Do you want to receive more love? First get to know your superego

<span>We can think of the superego as an internalised parental authority (posed by model).</span><span>Composite: Guardian Design / Getty images</span>
We can think of the superego as an internalised parental authority (posed by model).Composite: Guardian Design / Getty images

When I first became her patient, I heard everything my therapist said as a criticism. Almost every word that came out of her mouth, I received as a telling off, a character assassination or a low mark. I thought to myself: “I’m paying this woman to help me and all she’s doing is criticising me! How rude!”

Here’s a made-up example that has a lot of truth in it: if I lost my mobile phone and described my feelings of panic, she might respond with something along the lines of: “You crazy woman, can you not be more robust? How can you be overwhelmed by something like losing your phone? Can you not be more chill? More resilient? Thank God my other patients are not this basic.”

Except … she hadn’t said that. With time – and it felt like a really, really long time – therapy allowed me to see that what she had said was not what I had heard her say. What she had said was something like: “I think you felt overwhelmed.”

What I now feel she offered me was a true understanding of my internal reality. She was right: I had felt overwhelmed. But I was turning her understanding into a punishment; I was not hearing her voice – I was hearing my own. My superego.

In 1923, Freud drew a map of the human mind and its functions, and located within it this voice, which he called the über-ich, commonly translated as superego. We can think of the superego as an internalised parental authority. Often, however, the internal parental voice bears very little resemblance to the parents’ real voices: the superego can seem, as he wrote, “to have made a one-sided choice and to have picked out only the parents’ strictness and severity, their prohibiting and punitive function, whereas their loving care seems not to have been taken over and maintained”.

If you are interested in building a better life, one with more loving care, it is worth trying to get to know your superego, because if you can’t identify and recognise your own internal voice, you will inevitably hear its echoes in the voices of those around you. It might transform your relationship with your father, or your friend, or your colleague, or your partner, if you were to discover that the criticism you hear coming out of their mouth does not in fact come from them, but from yourself. You might then be better able to receive any loving care on offer.

Once you become familiar with your superego, once you can recognise its tone, its tendencies and intensities, you can work out what is coming from you and what is coming from others. You can reflect on whether the standards you feel obliged to meet are imposed by others, as you assume them to be – or if they are in fact imposed by you. Either way, you can then make a conscious choice to continue to meet those standards, or, if you come to realise those standards are making you miserable, you may wish to try to lay them to rest.

But getting to know your own superego won’t only give you a better life. If you are that critical of yourself, you may well unconsciously treat those around you in the same way. If you can catch your punitive thoughts – especially if they’re directed towards any children in your life – you can reflect on them before acting on them, and try to interrupt the generations of inherited criticism an unmitigated superego can unleash.

It is important to acknowledge that several things can be true at the same time: your judgmental friend – who might also have an extremely harsh superego – might particularly enjoy laying into you because you agree so readily with their harsh criticism. When you see this for the first time, it feels like a revelation. You might instinctively want to cut those people out to free yourself from their cruelty. But it is worth asking whose cruelty you’re really trying to free yourself from – theirs or your own? Sometimes I meet critical people who are very comfortable taking up the punitive superego role in which I have already cast them. These are the people I find the most irritating and want to run away from immediately. Of course. Because they remind me of myself.

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But I know that you cannot build a better life by running away from yourself. It is by getting to know myself better, in the atmosphere of containment and freedom of emotion and thought created by my psychoanalyst, that I have been able to begin to get the measure of my superego and understand more the implacable pressure and relentless demands I have been living under. I think that has been a big factor in alleviating my anxiety, after decades of suffering.

If you have never thought about your über-ich before, it is worth reflecting on it now – it makes a better life more possible. Sure, it probably won’t feel good if you discover you have a maniacal monster living in your mind. But as they say – and as I have learned from experience – better the superego you know.

Moya Sarner is an NHS psychotherapist and author of When I Grow Up – Conversations With Adults in Search of Adulthood