The struggle to be good; early psychology

August 28, 2015

Articles | Collections | Newsletter

Sigmund Freud was an unusual dude. He had some wacky ideas. But he also had some very useful ones. Prior to Freud, not very many people took the study of the mind very seriously. One of his more...

filed under:

Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


Sigmund Freud was an unusual dude. He had some wacky ideas. But he also had some very useful ones. Prior to Freud, not very many people took the study of the mind very seriously. One of his more useful conceptions was his 1923 'Structural Model', essentially, the psychological equivalent of shoulder angels. Freud separated the mind into three aspects;

  • the id - the biological drives and unconscious motivations;
  • the ego - the self; and
  • the super-ego - our conscience and morality.
The Id 'das Es', or 'it' Freud conceptualised this as our most primitive mind. It consists of the unconscious drives that are born of our evolution. This part of the brain is selfish and animalistic. Some therapists still refer to it as 'the lizard brain'. It has no ties to our socialisation and is entirely impersonal. It operates in alignment with what Freud called the pleasure principle; a desire for instant gratification and wishful (not realistic) thinking, that drives us to make impulsive and impatient decisions. In the ‘it’ we form images of the things we want in our minds. A sort of goal to attain if you will. Freud called this a primary process.

The Ego 'das Ich', or 'I' This refers to our basic sense of self. Where the ‘it’ is merely a collection of drives, or ‘I want’s, the ‘I’ refers to the portion of ourselves that develops through ‘identification’ and socialisation. This portion of our personality has both conscious and unsconscious (and preconscious) elements to it, but represents our ability to rationalise and overcome our desires. In opposition to the pleasure principle, the I operates in alignment with the reality principle; still satisfying our desires but in moderation in accordance with reality. In the I, we find and hold onto an alternative image from the one created in the primary process in the it. This is called a secondary process, according to Freud. The Super-Ego 'das Über-Ich', or 'Over-I' This is our conscious, or morality. It is the shoulds and should nots in our life. We develop this from the internalisation of societal norms due to the fear of punishment through loss of parental love. We can conceptualise Freud’s ‘over-I’ as two parts. The ego ideal is the good book, the rules of ‘good’ behaviour that we develop over time. The conscience is our store of ‘bad’ behaviour. The over-I works to help balance our behaviour and strive for the good. How it all works Freud’s model is not always appropriate and is a very simplistic view of the mind (his description of the development of these aspects of the mind don’t particularly bear explaining). But it is useful in interpreting something of the struggle within ourselves. Freud noted that our goal should be to aim for good ego strength; a strong ego, or ‘I’, that is up to the task of moderating the desires born from the ‘it’ and our desire to achieve morality and thus resolving our constant inner conflict. So, the angel and devil on the shoulder motif isn’t entirely inaccurate. George Orwell summed it up nicely in one of his essays:

On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time
Psychology is often super complicated. That's why simple theories like this just aren't enough. Learn why, as we examine what 'love' is. Some theories are pretty simple though and have stood the test of time. Learn how to cope with another inner struggle by mastering your emotions. Or learn how psychologists figure out when your inner struggle has become too much and you might need some help, here. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Articles | Collections | Email me

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

There are over 2000 of us. Get the newsletter.
Contribute to the site's upkeep by donating: Bitcoin | Paypal