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Understanding the Ego, Super Ego and the Subject of the Unconscious

I recently returned from the Annual Training in Psychoanalysis in Quebec City, where we discussed the Clinic of the (Psychoanalytic) Symptom. There is something to be said about the culture in Quebec that allows psychoanalytic thought to flow freely and for the unconscious to express itself through the work of art and psychoanalysis. I am trying to make space for something similar through this blog.

A lot was said about the clinic of the symptom and the way it allows for the unconscious to make itself known to the ego but I wanted to respond to one of the requests to explain Id, Ego and SuperEgo and to go back to the basics first. [A little disclaimer here: I am only going to speak about what I know and how I understand these concepts based on my training and personal experience in analysis and with patients of my own.] The goal of this blog is to make psychoanalysis accessible to the layperson so I am trying to put complicated processes and phenomena in as simple words as possible. If you want a more detailed explanation, I suggest you go back to the original source,  Freud’s 1923 publication on “The Ego and the Id.” There is something about reading Freud that always leaves me fascinated with this person’s brilliant mind and anyone, who is interested in psychoanalysis should read Freud.

Anyhow, at the training in psychoanalysis that I go to every year in Quebec, we talk about the Ego, the Super Ego, Ego Ideals, Prohibitions, Norms and Culture in opposition to the Unconscious and the Subject of the Unconscious. If you think of this from a developmental perspective, as soon as we are conceived, the subject of the unconscious is born. There is no ego yet but there is a subject that begins to form. In psychoanalysis, we know that the prenatal development is an important part of the formation of the subject, along with the first few years of a person’s life.

When we are born, that subject goes through its first symbolic and also literal “castration” by the cutting of the tie with the mother, the cutting of the umbilical cord, and the baby receives its name and becomes a separate human being. The ego will organize itself from that moment on around all the words, expectations, social and cultural norms of the parents. S/he will try to fit the subject of the unconscious within the context of its culture.

Think of the Ego as all the roles you play in your life – a son/daughter, a student, a wife or a husband, a worker, an employee, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a friend, etc. It’s what you put out on social media, what you say to your friends and the way you present yourself to the world around you through your work, your feed, your social media accounts. How much of that is true to who you really are?

The Super Ego encompasses all of the parental prohibitions, expectations, norms, morals, beliefs and guidelines that lead the child into becoming a member of society. You may want to think of it as your conscience or sense of morale and responsibility, the representative of the rules and the laws of society in your psyche. [Developing a sense of right and wrong is also a developmental process itself that comes with good enough parenting and those folks, for whom this didn’t happen, face a set of problems of their own.]

Freud thought that all of this is often in contradiction or against the unconscious drives of the subject and when the Ego fails to control the demands of the unconscious subject, a symptom forms as a compromise between the wishes of the unconscious and the prohibitions on the Ego coming from the cultural norms and expectations. Now this all sounds a bit abstract and simplistic but when you reflect on your own experiences from childhood and even adulthood, you may see where I am going with this.

In the symptom, we can see the subject of the unconscious trying to express itself. We also see it in dreams, in art, in poetry or writing, in music or even science. The subject of the unconscious does not follow societal norms and expectations and it is beyond what we can put into words. It carries with it something that was never spoken about, early childhood or traumatic experiences that were never expressed in language and that can only speak through actions or behaviors that we often find ourselves bewildered about. Why did I do that? What just happened? An expression of the subject of the unconscious is usually what brings people to psychoanalysis or what makes parents seek a consult for their children.

Adolescence is a time when the subject of the unconscious peaks its head through and challenges the norms and expectations of the culture, time and the society we live in. It is not by chance that adolescence is such an emotionally charged time in the life of all people – some of us try to run away from it as fast as we can, others are stuck there without resolution, and third try to forget about it as if it never happened.

Yet, there is something inspiring, exciting, creative and imaginative about adolescence that we may want to pay attention to. It is the time that dreams are born, children are disillusioned, fantasies are turned into reality, parents and authority challenged in a search for free expression to that, which is burning on the inside. It has to find a place in society and psychoanalysis pays attention to that. It is the subject of the unconscious.


What can you say about the subject of your unconscious the way you understand it here? Please, share what comes to mind in the comments.

Understanding the Ego, Super Ego and the Subject of the Unconscious

Mihaela Bernard, MA, LCPC

Mihaela Bernard, MA, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of Inside Family Counseling, LLC in Chicago. She is a Professional Member of the American Counseling Association and a member of Chicago Psychoanalytic Circle of the Freudian School of Quebec, Canada. She is the author of Mental Health Digest electronic magazine, your free, easy-to-read electronic resource on common mental health issues affecting you and your family, plus some suggestions on how to address them. She specializes in psychoanalytic psychotherapy for troubled children and adolescents, who face behavioral and emotional challenges at home and at school. Her mission is to empower, support and guide children, adolescents and their parents to a happy and healthy family. Mihaela also writes a Parenting Blog, where parents find helpful resources and practical tips on how to support their child and adolescent's behavioral and emotional development. You may find out more about her at

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APA Reference
, . (2017). Understanding the Ego, Super Ego and the Subject of the Unconscious. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Jun 2017
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