Understanding Yourself And Others | ID, Ego, Superego Explained

Last Updated on August, 2023 by Edison

Have you ever wondered…

Why do some adults behave like children, and some children behave like adults?

Why do some people get triggered by words like you have flipped a switch in their minds?

It might be a grotesque, Karen-like response or something subtle like holding an item in front of themselves.

Here, I’ll cover three personality systems according to Freud: ID, Ego, and Superego.

It will help you better understand other people and diminish negative feelings towards them.

For example, when you see someone throwing a tantrum, you recognize that id, the primitive part of the personality, is in control. Instead of getting upset at them for acting like a child, you try to calm them down or simply ignore them and continue your day.

So having these insights will help you have a better relationship with others and, most importantly, with yourself.

As you know, understanding yourself is the bedrock of having healthy emotions and relationships.


ID works according to the pleasure principle. Meaning it’s like a creature that always wants to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort.

When you’re feeling uncomfortable or in pain, ID wants to remove these feelings and sensations as soon as possible. If it can’t remove discomfort completely, it will try to at least lessen it.

But what happens when you can’t immediately satisfy your desires?

For example, let’s say you are thirsty but there’s no water around.

In this situation, ID creates a mental image of what we desire to reduce the tension created by the pleasure principle. This is called the primary process.

In addition, ID treats this mental image as if it were real. So, for the ID, just thinking about drinking water feels almost the same as actually taking a sip. This experience is called wish fulfillment.

The primary process is useful because you need to know what you need before trying to get it.

A thirsty person who has a mental representation of water is in a better position to quench his thirst than a person who doesn’t know what to look for.

If not for the primary process, we would have to rely on random trial and error to fulfill our needs.

ID retains the infantile character throughout our life. It is the most primitive part of the personality, containing instincts and urges. ID doesn’t know what’s right and wrong, what can be done and what can’t, and knows no limits.

You can see ID in action whenever a person does something impulsive or spends a lot of time daydreaming.

Now, to be satisfied with your life, you must learn to manage your primitive instincts and make good choices.

You have seen celebrities who had amazing opportunities, but they blew them off because they were slaves to their instincts and made terrible choices.

So it’s important that even if you have dozens of options, you choose the ones that help you achieve your goals.

And this leads to…


As babies, we are entirely ID. We want instant gratification, and parents take care of our needs.

Then we start growing up and learn that reality does not allow us to fulfil our needs quickly.

In other words, the environment is not adapted to us anymore, so we will need to adapt to the environment.

This forces a part of ID to modify itself, turning into a structure called ego.

The primary function of the ego is to satisfy the needs of ID in a realistic and socially acceptable way.

When the ego does its job well, you are well-adjusted. It helps you make great decisions and take care of your needs in a healthy way.

The ego is like an accountant telling the CEO that if you rent a big office, you will please your employees, but it will put the business at risk of bankruptcy.

So, the ego negotiates with ID to get what it wants without costing it too much in the long run.

Ego operates on the reality principle.

For example, when you’re thirsty, you might be tempted to have a sugary drink. Your decision is probably driven by ads you have seen on TV that sell the message of having a “refreshing drink” when you’re thirsty.

But those drinks contain sugar and caffeine that have a dehydration effect. So, having a soda to quench your thirst is not a logical decision… it’s not based on reality.

Instead, your ego wants you to make a better choice, like waiting till you find drinking water, which will actually quench your thirst and be good for you.

Alright, earlier we explained that we need a mental image of what we want to satisfy our needs temporarily.

The next step is to find what we want.

We accomplish that by using a process that Freud called the secondary process. It is a plan of action that has been developed through thought or reason. In other words, it’s basically problem-solving.


To do its job, the ego uses some tools called defence mechanisms.

These are methods to decrease stress and anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or beliefs.

Let’s take repression as an example.

Repression is when we try to block negative emotions like envy, hatred, anger or lust.

Now, religions have always encouraged people to follow a repressive approach towards these feelings because they feared that people would behave badly.

But Freud was against this idea.

He argued that we could accept negative emotions or intentions without acting out.

For example, If I admit that sometimes I hate my friends, sometimes I feel envy, sometimes I wish to hurt some people, and so on, I will be more at peace with myself and actually less likely to misbehave.

The reality is that we cannot get rid of negative thoughts and emotions. They are a part of ours. 

If we try to bury those feelings inside, if we don’t accept that we have them (because we are humans, not robots), the more they poison us, the more likely we are to say or do something we will regret.

We’ll talk a bit more about defense mechanisms later in the article because it is such an interesting topic, but let’s continue with…


Children learn a lot from the guardian and authority figures in their life like parents, teachers, and media heroes.

We learn that certain behaviors are unacceptable. There are rules we need to follow. And if we break them, they’ll punish us.

Since reality not only doesn’t let you do what you want but also gives you traditions, habits, and judgments and requires that you respect them, a part of the ego modifies itself and turns into the superego.

Superego contradicts ID.

Superego strives to act in a socially appropriate manner, while ID wants immediate gratification. By developing the superego, humans have developed several moral standards.

Superego can take control over the blind instincts of ID and the realistic goals of the ego.

The ego ideal and the conscience

The ego ideal is your conception of what your parents think is morally good.

As a child, when you did something that your parents approved it, they rewarded you (giving you love, praise, or material things)

For example, when you always cleaned up your room they gave you a pat on the back, you start seeing neatness as a good thing and it becomes one of your ideals.

On the other hand, conscience is what your parents thought is morally wrong. When you did something they disapproved of, they punished you.

For example, if they got upset every time you got dirty, you consider dirtiness as something bad.

Ego ideal and conscience are opposite sides of the same moral coin.

Now punishments might have been physical like spanking or depriving you of things you wanted or psychological like withholding love.

In addition, thought is the same as an action in the eyes of the superego.

In this aspect, the superego resembles ID, which also makes no distinction between subjective and objective reality. This explains why a person who lives a very virtuous life may suffer pangs of conscience.

The superego punishes the ego for thinking bad thoughts even though they will never be translated into action.

Learned Behavior

Now, many people (including me) have underestimated the influence of parents and other adults in our life.

For example, I had a habit of working to improve one aspect of my life while sabotaging myself in another aspect. I used to make significant progress on losing weight, and then I would procrastinate at work.

I would constantly strive to go two steps ahead in my life and three steps behind.

Later I discovered that I had been acting like this since I was a kid and mimicking my parents’ behavior.

So, it was a learned behavior.

Okay, does it mean I should blame my parents or other people I used to look up to?

Well, let’s analyze it:

If I get upset at them, what am I going to accomplish? I have a weak excuse for not moving forward and will have a poor relationship with other people.

Simply put, I will try to lie to myself. And if there’s one thing, we can learn is that we can lie to anyone but ourselves. Eventually, these feelings will surface, and they will cause damage.

If we don’t deal with our issues… that lower, emotional self will come back and grab us by the throat.

So, I chose to be an adult and take responsibility for my feelings and actions.

And the most important thing I’ve learned is that despite how many bad habits we have, despite how many years we have spent sabotaging ourselves… the good news is that we have the capacity to change.

You know, every learned behavior can be unlearned.

What it takes is having the will to recognize, accept, and work on our flaws.

The Defense Mechanisms

You probably heard people asking, “Why are you being so defensive?” The other person responds, “I’m not being defensive; you are”.

The reality is that we all get defensive, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Our defenses protect us from being overwhelmed. Imagine feeling stressed about anything and anyone. We would be having a nervous breakdown.

So, defense mechanisms help us function in our daily lives and be more flexible. But when we give them too much power, it has the opposite effect… we get stuck.

Okay, let’s see some common defense mechanisms and how they impact our life often without our conscious awareness:


It’s a way to channel negative feelings into a more acceptable outlet.

For example, when you are furious, you choose to express your anger by hitting the gym instead of hitting people.

It is also a way for you to create art. You channel those negative feelings into creating a valuable product.

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Robert Greene, for example, wrote 48 Laws of Power because he was upset and disappointed at the people he worked for. He used those negative experiences as raw material for his book.


It’s when people deny something too uncomfortable to deal with.

It is commonly used by people suffering from mental health problems.

You notice that their lifestyle has dramatically changed for the worse, but when you point out the obvious, they deny and act as if everything is normal.

Being in denial gets people out of a difficult conversation, but it makes their life much more difficult.

Because if you want to solve a problem, you need to talk about it with other people.

Who knows? They can give you a solution or inspire you to find one.

Sometimes the solution to our problems is slapping us in the face, but we don’t pay attention. We are too busy getting upset at others.


It’s when we justify a bad habit.

For example, I once asked my friend why he smokes cigarettes.

Obviously, it’s because he’s addicted to nicotine but I wanted to know if he used the same excuse as I did.

And he was like, “It helps me stay calm”.

Well, you smoke two packs every day, so you must be calm as a monk.

Are you calm as a monk? Yes, I am, he responded angrily.


It’s when we direct strong emotions to a less threatening person.

For example, someone is agitated at a coworker or boss. And instead of confronting them, he goes to his house and argues with his family about unimportant things.

Reaction formation

Someone turns an unacceptable feeling or impulse into the exact opposite. And he’s not aware of this behavior.

An interesting example is someone who is hostile towards homosexuals, but unconsciously, he is sexually attracted to men.

Another example is former alcoholics. You know, they usually become fierce advocates against drinking.

In this case, the mechanism is very beneficial because the disgust about alcohol keeps them from getting addicted again.


We separate specific thoughts, emotions and experiences to avoid conflicting beliefs or mental discomfort.

It can be beneficial when you are dealing with many problems simultaneously because it allows you to focus on the task.

For example, you have family problems, but when you go to work, you are able to tune out and you are productive.

However, separating these areas of your life for a long time can prevent you from recognizing your flaws and improving them. You might be a well-behaved person at your home but as a manager, you are a controlling freak. You think this is normal and you don’t find the need to change.

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