Super-Ego and Conscience

I had occasion recently to give a talk during which I asked of the assembled group, “What is the super-ego?” To my surprise, I got a number of thoughtful but rather vague answers like “the conscience” or “that part of you that makes you behave yourself” or “that part of your mind that punishes you”. I thought that all of these ideas were correct in a certain sense, but they had no coherent, organizing logic to them.

What was most concerning to me was that they did not seem to be based on an understanding of emotional development in infancy. In turn, their understanding was not grounded in an understanding of the composition of the unconscious inner world and its functioning.

For me the concept of the “super-ego” is too much of an “abstraction”, i.e. it is a meta-psychological concept, and is not sufficiently “experience near”, to be useful except in the most general or crude descriptions. It does not flow logically from infancy and childhood and their relationship to external experience, combined with unconscious phantasy.

It also lacks a connection to the development of the brain in the first year of life. The result of this failure of specificity is that it leads to crude descriptive comments like someone has a “harsh super-ego” or “lacks a conscience”. These are only useful in the most rudimentary sense analogous to saying “look there is a bird”. It tells nothing about what it really is, how to think about it, or what to do with it.

So to launch this discussion I would like to make a few orienting observations in the form of axioms. I will follow with a few definitions and then try to succinctly explain the logic in my thinking.

Axiom #1: What is referred to as the super-ego is actually a depiction of a handful of object relationships, between parts of self and internal versions of mom and dad that exist in the unconscious inner world of every individual. These object relationships, being the only game in town, are externalized into the outside world where they are recreated. This recreation makes it possible to visualize what they are like in that persons unconscious inner world of psychic reality.

Axiom #2: When someone is said to “lack a super-ego” or have a “harsh super-ego”, those descriptions are referring to internal object relations that are dominated by views of life that originated in very early infancy, and may have been reinforced by ongoing later experiences. These primitive internal relationships are by definition, concrete in nature and dominated by the Law of Talion (i.e. “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”).

Axiom #3: These paired internal relationships, which make up the unconscious inner world, are linked together by “unconscious phantasies”. These phantasies represent what the part of self and the version of mom or dad are imagined to be doing to each other including why they are doing it to each other.

The degree to which these paired relationships are a product of projective processes is the degree to which these relationships need not correspond to things actually done to the individual in external reality. In other words, parts of self and internal parental figures may imagined to be doing things to each other that bear little resemblance to what the parents actually did with and to the child. [I’ll give a case example of this shortly.]

This focus on the unconscious inner world and its creation and composition allows for a detailed specificity that is utterly lacking in the words super-ego and conscience. For contrast sake, the following are the definitions of each from one of my dictionaries.

Conscience: “Consciousness of the moral right and wrong of one’s own acts or motives.”

Super-ego: “The one of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that functions to reward and punish through a system of moral attitudes, conscience, and a sense of guilt.”

I rather like these definitions but they tell us little about the prototypic origin of these attitudes and motives that are manifestations of a sense of morality and guilt. To ground this discussion of the origin of these elements in the psyche, we need a brief discussion of brain development.

Brain Development:
For this discussion I would like to arbitrarily divide brain development into three phases. The earliest phase, spanning intra-uterine life to about the first three to four months after birth, I would like to describe as having a disproportionate degree of storage of “experience stored as unthinkable feelings” at a “mid-brain” level, substantially in the “limbic system”.

The second phase is the primitive reworking of these experiences at a cortical level, in effect trying to make sense of these “memories of experience as feelings” and giving them meaning. This activity seems to commence in early infancy, concomitant to and in parallel with the limbic storage of feeling experience, but increases as the months after birth allow for more development of neuronal pathways and connections in the later part of the first year after birth.

The third phase involves the further elaboration of the connections of the cerebral cortex, in particular with the development of the frontal lobes, so unique to homo sapiens. The frontal lobes come increasingly “on-line” during the middle of the first year and are more fully functioning by the end of the second year of life.

To this brain development we need to meld the phylogenetic inheritance of “preconceptions” of a mom and a dad figure to whom we will relate immediately after birth, a necessary inheritance for survival. The brain seems to literally be wired to expect a mom and dad to be found in the outside world, and as infants we will immediately create versions of them, analogous to a oyster forming a pearl around a grain of sand. In this case, we create two pearls, a mom pearl and a dad pearl, as our experiences with each are ongoing.

These versions of mom or dad do not seem to be stored in the psyche as isolated individuals. Instead they seem to be stored as a paired relationship between a part of self and a version of mom or dad.

The earliest raw emotion connecting them can potentially become a life-long element in this paired version, but the meaning of this emotional connection can and will be elaborated and modified during the second and third brain phases of development. These “meanings” will become what Kleinian psychoanalysts refer to as “unconscious phantasies”.

In summary, the creation of these earliest versions of self with mom and/or dad form what we will later refer to as the foundation of the super-ego. If these earliest experiences in life were extremely intense and problematic, then those experiences will powerfully influence the development of the super-ego in ways that have a significant likelihood to be problematic later in life.

By taking a careful history of infancy, we can often make sense of what these earliest relationships were like and what unique meaning the child gave to them, as the experiences were reworked over years of development. It is important to note that the parental behavior can reinforce the worst elements of these early experiences, or can greatly mitigate the potentially problematic nature of these experiences.

Klein’s Models of Development in Infancy, The First Three Months:
We are now in a position to address the key issues of morality, conscience, and guilt. I remember hearing as a young man that the only two things that keep humans civilized were “fear of punishment” and “guilt”. I thought that was an intriguing idea, but I did not have the tools to fully grasp its basis in the unconscious inner world. What I did not yet grasp was that virtually all are attitudes about how we treat others, and how we experience others as treating us, have their basis in infancy, often very early infancy.

This link to infancy stems from the need of the infant to bring order to the chaos of its earliest experience. It looks for something positive and good to hold onto in its experience of life outside the womb. To achieve this, since infants are so literal and concrete in their experience, they seem to innately try to get rid of anything which is felt to be unpleasant and therefore “bad” so that it won’t spoil the “good” stuff they are retaining.

This leads to an inevitable holding on to that which is good and evacuating that which is felt to be bad into the outside world. The good is now purified and thus “ideal”, hence the process can be described as a process of “splitting-and- idealization”.

The evacuation of the “bad” into some container in the outside world could be thought of as “splitting-and-projective identification”. Together these processes represent the predominating mental maneuvers that make up Klein’s “paranoid-schizoid” position.

The word “schizoid” refers to the result of the processes of “splitting-and-idealization” combined with the “splitting-and-projective identification”.

The “paranoid” aspect emanates from the projection of the undesirable elements into the outside world. The resulting paranoid anxiety is that the “bad” stuff will come back home to roost in some negative or retaliatory form.

It is worth noting that self and object are both divided into “ideal” and “bad”. I think this is because the part of self that experiences the bad is felt to have also caused it in some rudimentary manner. Thus, the evacuation of the “bad” into the outside world actually means getting rid of both the bad object and the bad part of self (that is bad because it is connected to that figure).

So this is approximately the state of affairs in the first three to five months of brain development after birth. Earliest experiences, if felt to be too distressing to hold in the mind at a cortical level, as they “leak out” from the midbrain level, will be evacuated.

The result is that the infant will live in an utterly “concrete” world dominated by self-interest, with little understanding of the needs and feelings of other in the more complete sense of the word “empathy”.
The pains of separation, envy, and primitive jealousy will be unbearable if intense, and guilt will as yet be a non sequitur. That is because brain development will not yet support it as an emotional state that can be tolerated so it will be evacuated almost instantly.

Klein’s Models of Development in Infancy, The Second Half of the First Year:
To bring guilt into the picture and leave the paranoid world of the “Law of Talion”, the infant will need more brain development at a cortical level, so that experiences can be more integrated. This seems to come online around the middle of the first year of life. The early extreme splitting of self and parental figures, into all good and all bad, can give way to a more integrated awareness of having just one mom and one dad, rather than the earlier versions of a good and bad mom, and good and bad dad.

It is worth noting that I do not mean to imply that the earlier “split” versions disappear from the psyche, but that those earlier neuronal pathways are relegated to the “back burners of the psyche” unless particularly intense reminders activate them.

Ordinarily, as development and emotional maturation occur in life, these earliest attitudes/phantasies are usually modulated by the more advanced, “adult part of self” reminding the more primitive “baby elements” in the personality that their point of view has been superseded by a more advanced one.

So it is in this context of cortical development, in the middle of the first year of life, that the infant finally has the capability of recognizing that its good and bad versions of mom are actually emanating from one and the same person, and that it is the infant’s own emotional attitude that varies from one moment to the next. This development finally puts us in the position to discuss “moral” attitudes and thinking.

The “paranoid schizoid” approach to life and relationships, of almost pure self-interest, was an appropriately “ruthless” period, as concern for the welfare of the object was functionally not yet developed. Furthermore, there was no reason to be concerned about the projected bad stuff, it was simply a case of “good riddance to bad rubbish”.

These background assumptions are no longer the case when the infant begins to recognize that the bad rubbish version of mom is also the loved and needed good mommy.

Melanie Klein gave the unfortunate name “depressive position” to this desirable development that occurs in the middle of the first year of life, linked to brain development, and adequately desirable life circumstances. I say unfortunate because while it represents a positive developmental move to “concern for the welfare” of the object, it sounds like a negative move into “depression”, which was not what she meant at all.

What is implied in her view of this period is that the loving concern for the welfare of the object finally has potentially equal status with concern for oneself. Now it finally matters how one treats other human beings.
This allows the concept of “morality” to be grounded in one’s treatment of other human beings, both in psychic and external reality. This is in contrast to arbitrary, prescriptive rules of “right and wrong” such as “one should not smoke cigarettes on Wednesday”.

That brand of morality is much closer to Eric Erikson’s “moralism” which is not linked to empathy and goodness, but rather more connected to infantile control of mom and dad, with sanctions at every turn controlling their behavior. One need only look to myths like the “Garden of Eden” to see an example of such infantile states of mind masquerading as “adult” thought.

A Case Example: Ted Bundy
At this point we might develop these concepts by using as an example, the early life of the serial killer Ted Bundy. His mother, who was pregnant out of wedlock, gave birth to him at a home for unwed mothers and left him after a month of being with him (to be given up for adoption) while returning to her parent’s home a thousand miles away. After two months of family deliberation, she returned to the home where she left him, to take him with her, and raise him with her parents. He had been left at the home for about two months.

At less than the age of five, he went into his mother’s younger sister’s bedroom while she was asleep, folded back the bed covers, and placed several sharp kitchen knives next to her legs. In later childhood he was obsessed with “pulp police detective magazines” where crime scenes were described in detail. As a man in his twenties and early thirties he became a serial killer of young women who fit certain physical characteristics.

He was so aware of criminal forensic techniques from his earlier studies that he went undetected for years, dismembering the bodies of his victims. When he was finally apprehended, he had descended into a florid psychotic state, literally biting the buttocks of one of his final potential victims.

Should we think of Ted Bundy as having no conscience? Did he lack a super-ego? Did he not know right from wrong? I would like to argue that these questions are too simplistic to be useful. I would rather think in terms of internalized object relations, between parts of self and various versions of mom or dad, and what is imagined to be happening within each of those relationships, and why it is happening.

Here is my version of what may have happened to baby Ted. His intrauterine experience may have been intensely distressing, since his mother must have been very upset and probably humiliated during the pregnancy which necessitated her being sent to a home for unwed mothers. To whatever degree there is any validity to that assumption, those intense intrauterine experiences would likely have been stored at an unthinkable midbrain level in Ted.

During his first month of life I could imagine that he formed an attachment to his mother before she left him behind, around the end of that first month. During the ensuing two months that she was gone, I suspect that he felt extreme emotional distress, as if he were literally being “torn limb from limb”.

Life must have settled down once he was taken to the home of his grandparents and his mother’s sisters. That upbringing was purported to be strict but not harsh or abusive. However, as the saying goes, “the die was cast”. He had created internal relationships based on his earliest infancy and they were so intense that later experiences could not override those earliest, primitive, apparently unthinkably painful states of mind.

So what might his inner world have contained by one year of age. It likely included a “bad” version of a mother who was felt want to want to get rid of him and abandoned him in a state of torture and agony. Since he never knew who his father was, his internal version of a father would likely also reinforce this sense of being unloved and abandoned despite whatever modulating influence his relationship to his grandfather might have offered.

In summary, his inner world would have, at minimum, likely contained a relationship between a part of self, felt to be unwanted, unloved, and maybe even felt to be hated. That part would be a “bad” part of self in the sense of being unlovable, etc. That bad part of self was paired with a cruel, torturing and abandoning bad version of a “bad” mom. In more classical terminology, this would be a central element in what could then be described as a “sadistic super-ego”.

His inner world would have also contained a “good” version of mom, and possibly dad (based on his grandfather), but these “good” versions would be eclipsed during times of distress where “limbic leakage” of his earliest baby experiences would override his relationship to good internal versions of mom or dad.

I suspect that the separation of leaving home to go to college would have left him struggling with these earliest torturous feelings connected to abandonment. He was apparently capable of behaving in an intelligent, charming manner. That might be based on a superficial version of a good object relationship but I suspect it had no real substance to it in his unconscious inner world.

I would like to summarize the implications of this story as I experience them. Ted Bundy had a really problematic internal version of a relationship between an unwanted baby part of self and a really bad version of mom, who not only didn’t want the baby Ted, but was felt to actually torture him cruelly and purposefully.

This really painful connection between a part of self and a version of mom completely eclipsed all other versions of mom or dad, became the “only game in town”, and dominated his early childhood thought processes as he unconsciously tried to understand and give meaning to these earliest experiences (e.g. as seen in the “knives by the legs” and “detective magazines” aspects of his childhood history).

His capacity for loving relationships was simply too undeveloped to override his need to cope with the massive pain embedded at an unthinkable midbrain level of his psyche. His experiences with his rather shallow mother were incapable of elaborating a caring, loving concern for the welfare of his good objects that could neutralize and make up for the pain of his earliest experiences.

Put in slightly more theoretical terms, his “depressive concern for the welfare of his good objects” could not make up for the ongoing pain he experienced internally in the paired relationship between a bad, unloved part of self and a hated, cruel, bad version of an abandoning mom.

The concrete experience of this bad internal object relationship (in effect a really bad half of a “super-ego” relationship) was so painful that it could only be evacuated into the outside world. But as it was expelled and recreated externally, with the roles reversed, he became the torturing mother and the victim was made into the tortured and murdered baby Ted.

Contrasting Ted’s Internal World with a Healthy Super Ego:
Let’s imagine Ted’s life writ differently. If his mother had kept him at home with her parents, had not been ashamed of having a child out of wedlock, and felt lovingly supported by her parents, her pregnancy might have been uneventful for the baby Ted. He would not have stored such intense primitive emotional pain at a midbrain level that began during the pregnancy and was reinforced by his first three months of experience after birth.

By four months of age, not having had a traumatic beginning to his life, the baby Ted would have been able to begin integrating mildly bad versions of mom with fairly good versions of mom, leading to a much more realistic version of mom with whom he could sustain a predominantly loving relationship. His internal world could ultimately contain a “super-ego” dominated by a good relationship between a lovable part of self and a loving mother.

His relationship to a dad, the other half of his super-ego, would have been partly based on an absent dad and partly based on his relationship to his grandfather. Thus his inner world would have probably also contained a somewhat negative, bad version of a relationship to a dad who did not want him and thus abandoned him, in parallel to the bad version of mom. It is possible that this version of dad would have been a less important in his inner world if the relationships to mom and grandfather were adequately positive to counterbalance not having a dad.

The Depressive Position and the Concept of Conscience:
Did Ted Bundy know that it was “morally wrong” to torture, murder, and dismember young women? Of course he knew it was wrong, that is why he tried so hard to not get caught! The question is a non sequitur. The question regarding any criminal act that is more pertinent is why can’t the person restrain their compulsive behavior? We all have the conscious fantasy of doing rather awful things to someone who is upsetting us at a given moment in the course of a day and yet we don’t act on it.

Most likely everyone, with perhaps the exception of the most decompensated and deluded schizophrenic, can recognize the difference between right and wrong. Conscience is not the issue, the nature of the internal object relationships populating the world of psychic reality is the issue. It is the compulsive externalization of those unthinkable, internal relationships, trying to rid the self of the distress at minimum and make sense of them at maximum. That unconscious externalization is at the root of most criminal behavior.

If a person did not develop a capacity to tolerate the pains of feeling that they have injured a person, toward whom they also have caring feelings, then guilt will not be an emotion motivating that person to make repair. Because the pain of guilt is too painful to bear, then the person will most likely resort to “manic defenses” to deny that they care about the damage done, or deny the damage itself.

The take home lesson is that the person’s relationship to the emotion of “guilt” greatly influences their capacity for facing how they treat others. If they cannot bear the emotion of guilt, they will appear to be callous or lacking a conscience, but the real issue will have been a developmental breakdown in the first year of life.

If things broke down in the first year of life, then the next question is what was the nature of the breakdown and to what degree were the parental figures felt to be doing painful things to the baby on purpose? Ted Bundy did to others what he felt had been done to him, even though he most likely had no conscious awareness of why he was doing what he was doing.

A Variation of the “Golden Rule”:
The Golden Rule represents how a “conscience” should operate: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. That would be the proper motto of Klein’s depressive position in relationship to mom and dad, the two objects who make up the super-ego, and are locked into rather permanently fixed relationships with various parts of self.

{Note: In classical Freudian metapsychology, the “super-ego” represents the various internalized versions of mom and dad, both good and bad, that are having paired relationships with various parts of self, with “self” representing Freud’s “ego” with a bit of Id added.]

It turns out that in disturbed development, a different version of the Golden Rule predominates.
That variation of the rule would be more like this: DO UNTO OTHERS AS THEY ARE FELT OR IMAGINED TO BE DOING UNTO YOU. In other words, the more mental pain embedded in early object relationships, the more that pain has the potential to distort development, interfere with movement into the depressive position, and distort the development of the early super-ego relationships between parts of self and versions of mom and dad.

If the most powerful versions of mom or dad are experienced as unloving, abandoning, selfish, mean or cruel, etc., those versions will exist side by side with the loving versions of mom or dad. If the pains of infancy are too intense or ongoing, then there is a danger of those painful “bad” experiences managing to eclipse and overwhelm the loving, positive experiences.

The potential is then for an inner world to be created in which the pains produced by the “bad” internal relationships predominate and a problematic “super-ego” is established that will potentially plague that individual for their lifespan.

What we then have is an inner world in which “parts of self” feel they are being mistreated by bad versions of mom or dad, and the parts of self will feel it is necessary to “turn away” from the internal versions of bad parents. This situation implies that the internal “good” versions of mom and dad cannot be trusted to be available and come to the aid of the baby parts of self that are in pain.

Turning Toward Versus Turning Away From Good Internal Parental Figures:
It is intuitively obvious that for infancy to go well, it is required that the external parental figures and caregivers are trusted to be available in a caring manner, willing to sacrifice on behalf of the infant. If the infant cannot trust in the availability of good parents, an environment is created in which the “bad part of self” can dominate the personality, getting the “good baby parts” to turn to it and away from good parents, both externally and internally.

That is the essential psychic situation underlying a “narcissistic personality organization”, the fundamental psychic situation found in many if not most personalities in which addictive, criminal, or sociopathic behavior takes place.

This implies that the internal worlds of people who seem to lack a concern for how they treat others actually have a very problematic set of relationships between parts of self and versions of mom or dad. In effect, their internal worlds contain a distorted, cruel, harsh, confused, etc. internalized object relationships where the bad, paired relationships predominate over good relationships.

One can easily see the implication of this. These complex internal relationships cannot possibly be usefully described by just saying the person lacks a super-ego or has a harsh one.

Projective Processes and the Nature of the Internal Parents:
There is one additional element that complicates this discussion. A given individual’s super-ego is not just based on what was “done” to them in infancy and/or childhood, it is also a product of the distortions that the child makes of any situation at hand at a given moment in childhood.

What is difficult to grasp, using common sense alone, is that the “evacuations” of painful bad experiences, pained parts of self, and bad versions of mom or dad have to “lodge” somewhere in the outside world. In effect, there has to be a “container” for the projection. That projection will in turn modify and distort the infant’s experience of and resultant view of the object containing its unwanted projection.

Let’s use the situation of a “breast occlusion” episode in which the infant pushes its face too firmly into the breast, while sucking, and blocks its nasal passages. It abruptly gags, coughs, pulls back from the breast, and in some cases starts to cry, and will refuse to feed from that breast for the rest of that feeding.

While we cannot know for sure what that infant experienced, we can create a working model of the situation that is useful. At the moment that the brief suffocation took place, the infant might have felt that the breast from which it was feeding had turned into one that no longer wanted to feed it.

Whatever the infant’s negative experience/phantasy about it was does not really matter. The point is that the breast can be turned “bad” in the infant’s mind even when a loving mother is endeavoring to continue a successful feeding of her loved infant.

If that infant was of a particularly “enviously resentful” persuasion, or particularly sensitive to feeling attacked, that infant might feel that the mother wishes to keep the good stuff for herself and wants the infant to feel bad, needy, small, dependent, etc. In such circumstances, it is the infant’s attitude that is distorting the situation, not the mother’s motives.

As the infant becomes a toddler, and the parents have to restrict its behavior on an almost continuous basis, that same infant may project its own attitudes into the parent and feel that the parent wants to spoil the infant’s time and make it miserable. Now add a much more problematic situation like prematurity, adoption, colic, parental divorce in infancy, etc. and the situation is ripe for potentially huge distortions.

The bottom line is that what we call a super-ego is composed of versions of mom and dad that can, under problematic situations in infancy, lead to very distorted versions of the actual parental figures. Even when the parents are really awful as parents, there is still very significant distortion of those figures. These distorted versions of the actual parents are a product of projections into those parents.

The Evolution From Super-Ego to Super-Ego Ideal in Middle Childhood:
There is one final essential point to be made about the super-ego. This has to do with the evolution of the relationship of the parents to the child as it progresses through childhood.

At the beginning of life, the parents have to constantly monitor the infant and toddler’s behavior. They must constantly say “no” to the baby’s impulses to put everything in its mouth, grab everything, wander off, etc.
These acts of restricting behavior are often taken as “mean” on the part of the parents. These restrictive parental behaviors are based on loving concern for the infant and toddler, but they are part of the concreteness of the early “super-ego” and its seemingly controlling, restrictive, and punitive aspects.

The result of this early situation is that the child is very much dominated by either loving feelings for idealized parents, or angry, frustrated feelings for parents interfering with its activities, at other moments. On balance, the parents are good, but it is still a situation where the child is controlled by the parents. It has not yet developed a more independent sense of self based on a more internalized sense of the parents as realistic models. Usually this will change.

Somewhere around the period of going off to elementary school, with a quantum leap in independent functioning, as the child becomes more separated from the parents, a change begins to take place in the unconscious internal versions of the parents.

The child is now developing some sense of those qualities and behaviors that are desirable in its parents, and is becoming able to differentiate those from elements in the parents that are less desirable or downright undesirable.

The child is no longer relating to its primary caregivers as a needy, dependent child. Furthermore, it is now meeting new adult figures who are in the new role of primarily teaching and inspiring the child.

As the child goes off to school and meets teachers, the parents of classmates, and other adult figures, it gradually builds a repertoire of adult figures from whom it can pick and choose characteristics from which to model. As it becomes aware of public figures in world politics, history, athletics, the entertainment industry, etc. it can significantly expand the qualities and behaviors that it can use as ideal models to “aspire” to grow up to be like.

Put in other words, the capacity of the growing child to be more differentiated and separate from its parents allows it to create internal figures who may be a composite of a number of desirable qualities that no one person, including one’s parents can represent.

This allows the internalized parental figures to be grown from the restrictive, controlling figures of infancy into much more sophisticated, complex models of adult qualities that one can “aspire” to emulate. In effect the super-ego is grown from the loving but bossy and controlling parents of infancy, to inspirational figures of adult life.

The British Kleinian psychoanalyst, Donald Meltzer described this in his book “Sexual States of Mind”, as an evolution from “super-ego” to “super-ego ideal”. In effect, these internal figures become one’s internal inspirational “gods” to model after and “aspire” to grow up to be like.

A key element in this evolution is that one is “psychologically separate” from those figures as now become figures of inspiration.

The early super-ego figures are not separate, are bossy and controlling, and are the “harsh gods” of primitive religious thought, not the “inspirational” ones of the mature personality.

Summary and Conclusion:
Sigmund Freud accurately recognized that human beings have an unconscious inner world in which one felt an awareness of their self. He also saw that humans experienced something that was not self but instead felt to be “above” self, if you will. In this “tripartite model” of the mind he also needed the concept of the “Id” to represent the instincts that were central to his understanding of human nature. He needed a self that was experiencing these instincts, and something above the self that was keeping these instincts from running amok.

Melanie Klein was trying to be a good Freudian, if you will, but her studies took her more into infancy where she became aware of the “baby inside Frued’s child” of the unconscious inner world. She also came to see that infants develop from a period of rather ruthless self-centeredness to an evolving capacity for awareness of and concern for the other, mom in the case of the infant. This evolving capacity for thinking of the other led her to postulate a depressive position that represented a mature capacity for concern for self and other, in equal measure.

As she fleshed out her awareness of the unconscious inner world of psychic reality, Freud’s rather abstract terminology of a “super-ego” came to be represented by “internal objects”. These internal figures were, by genetic preconception, built up around experiences of the actual caregivers of infancy, essentially mom and dad and their surrogates. These figures represented a combination of actual experiences, combined with distortions of experiences, based on projections into these parental figures.

What Klein came to then realize was that we humans live in two worlds simultaneously, that of external reality and that of psychic reality. Furthermore, it turns out that if the infancy is particularly difficult, the psychic reality that results can override and eclipse external reality and its potential influence. The result is that a person can externalize their internal world and do fairly awful things to their fellow man, seemingly without any concern for the other.

Such callous treatment of others would lead to a common sense conclusion that those individuals have no internal guidelines, no “conscience or super-ego”, using those terms loosely. My complaint is that those words are too vague and imprecise to be of much utility. I would prefer to suggest that such mistreatment of others is probably an externalization of internal object relationships, between parts of self and various versions of mom or dad. Used in this manner, the misbehavior can be seen to provide details about the internalized relationships that populate than individual’s unconscious inner world.

One is then in a position to explore the details of that individual’s internalized relationships. In turn one can speculate how early life was experienced, whether one turned toward or away from their “good objects”, to what extent projections into the objects altered that individual’s view of those figures, and what causes the person to behave in the manner they do. The transference relationship with the therapist will reflect these same externalizations and distortions, lending an opportunity to corroborate one’s suspicions about how infancy was experienced.

For me, this represents an infinitely more interesting and rich version of a human, far beyond a simplistic blanket statement that includes the phrases, “lack of conscious or a harsh super-ego”.