In this article, we’ll dive into Freud’s personality theory:
② 👉 topographical model with conscious, preconscious, and unconscious contents of the psyche
③ 👉 structural model with the Id, Ego, and Super-Ego structure.
I want to show you why Freud’s personality theory was so revolutionary. And why, even though they’re over 100 years old by now, they’re still worth learning.
Why Freud Was So Revolutionary
Today most people judge Freud only by his ‘weird’ theories about penis envy or the fear of castration. The good things that he provided (not just for psychotherapy but also for culture, literature, and art are forgotten. Unfortunately people associate Freud often plainly with conservative, old, and outdated thinking, but he was a rebel at his time. Someone who revolutionised the treatment of mental illness like few others have.
This became visible, first and foremost, in how he saw the nature of human beings. Even though at that time religion already played a less important role, there was still a view of humans that portrayed them as God’s highest creation. Freud challenged the notion that “God created us as his equal”. In his theory emphasized that parts of us are driven by instincts like animals.
Freud also denied the popular sentiment of enlightenment that saw human beings as purely rational. Freud said parts of us are completely irrational.
The next ingredient of Freud’s revolutionary theories was the unconscious. Contrary to popular belief, Freud didn’t discovered the unconscious. There were many other people who toyed with the idea that there are other things rather than reason controlling us. What was new about Freud was that he truly studied this notion and developed a whole elaborate theory around it. He tried to map out the human psyche. Freud in particular was the first one to develop theories about the multiple unconscious ‘sub-personalities’, parts, or structures that are at work within us. Furthermore, those parts are competing unconsciously among themselves.
This is also where Freud developed the idea of defense mechanisms (yes, he was a fan of military jargon). Because the rational part of ourselves is at war with the instincts that we possess, it developed a defense mechanism which Freud called repression in order to control those aggressive and sexual forces. Acutually, it is only because our rational self represses the instincts that the unconscious even exists. For Freud the unconscious was the place for unwanted, dangerous, and anxiety-inducing intrapsychic notions.
In total Freud developed three theories in his lifetime about how exactly a personality comes to be and what constitutes the personality. Those three theories replaced or integrated with one another.
Freud’s first personality theory was the affect-trauma model. It is a way of thinking that Freud unfortunately abandoned but is incredibly popular today. When Freud was working with hysteria patients, he found that the symptoms they displayed had a hidden psychological meaning. These women had been through major trauma and the symptoms were displayed because the trauma could not be expressed.
Freud abandoned this theory and shifted his view from external trauma and external things that went wrong to internal conflicts. For him what happened externally was not as important as what the patient did with it, how this trauma got integrated into the psyche and what internal conflict it caused.
Topographical Model: Conscious, Preconscious, Unconscious
Freud’s second personality theory is called the “Topographical Model” which included that the psyche consists of a conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious part.
First of all, the conscious part is everything we know. It’s governed by the reality principle, which means that you really interact with your external reality. This part of the human psyche responds to a reason and logic. In some other theories such as Jung’s theories the conscious part is equal to ‘the ego’. However, in the later model of Freud, the ego is not completely conscious but has unconscious parts as well. It’s particularly the unconscious parts of the ego that deploy defense mechanisms. But more on that later.
The next part is the pre-conscious part. The pre-conscious decides which parts of the unconscious are allowed to become conscious. Everything that is pre-conscious are things that we don’t know but that are easily accessible to us. This accessibility usually works through associations. For example you may not remember a certain memory from childhood but then you hear a song or you taste a certain food and you’re like “oh yeah back in the day I remember when my mom used to cook my favorite food and this song would play in the radio.” Through association, suddenly this memory becomes accessible again and this is what we would call pre-conscious.
The last part of the human psyche and probably the most interesting one is the unconscious. As I mentioned before, the unconscious according to Freud only exists because of repression. There was something so threatening for the ego that it needed to be repressed into the unconscious. That could be anything that has to do with trauma, fear, lust, aggression, sex, separation. The unconscious is run by the pleasure principle which says “I want it and I want it now!”.
But as we saw before with the hysteria patients, it is not just that things remain in the unconscious but they seep out in different ways. For Freud it was important to find a way to make the unconscious conscious, as he thought this was a way to heal.
He utilised dream interpretation and free association in particular. This is where the caricature of a psychoanalyst sitting quietly behind the couch where the patient keeps and keeps on talking. For Freud free association was a way to uncover pre-conscious and finally also unconscious contents of the psyche that ran havoc in a patient’s life. Expressing the repressed through catharsis (emotional release) was the healing factor according to Freud.
Structural Model: Id, Ego, Super-Ego
Freud ended up not satisfied with the Topographical Model. The reason was because he realized that the defense mechanism repression didn’t happen consciously. It’s not that someone experienced trauma and consciously decided to repress it. Or that someone consciously noticed that they want to be aggressive and then they consciously decided to repress this impusle.
Freud realized that the internal conflict was not happening between the conscious and the unconscious but it happened entirely unconsciously. Therefore, he developed a new model that included different structures engaged in the unconscious conflict – because it takes two to tango. This is how Freud’s third personality theory came to be: the structural model.
The structural model consists of three parts the id, the ego, and the super-ego. This structure was integrated with the topographical model by stating that the id is entirely unconscious, and the ego and super-ego are partly conscious and partly unconscious. The famous iceberg!
As I said before the id is entirely unconscious and it functions by the pleasure principle which again means “I want it and i want it now”. The id wants to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It uses primary process thinking which means that it doesn’t really care about chronology, it doesn’t care about reason, it doesn’t care about order. It’s very much driven by fantasy and very much driven by visual imagery.
The next structural component is the super-ego. It’s the sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious instance that give moral imperatives. It’s the conscience and the ego ideal. The super-ego generally forms because we internalize external voices. For example as a child you have your parents who say “be a good person, do your homework, don’t be late, work hard!” – until one day you say that to yourself.
This, on the one hand, makes you a very good citizen: It makes you adhere to social rules, not steal, murder, or lie. But it can also lead to the formation of the inner critic which especially people suffering from perfectionism can tell you all about. The ego ideal then becomes the standard you measure yourself by. For example people suffering from anorexia have a merciless hyperactive super-ego who punishes relentlessly.
The last structural component is the ego. This is the part that tries to mediate between the super-ego and the id. The word ego or the English translation of it is a bit weird because in German Freud would say “Ich” and that means “I”. So the ego is not some sort of artificial construct but it is what the person identifies as. The ego operates according to the reality principle which means that it’s rational. It responds to reason, logic, chronology (everything that the id does not respond to at all). Because of that and also because it mediates between the super-ego and the id, the goal of any therapy is always to strengthen the ego.
Criticism and Take-Away
This model has received a lot of criticism. There’s been a lot of discussion whether this model really represents personality accurately. I would always say that there’s no model out there that depicts reality accurately. There will forever remain a great deal of subjectivity and complexity. So don’t take this theory as the theory that explains everything because it doesn’t.
What you can take away from it is that maybe you learn to listen more closely to what is actually going on inside of yourself. Realizing just how rich your inner dialogue and your inner conflicts actually are. That there are voices inside of you that work like an inner critic which you might regard as a super-ego (you can give it any name you want). That there might be lower (id) impulses that sometimes you want to follow even though the super-ego tells you it’s wrong.
And most of all, I just hope it feeds your curiosity. This is not the definite truth. It’s just something to enrich the way in which you look at yourself and others. Take care!