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.

Reproduced from The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought by Bott Spillius, E., Milton, J., Garvey, P., Couve, C. and Steiner, D. (Routledge, 2011)

See a list of key papers on the superego