Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Psychoanalyst's Normal and Pathological Superegos

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Psychoanalyst's Normal and Pathological Superegos

Article excerpt


Steiner (2013), speaking of his experiences as Hanna Segal's patient at her memorial meeting in London, said that Segal thought that Freud had created a setting "where kindness and support could be provided in a manner which retained the analyst's objectivity and which kept the search for truth as a guiding principle". She believed that kindness and support were "essential in moderating the harshness which truth can sometimes evoke". Steiner then added "I think Hanna Segal's kindness was accompanied by a respect for truth and indeed her kindness made truth more acceptable and less persecuting . . .. [T]ruth without kindness is not really true, but we would add that kindness without truth is not really kind."

These statements suggest that the analyst will need to find a way of speaking to the patient about difficult and painful matters without being harsh and that this may be problematic. Steiner also implied that the analyst may evade the speaking of difficult truths in order not to be experienced as harsh and that this will in effect short change the patient. These matters relate not only to tact as an analytic function (Poland, 1975) but also, I will argue, to the analyst's relationship to his/her superego and it is this latter issue which is the subject of this paper.

The concept of the superego

The superego as a psychoanalytic concept is recognized and used by psychoanalysts of all schools. It is an integral part of an understanding of the dynamic unconscious mind and of the fundamental issue of conflict. Sandler and Sandler (1987) observed that in Britain, where object relations theory has become the paradigm of choice, "[t]he concept of superego as a large-scale structure or agency is probably ... found less useful than the concept of internal object relations" (p. 331). However, in everyday clinical discussions and in significant theoretical contributions from all three groups in the British Society (e.g. O'Shaughnessy, 1999, Malcolm, 1988, Symington, 2007, and Joseph Sandler himself, 1960) the concept of the superego is regularly employed. Malcolm stated that "the superego is the internal objects" (1988, p. 159, original italics). This view is probably too all-encompassing to be useful; it may be more accurate to consider the use of the concept as a form of short hand to denote important nuclei of certain kinds of object relations: those pertaining to moral judgement, whether that be sadistic and draconian, or reasonable and supportive.

A selective review of the literature on the superego follows; it is largely limited to a consideration of the views of American based ego psychologists and the Kleinian literature. The aim is not to offer a comprehensive review but rather to highlight the complexity of the concept, particularly the differing views on the superego's genesis and functions. Interestingly and as with other similar conceptual divergence, all proponents can cite Freud as a supportive source for their views. Some authors have argued that this is because Freud mistakenly broadened his views on the superego to include erroneous conceptualization (for example, Gray, 1987, see below). However, it can also be contended that this reflected Freud's sophisticated ability to sustain conflicting perspectives if the clinical evidence merited an overdetermined and complex formulation.

One complication stems from the fact that Freud considered the superego to be a model to which the ego aspired (initially called the ego ideal) and also a function of observation and judgement. In his most comprehensive discussion of the superego and its formation and function (Freud, 1923), he regularly used both the terms superego and ego ideal interchangeably (for example, "a differentiation within the ego, which may be called the 'ego ideal' or 'superego'..." p. 28). After 1923 he used the term ego ideal only occasionally. In this paper the one term superego will be used except in instances where an aspirational model is the issue - there the term ideal ego will be used. …

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