striking a need between the id, ego, and superego.

What is the difference between the id and the ego?

The id represents all of a person’s most basic primal urges. Left unchecked, the id would direct a person to fulfill all their desires without consideration for reality or the consequences of their actions.

The ego is the part of personality that must account for reality. It helps restrain the desires of the id and fulfill these urges in ways that are realistic and socially appropriate.

What is the difference between the ego and the superego?

The ego is realistic, whereas the superego is idealistic.

According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the id, ego, and superego work together to create a balance in the human psyche.

In healthy individuals, the ego can balance the demands of the id and the superego, allowing for the expression of natural impulses in socially acceptable ways. However, an imbalance between the id, ego, and superego can lead to psychological disturbances and maladaptive behaviors.

In therapy, the aim is often to help individuals develop a more robust and balanced ego, which can better manage the demands of the id and the superego, leading to greater psychological health and well-being.

Can the id, ego, and superego be developed or changed over time?

The id, ego, and superego can be developed or changed over time through various experiences and life events.

For example, as individuals age and gain more life experience, their superego may become more fully developed as they internalize societal norms and values. This can lead to greater self-control and a greater ability to delay gratification as the superego becomes more effective in regulating the id’s impulses.

Similarly, traumatic experiences or major life events can disrupt the balance between the id, ego, and superego, leading to changes in their relative strengths or abilities to manage impulses and emotions.

Therapy can also play a role in developing or changing the id, ego, and superego. By working with a trained therapist, individuals can gain insight into their unconscious thoughts and behaviors and develop more effective strategies for managing their impulses and emotions. Over time, this can lead to a more balanced and integrated psyche. When this happens, the id, ego, and superego are able to work together more harmoniously and effectively.

What happens when the id, ego, and superego conflict?

When the id, ego, and superego are in conflict, it can lead to psychological distress and maladaptive behavior.

For example, if the id is dominant and the ego and superego are weak, an individual may engage in impulsive and self-destructive behavior without considering the consequences or the impact on others. This can lead to problems such as addiction, reckless behavior, and criminal activity.

On the other hand, if the superego is dominant and the id is weak, an individual may be overly rigid and self-controlled. This can result in suppressing natural desires and impulses in favor of strict adherence to moral and ethical values. When this happens, people may experience problems such as anxiety, depression, and a lack of spontaneity and enjoyment in life.

When the ego is unable to balance the demands of the id and the superego effectively, it can lead to feelings of guilt, anxiety, and confusion. This can manifest in symptoms such as compulsive behavior, obsessions, and phobias.


Freud’s id, ego, and superego describe different aspects of personality that interact to help shape human behavior. This theory suggests that the id is made up of basic instincts and that the superego is made up of internalized moral ideals. The ego is the part of personality that deals with reality and manages the demands of both the id and superego.


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