We live in the era of alienation of desires. And it’s not good news. If we ask most people what they want, they probably don’t know how to respond. People are so busy and worried, they live in such a hurry, that they have lost the connection with their deepest “ego” and they just want what the others want.
It seems that the exercise of desiring demands too much energy, an energy we prefer to devote to tasks more inconsequential but that keep us mentally occupied, so that we don’t even suspect that we are not capable of wishing at our own risk.
However, how can a person do what he wants, if he doesn’t know his wishes? If we don’t know what we want, we run the risk of becoming a gear that feeds a consumer society where we’re valued for what we have and not for what we are.
Noam Chomsky warned us: “The perfect system would be a society based on a dyad, on a pair. That pair is you and your television, or maybe now, you and the Internet. A place where is showed how the proper life should be, the kind of devices you should have. Remembering that you must spend your time and effort to get those things that you don’t need and don’t want and that you will probably end up throwing away. But that is what is necessary for a decent life.”
Freud also glimpsed that risk in his time. He stated that “The price we pay for our advanced civilization is the loss of happiness through the intensification of guilt”, guilt for not having what we’re supposed to have, or because we haven’t achieved the expected success, for not being able with all the commitments and even for wanting what the others don’t want, in case we dare to do it.
One way to get out of that labyrinth, to be more authentic and at the same time live more fully and in a more balanced way, is to develop the “strong ego” proposed by Freud.
Freud’s “strong ego”
This idea is found in one of his posthumous works, “Scheme of psychoanalysis.” He profiled it at 82, after fleeing the Nazi regime, but left it unfinished as he had to undergo an important operation due to the cancer he suffered.
However, before delving into the concept of “strong ego” it is necessary to understand how the psychic apparatus works from the Freudian perspective:
– Id. It contains “Everything inherited, what is brought with the birth, constitutionally established; especially, then, the impulses that come from the bodily organization, which find in the id a first psychic expression, whose forms are unknown to us”. Basically, it’s about the most basic impulses that respond to our primary needs.
– Ego. It’s the part of the id developed due to the relationship with the world, which ends up mediating between the id and the outside world. It would be about our identity, about the image we have of ourselves.
– Superego. It’s an instance within the “ego” that would be the prolongation of the dependence towards the parents. It’s about all the rules, norms, laws and values that we internalized and that, in a certain way, control the id. Freud indicates that “Insofar as this superego separates from the ego or is opposed to it, it is a third power that the ego is required to take into account”.
Thus, in our “ego” live two forces that can’t only be contradictory but even mutually exclusive. On the one hand, the id seeks to satisfy the basic needs urgently, without worrying about long-term plans, because it doesn’t know neither tomorrow nor anguish. On the other hand, the superego restrains the “it” making calculations and taking into account society because it always has its sights set on the future.
As a result of these forces and their imbalance, it’s not strange that many people feel divided or fragmented and end up with a “weakened ego”.
The “strong ego”, on the contrary, is the one that “Fulfills at the same time the requirements of the id, the superego and the objective reality, that is, knows how to reconcile their demands with each other”. It is a balanced ego.
That ego is no longer at the mercy of the id or the superego, of basic needs or repression, but is an ego able to grow without feeling subject to their instincts or culture.
How to develop a “strong ego”?
“Our path to strengthen the weakened ego is part of the broadening of its self-awareness. We know that this is not all, but it is the first step. The loss of self-knowledge implies for the ego a loss of power and influence, it is the first tangible sign that he is inhibited and coerced by the demands of the id and the superego”, wrote Freud.
It’s a hard work since it involves balancing the instincts, the rules and the demands of the environment.
First we must understand that “The ego aspires to pleasure and wants to avoid displeasure. Faced with an increase in displeasure we respond with anguish”. That means we have to understand how we usually react, the mechanisms that are automatically unleashed within us when we face certain situations in the environment. It implies becoming aware of our automatic responses of nervousness when we have to give a speech, for example, or of our anger when things don’t go according to plan.
Secondly, we must overcome the resistance that the superego poses to us. This is another important challenge because, although we are “independent” of our parents, in reality we still maintain a relationship of dependence, subjection and repression regarding their authority. In fact, it’s likely that the repressive voices you hear in your mind are phrases that your parents or other power figures in your childhood told you.
The superego submits us to these rules and regulations in order to gain acceptance and love, not only from our parents but also from the society. Therefore, to develop a “strong ego” we need to overcome that fear, dare to be ourselves even at the risk of losing the approval of some close people.
We must not forget that “The more the ego is harassed, the more stubbornly it will cling, almost terrified, to anticathexis in order to protect its precarious existence against new eruptions”, according to Freud. It means that when we feel attacked, for whatever reason, we activate a resistance, which demands a large dose of energy.
When we allocate so much energy to fight against the id or the superego, our ego weakens. We can only overcome these resistances when we know and accept ourselves. In that moment, the id and the superego stop being obstacles and work in harmony with a “strong ego”.
Then an authentic miracle happens: we rediscover our capacity to desire and love. And it’s in the exercise of seeking authenticity that our ego is strengthened and we achieve freedom in all senses.
Freud, S. (1991) Esquema del Psicoanálisis. En Obras Completas de Sigmund Freud vol. XXIII (133-210). Buenos Aires: Amorrortu Editores.