Freud believed that within each person’s subconscious lie the three personality structures; the id, ego, and superego (Pervin, Cervone& Oliver, 2005). The Id operates according the pleasure principal, seeking to fullfill one’s basic wants and needs, seeking out pleasure and avoiding pain. In direct contrast to the Id, is the Superego. The superego, as defined by Freud, is the moral reasoning, regulating, perfection-seeking, and functions to control the unbridled Id desires. And finally the ego, seeks to monitor both the Id and Superego, and find a balance between the Id’s unbridled desires and the Superego’s extreme moral reasoning and behavior modification. According to Pervin, Cervone and Oliver (2005), “the ego’s function is to express and satsify the desires of the id in accordance with two things: opportunites and constraints that exist in the real world, and the demands of the superego,” (p.89).
When analyzing Freud’s theory and it’s contection with self-esteem, one would assume that the desire for positive self-esteem and self-regard would be housed in both the id and especially the superego. The id, seeking out pleasure would strive to acquire praise and affection for a “job well done.” Additionally, the superego, being rooted in the need for absolute perfectionism would focus it’s efforts on obtaining the ideal moral self, which when achieved would also correlate with a positive self-esteem. Freud (1941) reported that “one part of self-regard is primary – the residue of infantile narcissism; another part arises out of the omnipotence which is corroborated by experience (the fulfillment of the ego ideal), whilst a third part proceeds from the satsifaction of object-libido,” (p.100).
Low self-esteem would then be accounted for as an imbalance of the id and superego desires and pathways to acheivement. In the basic sense, the id would at all costs, seek to obtain self-esteem by ways of obtaining immediate please; stealing to acquire material possessions, cheating on a test to receive a high grade, or hurting another for their own benefit. In stark contrast, the superego would find more moral means to achieving postive self-esteem, i.e. helping others in need even when there is no direct compensation, studying for a test in lue of other more pleasurable activites, or working hard toward a goal with the intent of succeeding. In consequence then, the ego must reason or find a balance between the two, the id and the superego, the find a congruent path. However, in the cases when the ego regulates for these two desires, but is unable to motivate the individual into behaving toward the fullfillment of the goals, the person begins to feel lower self-esteem.
As previously noted, this writer primarily works with women and children who have been victimized by domestic violence. As a means to relating Freud’s concept of low self-esteem to a specific population, she will use this client base for illustration. Many of the victims of domestic abuse are also mothers, and as result consider their children’s welfare when making any decisions as to whether they should remain in the relationship or leave their abuser. Using Freud’s personality structures and their motivating forces, one would suppose that all, the id, ego, and superego, would desire to leave the abuser, however their means will be very different. The victim’s id would suggest that she kill her abuser, therefore receiving immediate pleasure and safety in knowing that he can never hurt her again. In contrast, the superego would desire methods that would maintain the relationship between the parents, rehabilitate the abuser, and allow for the client to maintain her same standard of living. Given the two different paths of the id and the superego, the ego is left to negotiate the best course of action. Unfortuantely, the two methods are so extreme, that the ego cannot find the proper course, and therefore does nothing, but instead allows for the victim to remain stagnent. After a long period of time, where nothing changes and the abuse continues without action, the victim begins to harbor feelings of low self-esteem and poor self-regard, because she is unable to take the steps necessary to protect both herself and her children.
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Freud, S. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction, 14: 67-102.
Heine, S.J., Lehman, D.R., Markus, H.R. & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106(4), 766-794.
Pervin, L., Cervone, D. & Oliver, J. (2005). Theories of Personality (9th ed.). John Wiley & Sons. Hoboken, NJ.