According to psychodynamic theory, associated initially with Sigmund Freud (but modernized by various psychologists since), the most crucial part of our psychological development takes place in the earliest years of our lives, between birth and about five years old (this is why very early trauma is especially damaging). A central concept of psychodynamic theory is that our minds comprise three parts, namely the id, the ego, and the superego, which I briefly describe below:
THE ID: According to Freud, the id can be viewed as the primitive part of the mind, driven by biological needs (such as for food and sex), which demand instant gratification; it is wholly unsocialized, and its operations are unconscious. It is also described as acting according to the ‘pleasure principle‘ which means it is continuously and potently urging us to gain pleasure, irrespective of consequences (including harmful effects on others and adverse impact on ourselves).
THE SUPEREGO: Basically, the superego represents our conscience which we form by internalizing a sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (or morality) derived from the influence of our parents, education, social environment, and culture. Freud stated that while some of the operations of the superego are conscious, much of it also occurs on an unconscious level. Our ‘punishment’ for transgressing the superego’s exacting moral standards is guilt.
THE EGO: Freud said that while the id operates according to the ‘pleasure principle’, the ego operates according to the ‘reality principle’. Essentially, its task is to mediate between the deeply conflicting demands of the id, the superego, and the outside world (and it is this constant need to mediate and reach an unending series of compromises that contributes much to the inner turmoil, tension, and anxiety being human must necessarily entail, Freud helpfully informs us). It acts according to reason and will try to inhibit impulses that, if acted upon, would lead to harm; in other words, it takes into account the possible consequences of our actions.
I remember, as a first-year psychology undergraduate, our lecturer telling us that the ego’s job could, perhaps not wholly inaccurately, be compared to that of a referee who finds himself obliged continuously to oversee a fight between a ‘crazed chimpanzee’ and ‘a puritanical, pious and forbidding grandmother.’
It is theorized that if the infant is traumatized in early life, through lack of adequate care, s/he will fail to learn to control his/her basic drives and impulses and the development of his/her ego will be impaired. This can lead to various problems, including :
- reduced ability to tolerate frustration
- poor ability to inhibit impulses that may lead to harm (too likely to act under the dictates of the id due to deficits in ego development)
- lack of consideration concerning the possible effects of one’s actions upon others / not taking into account the needs of others (including, as an infant, impaired ability to pick up on verbal and visual cues of the mother / primary caregiver)
- impaired judgment
- impaired ability to think logically and with clarity
It is believed that these problems occur as inadequate care that traumatizes the infant can damage the actual physical development of certain vital brain regions.
The infant who experiences satisfactory care, attention, and nurturing, on the other hand, will learn to better control his drives and impulses, having learned from the mother to keep him/herself relatively calm and not exhibit unwarranted distress if his/her biological needs happen not to be instantaneously met (this ability is known as the competence to ‘self-regulate’).
Many of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is linked to childhood trauma, reflect some of the symptoms listed above.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).