Making Sense of Freud's Tripartite Theory of Personality

In last month’s post I started talking about the ego/identity and how we have to dismantle parts of it to grow and develop into a closer version of our higher self, however I never really formally studied the psychoanalytical origin of the word ego. I use the word often enough thinking that I understand it having heard others use it in psychological and spiritual teachings and books, yet I never took the time to look it up. With all of the “fake news” and unverified stories circulating these days I felt it was time to make sure I knew the original definition of that word and how it has been updated since its debut into our lexicon before flinging it around in my stories.

When I looked into it I found the the English word “ego” comes from Latin meaning “I, myself,” and it turns out that there is no universal agreement as to what the “ego” is. To save myself from getting too lost in the research of “ego” and how the concept has evolved through different people’s perspectives, I decided to focus on Sigmund Freud’s tripartite theory of personality involving the id, the ego, and the super-ego.

In Freud’s The Ego and The Id published in 1923 he described three aspects of the human mind. After looking up many different explanations and interpretations of these concepts, this is how they make sense to me.

The id is the aspect of our mind that is driven by our biological needs (air, food, drink, warmth, sleep, sex, etc.) along with, I would argue, our psychoneurobiological needs. You can think of the latter as the thoughts and beliefs that have been around so long that they are hardwired into your brain and need to be reinforced every so often. These thoughts may have been taught to you from a young age or you may have learned them on your own.

I think of the id as short for identity, and the unconscious identity is the uninspected part of our self that has developed over the years and likes to run the show behind the scenes. It wants things to happen a certain way and will be unhappy if it doesn’t. The id can be childish and impatient and doing some inner child work can help you identify those thought patterns. This aspect is what I had referred to as the ego last month, but it turns out that it is more related to the id.

The super-ego is a product of personal and societal norms regarding morals, values, and rules of etiquette, many of which were taught to us directly by our family, culture, or religion and others we learned on our own through our experiences and observations in life. The super-ego is more related to the highest ideals while the id is focused on the self.

Here’s an example to help explain these two:

Imagine that you are having lunch with a friend and you finish your glass of water yet are still thirsty. Your id would reach across the table and drink your friend’s water without even asking or thinking it was wrong. Your super-ego would wait until you could ask the server for more water because it thinks that it is rude to reach across the table and drink someone else’s water.

I saved the best for last, the ego, which is our conscious awareness. The ego is the aspect of our self that is caught between the id and the super-ego and is ultimately the part that chooses what to do. The ego listens to the id’s pleas for immediate gratification, but then considers the impact that it would have on the people and society around it before choosing to act. The ego also listens to the moral code and societal values explained by the super-ego before doing anything.

An untrained ego can become easily swayed by the convincing arguments of either the id or the super-ego, and unable to freely choose what to do. The untrained ego becomes a slave to the stronger of the id and super-ego and is nothing more than an observer of life. When living in this way you feel like you don’t have much control of your life and that is very unsettling.

By learning to observe your thoughts you start to see what is going on under the surface. By learning to question your thoughts and basic assumptions about life you begin to take back control of your self and your life. This strengthens your conscious awareness so that when you listen to your id and super-ego, you are making the choice and not them.

So in last month’s post, it was aspects of my id, my identity, that was dying, not necessarily my ego, according to Freud’s theory of personality. My ego was the one observing and listening to my own struggles, redirecting my attention to listen to my super-ego and be open to new thoughts before I did anything too stupid.

Mikao Usui understood the need to pay attention to your thoughts because he told his students to meditate in the morning and the evening along with chanting the Gokai (Reiki Principles) while thinking about their meaning. You must train your self to be aware of the nature of your mind and spirit.

He also said to repeat the Reiki Principles and think of their meaning daily, and that practice rewires your brain by creating new neural pathways which start to take away the power of the old ones. That's the power of affirmations and we can talk about that another time.

Thanks for reading my little journey into understanding some basic psychology terms. Keep strengthen your awareness and dismantling your assumptions, and stay healthy my friends.