An internal structure or part of the self that, as the internal authority, reflects on the self, makes judgements, exerts moral pressure, and is the seat of conscience, guilt and self-esteem. In Kleinian thinking the superego is composed of a split-off part of the ego, into which is projected death instinct fused with life instinct, and good and bad aspects of the primary, and also later, objects. It acquires both protective and threatening qualities. The superego and the ego share different aspects of the same objects; they develop in parallel through the process of introjection and projection. If all goes well, the internal objects in both ego and superego, which are initially extreme, become less so, and the two structures become increasingly reconciled.
In Klein’s view, the superego starts to form at the beginning of life rather than with the resolution of the Oedipus complex, as Freud theorised. The early superego is very severe but, in the process of development, becomes less severe and more realistic. In pathological development, the early severe superego does not become modified and, in extreme cases, the terrifying and idealised defused aspects of the primary objects are split off by the ego and banished into an area of deep unconscious. Klein came to think of these defused part-objects as separate from the superego, whereas others consider them as forming an abnormally destructive superego. Whether or not considered as superego, these extreme internal objects are thought by Klein and others to be associated with extreme disturbance and even psychosis. They are considered to be different from the ordinary early severe superego, which is based on predominantly fused instincts capable of modification.
Debate continues about the degree to which change can occur in the superego, about the exact nature of its constituent parts, and on the question of whether it is best conceptualised as a structure or as a function.
For full references for Melanie Klein's works visit the 'Melanie Klein's publications' section.
1923 Freud, S. ‘The ego and the id’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19. Hogarth Press (1961). Introduction of the term ‘super-ego’.
1924 Freud, S. ‘The economic problem of masochism’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19. Hogarth Press (1961). Relationship between death instinct and sadistic superego explored.
1926 Klein, M. ‘The psychological principles of early analysis’. Introjected hostile mother described as the basis of early persecutory superego.
1927a Klein, M. ‘Symposium on child analysis’. Superego thought to be a ‘highly resistant product, at heart unalterable’.
1927b Klein, M. ‘Criminal tendencies in normal children’. Unconscious guilt linked to the idea of a harsh superego.
1928 Klein, M. ‘Early stages of the Oedipus complex’. Pregenital stages of superego described.
1929 Klein, M. ‘Personification in the play of children’. Normal supergo thought to consist of multiple internal (part-) objects’.
1932 Klein, M. ‘Early stages of the Oedipus conflict and of superego formation’. Idea of the superego originating in the death instinct is introduced.
1933 Freud, S. ‘The dissection of the psychical personality’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 22. Hogarth Press (1964). Summary of Freud’s views on the super-ego.
1933 Klein, M. ‘The early development of conscience in the child’. The superego is described as being formed by a division in the instinctual impulse (death instinct fused with libido) in which one part is directed against the other.
1934 Strachey, J. ‘The nature of the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 15: 127-159; (1969) International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 50: 275-292. Analyst becomes an auxiliary superego.
1935 Klein, M. ‘A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states’. A description is given of the defences employed at the threshold of the depressive position to meet the demand for repair from a persecutory perfectionist and sadistic superego.
1948 Klein, M. ‘On the theory of anxiety and guilt’. Dual aspect of the superego clearly stated.
1952 Klein, M. ‘Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant’. Depressive position thought to modify the extreme severity of the superego.
1952 Rosenfeld, H. ‘Notes on the psychoanalysis of the superego conflict in an acute schizophrenic patient’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 33: 111-131. Terror and guilt provoked by destroyed internal object.
1957 Klein, M. ‘Envy and gratitude’. Idea of an envious superego introduced.
1958 Klein, M. ‘On the development of mental functioning’. Klein removes the terrifying internal figures from the superego and places them in the deep unconscious.
1959 Bion, W. ‘Attacks on linking’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 40: 308-315; republished in Second Thoughts. Heinemann (1967); and in E. Spillius (ed.) Melanie Klein Today, Vol. 1. Routledge. (1988). Idea of ‘ego-destructive superego’.
1962 Bion, W. Learning from experience. Heinemann. Idea of ‘- K’, a kind of ‘super’ ego activity.
1963 Klein, M. ‘On the sense of loneliness’. Loneliness is increased by a harsh superego.
1968 Money-Kyrle, R. ‘Cognitive development’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 49: 691-698; republished in The Collected Papers of Roger Money-Kyrle. Strath Tay: Clunie Press (1978); and in J. Grostein (ed.) Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? Beverly Hills, CA: Caesura (1981). Harsh superego is a misconception.
1985 Brenman, E. ‘Cruelty and narrow mindedness’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 66: 273-281; republished in E. Spillius (ed.) Melanie Klein Today, Vol. 1. Routledge (1988). Idealised cruel superego narrows perception.
1999 O’Shaughnessy, E. ‘Relating to the superego’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 80: 861-870. Differentiation of normal from abnormal superego.
2002 Britton, R. Sex, Death and the Superego. Karnac. Importance of development of judging functions in the ego.