Freud, the Super-Ego and What You Should Do

A Question for Those Who Are Bound by Their Shoulds:
How do you distinguish between the “Have To Shoulds” VS. the “Choose to Shoulds”?

I was talking with a client who is trapped and emotionally very upset because of the difference between what she wants to do and what she feels like she “should” do. This client is approaching middle age and was raised in a very structured Catholic family. She was taught her catechism from early childhood and her family is heavily invested in their “shoulds.” She is struggling with how to hear and listen to her own heart and do what she wants to do, rather than listen to the “shoulds” of her family and do what they want her to do. The question for her is, “Do I have the right to seek my own life and fill my own dreams? Or, do I have to do what I am ‘supposed’ to do, according to my mother and sisters?”

This is a common dilemma that counselors and their clients face. How, as a therapist, do I help the client to sort their way through this conflict without imposing my own “shoulds” on her? It is not my right to make choices for her. It is not my place to “know what is best” for her, however, it is my job to help her figure out what she is going to do that will allow her to be in harmony and at peace with the choices she makes.

One strategy for working through this issue with a client is to break decisions down into cost benefit ratios. We ask the client to think about the following questions: What is the perceived/real cost of any choice they want to make? What is the perceived/real benefit from any choice they make? Choices always result in a cost. Choosing not to do something is still a choice and it has its own cost and pays its own dividend. If I choose to eat a slice of cake, I am choosing the short- term payoff of having good tasting stuff in my mouth right now. If I choose not to eat the cake, I am choosing the long-term payoff of better weight control, of avoiding triggering a diabetic episode, or some other such thing. The challenge for me is to make a decision I can live with and be in harmony with. Each choice has a cost and each choice has a payoff. Can I afford the cost of my choices? Am I willing to pay the price of my choices?

One of the ways that I approach discussing these types of decisions with my clients is to go back through the old Freudian Id, Ego, Super-Ego conversations. We talk about the concepts that Freud developed about structures within our personality make-up that each have a role and a function.
The Id is the biological self. It is fully developed at birth, it does not grow and evolve, it just exists 24/7 (it never rests and never sleeps.) The Id has a language which consists of “Yes” and “Now.” The function of the Id is to seek immediate gratification at all times. The Id is amoral. (It is not immoral, it is not bad or evil. It does not judge, it only seeks gratification and it does not care where that gratification comes from or what the cost may be. If it feels good now, do it. Yes, do it. Do it now.) It is the place from where the impulse control issues come that people have to learn to tame.

The second construct identified by Freud is the Ego. According to his theory, the Ego begins to develop at birth and is adaptive, responsive and learns. It is the job of the Ego to learn to calculate costs and to make choices. The vocabulary of the Ego is: “I choose.” The Ego has to learn to evaluate costs of choices and then impose moderation accordingly to the impulsive desires of the Id. For example, the Id sees a glass of liquid and wants to drink it right now to satisfy thirst. It is the job of the Ego to evaluate the glass of liquid and say, “No that is gasoline. It is poison and the cost of drinking it to satisfy thirst will be too great.”

Finally, the third construct is the one we call Super-Ego. The Super-Ego is the moral compass, the inner voice of right and wrong that you hear and respond to all the time. It is sometimes called the Parental Introject. It is fully formed and inserted around the age of four or five. Prior to that time, while the Ego is learning to work, we are thought to be just Id’s with legs. As the Ego learns to moderate the Id, the Super-Ego is learning the “shoulds” of behavior that will moderate the Id as well and last a lifetime as a guide to good choice behaviors. The vocabulary of the Super-Ego is: “You should.” and “You should not.”

Imbalance can occur in any of the three structures. When one suffers from impulse control problems it is fair to say that the Id has run riot over the Ego and Super-Ego. If one is like a computer and always “thinking” and “evaluating” and making decisions without passion or emotional sway, then the Ego is to controlling. If one is controlled by the Super-Ego in an unbalanced way, one is too should-istic. The choices that one can make are severely limited by the “should” message of the parental introject that was given.

A good analogy that explains all three and the way they work is from the movie “Animal House.” If you remember the scene, a young fraternity boy takes an underage town girl to a party. There he is tempted to have carnal knowledge of her when she is unconscious. On one shoulder there is a miniature of him dressed as a devil encouraging him to “Do it!” and on the other is a miniature of himself as an angel warning him “You will go to hell!” In the middle is the boy, the Ego trying to negotiate among the choices and decide on a course of action.

The reason for explaining all this, which is a very loose adaptation of Freudian theory, is to get to a place to talk about “shoulds” and the Super-Ego. I contend that the original introject of the Super-Ego is one that cannot change or evolve. We hear it all our lives. We cannot modify it or get rid of it. BUT, we can turn the volume down. This is a voice we will always hear. It is what I call the “have to shoulds”. My contention is that it is possible to put a new layer of voice called the “choose to shoulds” on top of the old record which plays softly in the background because the volume of its player is turned way down. (This is a learned skill.) And instead, we can listen to the “choose to should”. The choose to should is one that comes from our adult self defining and responding to a sense of personal integrity. In order to be the person I “want” to be, I am required to control my impulses, delay my gratification, and sometimes say no to my Id. There is more maturity and more flexibility in the choose to shoulds. If my Id is tempted to steal candy there is a stronger voice that says a person like the kind of person I want to be does not steal candy so the answer is no. This is a stronger, more thoughtful, and more volitional voice than the one that says you will go to hell if you steal candy!

The way you can tell the difference is in the feeling you have when you listen to the voice. If you are listening to the “have to shoulds” of the Super-Ego you will feel angry, resentful, and victimized. If you are listening to the voice of the “choose to shoulds” you will not feel angry or resentful. You will feel strong and energized because you have integrity. The challenge for the therapist is to teach the client to listen to these voices, recognize which one is talking, and choose which one they will listen to.

What I recommend to my clients is if you hear the “have to should” and you know it because you feel angry and victimized, then recognize that you have two choices. One choice is to reframe it into a ‘choose to should’ so you will not feel angry or resentful. The other choice is to not listen to the voice telling you no, but that comes at the cost of anxiety and distress until you learn to trust yourself. The last reminder is that when the client is attempting to learn this, all the other players in their life will be telling them that they are wrong and should not be making that choice. The advice from the other players should help the client to know they are on the way to grown-up integrity and freedom to choose.

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