At this point, we need to be looking at a person whose name you will very likely have heard often already: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. In his structural model, Freud has divided our psyche into the following three actors: the Ego, the “Over-I” and the Id. Now we all know that some people are egoistic, egocentric, or even egomaniac. So the Ego must be something bad, right? Well, in fact, in Freud’s theory, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Freud, born in Vienna, and hence speaking German, used German words to define the three players in our psyche. In English the German words were simply translated to Latin. But translating them from German into plain English makes them much easier to understand, so I will use these translations throughout the book:
- “Ego” stands for “I” (“Ich” in German)
- “Id” for “It” (“Es” in German)
- ““Over-I”” for “Over-I” (“Über-Ich”).
Your desire of being successful, rich, or as good looking as the models on the magazine covers, is rooted in the “It”. The “It” represents all your needs, wants, wishes, desires, instincts and impulses. It aims for immediate gratification, celebrates the pleasure-principle, and is the one part of your psyche that is existent since birth. One could say it represents the chimp brain as in a “You have got what I want, so I will hit you with this stone to get it”-way. The “It” is a true chaos, it doesn’t understand the principle of time, or the fact that you can save something today to have it tomorrow. It wants whatever it deems desirable. And it wants it now!
The counterpart of the “It” is the “I”. This is your conscious, organised self. The “I” has quite a job to do. Because it must bring the requests of the “It” into reality. The “I” tries to fulfil the commands of the “It”, albeit by focusing on fulfilling them in a way that brings longer term happiness and satisfaction, rather than short-term pleasure and bad long-term consequences. So, while the “It” wants that new iPhone of the passer-by, and is willing to take a stone to hit it on the current owner’s head or steal it out of her pocket, your “I” has to moderate this impulse somehow. It is the “I” that enables you to delay gratification. For instance, by starting to save money, so that you can purchase the new iPhone yourself in a couple of months, rather than hurting somebody else, to get it. The “I” is able to think and act rationally, use cognitive abilities and intellect.
And last, but not least, is the “Over-I”. This is the echo of the way your parents brought you up, your teachers formed you and all the other cultural influences that had an impact on you as a growing person. The “Over-I” is mostly working unconsciously but can also be conscious at times. It strives for perfection – that means, it wants you to act morally perfect. It’s main goal for you is to behave socially appropriate. And it is the “Over-I” that contains your compass of what is right and wrong in this world. Its main weapon is the feeling of guilt. So, that inner-critic who constantly yells at you how much of a failure you are, how fat you are, and how stupidly you have just behaved is your “Over-I” at work. On the other side, it is also the “Over-I” that gives you the idea that hitting someone to get their new iPhone is a bad thing, in the beginning.
Now think about what the poor “I” is faced with. It is constantly trying to reconcile the shouting of the “It”, the wagging finger of the “Over-I”, and the confrontations of reality. And that is not an easy job at all. Especially since in our civilised societies “It” and “Over-I” usually are on opposite sides, and reality does usually also tend to oppose the desires of the “It”.
So a conversation of the three might go as follows:
The “It”: I want to be rich, lay on a beach and drink cocktails all day!
The “Over-I”: If you want to get rich, you need to do dodgy things. Rich people are of bad character. Money is the root of all evil. You will need to rip people off and take their hard-earned money. You will also risk everything! What about safety and a steady paycheck? Also, don’t forget how many things you’ve done wrong in the past.
The “It”: I DON’T CARE, I WANT TO BE RICH! AND I WANT IT NOW!
The “I”: Okay guys, there is a lot of risk involved in starting my own business. I have failed often in life. Also, I don’t want to take money from people. So I guess the “Over-I” is right. We will continue with what we’ve been doing so far.
Imagine yourself to be sitting on a table with two parties shouting and yelling at you what the right way is and both representing extremes. And you, as the person in power, have to make decisions that are realistic. That is the challenge of your “I” on a daily, yes, even secondly basis.
Obviously, reconciling those requests can be quite frustrating, overwhelming and induce stress, anxiety, and other bad feelings.
Just think about this conversation:
The “It”: I’m hungry. I want to eat that chocolate cream cake and treat myself!
The “Over-I”: You’re getting fatter and fatter. You can’t even walk up the stairs without sweating! If you don’t stop that, you will die soon.
The “It”: I don’t care! I AM HUNGRY!
The “Over-I”: DON’T EAT IT!
The “I” listens carefully and this time agrees with the “It” as the chocolate cream cake just looks too tempting.
The “Over-I”: WELL DONE YOU FAT PIG! Are you happy now?
The “It”: I want to be slim!!!
And at this point in time you are sad, unhappy, and full of regret. You feel guilty. Now the “I” has to make something out of this situation. And in order to avoid the bad feeling of guilt, your “I” has developed a way out. In fact it has a range of tools that it uses to overcome situations like this. And they are called: defence mechanisms.