According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the superego is the component of personality composed of our internalized ideals that we have acquired from our parents and from society. The superego works to suppress the urges of the id and tries to make the ego behave morally, rather than realistically.
In Freud's theory of psychosexual development, the superego is the last component of personality to develop. The id is the basic, primal part of personality that is present from birth. Next, the ego begins to develop during the first three years of a child's life. Finally, the superego starts to emerge around the age of five.
The ideals that contribute to the formation of the superego include not just the morals and values that we have learned from our parents, but also the ideas about right and wrong that we acquire from society and the culture in which we live.
The Two Parts of the Superego
The superego can be further divided into two components: the ego ideal and the conscience. The ego ideal is made up of all of our rules for good behavior. The conscience is composed of the rules for which behaviors are considered bad. When we engage in actions that conform to the ego ideal, we feel good about ourselves or proud of our accomplishments. When we do things that our conscience considers bad, we experience feelings of guilt.
The Goals of the Superego
The primary action of the superego is to entirely suppress any urges or desires of the id that are considered wrong or socially unacceptable. It also tries to force the ego to act morally rather than realistically. Finally, the superego strives for moral perfections, without taking reality into account.
As you can see in the image at the right, the superego is present in all three levels of consciousness. Because of this, we can sometimes experience guilt without understanding exactly why we feel that way. When the superego acts in the conscious mind, we are aware of our resulting feelings. If, however, the superego acts unconsciously to punish or suppress the id, we might end up with feelings of guilt and no real understanding of why we feel that way.
- "[The supergo's] contents are for the most part conscious and so can be directly arrived at by endopsychic perception. Nevertheless, our picture of the superego always tends to become hazy when harmonious relations exist between it and the ego. We then say that the two coincide, i.e. at such moments the superego is no perceptible as a separate institution either to the subject himself or to an outside observer. Its outlines become clear only when it confronts the ego with hostility or at least with criticism. The superego, like the id, become perceptible in the state which it produces within the ego: for instance, when its criticism evokes a sense of guilt."
(Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, 1936)