Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Superego: An Attachment Perspective

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Superego: An Attachment Perspective

Article excerpt

With the help of attachment theory and research, the paper attempts to broaden and build on classical and current views on the superego. Attachment theory's epigenetic approach and the concept of the subliminal superego are described. The superego, it is argued, is as much concerned with safety as sex. The superego is 'heir', not just to the Oedipus complex or Klein's pre-oedipal constellation, but also to the attachment relationship. Under favourable developmental conditions a 'mature superego' emerges, facilitating, in the presence of an internal secure base, maturational boundary crossings towards adult sexuality. In the light of the above, the paper reviews Lear's updating of Strachey's model of psychic change and explores the concept of transgression in relation to the 'professional superego', its development and maturation. Theoretical arguments are illustrated with clinical examples.

Keywords: Attachment, Mentalising, Psychoanalysis, Psychoanalytic psychotherapy, Security, Superego, Transgression


According to Freud, minds are like cities - prototypically Rome - in which ancient structures persist, overlaid with the accretions of modern civilization (Freud, 1930). The same might be said of psychoanalytic metapsychology, in which old and new ideas jostle, co-existing sometimes peacefully, sometimes less so (Blass, 2010). Psychoanalysts tend to respond in a number of ways: remaining steadfastly loyal to time-honoured concepts; allowing them to pass gracefully into oblivion; replacing them with contemporary additions to theory; rejuvenating old models.

The aims of this paper are:

* to review the superego from an attachment perspective

* to revisit the idea of the 'benign superego', somewhat overshadowed in recent formulations

* to reconsider Strachey's notion of the part played by the superego - both analysand's and analyst's - in therapeutic action

* to look at transgression, and its role in analytic work.

Throughout, it will be argued that the superego is 'heir', not just to the oedipal relationship, but to attachment constellations of infancy and early childhood.

Attachment theory and the superego

Attachment Theory's distinctive contributions to contemporary psychoanalytic discourse (c.f. Bowlby, 2005; Fonagy, Gergely & Target, 2008; Holmes, 2001, 2009; Slade, 2008) include:

* an account of divergent developmental tracks, starting in infancy, characterized by secure, insecure avoidant, insecure-ambivalent and insecure-disorganized epigenetic pathways

* exposition of a security-driven dynamic in which the object is a source of safety in parallel with libidinal satisfaction

* vicissitudes of the security system in which, with sub-optimal care-giving, full expression of relational needs are inhibited, distorted or dissociated

* resulting disruption of narrative capacity and restrictions on conscious exploration and awareness, including sexual and aggressive feelings

* a reciprocal relationship between the attachment dynamic and exploration in which, in the face of threat or stress, attachment feelings and behaviours are triggered, inhibiting exploration and play

* replication of the security dynamic in the transference in which the analyst is experienced by the analysand in terms of the primary attachment relationship

* through her sensitivity, responsiveness, reliability and boundedness, the analyst helps the client move from a position of insecure attachment to one of 'earned security'.

I shall approach the theoretical discussion via some clinical material. The aim is to illustrate, firstly, the role of the superego as part of the systems unconscious and conscious. Secondly, to suggest that moral precepts flowing from the superego can be seen as defensive strategies (c.f. Gray, 1994), helpful insofar as they ensure security, unhelpful in that they inhibit full expression of emotional need. …

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