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In line with his structural model, Sigmund Freud conceives of the human personality as evolving in three areas. He termed them id (broadly speaking, the biological), ego (the psychological) and superego (the sociological, or simply the social). All human development arises through the actions and interactions of these systems, which exist more as reified “force-fields” than neurological structures.

The id is the only system present at birth and is therefore the foundation of all human development. The newborn child is all id. The main components of this structure are the life instincts, which are of a primarily though not exclusively sexual nature (all being subsumed under Eros in Freud’s later work), and aggressive drives (Thanatos). The id operates by the pleasure principle, discharging the uncomfortable tension built up by such instincts, in order to return the person to a state of quiescence. This can only be achieved in two ways: reflex activity, such as sucking, and hallucinatory wish-fulfilment. The latter illustrates the unusual mode in which the id exists, being that of the primary process. The chaotic, dreamlike, emotionally charged state of the id involves highly mobile and readily displaceable energy, obliviousness to space and time and tolerance of contradictions. It has no regard for, nor even conception of, reality and is the only system which remains entirely unconscious throughout a person’s life. It is all too easy, therefore, for the infant to experience frustration in not having its vital instinctual wishes met, or even from having them met too easily.

Image and object (e.g. of the mother’s breast) are perceived and cathected (invested with energy) as one and the same. They are identities. Since the primary process achieves limited success in its goal of instinctual discharge through such means, it is better that the infant learns to differentiate (through a process termed identification) the subjective inner world of the mind from the objective outer world of the environment, albeit without significant loss of synchronisation between the two. The outer world becomes identified with the inner world, but is not experienced as identical to it. Hence, energy becomes diverted from the id for the purpose of generating accurate representations of the world in accordance with the reality principle and secondary process thinking to take into account what is realistic, rational and logical. Such strategies are found to be effective, not least in terms of the child’s survival and comfort, and the ever increasing energy accumulated forms the ego. With the associated development of the child’s perceptual, cognitive and motor skills, new objects and activities can be recruited to siphon off instinctual energy. In Freudian terminology, new object-cathexes are formed, accounting for the wide range of individual differences in human psychological development.

The main mechanisms of human psychological development are, thereby, identification and displacement. The former in particular (or, more correctly, its goal-oriented version) is influential in the formation of the superego, which is also described below in terms of the psychosexual stages. The superego evolves from the ego approximately between the ages of three and six as the child becomes socialised and develops the capacity for self-observation and self-criticism. Typically identifying with the same sex parent, the child develops a moral arm or judicial branch of the personality, comprising both a conscience (made up of “shouldn’ts”) and an ego ideal (made up of “shoulds”). Thus, the superego contains the values and moral prohibitions acquired (introjected) from parents and society. Serving as an internal parent, the superego is watchful and punitive, especially in implementing its main purposes of controlling and regulating sexual and aggressive impulses emanating from the id. An overactive superego is clearly responsible for the development of much anxiety and guilt within a person.

Such discomfort frequently becomes a cue for the “pig in the middle” ego to exert defence mechanisms. The tremendous variety of such coping strategies, again, accounts for a significant portion of the variations and vicissitudes of human psychological development. Some defence mechanisms are designed to block out: repression blocks out and keeps unconscious various impulses and the painful conflicts to which they can give rise; denial blocks out accurate perceptions of experiences; while isolation blocks out the emotional component. Disguise may be a useful back-up tactic: projection involves externalisation and reversal of an instinctual drive, personality trait or perception; reaction formation seeks to camouflage an unacceptable impulse from awareness with its opposite; rationalisation generates self-deceiving justifications for behaviour. Any further protection required might be achieved through rechanneling: displacement redirects an impulse from a dangerous target to a safer one; whereas sublimation looks to refashion instinctual experiences into socially acceptable outlets. Freud viewed sublimation as especially adaptive and, indeed, as the basis of all culture and civilisation.

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