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A New Theory of Conscience

Elizabeth Reddish
Cover photo:
Unidentified person in mask participates at the Mohacsi Busojaras: a Spring
carnival in Mohacs, Hungary. Copyright Istvan Csak (Shutterstock).

First published in 2014 by

Karnac Books Ltd
118 Finchley Road
London NW3 5HT

Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Reddish

The right of Elizabeth Reddish to be identified as the author of this work has
been asserted in accordance with §§ 77 and 78 of the Copyright Design and
Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in

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ISBN-13: 978-1-78049-178-3

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To the memory of my brother Tim
And to our brave parents



Introduction 1

The protective superego 15

“Totem and Taboo” revisited 31

Two types of morality 45

Two types of reality-testing 59


A new theory of conscience 73

Concluding remarks 91




I would like to thank Karl Figlio for challenging me and for referring
me to many helpful sources; Robert Hinshelwood for his guidance;
Nick Midgley and David Hewison for their comments on early drafts
and Anthony Cantle for helping me to open the door.


Elizabeth Reddish, PhD, has worked as a psychoanalytic

psychotherapist in London since 1996 and is registered with the British
Psychoanalytic Council. She worked for fifteen years in the feature
film industry prior to training in psychoanalysis. The Petrified Ego is
adapted from her professional doctorate “The Structuring Function of
the Superego” (2010). Her clinical experience of the debilitating impact
of an overcritical conscience forms the basis of a psychoanalytic model
that she has designed to help individuals fulfil their potential at work.
She consults in this area alongside her clinical practice.



here is a gap in our psychoanalytic understanding of the
evolution of conscience that obscures the fact that there are two
quite distinct types of morality. This omission camouflages a
truth about the psychological relationship between the individual and
society that has long needed articulation. This book seeks both to illu-
minate this truth and to set out the theoretical framework for a revised
theory of the evolution and function of conscience. In much of everyday
life, debate concerning what is “right or wrong”, or “good or bad”, is
not driven by rational thought but by anxiety, revulsion, or retribution.
These reactions are triggered by primary affective processes present
in the individual, which have evolved from primal group behaviours
driven by the survival instinct. I shall argue that judgments based on
these instinctive responses are thus rooted in what is deemed to be
“safe” or “threatening” not what is “right” or “wrong”. I aim to show
that this type of judgment constitutes a morality that has its own dis-
crete identity and is generically distinct from “rational” morality. I shall
also present a case for why I believe that the distinction is essential.
It is uncontroversial to point out that people are drawn to disagree-
ment over what is right or wrong for the inherent drama of it. Such dis-
agreements are very often, perhaps most often, motivated by the drive

for social bonding or positioning within hierarchies. There is seemingly

an infinite appetite for such drama: the media, nowadays a business
first and last, plays on the “entertainment” value for audiences expe-
riencing characters in soap operas—or increasingly these days, “real”
participants—working themselves up into intensely emotional, con-
frontational states and inviting audiences to judge the right or wrong
of participants’ behaviour. One has the sense that “moral truth” of any
kind is not the priority here as these “characters” can seemingly ration-
alise, (not at all the same thing as “be rational about”) any feeling or
idea that comes to mind. But what about the “right or wrong” or the
“good or bad” of others’ behaviour within the context of, say, the judi-
cial handling of rioting adolescents or the question of prisoners’ right
to vote; of institutional “groupthink”, such as is consistently seen at
the highest levels of the banking sector or, most recently, at the British
Broadcasting Corporation regarding the sexual abuse of minors? I shall
argue that people frequently flounder, for want of a more robust theo-
retical framework for understanding the origin and nature of morality.
The core of the argument put forward in this book is that the philo-
sophical premise that underpins many debates seeking to make deci-
sions based on “correct moral judgement” exists in only one plane. This
plane yields only one definition of the “healthy” or “mature” conscience:
the capacity to negotiate a compromise between individual values and
social values. The belief underlying this is that people begin by being
“bad”, in the sense of being concerned only about their own pleasure or
well-being and must learn how to accommodate “good” social values.
Argument founded on this premise becomes circular because it is sim-
plistic; the framework cannot account for the complexity. In this book,
I shall argue that there is not one plane but two: a healthy, mature con-
science does not emerge from a compromise between individual and
social values, “bad” tamed into “good”. A healthy, mature conscience
results from the managed articulation between two entities of a differ-
ent order. A stable mental state (which incorporates a socially healthy
conscience) is attained through the capacity to maintain attachment
to social ideals whilst simultaneously holding to a belief in, and capacity
to assert, the richness and depth of individual experience (on behalf of
the self and of other individuals). A conscience influenced by social
conscience alone, yields an individual subjugated to a social order. An
individual who places his or her individual values above those of oth-
ers, becomes (remains) unable to relate fully to other people in a way

that inhibits his or her own development, or if in a position of power,

dominates the social order in a way that subjugates others.
A theory that accommodates both planes can account for a fur-
ther important distinction, not just for the psychological relationship
between the individual and society but for that between two types of
social group: one type bound by the task of survival, in which there are,
in a sense, no individual minds at work—the “herd”; and another con-
sisting of individuals who maintain a belief in the richness and depth of
individual experience but who are simultaneously bound by common
purpose or interests.
What does psychoanalysis have to say about this problem? The
superego, the concept that Freud introduced in his 1923 paper “The
Ego and the Id” is, broadly speaking, the psychoanalytic term for “con-
science”. Despite the power with which its sister concept, “the Oedipus
complex”, took hold of the psychoanalytic (and eventually, the public)
imagination, the inadequacy of the concept of the superego was quickly
recognised by the psychoanalytic community. Not long after the end of
the second world war, Money-Kyrle threw a spanner in the works with
his observation that “… the super-ego morality of a ‘good’ German
Nazi is very different from that of a ‘good’ British socialist” (Money-
Kyrle, 1952, p. 229). It is a relative concept, not an absolute one. Many
psychoanalysts, Money-Kyrle among them, have pointed out that the
superego morality described by Freud is predominantly a morality of
fear: “good” behaviour held in place by fear. If a healthy conscience is
not the internalisation of “good” social values, what is it?
I shall argue that the gap in the psychoanalytic theory of conscience,
the correction of which this book addresses, is rooted in the fact that
the concept of the superego, as Freud formulated it in 1923, is inad-
equate, neglecting his earlier thinking in “Project for a Scientific Psy-
chology” (1895) and “Totem and Taboo” (1913), about how and why
morality evolves. A careful look at the concept of the superego as “heir
to the Oedipus complex” shows that, just like the philosophical premise
underpinning what I have asserted is the common idea of morality, it
too exists in a single plane. Freudian psychoanalytic theory asserts that
conscience emerges from the challenge to a state of primary narcissism
whereby the individual subjugates his or her individual will to the will
of society (initially in the form of the parent). From the conflict between
desire for one parent and fear of retribution from the other arises “the
oedipal superego”, which once installed, affords an internal check

on instinctive desires, enabling the individual to become a civilised

member of society. The problematic implication of this formula noted
by Money-Kyrle was also observed by Karin Stephen:

Freud bases morality on submission to the introjected parental

superego through fear of castration, implying that what the super-
ego demands is ethically good and that the personality which goes
on being afraid of castration … is a morally better personality than
one which outgrows castration anxiety. (Stephen, K., 1946, p. 27)

If the superego concept presents such problems, is it worth retaining

at all? Perhaps, on the brink of its centenary, it is just too “old-
fashioned” and after all, hasn’t Melanie Klein’s work rendered it obso-
lete? Significant quarters of the psychoanalytic field have decided so.
Contemporary ego psychology, which evolved following the publication
of Freud’s paper “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety” (Freud, 1926),
considers the Superego concept more or less “supplanted”.1 There is an
abundance of ego-based psychodynamic theories that find no use for it.
I strongly disagree, and contend that the concept has power and integ-
rity that is intrinsic to the understanding of the relationship between
the individual and society. The contradictory aspects of this concept,
although hinted at many times over the decades, have remained unre-
solved, to our collective detriment, particularly with regard to psycho-
analytic theories of child development and of unconscious processes in
groups. It is “out there” as a conscious and unconscious concept but it
is misconceived.

Klein’s superego
Melanie Klein radically revised the theory, not because she sought to
resolve the contradictions and inadequacies but because her clinical
observations showed evidence of guilt and remorse in children well
before the onset of oedipal anxiety, leading her to posit the existence of
an “early” superego. She located the presence of conscience in the first
months of infant life and saw its origin in innate human aggression,
and the persecutory anxiety to which this gives rise. The prioritising of
aggression and her (revolutionary) awareness that an infant’s discharge
of instinctual tension is due to anxiety, might ultimately have led her
to identify two distinct developmental stages. The two different types

of anxiety evident in the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions,

might be argued to imply two distinct “moral positions” regarding
the relationship of the individual both to him or herself and to society.
However Klein had no particular interest in the concept of morality
per se, and (therefore) did not specifically pursue the concept of the
The argument I make in this book, although centred on a classical
Freudian concept, rests on a cornerstone of Kleinian theory, namely that
the primary task of the infant, and therefore the origin of morality, is
survival, for which he depends on external objects. Freud’s early writ-
ing was inspired by the ways in which he could see the inherently social
aspect of the individual psyche, deeply embedded in the family, tribe,
and society: “… the initial helplessness of human beings is the primal
source of all moral motives” (Freud, 1895, p. 317). Klein, although root-
ing her theory in evolutionary processes2 and linking infant aggression
with its phylogenetic origins—which lies at the heart of her thinking—
did not pursue it in relationship to groups. My view is in accord with
Kleinian theory to the extent that aggression and anxiety are the
dynamic foundations of psychic structure. The challenging claim that I
make in this book is that the superego exists a priori and constitutes the
cornerstone of “psychic structure” itself. As such it enables the psycho-
logical mechanism of “differentiation”. (See Chapter Two for discussion
of the superego as a sensory and psychic boundary and Chapter Five
for discussion of its role in enabling cognitive differentiation between
“observing” and “judging”.)
It is my view that the superego remains an indispensable currency
for thinking about conscience and morality but that it needs revision. It
is the relationship between morality and the superego with which I am
concerned in this book and I show that Freud’s concept of the superego
in fact had far deeper roots than he himself finally formulated in 1923.3
I also show that Freud’s theory implies two separate stages of superego
development: the archaic superego and the oedipal superego and two
corresponding types of morality and reality-testing.
I argue that there is a primary, archaic stage of morality that has to do
with what is perceived by the individual to be safe and what is threaten-
ing in terms of physical survival and that this originates in the primal,
social, roots of the psyche. The oedipal superego only comes into being
once the embryonic ego challenges the archaic superego, thereby forging
its identity. The archaic superego is the structure which enables this.

The morality that emerges alongside this new state of self-awareness,

no longer triggered by instincts such as anxiety, revulsion, or retribu-
tion, is generically distinct from “archaic” morality. It is distinct in the
sense that it is rooted in a separate, psychological structure—the ego—
giving rise to ego-forged morality. If the challenge is not made, or made
unsuccessfully, the ego becomes “petrified”; the object of its own fear.

Clinical considerations (see end of this chapter

for clinical profile)
As a psychoanalytic therapist in clinical practice, I was aware of a fruit-
less ricocheting between “right or wrong” and “good or bad” in some
of my patients’ material. Here it took the form of an internal dialogue,
with obsessive qualities, which was driven by the promise of resolu-
tion, but was in fact self-reflexive and thus circular. This type of patient,
although successful professionally, engaged with many aspects of life,
and several with long-term relationships distinguished themselves
as a group by their assertion of a moral rigidity in their beliefs about
themselves and the world. Most harmful to them was their attach-
ment to the idea that they were irredeemably “bad”. There could be no
interpretation by me of this rigid stance that did not result in enraged
challenges to the moral rectitude of my intent. The analysis would get
caught up in a circularity that further confirmed their world view—
leading to impasse. I observed that their attachment to the idea that
they were “bad” was clung to as if it were life itself; that they believed
their very survival was contingent upon maintaining it. It struck me
that it was not the sense of morality that was at stake for these patients,
but their sense of reality. Further, it suggested that the two were undif-
ferentiated. This presented a useful hypothesis with which to proceed,
namely that a primary state of conscience/stage of morality—one that
is structured by the archaic superego (as I have come to conceive of
it)—is one in which reality and morality are equivalent. This could be
assumed to apply to healthy, not only pathological, emotional develop-
ment. If evidence could be found for this, it would suggest that there
exists a more developed state of mind in which morality is experienced
on a separate plane from reality; where morality can be considered and
reflected upon without fear of psychic annihilation. Would an analysis
of my patients’ material based on the premise that archaic morality was
dominant and that this was undifferentiated from reality, alleviate their

symptoms? What else might I learn about the nature and function of the
archaic superego and about reality-testing?

Theoretical considerations
It is generally observed that the most emotionally and mentally dis-
turbed individuals hold the most rigid moral beliefs; indeed it is a hall-
mark symptom of psychosis. Those who are adept at recovery from
extreme states of mind can hold values firmly, whilst simultaneously
being able to sustain challenges to those values (from others and from
themselves) and to question and modify them. My everyday observa-
tions of debates about moral truth and justice in society showed that this
rigidity, far from being restricted to those who are severely disturbed, is
in fact quite commonplace. This suggested to me that a state of mind in
which reality and morality are undifferentiated, is also commonplace.
In order that those readers who are well-informed as to the various
and valid alternative interpretations of my patients’ moral rigidity do
not lose interest in my argument, I need to state here my awareness of
how other psychoanalytic frameworks could account for it. Kleinian
theory would understand my patients’ attacks on my “moral rectitude”
and the analytic space, alongside self- denigration and stalwart belief
in their inadequacy (whether overt or not), to be defences against per-
secutory anxiety. This anxiety would be triggered by their unconscious
aggression and the reciprocal fiats of a harsh “early superego”, a super-
ego that owes its existence to the accumulated introjection of harsh
parental imagos.
Winnicott, (who, although interested in conscience, did not make use
of the concept of the superego), might diagnose my patients’ pathology
as evidence of a false self, which has been constructed in the interests
of adaptation to the environment and which acts as a carapace around
the true self. Although the carapace thus provides a modus operandi,
at the same time it represses growth and allows intense suffering to
endure. Fairbairn would interpret moral rigidity in these patients as
a defence against their bad internalised objects, distinguishing these
from id impulses. His call for exercising caution in the interpretation of
superego guilt on the grounds that, “if a True Mass is being celebrated
in the chancel, a Black Mass is being celebrated in the crypt” (Fairbairn,
1952, p. 68), infers the existence of a deeply rooted anxiety underpin-
ning a masochistic presentation. This view is in accordance with my

own. However, his reworking of the superego neither formulated it as

initially protective, nor as the springboard for the forging of the ego, as
I shall here.
Donald Kalsched, a Jungian analyst, offers rich documentation of
what he calls the “self-care” system, which arises as a defence against
unbearable life experiences (Kalsched, 1996). Others have investigated
similar clinical phenomena in terms of what they call “resilience”, much
of which work has arisen from the analysis of second-generation sur-
vivors of the Jewish holocaust and of other socio-political catastrophes.
I understand the self-care system and capacity for resilience to be
aspects of archaic superego dominance, beneath which lies an embry-
onic, petrified ego.
At the same time, none of these possible interpretations capture
something that, once I began to follow the line of thought that reality
and morality were cognitively indistinct for these patients, I became
sensitised to. A recurring feature in the patient material was the use of
the word “bad” in a way which I eventually realised was being used in
rather a peculiar way. Although they meant that they were morally bad,
in fact this could not be said to be an evaluation of themselves, because
evaluation implies perspective. The “triangulation” upon which that
perspective is contingent is not present for these patients—so what did
they mean? I came to realise that “I am bad” was an attempt to com-
municate their reality: that they felt bad in the sense of “distressed”.
As yet, their thinking existed only in one moral plane and therefore
they were unable to differentiate these concepts. If this proved correct it
would mean that their sense of self consisted almost entirely of identifi-
cation with an archaic superego. This superego was by now impossible
to challenge because it would mean “killing off” themselves. A terrible

My positing of the archaic superego as the foundation or anchor of
psychic “structure” and the concomitant theory of two types of moral-
ity, the first of which is an aspect of the survival instinct, the second
driven by the ego, was encouraged by the ideas of four theorists:
Alexander (1925), Alvarez (1999), Britton (1998, 2003), and Caper (2009).
A mere two years after the publication of “The Ego and the Id”, Franz
Alexander published a paper that critiqued Freud’s theory as missing a

vital aspect of the superego, namely its initial protective function and he
counter-formulated the “curative process” of psychoanalysis as consist-
ing in “overcoming resistances to the ego’s taking over of the function of
the super-ego” (Alexander, 1925, p. 24, my emphasis) and thus putting
values and beliefs thus far adhered to (and experienced as reality), to the
challenge. Alexander’s theory implies two quite distinct types of moral-
ity but he does not pursue this line of thought. Anne Alvarez’ idea of a
position that “developmentally pre-dates the paranoid-schizoid posi-
tion” also has radical implications for the theory of conscience and the
primary function of the superego as structural. Her work with infants
and children has led her to believe that development of an experience
of “safety”, that is, a differentiation between what is safe and what is
threatening, must be in place before the splitting into “good” and “bad”,
(which Klein formulated as the platform of the paranoid-schizoid posi-
tion), can take place. (Alvarez, 1992, p. 117). Might “inability to over-
come resistances to the ego’s taking over of the super-ego” be due not
only to the aggressive instincts of the infant but also to primal anxiety
that is phylogenetic in origin?—anxiety that has an intensity dispropor-
tionate to the infant’s inherent aggression? Alvarez identifies the need
for a general concept of
a sense of agency to stand alongside narcissism; relief, joy and hope
to stand alongside manic denial; order, structure and predictabil-
ity to stand beside obsessional defences against fragmentation …
(Alvarez, 1992, p. 117)

and that these

need not wait for the developments of the depressive position. They
occur in much more primitive positions of psychological develop-
ment where it is not so much a question of splitting between good
and bad being marked, but where what is at issue is the adequate
development of, and belief in, the good. (Alvarez, 1992, p. 117)

Robert Caper seems to be identifying something similar when he

speaks of constancy as a primary need and how, without this experi-
ence of being “anchored”, the ego cannot simply gain any purchase.
In his book Building out into the Dark, he brings together the concepts
of “primary object” and “archaic Superego”, positing that they are one
and the same. He argues that the primary role of this object is to anchor
the embryonic ego with an experience of constancy “in an otherwise

terrifying world” (Caper, 2009, p. 82). His thinking suggested to me that

the archaic superego paves the way for the formation of the ego through
the experience of constancy, of things “being the same”, in patterns.
That it is in this sense “protective”—protective in providing structure
in the face of “nothingness”.
Britton’s idea of the ego as a structure whose growth depends on
“emancipation” from the superego is, to my mind, in line with both
Caper’s and Alexander’s ideas. “We must not simply be judged by our
conscience; we must subject conscience to judgment” (Britton, 2003,
p. 101). I also note his theory, formulated fifteen years earlier, that pre-
mature interpretation of oedipal anxiety may be experienced by the
patient as annihilating the psychically fragile link with the mother
(Britton, 1989, p. 88). This idea supported my hypothesis that at this
stage, reality and morality are undifferentiated. Interpretation of anxi-
ety as the result of phantasied attacks of the parental couple is, for such
a patient, at best confusing and meaningless, at worst damaging, in
being experienced as confirmation of being (morally) “bad” and a pos-
sible trigger for psychosis.
My interest was also fuelled by two discoveries. First, that the 1923
formulation of the superego is consistently criticised, both by theorists
and by practitioners, for failing to incorporate the “loving and protec-
tive” function that Freud had identified as the ego ideal. It is gener-
ally recognised that the concept of the ego ideal became unaccountably
subsumed by that of the superego and thereafter slipped from view.4
Second, researching the literature beyond Karin Stephen and Money-
Kyrle, it became clear that ever since publication, the superego theory
has been charged, by a significant number of theorists and clinicians,
with being contradictory.
In this book I shall show how the positing of two stages of superego
development resolves these long-standing and frequently cited charges
and reveals an inherent consistency to Freud’s thinking.
The book is structured in the following way. I begin Chapter Two:
The protective superego by reviewing literature that documents the his-
torical development of Freud’s concept of the superego, in an attempt
to capture the broadest sense in which it is still held to be viable
“currency” and if not, why not. Finding that it is held to be viable
currency but with the proviso that the protective function (conceptu-
alised by the ego ideal) should not have been lost, I carry out a sec-
ond review. This review is of clinical data (spanning eight decades)

to ascertain whether practitioners identify a protective function to the

superego and, where this is the case, to identify what is being pro-
tected and why. I was also interested to discover whether, in the emo-
tionally mature individual, it is superego or ego values that are seen to
dominate. In Chapter Three: “Totem and Taboo” revisited, I re-examine
Freud’s work “Totem and Taboo”, in particular his undeveloped lines
of thinking about the earliest manifestation of conscience (i.e., in totem
morality/taboo conscience), alert to evidence that would show it to
have, at base, the protective, adaptive function that clinical evidence,
from practitioners working in the decades after his time, has proven to
be the case. I find that Freud did indeed identify a primitive survival
mechanism that has a protective, adaptive function. He conjectures
that the origin of morality is the relationship between the survival
instinct and the totem, on the basis that all knowledge about what
is safe or threatening with regard to the maintaining of human life
is “totemised”, and then passed on to subsequent generations in the
totems and their associated taboos. In Chapter Four: Two types of moral-
ity, drawing on clinical observation and theory in the literature and
supported by Freud’s original concept of morality, I set out in detail
two generically distinct types of morality: “archaic” and “ego-forged”.
In Chapter Five: Two types of reality-testing, I discuss Freud’s assertion
that the defining feature of the ego—being made up of the “abandoned
object-cathexes that result from the negotiation between id instincts
and reality” (Freud, 1923, p. 28)—is its function of reality-testing. The
fact that my research shows that Freud’s theory implies two distinct
types of relationship to reality, challenges this definition. I map out
these two stages of reality-testing, of which the more developmentally
mature is “the testing of belief” against archaic superego reality—an
ego function—and show how this is preceded by “adaptation to the
environment in the interests of survival”, which is a primary function
of the archaic superego. This finding suggests that whilst in the early
stages of mental life reality and morality are undifferentiated, once the
ego develops, reality takes on an existence independent of morality. In
Chapter Six: A new theory of conscience, I test out the two-stage model
against the charges to Freud’s 1923 theory as being contradictory and
incomplete, and show how the model successfully resolves them at
a theoretical level. I then re-present my clinical material to illustrate
how the two-stage model accounts for it and how interpretation of the
patients’ material may be modified to minimise the onset of impasse

in the work. In Chapter Seven: Concluding remarks, I draw together my


Clinical profile of patient group

The six patients were female adults between the ages of thirty-one
and fifty-nine years old and seen in private practice. It was possible to
infer from the patients’ presentations and from factual life history that
although at the level of everyday care, physical needs had been well
met through infancy and childhood, they had, at the same time, met
with early and ongoing emotional trauma with regard to one or both
parents. Common to their presentation was, in all cases, a high level
of professional achievement, a network of friends, and, in two cases,
a long-standing emotionally intimate relationship.
A striking symptom common to the patient group was their explicit
belief that they were “bad” and that their problems were, and had
always been, self-inflicted and therefore their own fault. They all com-
plained of a consistent sense of exhaustion but this did not translate
into taking time off work; they were hard-working, loyal, and com-
mitted. At the same time, they could never enjoy more than the most
fleeting sense of achievement. Four of the patients suffered from ongo-
ing obsessive thoughts of suicide. These took a number of forms, but
predominantly manifested in, on the one hand, obsessive planning for
how they would go about it and, on the other, imagining the experience
of doing it.
Initially, these patients were strikingly light-hearted about their
relationship with me. They had only “come along” because they had
a sense of “something missing”. At the same time, my initial counter-
transference was one of dis-affection, even that the patient might be
correct in their assertion that there may be “no real problem” and that
they were (as they themselves believed) “here under false pretences”. It
was characteristic of this group of patients that they consciously feared,
particularly in working life, being a fraud and being found out. Three
of the patients used the phrase “double bind” in describing their expe-
rience: that they felt “damned if they do and damned if they don’t”.
This resonated with the discovery that a high percentage of their think-
ing consisted in going round in “loops” or as two patients described
it, forming “knots”. During the early stage of treatment they were
forthcoming in their verbal communication, with a confident social

manner; compliant and wishing (and able), to please. They presented

with effective capacity for social adaptation—able to “make life work
for them”, asserting that there was “just one problem” that they needed
help with and that is why they had sought treatment. These problems
would characteristically be described and communicated as if they were
minor, but their substance and depth were in fact profound. Alongside
the above-mentioned ongoing suicidal thoughts, they consistently felt
“bad” and “worthless”, and believed that they should not enjoy, or
fully satisfy corporeal needs (including hunger and keeping warm) or
look forward to events. All of the patients consistently denigrated their
achievements. Despite the characteristic sense of drive in these patients,
all described a persistent “Ground-hog Day” experience, in the sense of
no forward momentum and no experience of building or accumulation;
this had persisted as long as they could recall. Despite working hard
at their jobs, they described a world in which there was no return on
their investment, leaving them with the feeling of always starting from
scratch. No amount of effort resulted in anything more than the briefest
abatement of anxiety, resentment, or bleakness of outlook. At the same
time, it was apparent in all cases that no-one in their professional lives
had any sense of this suffering. In two cases, it seemed that no-one in
their private lives was aware of it either. In the cases of patients with
partners, I could infer that these partners were aware of the suffering to
the extent that they found themselves witness to baffling and, on occa-
sions, frightening distress.
The dream-life of this group of patients was thin in both recall and
content. Three of the four patients reported no recollection of dreams
when first presenting for treatment. Those dreams that were eventually
recalled, featured narratives in which basic corporeal needs cannot be
met. A belief common to the group, which took some months of work
for them first to identify and then to articulate, was that they were hold-
ing on to something very tightly as if with a “white-knuckled grip”,
the letting go of which they could best describe as being equivalent to
unthinkable betrayal. In one case it would mean unthinkable betrayal
of the patient’s mother, who had committed suicide. In four of the cases
it would mean betrayal of the patients’ mothers who, despite enduring
emotional and physical abuse (of the patient) had been and still were,
considered to be good. In the sixth case, the unthinkable betrayal would
be of a race of people (of whom the patient was a survivor) who had
been “ethnically cleansed”.

A final, striking feature common to these patients was that they

appeared to enjoy a capacity for objectivity. This was in the sense that
their use of language suggested that they empathised with others and,
correspondingly, were able to “see themselves” from different perspec-
tives. This capacity suggested a strong sense of reality. However, when
this sense of reality was put to the test in the clinical setting it emerged
as a pretence or façade. This, in turn, suggested that the objectivity
existed in only one dimension. Confronted with a reality different from
their own, such as was met in my interpretations, their response was
rapid increase in the level of anxiety accompanied by dissociation and
confusion. Where the patient could verbalise a response, these were
coloured by a rigid moral stance. This rigidity would either take an
aggressive form or a benign form. At times I would be accused of being
immoral, at times I would be offered “benign guidance”. The latter was
expressed unconsciously, in the transference. An example of this is sev-
eral of the patients’ associations to how, as children, they would “show
my mother how to do it properly” (such as brushing her hair or sitting
in her lap): showing their mothers “what mummies are supposed to
do”. Experiencing this in the clinical setting was moving: as infants,
these patients had never experienced the difference between compli-
antly pleasing their object, as against the nurturing experience of truly
satisfying their object.
To summarise, despite the patients’ initial presentation of a capacity
for objectivity and effective social adaptation—both associated with a
mature sense of reality—it soon emerged that these patients suffered
deeply rooted emotional dysfunction.

The protective superego

his chapter is divided into two sections; the first reviews
literature that documents the historical development of Freud’s
concept of the superego in an attempt to capture the broadest
sense in which it is still held to be viable “currency” and if not, why
not. This review throws up two recurring dissatisfactions with the 1923
theory: the first dissatisfaction is that the dropping of the protective
function of the ego ideal, defined in “On Narcissism”, was a critical
omission in the original definition of the oedipal superego. The second
dissatisfaction is that the formulation is contradictory in stating that
both the values of the superego and of the ego are dominant. A review of
clinical material constitutes the second section of the chapter. The exist-
ence of so much clinical data since the formulation was made, makes
it possible to test this formulation to see whether the protective func-
tion of the superego is, in fact, in evidence and if so, what exactly is
being protected and why. Further, a review of clinical data throws some
light on the issue of whether in the emotionally mature individual, it is
superego or ego values that are dominant.


Section one—inconsistencies and contradictions in the

theoretical formulation of the concept of the oedipal superego
A review of the literature pertaining to the theoretical development of
Freud’s concept of the superego shows that ever since the publication
of “The Ego and the Id” (1923), in which Freud introduced the concept,
contradictions and inconsistencies in the formulation itself have been
The two most frequently recurring criticisms that undermine the
integrity of the 1923 superego formulation as a coherent theory, are out-
lined below:

i. The 1923 formulation of the superego failed to incorporate the

“loving and protective” function that Freud had identified in the
ego ideal.

The protective aspect of the superego (initially formulated as the

primary function of the ego ideal in its manifestation as a “reaction-
formation”) was unaccountably lost in the 1923 formulation. Only
three years after the publication of “The Ego and the Id”, Ernest Jones
pointed out that the superego was contradictory in nature, being pro-
tective to the id, but critical to the ego. “How can we conceive of the
same institution as being both an object that presents itself to the Id
to be loved instead of the parents and as an active force criticising the
ego?” (Jones, 1926, p. 303). This contradictory nature of the superego
is broadly understood to arise from Freud’s conflation of the ego ideal
and the superego.
A substantial number of theorists (Arlow, 1982; Beres, 1958;
Finkelstein, 1991; Jones, 1926; Sandler, 1960 (to some extent); Schafer,
1960; Schecter, 1979; Stein, 1966; Stephen, K., 1946; Westen, 1986; &
Wurmser, 2004), coming from a variety of schools and perspectives,
identify either a lack of incorporation of helplessness/primitive anxiety
in the original formulation of the superego, or a less than explicit dif-
ferentiation between the challenges faced in the dissolution of oedipal
anxiety as against that of infantile helplessness. They all identify a pro-
tective aspect to the superego. Schafer identifies aspects of the protec-
tive superego that he observes clinically which are not satisfactorily
accounted for by Freud’s theory: “protection and comfort, ideals and
pride, and adaptation” (Schecter, 1979).
T H E P R OT E C T I V E S U P E R E G O 17

Despite a number of comprehensive critiques and broadening

out of the concept to include the protective superego (Arlow, 1982;
Finkelstein, 1991; Jones, 1926; Sandler, 1960; Schafer, 1960) no expan-
sion that acknowledges the root of the ego ideal (protective superego)
in the mechanism of survival as a defence against primitive anxiety has
been attempted. They have all been motivated by their clinical obser-
vation of a “benign”, “loving”, or “protective” aspect of the oedipal
superego. Their revisions are systematic and thorough, but do not ulti-
mately challenge the predominant view of the superego as the “moral
agency”. Finkelstein calls for an expansion of the theory from a rather
different perspective. He cites the work of evolutionary developmen-
talists (Kagan, 1984, & Emde, 1988), students of moral development,
who view altruism as an adaptive mechanism for ensuring individual
and group survival. Their work supports that of psychoanalysts such as
Furer (1967) and Hoffman (1981). Finkelstein calls for the construction
of a

larger, more detailed, general model of superego development

and functioning into which the early psychoanalytic model with
its emphasis on opposition to oedipal strivings, impulse control,
repression, and unconscious guilt, may be subsumed. (Finkelstein,
1991, p. 546)

He does not systematically re-examine the earliest roots of conscience

identified by Freud in “Totem and Taboo” in this context.

ii. The 1923 formulation of the superego is contradictory in its

implication that both the ethics of the ego and the ethics of the
superego constitute moral maturity.

One of the first things to notice about the concept “superego” is that
when we call it a “moral agency”, we are usually inferring that it is
good. But a moment’s reflection indicates that it is not at all the case.
In 1952, Money-Kyrle offered the example: “the super-ego morality of
a ‘good’ German Nazi is very different from that of a ‘good’ British
socialist” (Money-Kyrle, 1952, p. 229). It is a relative, not an absolute
concept. If it is not the internalisation of “good” social values, what is it?
Many psychoanalysts, Money-Kyrle among them, have pointed out that
the superego morality described by Freud is predominantly a morality

of fear: “good” behaviour held in place by fear. It has been noted that
this points to a contradiction in Freud’s theory in that it only allows for
an ethics based on superego values (whereby the ego is repressed) or on
ego values (in which case the superego would be usurped). This would
indicate a kind of talion judgment rather than, as Freud had it, an ego
capacity for evaluation.
Freud bases morality on submission to the introjected parental
superego through fear of castration, implying that what the super-
ego demands is ethically good and that the personality which goes
on being afraid of castration … is a morally better personality than
one which outgrows castration anxiety. (Stephen, K., 1946, p. 27)1

Section two—clinical literature showing evidence

of a protective superego
It will be remembered that a founding premise of Freud’s theory of ego
development was that it is the ego, rather than the superego, that facili-
tates adaptation and yet an abundance of the psychoanalytic literature
contains clinical evidence of patients’ capacity for adaptation that is
attributed, by clinicians, to the patients’ superego. It occurs at a stage
that pre-dates ego maturity and is understood to be protecting what is
often referred to as the “embryonic” ego from overwhelming anxiety.
There is a range of terminology offered up for describing this phe-
nomenon. Many practitioners use the term “pre-oedipal phenomena”,
which they see organising, regulating, and protecting against disin-
tegration of the psyche. An overview of this terminology follows, to
capture the breadth of the clinical evidence. Alexander (1925) describes
the “archaic Superego” as a “regulator of instinctive life”; Weissman
(1954) and Hyttinen, (2002), working with adolescents, note the protec-
tive (as opposed to harsh) aspect of the “Archaic Superego”, which can
be lived in as a kind of temporary retreat, and Weissman attributes this
to a “Pregenital, (protective) archaic superego”. Beres (1958) defines a
“Preceptual Superego”. Alex Holder (1982) argues for the existence of
“pre-oedipal Superego development”, which arises from the interaction
between environmental stimuli and the “archaic heritage”. Rene Spitz
(1958), working with children under two and observing “organisa-
tional” elements of an early superego speaks of “Primordia” and “roots
of the Superego”. Sandler (1960) offers the term “Pre-autonomous
Superego Schema” to describe the conflicting aspects in the mind of
T H E P R OT E C T I V E S U P E R E G O 19

a child between approving and permissive, as well as prohibiting and

restraining features. A “loving, beloved and/or protective Superego”,
one that promotes self-esteem, is identified by Schafer (1960), Jacobson
(1954); Schecter (1979), and Eisnitz, (1980). Grotstein (1990) identifies
the “Pre or A-moral Superego” that is “a counterpoint to chaos”.
Schecter (1979) describes “Pre-autonomous superego forerunners”.
Kestenberg and Brenner (1986) also observe the organisational element
in the role of “rules and routines in the development of the superego”
and Finkelstein (1991) speaks of “Superego Precursors”. Caper (2009)
locates the archaic superego in the parent. The common element of
what these practitioners describe is a pre-oedipal superego that models
and organises experience in support of an embryonic ego. In providing
a “counterpoint to chaos”, this structure provides, when necessary, help
in recognising dangerous situations and a temporary retreat in the form
of a defence against disintegration.
What is also being observed is the capacity of this pre-oedipal
superego to facilitate adaptation to reality (or rather, the environment.
See Chapter Five for a full discussion of this topic). An important by-
product of this organisation of experience is the mastering of instincts,
in other words—at this stage of development—of anxiety. Crucially, the
anxiety being mastered is primitive, rather than oedipal.
Broadly the literature shows that the pre-oedipal superego is per-
forming two distinct functions. The first is to organise the patients’
experiences through pattern recognition and modelling. The second is
that the organisation appears to be in the service of instinct-regulation
(what Freud called “the mastering of excitations”).

Organising and modelling

Hytinnen (2002) draws together the work of Freud and Winnicott (in
particular, the concept of the “facilitating environment”) in his obser-
vation of what he calls the “archaic” superego as a provider of shelter
during the adolescent phase. He describes it as place of internal safety,
which, however punitive, allows the adolescent to maintain the integ-
rity of his childhood whilst creating the new integrity of adulthood.
“It is the archaic superego which protects and guards each step of the
development which the adolescent takes in order to grow towards his
own autonomy” (Hytinnen, 2002, p. 52). It is “unconditional” and, as
such, it is an organising activity that predates resolution of the Oedipus

complex. Schafer (1960), building on Freud’s references to a loving and

beloved superego, which he believes were never developed, concludes
that the superego is a structure for the binding and discharge of libidi-
nal as well as destructive energy. It is the “modelling” capacity of the
superego that is identified by Lichtenstein. His rationale is that “organ-
ising” is primary to, and must precede, introjection and identification
(from “Superego Function and Problems of Identity Maintenance”,
quoted in Goodman, 1965). Schecter expresses this capacity in terms
of organisation: “Simply put, the superego refers to the organization
of experience in an imperative mode” (Schecter, 1979, p. 361). “The
superego as I define it merits being called a ‘dynamism’ because it is
a relatively enduring patterned structure of the mind” (Schecter, 1979,
p. 361).
The organising aspect is also recognised by Lichtenstein, who focuses
on its capacity to “maintain the inner continuity of the personality”. He
states that this “primary identity … is the source of the urgent ‘ought-
ness’ characteristic for the Superego”. Goodman, in a 1965 conference
dedicated to the status of superego theory, states his view that Heinz
Lichtenstein’s evidence “supports the notion of superego functioning in
the maintaining of identity … In this way it guards and maintains the
inner continuity of the personality” (Goodman, 1965, p. 178). A simi-
lar focus on the superego as a guardian of identity is made by Furer,
who notes that superego breakdown and identity disintegration are
associated. Edith Jacobson also identifies the “organising” aspect that
is principally observed by clinicians working with younger people.
“The superego introduces a safety device of the highest order, which
protects the self from dangerous internal instinctual stimuli, from dan-
gerous external stimuli and, hence, from narcissistic harm” (Jacobson,
1954, p. 75). Jacobson’s superego is a kind of “safety device”, which
overlaps with the second broad category of observations of the pro-
tective superego, which is the mastering of instincts in the service of
adaptation (Jacobson, 1954, p. 124). Beres, in accounting for a category
of child patients exhibiting “early manifestations of social functioning
before internalisation has taken place” describes these young individu-
als as “socially compliant”. He coins the term “preceptual superego” to
account for their mental functioning (Beres, 1958, p. 340). Winnicott’s
(fifth) category of the “false self” is an extension of the false self model,
to include the “healthy” version, which he deems essential for social
T H E P R OT E C T I V E S U P E R E G O 21

In health: the False Self is represented by the whole organization of

the polite and mannered social attitude … the gain being the place
in society which can never be attained or maintained by the True
Self alone. (Winnicott, 1960, p. 143)

The mastering of instincts in the service of adaptation

Clinical observations in the literature suggest that the archaic super-
ego organises experience to protect the ego whilst it is insufficiently
mature to survive independently. It appears to do this by enabling the
embryonic ego to adapt to its earliest (physical and psychic) environ-
ment. Survival necessitates adaptation at both the outer boundary of
the ego—to the demands and behaviours of those on whom it physi-
cally depends and at the inner boundary—the mastering of id instincts.
Caper locates the archaic superego in the parent

whose strictures on the operations of our minds reflect the stric-

tures that our unconscious infantile selves place on the mind of the
parent, on whose constancy our very survival depends. (Caper,
2009, p. 82)

In locating the capacity for instinct regulation in an “archaic Superego/

primary object”, he formulates ego development, (like Alexander, 1925)
as resistance to archaic superego dominance. Further, like Alexander,
he believes that the challenge that the ego faces includes wresting the
crucial “prize” of instinct- mastery from the clutches of an archaic force,
whose “raison d’être” is not to yield. Alexander (1925) has a similar for-
mulation of the archaic superego as a kind of “frontier-guard”, whose
task is to regulate instinctual life (Alexander, 1925, p. 24). Weissman
also sees the superego as providing the ego of the infant with the pro-
tection it requires from its own “instinctual and pre-phallic demands”
(Weissman, 1954, p. 530). Positing that obsessional neurosis may be a
symptom of predominance of the archaic superego, he proposes distin-
guishing an “Archaic Superego”, which threatens with the loss of the
love object, from the “Developed”, or “Mature” superego, which threat-
ens castration and loss of self-esteem. He believes a distinction between
the genital superego and the superego of early infancy is vital because it
is structurally different. He proposes that the early one be called “undif-
ferentiated ego conscience” (Weissman, 1954).

Leon Wurmser, unusual amongst ego psychologists in his continuing

belief in the superego as a useful concept, also chooses to highlight
instinct regulation as the crucial feature of pre-oedipal superego
functioning. Wurmser refers to the power of the superego in its capac-
ity for primitive affect regulation (Wurmser, 2004, p. 201). He observes
it clinically as a kind of “back-up system”, which comes into play when
trauma, having evoked the most profound sense of helplessness, causes
a collapse of affect regulation (Wurmser, 2004). Beres’ and Jacobson’s
work has been cited above specifically with regard to what they hold
to be the superego’s role in facilitating ego-adaptability and affect
regulation. Jacobson sees this functioning as an intra-psychic barometer:
“The superego is less concerned with external success or failure than
with the degree of inner harmony or discordance between ego ideal and
ego manifestations” (Jacobson, 1954, p. 75).

The “body superego”

Since instinct-mastery (or affect-regulation) is about a relationship
between body and mind, it follows that the superego’s capacity to
organise experience must originate in corporeal sensation: “the body
superego”. Freud makes reference to the importance of the sense-
organs and the consciousness attached to them in his formulation of
the “reality principle”, which is one of the tributary concepts to the
superego (Freud, 1911, p. 219)2. An early link between sensory expe-
rience and superego functioning was made by Ferenczi in his clinical
observation of what he labels “sphincter-morality”. “The anal and ure-
thral identification with the parents … appears to build up in the child’s
mind a sort of physiological forerunner of the ego-ideal or super-ego”.
He goes on to say that “it is by no means improbable that this “semi-
physiological morality forms the essential groundwork of later purely
mental morality” (Ferenczi, 1925, p. 378)3.
The extent to which the superego’s capacity to organise experi-
ence originates in corporeal sensation, is beyond the scope of this
book. However, theorists and clinicians whose work has significantly
advanced the field of psychoanalysis, identify a “cohering force” that
predates the existence of an ego sufficiently mature to facilitate such
integration itself. Four practitioners who, like Ferenczi and Grotstein,
identify a link between tactile sensations and the superego boundary
are Stephen, A. (1947), Spitz (1958), and Kestenberg and Brenner (1986).
T H E P R OT E C T I V E S U P E R E G O 23

Judith Kestenberg’s work with children of holocaust survivors shows

the superego to be a “boundary-forming phenomenon which results
from physical constraint in infancy” and that “sameness is a regulation
that brings on good feelings and is essential to structure formation”
(Kestenberg & Brenner, 1986, p. 309). René Spitz identifies one of the
“Superego primordia” to be physical restraint. Building on Freud’s
observation of “negation” and working with much younger patients
(children under two years old), he identifies three stages by which
the infant moves from physical restraint to “internal” restraint. These
are: a) the imposition of physical restraint (pre-verbal); b) the child’s
“attempts at mastery” by means of identification with parental actions
(9–12 months); and c) identification with the aggressor (beginning of
the second year). Spitz’s evidence from work with these infants makes
explicit the links between the boundary-forming imposition of physical
restraint, the child’s capacity for (pre-verbal) differentiation that results
from this, and the development of a capacity for self-criticism. In short,
he links experience of the body boundary with the emergence of the
superego. He also makes an implicit link between the superego and the
capacity for differentiation—a capacity essential to the development of
psychic life. Adrian Stephen proposes that some pre-verbal experiences
such as “internal colics, bladder sensations … the sensation of warm
milk … help to form the basis of what later on we may call God, or a
super-ego, or … a persecuting demon” (Stephen, A., 1947, p. 116).
Making links between certain findings in baby observations and
clinical work with a patient in her mid-forties, Hytinnen infers that what
he finds to be the “internal shelter provided by the archaic superego”
is not a pathological development, but essential to the later (normal)
development of the child’s personality He describes the moments of
progression and regression; the management of, on the one hand “the
controlling and demanding” sides and, on the other hand, the shelter
that the child needs for his protection from those primitive fears that
threaten to break the continuity. This is an environment—a psychic
“place”—that can be occupied whilst his adolescent state of mind
prepares for new alignments (Hytinnen, 2002).
Although they do not formulate their thinking according to classic
Freudian theory and thus do not make use of the superego concept,
child psychoanalysts Bick (1968), McDougall (1989), Tustin (1990), and
Alvarez (1992) identify the body as the site of the earliest organisation of
experience. Their findings are relevant because they provide evidence

that a capacity for splitting is contingent upon a primary experience of

unity and that if an external object is unavailable, the baby will attempt to
generate it themselves. Tustin states: “For these (autistic) children, auto-
generated tactile sensations have assumed over-riding importance …
for survival and protection” (Tustin, 1990, p. 51). Esther Bick’s research
with babies still at the breast-feeding stage, offers evidence for what she
describes as the need for an “integrating” experience that must precede
the operation of primal splitting and idealisation of self and object. She
locates this in the physical skin of the baby and offers her evidence in
case-histories of how, if this integrative experience is not forthcoming
from the primary object, it is supplied by a “self- containment”, which
she describes as a “second-skin”; a kind of “psychic skin”. Drawing
on her clinical observations, Bick argues that primal splitting (Klein’s
concept of “good” and “bad” objects) is itself contingent on a primary
state of integration. Bick also suggests that the instinct to survive is so
powerful that in the absence of an integrative experience originating
externally, the baby will create its own: it will “self-organise”.

The need for a containing object would seem, in the infantile un-
integrated state, to produce a frantic search for an object—a light,
a voice, a smell, or other sensual object—which can hold the atten-
tion and thereby be experienced, momentarily at least, as holding
the parts of the personality together. (Bick, 1968, p. 485)

Margaret Little, working with patients who she describes as being

unable “in any circumstances to take survival for granted”, also sug-
gests that coherence has to be experienced before splitting is possible.
She offers the term “basic unity” to describe this, observing that indi-
viduals who do not achieve this state live in a constant state of “anni-
hilation anxiety” (Little, 1960). Again, although he does not find use
for the superego concept, Ogden links early sensory experience to an
instinct for integration as an “adaptive” strategy. He posits the “autistic-
contiguous” mode as a “more primitive state than the paranoid-
schizoid position”, where

… it is experiences of sensation, particularly at the skin surface, that

are the principal media for the creation of psychological meaning
and the rudiments of the experience of self. (Ogden, 1989, p. 127)
T H E P R OT E C T I V E S U P E R E G O 25

He speaks of the necessity for continuity and rhythmicity as forming a

sensory floor which guards against dispersal into space.
James Grotstein, presenting clinical observations of a superego that
functions as a “counterpoint to chaos”, makes deductions similar to
those of Bick (1968), Ogden (1989), and Tustin (1990), which he then
formulates in terms of superego theory. He states his impression “that
there is such a concept as a pre-moral superego” and describes this
as “a threshold or barrier which regulates the irruption of primal and
secondary meaninglessness and chaos” (Grotstein, 1990, p. 279). For all
of these writers, this integrative force is a “differential”.

Summary—section two
The evidence documented shows that the protective function of
the superego is very much in evidence facilitating the organisa-
tion of experience and adaptability to the environment. This is
necessary to protect the embryonic ego from becoming overwhelmed
by both internal and external stimuli. Analytic work with adoles-
cents and infants identifies this capacity as an essential aspect of
mental functioning with regard to psychic development and specifi-
cally as a precedent to primal splitting and idealisation of self and
The literature consistently suggests that, although observed in cases
of pathology, this aspect of superego functioning is part of normal devel-
opment and that even when the ego has matured, it serves as a protec-
tive “back-up” during psychic states that impose temporary stresses on
mental functioning, such as puberty or bereavement.
In psychoanalytic theory “adaptability” is a concept that covers both
normal and pathological development. Adaptability that is deemed
pathological is, in essence, premature accommodation of the object
and is therefore equivalent to “compliance”. “Compliance” indicates
ego repression and is linked with concepts such as the “False Self,”
(Winnicott, 1960) or “As If” personalities, (Deutsch, 1942); that is to say,
it is understood as a defensive, pathological state. Does the evidence
documented above suggest when and why adaptation becomes com-
pliance? What could be the evolutionary purpose of an endo-psychic
structure, (the superego), which exists to obstruct the development of
another, the ego?

Franz Alexander’s theory of the superego goes some way to

illuminating this state of affairs. He believes that the superego is, in
origin, an archaic structure; that its function is analogous to the trainer
wheels on a bicycle, which are necessary for the rider to find his bal-
ance, but which need to be surrendered once the rider can maintain
the balance himself. In his paper “A Meta-psychological Description of
the Process of Cure” (1925), he describes how the cure of his patients
can be obstructed by the “grip of an unseen hand”. A force inhibits
their growth, as if something archaic—once essential but now surplus
to requirements—cannot be shaken off. He describes the superego
performing in this way as “the deposit of earlier adaptations to real-
ity … [that] tends to hold the mental system fast to earlier schemata
of instinct-mastery”. Alexander posits that whilst the superego initially
protects the ego, and in that sense promotes its growth, development of
the ego requires that the superego be challenged. The reason for this is
that beyond a certain point of development

… the Super-ego behaves …, like a dull-witted frontier guard who

arrests everyone wearing spectacles, because he has been told
that one particular person is wearing spectacles. (Alexander, 1925,
p. 24)

An observation common to the clinical evidence cited above, is that the

superego these clinicians observe is in the business of regulating primi-
tive anxiety, not oedipal anxiety. Alexander’s theory posits the superego
as the psychic structure that facilitates the original adaptation to the
environment through instinct-mastery. His view of a protective struc-
ture that organises and models experience in the service of survival,
suggests that the capacity for adaptation is due to an archaic superego
facilitating an experience of integration. Alexander’s theory states that
the ego, whose integrated state the superego has served to ensure, must
now challenge the very boundaries that initially anchored it, if it is to
develop. It is as if a very old part of the mind, one that has more in com-
mon with a primeval survival instinct, than with the unique concerns of
any one individual, has to be challenged by that individual, in order for
the ego to grow. This is one of the principle themes of this book, which
argues for the use of “petrified ego” as: a psychoanalytic term to cap-
ture both the incapacitation and the fear inherent in an embryonic ego
that has “got stuck” in a survival mode that is no longer appropriate.
T H E P R OT E C T I V E S U P E R E G O 27

With regard to my patient group, the clinical material yielded by the

literature review suggests that the adaptability I observe is a primary
stage of healthy superego functioning that has outstayed its useful-
ness in the way in which Alexander’s thesis suggests. The clinical data
yielded by the review also suggests why this primary stage of superego
functioning might not be normally observable. This is because in
healthy development, if the ego contests the strictures of this founda-
tional structure, the primary, or archaic superego never becomes visible.
Capacity for adaptability in the individual will be, correctly, attributed
to ego development. Both Schafer and Sandler make the observation
that the Oedipus complex makes visible only the smallest area of a phe-
nomenon that functions largely out of sight: “… the normal Superego
is close to the ego and often indistinguishable from it” (Schafer, 1960,
p. 188). Sandler coins the term “eupathy” as “A state of mental comfort
and well being … when the ego and superego are functioning together
in a smooth and harmonious fashion” (Sandler, 1960, p. 150). A number
of theorists note that the development of the healthy superego has not
been systematically examined and they put forward a number of rea-
sons why this is the case. First, the non-integration of Freud and Klein’s
superego formulations, which compounded inconsistencies in Freud’s
original formulation; second, ego psychology more or less dropped the
concept (an entire volume of Psychoanalytic Inquiry in 2004 was dedi-
cated to the exploration of this development) and attributed reality-
testing, affect, and impulse regulation, judgment, and synthesis to the
ego. Third, that the “ego-destructive” superego concept was so useful
in clinical work and its uptake so enthusiastic that the possibility that it
could also be protective has been overlooked. Finally, clinicians “ana-
lyse” rather than “synthesise”, so we are not looking for it: technique
demands that we formulate and test hypotheses and may therefore
develop a blind spot regarding the patient’s own capacity for this. It
is also the case that only individuals with poorly functioning super-
egos will present for treatment, meaning that the healthy superego is
unlikely to become the subject of analysis.

Discussion of the two sections

I have found that writers focusing on history of the theoretical formula-
tion of the superego note the absence, in Freud’s theory, of the “loving,
protective or benign” aspect (which had originated in the ego ideal).

I have found that writers focusing on clinical data observe a capacity for
organisation and adaptation to the environment, which they attribute
to either superego “precedents” or to an “archaic superego”. The infer-
ence that may be drawn from this overlap between the two literature
searches is that there is a protective aspect of the superego that organises
experience in a way that facilitates adaptation to the environment and
that this has been lost from theory.
Writers focusing on clinical data also observed that the organising
superego performs a further crucial function: a regulator of affect. This
suggests that in the earliest period of life, the embryonic ego needs
protection from impingement by id instincts and external stimuli. The
inference that can be drawn from these observations is that in order to
develop, to break away from this protection, the ego must itself acquire
the capacity for affect regulation. Does the literature suggest how it
goes about this? Alexander (1925), Hytinnen (2002), Britton (2003), and
Caper (2009) argue that this is achieved through the contesting of super-
ego values. This contesting generates anxiety, of being “bad”, in just the
same way as discrepancy between superego and ego. However, what
these clinicians suggest is that this time, the ego reads the anxiety as a
signal for action, rather than retreating at the experience of discrepancy,
as it did before, taking the anxiety as a signal for danger. The question
as to why and how the moment comes when the patient responds in
a different way to anxiety is a complex one. However Robert Caper’s
analogy of the mind, and its response to stimuli, with the eye and its
response to light in the following quotation is helpful. “The difference
between an ordinary sensory stimulus and a traumatic one is only a mat-
ter of degree … light of a certain intensity gives rise to a visual sensation
when it strikes the retina, but light of a sufficiently great energy … will
cause traumatic blindness” (Caper, 2009, p. 77).
The lessening of primitive anxiety that results from taking action
gives the ego the first real experience of impact on its environment.
The reality of actual power now obviates the fantasy of omnipotence.
This experience counters the (unconscious) belief that such action will
result in annihilation by the archaic superego and in this way it pro-
motes future attempts to respond creatively, rather than destructively,
to anxiety.
The second major criticism of Freud’s theory of the superego is
that it leaves unclear the question of whether it is the values of the
superego, or the values of the ego, that constitute healthy development.
T H E P R OT E C T I V E S U P E R E G O 29

The clinically oriented evidence suggests that in the earliest stage of

superego development, ethics are not the primary driver but only the
by-product of a level of psychic organisation and functioning that is driven by
the survival instinct. At this stage therefore, it will be archaic (survival)
superego evaluation of objects as either safe or threatening that
dominate. Ego values will only come to the fore once archaic super-
ego values can be confronted and evaluated by the ego. What it also
suggests is that it is through the negotiation of moral values that the ego
acquires the capacity for affect regulation.

Chapter conclusion
The evidence of both the clinical and the theoretical literature reviewed
indicates the existence of an adaptive, organising aspect of a “pre-
oedipal” sometimes called, “archaic” superego that has a function quite
distinct from that of the oedipal superego. Further, that an essential
aspect of this organising function is the regulation of affect, specifi-
cally the protection of the embryonic ego from a surplus of primitive
anxiety. This pre-oedipal or archaic superego performs this function in
normal development, as well as in pathological development, and ego
development consists in contesting the strictures of this early superego.
It is the structure against which the embryonic ego forges its identity,
once it perceives a sufficiently predictable pattern to the occurrence of
threatening stimuli. It then takes over the role of affect-regulation and
negotiates its own moral values, thereby liberating mental processes
from their instinctive, id-dominated status.
In the following chapter I revisit Freud’s work “Totem and Taboo”
which sets out his earliest thinking about the origins of morality.

“Totem and Taboo” revisited

n Chapter Two, I mapped out evidence for the protective function of
the superego gathered from both Freudian and independently ori-
ented clinical and theoretical work over the decades since Freud’s
formulation of the concept. Freud’s 1923 definition centres on “prohi-
bition”, whereas his earlier thinking identified its primary function as
protective. In a paper written almost thirty years before his formulation
of the superego—“Project for a Scientific Psychology”—he stated that
the first trigger for morality lies in the fact of dependence on others for
our survival: “[the] initial helplessness of human beings … is the primal
source of all moral motives” (Freud, 1895, p. 317). That is to say, our
sense of morality originates in the (unconscious) knowledge that we
are dependent upon external protection: this knowledge is the source
of conscience.
In this chapter I turn to Freud’s work “Totem and Taboo” and show
that his undeveloped lines of thinking about the earliest manifestation
of conscience (i.e., in totem morality) identify a protective, adaptive
function, which clinical work by practitioners, working after his time,
has proven to be the case.


The primitive “survival mechanism”

In “Totem and Taboo”—a study of anthropological accounts of primeval
societies—Freud documents the way in which these societies related to
the world around them in terms of the life-giving and life-threatening
forces of nature. Their survival (food and warmth) depended on nature
in the form of animals and plants, as it did in the avoidance of illness
and disease. Survival of the tribes was contingent on the transmission
of knowledge to successive generations about which animals, plants,
and behaviours were life-preserving and which were life-threatening.
It is the way in which Freud (having read Darwin’s On the Origin of Spe-
cies) theorised the function and nature of this transmission that is most
salient to an understanding of the modern concepts of “conscience” and
“morality”. He saw that the whole clan invested life-giving objects with
protective power, and life-threatening objects with destructive power. In
this way the objects and behaviours become symbolic and Freud chose
the terms “totem” and “taboo” to refer to these. The protective power
was inherent in the object itself, offering food or warmth (for example a
plant or an animal, such as a goat). The taboos were embodied in clearly
defined restrictions and rituals regarding certain activities, such as the
husbandry of certain animals and/or the growing, gathering, and eat-
ing of certain plants; also around such issues as the handling of corpses,
sexual intercourse, and childbirth.

The objects of taboo are many … the provision against the dan-
gers incurred by handling or coming into contact with corpses, by
eating certain foods … the securing of unborn infants and young
children … from the consequences of certain actions, and more
especially from the communication of qualities supposed to be
derived from certain foods. (Freud, 1912–13, p. 18)

Freud notes that the totem bond is stronger than that of the family in
the modern sense, being organised in clans, in which responsibility is
carried for all members, by all members. The aspect of Freud’s theory
that is central to the argument I am putting forward—the origin of con-
science in the individual—is his observation that the protective power
of the totem was sustained by virtue of projection into it and identification
with it. This “psycho-social phenomenon” obviates knowledge of the
source of the object’s real power, substituting this for the rituals sur-
rounding it, and in this way, in phantasy, sustaining control over the
“ TOT E M A N D TA B O O ” R E V I S I T E D 33

environment. (Freud’s concept of primary narcissism, first articulated

in 1914 in “On Narcissism” came a year after the publication of “Totem
and Taboo”. Kleinian and post-Kleinian theory subsequently identified
this projection and identification process as a primary aspect of com-
munication and a primary defence in the individual: “projective iden-
tification”). That is to say, the totem—the animal or plant—possessed
actual, life-giving power—but the way in which the members of the
totemic tribe passed on the knowledge was a psycho-social process
involving projection and identification, which were then embodied in
social ritual, which was itself invested with the life-giving power.
Clearly, since he could not actually observe these processes for him-
self in primitive societies, Freud is making conjectures, but “totemi-
sation” as an everyday psycho-social phenomenon in contemporary
society can be plainly seen. The attribution of protective power to
objects—from flags, statues, and religious symbols, from football teams,
logos, talismans, and keepsakes, to the small, often unconscious, irra-
tional everyday rituals that each of us perform to “protect us and keep
danger at bay”—can be seen anywhere you care to look. In the main, in
western civilisation at least, these totemic symbols do not actually sus-
tain physical survival. Nevertheless, they, and the rituals surrounding
them are unconsciously experienced as maintaining psychic survival,
in the fact of upholding the integrity of psycho-social reality(ies). The
argument here is that the process of totemisation is a fundamental psy-
chic mechanism for both the group and the individual1. With regard to
the earliest emotional experience of the individual, this psycho-social
phenomenon might be described as the “totemisation” of the mother
in infancy, of the person who does actually give life and maintain
physical survival. It is interesting in this regard that Freud had noted
that the totem is “as a rule inherited through the female line” (Freud,
1912–13, p. 104).
The following two observations from Freud’s descriptions of totemic
society are central to my argument for a protective (archaic) superego
that is generically distinct from the oedipal superego.
Firstly, that at the level of primitive anxiety (fear of annihilation) in
the individual, integrity of psychic reality is maintained through totem-
isation. In his later writing Freud suggests that the totemic “state of
mind” is the phylogenetic precursor to the evolution of ego. That is to
say, that ontogenetic development follows the same trajectory: the indi-
vidual mind (ego) evolving from a “totemic” state of mind:

not a few of the child’s new experiences will be intensified because

they are repetitions of some primaeval, phylogenetic experience.
(Freud, 1938, p. 206)

The photograph on the cover of this book was taken in Mohacs, Hungary
during the annual spring carnival of Busojaras (Hungarian meaning
“Buso-walking”). It depicts a local individual wearing a Buso mask,
which in the oldest version of local folklore was worn to scare away
the winter. All over the contemporary world, similar examples can be
found, of annual rituals in which social groups taken on the “likeness”
of the totem, in a group enactment of their power over the life-giving/
life-threatening object.
The clansmen are there, dressed in the likeness of the totem and
imitating it in sound and movement, as though they are seeking to
stress their identity with it. (Freud, 1912–13, p. 139)

Secondly, the idea that the defining feature of a “social system”—the way
it comes into being and the way it is maintained, is the act of projection
into, and identification with, individual members onto a shared external object.
Since the original totems and taboos concerned food and warmth, it
follows that it is social systems that (initially) optimise the chances of
Freud makes this connection between the superego and survival in
“The Ego and the Id”:
The differentiation of the superego from the ego is no matter of
chance; it represents the most important characteristics of the devel-
opment both of the individual and of the species. (Freud, 1923, p. 34)

The totemic clan is in fact not a society, in the sense that a society might
be described as a grouping of individuals; the concept of a “clan” resides
in its quality of “single-mindedness”: that is to say, in the totemic clan
there are no individuals in the modern-day (western) sense.

The primal horde

The totemic clan is not the only group that Freud discusses in his explo-
ration into the origin of conscience in primeval societies. He goes on to
describe “the primal horde”, which lies along a different plane of social
organisation. In the first place, it is a uniquely male grouping, and in the
“ TOT E M A N D TA B O O ” R E V I S I T E D 35

second, it is one in which sexual rivalry (rather than physical survival)

is central. It is in this grouping that Freud identified a taboo that does
not have to do with our ancestors’ relationship to the natural world, but
with their reproduction: the taboo against incest.

… one day the brothers who had been driven out [by the violent and
jealous father who keeps all the females for himself] came together,
[and] killed and devoured their father … [By so doing they] accom-
plished their identification with him, and each one of them acquired
a portion of his strength. (Freud, 1912–13, pp. 140–141)

Freud develops his theory to suppose that the brothers were filled with
remorse after killing and devouring of the father; for although he was
an obstacle to their craving for power and sexual conquest, they loved
him too.
Again he identifies the roots of the individual psyche in social

… the mob of brothers were filled with the same contradic-

tory feelings which we can see at work in the ambivalent father-
complexes of our children and of our neurotic patients. (Freud,
1912–13, p. 142)

In his analysis of Little Hans, whose emotional ambivalence towards

his father brought on the symptom of animal phobia, Freud made the
connection between these archaic social prohibitions and the “two pri-
mal wishes of children” (Freud, 1912–13, p. 131).
However, having identified the taboos that originated in the totemic
clan—those regarding food and warmth and then those that originated
in the primal horde regarding reproduction—the “two taboos of totem-
ism with which human morality has its beginning” (Freud, 1912–13,
p. 143)—he proceeded to drop the first of these without any account for
doing so.

The germ of the institution of matriarchy … was … replaced by

the patriarchal organisation of the family. (Freud, 1912–13, p. 143)

And thus, in one move, he abandons the conjectures he has made

regarding the relationship between the instinct for survival and the

phenomenon of totemisation, obviating it with the taboo on sexual

rivalry. It was this second one that he chose for the basis of the super-
ego. In the 1923 formulation, there is no reference to this primal world
underpinned by fear of death by starvation or disease.
It follows that a key consequence of Freud’s obscuring of “natural”
law in favour of “social” law was that in his formulation of the super-
ego, he did not make a qualitative distinction between primitive and
oedipal anxiety—nor differentiate the nature of the defences against
them. Although the totemic clan and the primal horde share the mecha-
nisms of projection and identification embodied in social ritual, the two
social systems are generically distinct. In Chapter Six I shall argue for
the importance of this distinction in clinical work and show that non-
differentiation of the two, by the analyst, can have profoundly negative
implications for the treatment of patients presenting with a particular
The legacy of primitive anxiety (fear of annihilation) in the individual
is just as evident as oedipal anxiety. The research detailed in Chapter
Two provides abundant evidence of this. In later years, Freud did note
the differentiation of oedipal anxiety from a more primitive anxiety,
which he called “social anxiety.” This was defined as “the fear of a loss
of love” (Freud, 1930, p. 124). He asserted that this “‘social anxiety’ …
preceded the existence of a true conscience or ego” (Freud, 1930, p. 107).
In another later paper, “Future of an Illusion”, he alludes to the primi-
tive anxiety underlying oedipal anxiety in the mature ego: “the longing
for the father is a motive identical with his … [the adult’s] … need for
protection against the consequences of his human weakness” (Freud,
1927, p. 23). However, he did not revise his theory of superego formula-
tion to incorporate the differentiation.
The prioritising of oedipal over primitive anxiety has resulted in the
obscuring of what was, to my mind, an enormously powerful account—
at the very core of Freud’s thinking—of the connection between three
psychological facts of life: the relationship between human beings and
the natural world; the interplay between group and individual psychol-
ogy; and finally, intra-psychic mechanisms.

The ego ideal

I believe that it is in the (confusing) history of the concept of the ego
ideal, which itself slipped unaccountably from view in “The Ego and
“ TOT E M A N D TA B O O ” R E V I S I T E D 37

the Id”, that we can most clearly see how and why the idea of taboos
against the transgression of natural, as opposed to social, law also
slipped from view. (See Chapter Five—Two types of reality-testing for a
detailed argument of the role of the ego ideal.)
The first main criticism (documented in Chapter Two) of the 1923
formulation was that it had abandoned the superego’s protective func-
tion, originally drawn up as the ego ideal, in “On Narcissism” (1914).

Owing to the way in which the ego ideal is formed, it has the
most abundant links with the phylogenetic acquisition of each
individual—his archaic heritage. (Freud, 1923, p. 36)


we shall recognise that it [the ego ideal/superego] is the outcome

of two highly important factors … the lengthy duration in man
of his childhood helplessness and dependence, and the fact of his
Oedipus complex … (Freud, 1923, p. 34)

Freud is here investing the ego ideal with a pivotal role in the link
between individual psychology and its archaic legacy; this link is sub-
sequently lost. It is confusing to follow quite what happens to the con-
cept, as in “The Ego and the Id” Freud uses the terms interchangeably
and, following this paper, drops the concept of the ego ideal almost
completely, substituting the term “super-ego”. To be clear about the
implication of this: in so doing, he dropped the first of the two origins of
conscience: that of the ego ideal/superego as a defence against knowl-
edge of helplessness. Further, this lack of clarity with regard to the ori-
gin and function of the ego ideal and the superego (and also, to the
relationship between them), led to the prioritisation of the “prohibit-
ing” superego and loss of the protective superego. The argument I shall
make in Chapter Four for two generically distinct types of morality
calls for a reinstatement of the concept of the ego ideal, which performs
a different function in each. Freud initially saw the ego ideal as having
a “double” function.

This double aspect of the ego ideal derives from the fact that the
ego ideal had the task of repressing the Oedipus complex. (Freud,
1923, p. 33, my emphasis)

In “archaic morality” it functions as a defence against the reality of

infantile helplessness (in the form of an omnipotent internal object),
and in “ego-forged morality” in the form of a “good” internal object:
an “ego ideal” on which pivots the conscious acknowledgement of dis-
crepancy between the self and the object.
If the original function of the ego ideal is reinstated—and it is my
view that Freud made no case for effectively abandoning it—the two
quite separate sources of the superego in the individual become evi-
dent. These can in turn be said to correspond to the two models of pre-
historic clan/horde.
It will be remembered that Freud did explicitly explore the rela-
tionship between the group and the individual in “Group Psychology
and the Analysis of the Ego” (Freud, 1921). This was eight years after
“Totem and Taboo” and two years before the publication of “The Ego
and the Id”. In this paper, he does not draw on his thinking about
totemic society. His focus is on how the individual emerges from the
group and group psychology begins, in this paper, with the herd, or
what he renames “horde”, instinct. His interest is with group depend-
ence on the need for a leader and the part that idealisation and deni-
gration play in the capacity for psychological separateness. His earlier
observations about how the mechanism of projection in the creation of
the totem—originally evolved from the need to impart knowledge from
one generation to the next in the interests of maintaining life—were not
I shall take the step of incorporating into Freud’s theory of the
superego his early insights that the survival instinct originates in
group behaviour and mentality, and that conscience has two distinct
roots; the second contingent on the robust foundation of the first.
These roots are first, fear of transgression of natural law (acknowl-
edgement that we owe our birth and survival to both nature—food—
and to other people—for feeding and protecting us), and second, fear
of transgression of social law (acknowledgement that stable groups
require strictures with regard to sexual and aggressive behaviour).
In the following section I posit two stages to superego development,
which correspond to these two roots of conscience originally identi-
fied by Freud. In Chapter Six I shall put this re-formulation to the test
on two counts. First, whether such an augmentation of Freud’s theory
has the capacity to resolve the criticisms held against the 1923 formu-
lation. Secondly to discover what account it makes of the particular
“ TOT E M A N D TA B O O ” R E V I S I T E D 39

pathology of my patient group, in particular with regard to their

moral rigidity.

Two stages of superego development

What then connects the totemic society with the development of the
ego? The research mapped out in Chapter Two suggests it is the protec-
tive (archaic) superego that provides a primary experience of integra-
tion through the organisation of experience into patterns and schemas,
thereby regulating anxiety. One could say that the earliest state of mind
within the individual is totemic in the sense of seeking out and idealis-
ing the object that feeds and protects. Robert Caper’s conflation of the
primary object with the archaic superego is in line with this idea. He
sees the essential task of this object to anchor the embryonic ego with
an experience of constancy “in an otherwise terrifying world” (Caper,
2009, p. 82).

[The] parent is the archaic Superego, whose strictures on the opera-

tions of our minds, reflect the strictures that our unconscious infan-
tile selves place, on the mind of the parent on whose constancy our
very survival depends. (Caper, 2009, p. 82)

It is to this superego, the legacy of totemism, that Freud appears to refer

in the following quote:

The super-ego, according to our hypothesis, actually originated

from the experiences that led to totemism. (Freud, 1923, p. 37)

For the sake of clarification, I summarise my three contentions. First,

that in the individual psyche, there exists a priori, an archaic super-
ego, which is the legacy of a primitive, social, survival instinct. It
originates in the fact of man’s mortal dependence upon the natural
world and the way in which, in evolutionary terms, chances for sur-
vival were optimised. Second, that the first incarnation of the ego
ideal originates in the life-giving power of nature: in the facts of birth,
food, warmth, disease, and death. Third, that it is only once a suf-
ficient state of predictability has been established, that awareness of
the “killing and devouring” that the sustaining of life necessitates, can
become conscious.

Each man is conscious that he is performing an act forbidden to

the individual and justifiable only through the participation of the
whole clan; nor may anyone absent himself from the killing and the
meal. (Freud, 1913, p. 139)

My research suggests two stages of superego development.

Archaic (protective)
The archaic superego exists a priori in the psyche: the legacy, within
the individual, of the mechanism of survival in primeval totemic soci-
ety. The first stage of superego development is one in which primitive
anxiety is dominant and defences against knowledge of physical and
psychic dependence will be primary. It is an inherited structure, with
its origin in phylogenetic memory. Archaic (protective) superego dom-
inance is an essential primary stage of functioning during which the
embryonic ego, constantly under threat of being overwhelmed by id
instincts and external stimuli, is anchored. The sense of (an omnipotent)
“self” is afforded by projective identification with the archaic superego
The archaic superego protects the embryonic ego by organising (ini-
tially sensory) experience through the use of modelling and schemata.
With repetition, safe experiences—those that moderate anxiety—are
identified with, giving rise to an internalised totem, the first incarnation
of the ego ideal. This internal object thereby becomes the potential source
of the shared knowledge that is protective. Threatening experiences—
those that generate anxiety in the infant—may then be avoided and
the infant will adapt his behaviour accordingly (will observe taboos).
Psychic equilibrium is maintained through instinct regulation, which,
during this stage of superego development, is a function of the protec-
tive superego. Through projective identification, the infant experiences
himself at one with what is safe and protective. It should be made clear
that there is no inference here of anything “good” in a moral sense, only
“safe”. This stage of ontogenetic development may be seen to have a
parallel in phylogenetic development, of an infant aided by the “shared
knowledge” of its predecessors. In essence, the infant is, at this stage,
a creature corporally, but not psychically, separate.
Ego growth is contingent on sufficient experience of equilibrium
maintenance, alongside the gradual increase in frustration of desire,
for the embryonic ego to risk contesting archaic superego values. The
“ TOT E M A N D TA B O O ” R E V I S I T E D 41

infant’s identification with what is predictable and therefore safe is the

foundational platform on which the second stage of superego develop-
ment is positioned.

Ego-forged (oedipal)
The second stage is triggered by awareness of the discrepancy between
self and object, which itself gives rise to a different type of anxiety. In
a state of identification with its ego ideal (totem) in the first stage, the
immature ego has been protected from knowledge of this discrepancy.
Avoidance has been attained through the systematic disavowal or
denial of unwanted aspects of reality. Knowledge of discrepancy, which
emerges through the gradual increase of frustration, puts the individ-
ual in touch with the “killing and devouring” (its acknowledged use
of objects for feeding and protection) that the act of living necessitates.
This frightening reality, alongside the implicit fact that safety in fact
lies beyond control, gives rise to oedipal anxiety. However, in healthy
development (as opposed to trauma) there are only glimpses of discrep-
ancy and the predominant state is still one of projective identification
with the “totem/protective superego”. Whilst primitive anxiety is still
held at bay, nevertheless frustration and a sense of feeling “closed in”
begins to intensify. (Claustro/agoraphobic anxiety is a common symp-
tom of patients in this stage of development.) Initially frustration of
desire and anxiety about discrepancy can only be safely discharged col-
lectively, that is, towards external objects shared with a group. Ritual,
social expression of idealisation, and denigration (“atonement”) are the
hallmarks of this pre-second-stage of superego development. Emotions
and behaviours are acknowledged, but whilst collectively experienced,
the reality of ambivalence within the individual can be disavowed. Freud
identified this disavowal in group behaviour:

In groups the most contradictory ideas can exist side by side .…

without any conflict arising from the logical contradictions between
them. (Freud, 1921, p. 78)

In normal and phase-appropriate development, the most visible

manifestations of this stage for society in general (that is, outside the
clinical setting) are puberty and adolescence, in the marked oscilla-
tion between euphoria and despair. Euphoria manifests in increased

idealisation of the self and the object: despair in their inevitable

subsequent denigration. Increase in frustration sets in motion a
gradual and incremental shift in response to the previously unwanted
aspects of reality and the discrepancy between self and object that has
felt so threatening. This discrepancy now becomes exciting and liber-
ating, yielding a new experience altogether, that of genuine potency
(as against illusory omnipotence). By this stage, secure in its differ-
entiation of what is safe or threatening to its survival, the still imma-
ture, though no longer embryonic ego, begins to relate in a new way
to experience. This act gives rise to individual acknowledgement of
dependence: the mature ego. This, in turn, is contingent upon toler-
ance of emotional ambivalence, intra-psychically rather than ritually
(inter-psychically), towards the object, whose “totemic” or magical
quality then subsides. The capacity for adaptation and for evaluation
becomes thereby de-instinctualised and, as such, available to the indi-
vidual separate from, but still dependent on, his existence as the member
of a group.
It is this response that gives rise to the oedipal superego. Instead of
projecting outwards into the object, or inwards to a split off part of the
mind, as it has been used to doing, the ego experiences anxiety as a
potentially liberating (rather than potentially catastrophic) challenge to
its beliefs and values. Building on the foundation of “knowledge of dis-
crepancy”, the embryonic ego now finds itself able to de-couple instinct
from thoughts, (sensory experience from phantasy) and the ego’s eval-
uation of its beliefs and behaviours (which are actually archaic superego
beliefs) can now include knowledge of potentially unwanted aspects of
reality. Engagement in, rather than evasion of, this task holds a two-fold
reward. First, a capacity to re-establish psychic equilibrium through the
self-regulation of feelings, both of which encourage the ego in this fresh
dimension to object-relating. Second, the experience of genuine potency
with regard to impact on external objects. Both of these rewards afford
the ego the experience of authentic (rather than “totemised”) control
of self-esteem and self-worth. Repetition of this experience over time
builds the capacity for fuller expression of id-drives alongside the regu-
lation, this time by the ego, of the anxiety that such expression generates.
The ego is thus defining itself in opposition to the protective superego
and specifically to the beliefs and values on which it has believed its
safety to be founded (see Chapter Two for full exposition of this argu-
ment). These values are now increasingly experienced as fixed imprints
“ TOT E M A N D TA B O O ” R E V I S I T E D 43

of past negotiation with the environment and as such, are an obstacle to

ego development. If the embryonic ego is unable to relate to experience
in this new way, processes of totemisation and denigration will inten-
sify, rendering it increasingly difficult and requiring ever more intense
levels of psychic energy to disavow the reality of discrepancy between
self and idealised object. Anxiety becomes imbued with persecutory
and paranoid ideas and the embryonic ego becomes petrified: the object
of its own fear.
Challenge to totem beliefs will nevertheless still generate high
levels of anxiety and much confusion arises for the individual as to
what constitutes “healthy” (ego-determined) as against “unhealthy”
(archaic superego) functioning: learning to differentiate between
primitive and oedipal anxiety. In healthy development, this is typi-
cally seen during adolescence. From a theoretical perspective, the
question arises as to whether values and identifications originate in
the ego or the superego and for a time, it will be unclear, since both
endo-psychic structures are in a state of flux as they renegotiate their
positions relative to each other. However, a clear manifestation of the
ego’s challenge to the archaic superego will be the emergence of an
increasingly robust tier of ego-negotiated beliefs and values. These
will be generated by the assessment of the superego’s values, by the
ego, according to the ego’s own experience of reality (See Britton, 1998).
In liberating itself from the constraints of archaic superego “security”,
the ego simultaneously frees itself from its own un-tested beliefs and
ideas. Imagination may then take full flight without an ever-present
fear of dis-integration.
It is seemingly a paradox that the same endo-psychic structure—the
protective superego—which facilitates the birth of the ego also facil-
itates the capacity of the ego to challenge it. But the augmentation of
Freud’s theory of ego and superego development presented here makes
it clear that whereas the archaic/protective superego is an inheritance
of archaic legacy, the oedipal superego is unique to each individual. The
roots of the archaic superego lie in the imperative for physical survival,
whereas introjection of an oedipal superego is the act of an individual

“Was du ererbt von deinen Vatern hast, Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen”.

“What thou hast inherited from thy fathers, acquire it to make it
thine.” Goethe, Faust, Part I, Scene 1. (Freud, 1912–13, p. 158)

In this chapter I have shown that Freud’s earliest conception of the
superego was of a protective mechanism that has its origin in the sur-
vival instinct and that he explored in “Totem and Taboo”. Positing the
two stages of superego development as my research suggests they man-
ifest in the individual, I have reinstated the two developmental stages
of the ego ideal, and incorporated them into Freud’s formulation of
individual development.
In the following chapter I shall show how this expansion of Freud’s
theory implies two distinct types of morality, which manifest at differ-
ent stages of ego maturation, and which correspond to the two stages
of superego development. These are implicit in Freud’s theory but are
embedded in lines of thought that have remained undeveloped.

Two types of morality

Freud’s pre- and post-1923 thinking about the origins

of conscience and morality
Notwithstanding the conceptual power of Freud’s concept of the
oedipal superego, his formulation of the evolution of conscience and
morality is opaque. This is evidenced, according to the literature,
in the lack of clarity about conceptual differences between the ego
ideal and the superego and about whether mature ego development
is marked by the ethics of the superego or of the ego, as it cannot be
both. In tying the development of morality to sexual development and
gender identification, the formulation of the 1923 superego theory has
remained problematic—as evidenced in the criticisms of the theory by
classical and post-Freudians—ever since its formulation (Arlow, 1982;
Finkelstein, 1991; Jones, 1926; Sandler, 1960; Schafer, 1960; Shecter, 1979;
Stephen, K., 1946; Westen, 1986). “The theory [of the superego] confuses
gender identification with moral internalization” (Westen, 1986, p. 180)
and “… moral development may dovetail with, but not be reducible
to, psychosexual development and in particular the resolution of the
Oedipus complex” (Westen, 1986, p. 199).


As discussed in the previous chapter, Freud originally linked the

origin and development of morality with the prolonged period of phys-
ical dependence in human beings. His exploration of pre-historic socie-
ties in “Totem and Taboo” led him to conclude that “Taboo conscience
is probably the earliest form in which the phenomenon of conscience
is met with” (Freud, 1912–13, p. 66). He also stated in “The Ego and
the Id” that “we shall recognise that it [the origin of the superego] is
the outcome of two highly important factors … the lengthy duration
in man of his childhood helplessness and dependence, and the fact of
his Oedipus complex” (Freud, 1923, p. 34). He posited an earlier stage
of moral development in which individuals act morally only because
of fear of reprisal, not due to conscience, and Freud would presumably
have agreed that “social anxiety”, as he describes it below, is an exam-
ple of “taboo conscience”.

At the beginning … what is bad is whatever causes one to be threat-

ened with loss of love. This state of mind is called a “bad conscience”
but actually it does not deserve this name, for at this stage the sense
of guilt is clearly only a fear of loss of love, “social” anxiety. In small
children it can never be anything else, but in many adults. So long
as they are sure that the authority … cannot blame them … are
afraid only of being found out. (Freud, 1930, pp. 123–124)

Indeed when it came to the complex to which the superego was “heir”—
the Oedipus complex—Freud was categorical about the link between
the survival instinct and morality.

The two fundamental taboos of totemism … correspond to the two

repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex. (Freud, 1912–13, p. 142)


The earliest, but most fundamental moral restrictions—the prohi-

bitions against murder and incest—originate in totemism. (Freud,
1927, p. 22)

However, this type of morality and its relationship to oedipal moral-

ity, was not accounted for in his formulation of the superego, which
was clearly predicated on the interdependence of morality, sexual

development, and gender identification. What have other theorists,

contemporary with Freud and post-Freudian, made of this omission?
Do they observe a morality that is more closely tied to the infantile stage
of physical helplessness than the oedipal fear of castration: in short a
pre-oedipal morality? If so, what, in their view, is the psycho-social
provenance of such a morality?

The pre-oedipal stage of morality—review of the literature

The roots of morality in sensory experience
There is a good deal of evidence linking sensory or corporeal experi-
ence with the origins of morality (see Chapter Two). This has, unsur-
prisingly, for the most part been yielded by the analysis of infants and
young children that post-dates Freud’s work.
This said, in 1925 Ferenczi had coined the term “sphincter-
morality” to describe the following phenomenon: “The anal and ure-
thral identification with the parents … appears to build up in the child’s
mind a sort of physiological forerunner of the ego-ideal or super-ego”.
He goes on to say that “it is by no means improbable that this semi-
physiological morality forms the essential groundwork of later purely
mental morality” (Ferenczi, 1925, p. 378). Spitz (1958), Kestenberg and
Brenner (1986), and Hytinnen (2002) make an explicit link between
physical restraint and superego development. Kestenberg’s research
shows the superego to be a boundary-forming phenomenon that results
from physical constraint in infancy (Kestenberg & Brenner, 1986). Spitz
evidences the links between the boundary-forming imposition of physi-
cal restraint, the child’s capacity for (pre-verbal) differentiation that
results from this, and the development of a capacity for self-criticism
(Spitz, 1958). Hytinnen observes the archaic superego to be existing in
the human mind “on the border between the psyche and the soma”
(Hytinnen, 2002, p. 49). He also quotes the work of colleagues Tor-Bjorn
and Vilja Hagglund in this regard: “the archaic superego is as bodily as
the early mother-child relationship” (Hagglund, T. -B. & V., 1993, p. 84).
The new knowledge that this evidence suggests is that the early
“taboo conscience”, which emerges from the marriage of sensory with
mental experience, is driven by the search for constancy and in this
sense results in dividing experience into “good” and “bad” experience.
However, this is still at least one step away from what we associate with
the concepts of “good and “bad”. Anne Alvarez’s concept of “the good

object of the paranoid-schizoid position” is a helpful one in this context.

Arguing that this “good object” must chronologically precede that of
the good object of the depressive position, she cites clinical evidence
for how it is established through the effective differentiation between
safe and threatening objects. Alvarez is clear that the concepts “safe”
and “threatening” in this context are not to be confused with “good”
and “bad”:

good surprises are as alerting cognitively as bad ones, especially

where frustration and despair have been the norm. (Alvarez, 1999,
p. 167)

Isakower’s view deepens our understanding of how this can be the


There is much to be said for the view that at earlier stages of devel-
opment a close connection exists between the linguistic and logi-
cal concept “right—wrong” (“correct—incorrect”) on the one hand
and the moral concept “right—wrong” (“good— bad”) on the other.
(Isakower, 1939, p. 342)

There is also evidence that this primitive type of morality—in which

there is not yet any differentiation between what is good or bad in
any rational (as opposed to “rationalised”) sense—also knows no
differentiation between reality and morality. Weiss observes that the
“young child does not learn his moral ideas separately from the rest
of his ideas about reality … he assumes that the ways his parents treat
him, in fact, are the ways he should be treated” (Weiss, 1990, p. 663).
The inference of this is that “a young child tends to assume himself
responsible for the traumatic experiences of his early life, including
the traumatising ways his parents behave toward him” (Weiss, 1997,
p. 427). A study by Beres of children placed in foster homes found in
each case that the child assumed he or she was thereby being pun-
ished and that he or she deserved the punishment (Beres, 1958). The
study of obsessional-compulsive patients by Weissman (1954) simi-
larly finds that for these patients reality and morality are equivalent.
In short, the distinctions between on the one hand what is dangerous
and what is morally (in the sense of “ego-determined”) wrong and on
the other, between what is safe and what is morally right, cannot yet

be made. Evidence from research into processes of “mentalization”

corroborates this.

It is noteworthy that the patient’s almost completely unmental-

ized superego is nevertheless incarnate and personified, acting as
an invisible but powerful internal foreign body. In other words,
his generalized intolerance of his affects and needs bears witness
to the silent unconscious and “concretely” felt hateful actions
against them … This level of organisation differs from what Freud
described as the more mature oedipal superego … What is miss-
ing is the mental access to an inner sense of morality-guilt, which
requires the elaboration of the more abstract forms of thinking.
(Bouchard & Lecours, 2004, p. 886)

Thus the evidence suggests that for the individual, the superego origi-
nates in the experience of bodily constraint and that the infant does not
distinguish between “feeling” bad and being “morally” bad. What of
this response to constraint; what purpose does it serve from a psychoan-
alytic perspective? Caper argues that this primary boundary is essential
to the capacity for differentiating sensory from mental experience—in
short, essential to the development of a capacity to think. His thesis
is that the “agent” of constraint is initially experienced as the archaic
superego, existing a priori in the infant’s mind and reflected in the pri-
mary object.

(The) parent is the archaic Superego, whose strictures on the

operations of our minds, reflect the strictures that our unconscious
infantile selves place on the mind of the parent, on whose constancy
our very survival depends. (Caper, 2009, p. 82)

Caper makes a direct link between the primary need for constancy as
the foundation of mental functioning, the role of the primary object in
meeting that need, and the concept of the archaic superego as a founda-
tional structure. To recap, it is in bodily constraint that the infant finds
respite from the internal instincts and external stimuli that threaten to
overwhelm him. However, the evidence of the research indicates that
this state of affairs cannot endure over time: if it does, ego growth itself
will be constrained and beliefs about self and the world will become
pathogenic. This is because in keeping the overwhelming impact of

internal instincts and external stimuli at bay, the archaic superego is

shutting out a great deal more than only what threatens to overwhelm
the instincts.

The (archaic) Superego behaves … like a dull-witted frontier guard

who arrests all people wearing spectacles because he has been told
that one particular person is wearing spectacles … (Alexander,
1925: 24)


Only the ego can remember: the (archaic) superego can only repeat.
(Alexander, 1925, p. 24)

Clinical observations of two types of morality

Psychoanalysts from a wide range of theoretical positions identify two
quite distinct types of morality: an early stage and a more mature level
of moral development. Weissman finds that the distinction between
what he terms the genital superego and the superego of early infancy
is vital because it is structurally different. He proposes the term “undif-
ferentiated ego conscience” for the early stage of morality. His focus is
obsessional neurosis, which he posits is a symptom of archaic super-
ego predominance and the result of repression of the oedipal conflict
(Weissman, 1954). Schecter differentiates the “morality of constraint”
from the “morality of cooperation” (Schecter, 1979, p. 375), point-
ing out that in the former stage, the child “will judge an act as bad
because he is punished for it”, linking this to “the causal thinking of
primitively guilt-ridden adults”—including borderline and psychotic
states of mind. In time, the “morality of cooperation”, which is rela-
tively autonomous, evolves. “Rules are now seen as rational conven-
tions, not absolute or god- given, hence open to change and related to
the motivation and intent of the individual. Punishments become tem-
pered with a higher sense of reasonable justice” (Schecter, 1979, p. 375).
The power of his thesis is its capacity to account for the conundrum that
faces the adolescent who complains that to adopt rational conventions
would be to annihilate his individuality and in this way mistakes what
he perceives as his “individuality” for what is, in fact, an absolute or

“God-given” state. In short, absolute values are clung to as if they are

individual values. Eisnitz highlights the instinctual charge of what he
calls the “incomplete” superego and the relatively neutralised energies
and more abstract values concomitant with superego development.

When the important ideals and goals manifested by an individual

tend to be only those closely connected with instinctualised aims,
this is an indication of incomplete superego development. A super-
ego operating with relatively more neutralized energies would be
likely to show more abstract value systems. (Eisnitz, 1988, p. 157)

Schecter’s phases of “constraint” and “cooperation” closely parallel

Piaget’s concepts of the “heteronymous morality” of the young child
and the “autonomous morality” achieved during pre-adolescence and
adolescent phases (Piaget, 1932). In “heteronomous morality”, the
child sees reality and morality as equivalent, and as fixed and eternal,
stemming from some superior parental or divine authority. The most
immoral acts are considered those having the most serious consequences,
rather than those that reflect malign intent. If a parent or pet dies, the
young child or morally primitive adult may think that his badness was
a causal factor and, in this system, he tends to expect equivalent retali-
atory punishment in the spirit of the talion principle. Schecter coins the
term “cognitive-affective morality” for the early phase, offering, I con-
tend, a causal explanation for the “ego-destructive superego” that will
gain ground if the ego fails to make a stand.

What fertile soil we have in this level of cognitive-affective moral-

ity for the development of persecutory anxiety, chronic guilt and a
sense of “badness”! (Schecter, 1979, p. 375)

Money-Kyrle distinguishes two types of morality or conscience along

the line of obedience as against personal responsibility. He uses the
distinction between the depressive position and the paranoid-schizoid
position to separate out two broad categories of superego (Money-
Kyrle, 1952, p. 228). Money-Kyrle also finds that the superego morality
described by Freud “is predominantly a morality of fear” (Money-Kyrle,
1952, p. 229). Ronald Britton identifies two types of guilt: “the first is
experienced as internal accusation—that is from superego to ego—the
other guilt is an affect of the ego” (Britton, 2002, p. 107). The roots of

our moral sense in the survival instinct are also noted by Jane Milton.
Reflecting on the power and ubiquity of moral issues in the human psy-
che and thus inevitably in psychoanalysis, she suggests that our moral
sense may be an adaptive biological strategy, “… an incredibly strong
human tendency … suggesting that it must have, or have had, a strong
biological survival value” (Milton, 2000, p. 1111).
Recent research shows that humans are disgusted by immoral con-
duct in much the same way as they are repulsed by rotten food. “Results
show that not only do complex thoughts guide our moral compass,
but also more primitive instincts related to avoiding potential toxins”
(Anderson, 2009). The word “disgusted” is frequently used to describe
others’ ideas or behaviour as morally reprehensible and, I suggest, indi-
cates archaic superego dominance.

The literature points to two quite different types of morality. There is
a consensus that although in the child’s world everything is endowed
with moral significance, this is more in line with a “received” rather
than a “negotiated” moral universe. Also that the major driver of psy-
chological development will be the re-evaluation of this moral uni-
verse. Prior to this, the child’s moral framework will consist of beliefs
about his behaviour and others’ perceived responses to it. However
the resulting moral framework will be an agglomeration of rules to
live by: a “survival” morality—and not one that has been negotiated
by the ego. Freud identified a pre-oedipal stage of morality, which he
called “taboo conscience” in “Totem and Taboo” (1912–13), and later
“social anxiety” or “fear of the loss of love” in “Civilization and its
Discontents” (1930a). He attributes this to physical dependence in early
life. Robert Caper has described the sense of safety afforded by the pri-
mary object that is in control of “an otherwise terrifying world” (Caper,
2009, p. 82). This early form of morality is observed clinically, by post-
Freudian practitioners working with infants and young children, to be
driven by the primary need for constancy, and to derive from physical
restraint. Theorists across a broad range of psychoanalytic schools dis-
tinguish two types of morality: one designed to optimise individual
survival and rooted in “archaic law”, the other facilitating fully fledged
co-operation with others and emanating from “individually” negoti-
ated values.

However, these authors have not fully defined this developmentally

early morality as a discrete stage in superego development, nor sys-
tematically researched Freud’s observations about it in the light of his
formulation of the oedipal superego. I take that step below in detailing
the two distinct types of morality implied by my research into Freud’s
undeveloped lines of thought.

Two types of morality

The first kind of morality is the legacy of “taboo conscience”: “pre-
ordained” or “received” strictures on behaviour, which optimise sur-
vival and are therefore not challenged. With the legacy of survival as
an instinct deeply embedded within the psyche, primitive morality is
derived from those aspects of experience that are deemed by the indi-
vidual to be safe as against those that are threatening to their survival.
Objects deemed to be safe will be imbued with (totemic) “goodness”
and those perceived to be threatening will be imbued with (taboo)
“badness”. The first type of morality is thus dominated by the archaic
superego and an instinctualised evaluation of experience. In this stage,
reality and morality are, experientially, indistinct in the following way.
Adaptation to the environment consists in identifying rules, patterns,
and structures of experience. Driven by the instinct to comply and
accommodate, in order to be, and remain, safe, ”morality” (what is con-
sidered “good” or “bad”) is the guideline or yardstick for measuring
this. It is the first stage in the “learning” of reality. In short, reality is
interpreted in moral terms; that is, according to whether or not it is safe
or threatening.
Because these values are experienced as the cement that holds the
world together, the values of the individual cannot be challenged with-
out evoking primitive anxiety. Psychic change will necessitate an ability
by patients to maintain a sense of “cohesion” that does not emanate
from the specific values they attach to their objects. To step outside of
this world is for the individual to risk psychic annihilation. In phan-
tasy it is often experienced as usurping the position of “the ultimate
authority”. The ultimate authority is, in this case, the archaic superego.
Whilst the oedipal myth is primarily interpreted as a cautionary tale
against unchecked desire, (that is, where it is assumed that desire has
not been hitherto inhibited), it is also a parable of punishment for desire

and the search for “truth”. In its initial role as protector of the embryonic
psyche from experience that would annihilate it (“overwhelming
affect”), I contend that the archaic superego plays a protective role in its
withholding of the permission to “know”. Stein notes that “when curiosity
and the acquisition of knowledge are impaired, we generally look for a
superego element in the disturbance.” (Stein, 1966, p. 290). The follow-
ing clinical vignette illustrates the way in which the archaic superego
may be experienced (in this case in the transference) as inert and split
off, yet at the same time, intrusive.
Clinical vignette: The patient reported a dream in which she was
involved with three men (she was coming to three sessions weekly at
this point) whose language she could not understand. She thought they
were meant to be mending or fixing her home, but they thought that she
was there to provide space for what they wanted to do. They ignored
her, talking intently amongst themselves. They were in her house, seem-
ing to think they had a right to be there but did not acknowledge that
they were in her way.

“Ego-forged morality”
The second type of morality is facilitated by the ego’s transformed rela-
tionship with its ideal, where the ego can now make evaluations of the
narrow and rigid constraints imposed by the archaic superego. This is
in accord with Freud’s observation of patients whose lack of ego mat-
uration means that they cannot evaluate experience except according
to whether it is safe or threatening. These patients feel they are being
watched, “all their thoughts are known and their actions watched and
supervised” (Freud, 1914, p. 94). What becomes possible is an experi-
ence of self that is distinct from a morally pre-ordained evaluation of the
self. The capacity of the ego to make its own evaluations is contingent
on the capacity to differentiate between “reality” and “morality”. That
is, the capacity to observe the self in relation to an event, independent
of evaluation. An illustration:
Clinical vignette: Associations to a dream (of imminent “physi-
cal dereliction”—a type of dream common to my patient group—
see Chapter Six for examples) brought to light the fact that a patient
had once much enjoyed the activity of painting. Circumstances had
changed, meaning that the patient had now not painted for many years.
What came to light in the session was that whenever the memory of

the experience came to light in the patient’s private thoughts, it was

immediately judged, harshly, as “nostalgic” and therefore “wrong” and
“bad” and the wish itself as evidence of failure. The communication
to the analyst of these private thoughts—the first time in fact that the
patient had been able to do this—brought with it the realisation that
whilst she held that view, she also held another view, that perhaps it
was not “wrong”; that perhaps to “wish to re-experience her enjoy-
ment” of painting was “right”. The simultaneous holding of these two
views with regard to her wish was, in that moment, tangibly liberat-
ing for the patient. She appeared to experience, momentarily, a mental
space where judgment was suspended and where wrong and right in
relation to her wish, were observed without evaluation. Supporting evi-
dence that this had been liberating followed immediately afterwards in
her reflection that whilst she had always believed she should be “like”
her parents, and her dutiful behaviour along these lines kept the family
peace, any glimmer of a wish/desire that she could actually be like them
was met with a punitive response by an introjected parental imago that
shamed and humiliated her. It seemed that during this session, “wish-
ing” had at last been liberated from its negative charge (associated with
nostalgia and failure), generating an abreactive experience whereby the
patient could think, as opposed to only being able to have “thoughts”
(Bion, 1962).
In theoretical terms, the patient’s capacity to notice the distinction
was due to her experience of relating to an object (transferentially,
the analytic space; in memory, the activity of painting) that was (suf-
ficiently) predictable. It was clear that operationally, the patient’s lib-
eration consisted in the de-coupling of instinct from thinking. This was
an indication of her pushing back against survival reality-testing (for
a discussion of “reality-testing” see Chapter Five) and thus against
“taboo-conscience”. These are linked in the sense that in the first stage
of superego development, reality and morality are undifferentiated.
In ego-negotiated morality—the first sign of which, for this patient,
was glimpsed in this clinical material—a very different use is made of
the ego ideal. That is to say because her wish could be thought about
without an accompanying affect of “badness”, the possibility of tak-
ing up painting again could be considered “right”, or “good”. Once
there has been a sufficient experience of constancy and safety, the ego
ideal is incorporated into the ego in a way in which it can be used
creatively, rather than as a protective boundary (i.e., what I am not), in

particular, fear of usurping the position of “the ultimate authority”. It is

still an ideal but it is no longer idealised. This type of morality is truly
a perspective rather than an apparent objectivity and it emerges from
the dialogue, in the internal world, that becomes possible between the
sense of self that is founded on an experience of constancy/safety and
“taboo conscience”.1 From this point on, the patient began, very gradu-
ally, to make use of the experiences of fear and shame rather than suf-
fering them in a non-productive way.
This capacity of the ego to evaluate through the use of the incorpo-
rated ego ideal from which it has withdrawn projective identification, is
“ego-forged” morality, and it marks the second stage of superego devel-
opment. It is true in the sense that is in line with or in accord with, the
ego’s values. These values are hard-won in the sense that they result
from the challenge that has been made to the prohibitions of the archaic
superego. In summary, “ego-forged” morality is the non- instinctu-
alised evaluation of experience and it is directly evolved from—and
forged through reference to—“taboo” (instinctualised) evaluation of
It needs to be emphasised that what was emerging for my patient
was not acknowledgement of her own hostility and destructiveness
alongside love (emotional ambivalence)—this capacity lay some time
in the future; it was to hold two separate points of view in the same moment.
This gave her the experience of relating to her mind in a new way. The
toleration of love and hate towards the same object has now become a
potential, but my research suggests that this intermittent stage, one of
the capacity for perspective without judgment, and use of the archaic
superego as a “differential”, is the foundation upon which the emo-
tional ambivalence that Freud posited as the defining feature of ego
development, rests.
As with the two stages of superego development, the acquisition
of ego-forged morality does not replace taboo conscience but rests
upon it, mining its existence through challenge to it. The evidence
for this is documented clinically (Schecter, 1979; Hyttinen, 2002; and
Wurmser, 2004) in the capacity for the archaic superego to function as
a “backup” evaluation system in non-pathological development, under
such stresses as severe physical threat to the self or loved ones, dur-
ing stages of emotional development, such as puberty and adolescence,
and in periods of emotional stress, such as childbirth and bereavement.
In this state of mind, the ego, under threat of dis-integration, retreats

“from the front line” and a more primitive morality predominates. It

also explains how it is that, under stress—that is, when individuals in
groups feel threatened—individual morality gives way to “herd” or
“horde” morality.
To my mind a helpful analogy is the magnetic compass in which the
two “layers” function independently, but work together. The archaic
superego represents the magnetic field—a universal, in the sense of a
given orientation—whereas the turning of the compass and the chosen
direction of travel represent the ego, in the sense of individual desire:
separate and distinct from the magnetic field, but also contingent upon
its terms of reference.

Two types of reality-testing

Freud was never finally clear about the apprehension of reality. He
first used the term “reality-testing” in “On the Formulation of Two
Principles of Mental Functioning” (1911). “With the introduction of the
reality principle one species of thought-activity was split off; it was kept
free from reality-testing and remained subordinated to the pleasure
principle alone” (Freud, 1911, p. 221). In “Group Psychology and the
Development of the Ego” he attributes reality-testing to the Ego Ideal.

The fact that the ego experiences in a dream-like way whatever he

may request or assert reminds us that we omitted to mention among
the functions of the ego ideal the business of testing the reality of
things. No wonder that the ego takes a perception for real if its real-
ity is vouched for by the mental agency which normally discharges
the duty of testing the reality of things. (Freud, 1921, p. 113)

In 1923, he re-attributed reality-testing to the ego (in “The Ego and the
Id”). This re-attribution is mentioned only in a footnote in that paper
and without account for his change of mind.


I seem to have been mistaken in ascribing the function of

“reality-testing” to this super-ego—a point which needs correction.
(Freud, 1923, p. 27)

In 1917, Freud had described reality-testing as “among the major insti-

tutions of the Ego” (Freud, 1917, p. 232), which has the

function of orientating the individual in the world by discrimina-

tion between what is internal and what is external … [via that] …
which determines whether the perception can be made to disap-
pear or whether it proves resistant. (Freud, 1917, p. 232)

Clinical observation showed him that the only way in which his patients
could be helped to perceive what is internal and what is external, was if
they could be made aware of distortions in their perception of the outer
world. The way in which this was achieved was the development of
their capacity to observe their own mental processes. However, Freud
was never clear which part of the mind was responsible for “observing”.
Importantly, he did not distinguish the act of “observing” from the act
of “measuring”. That is to say, both the Ego ideal and the superego
were at separate times attributed the function of both “watching” and
When Freud first introduced the concept of the ego ideal in his paper
on narcissism, (Freud, 1914, p. 93) he distinguished between the ego
ideal itself and “a special psychical agency which performs the task of
seeing that narcissistic satisfaction from the Ego Ideal is ensured and
which, with this end in view, constantly watches the actual Ego and
measures it by that ideal” (Freud, 1914, p. 94).
Not only are the activities of watching the ego as against measur-
ing the ego undifferentiated at this point where he first introduces the
idea, they remain so in Freud’s theory. In this chapter I make the case
that the part of the mind that carries out the function of reality-testing
is, initially, the archaic superego. Only at a later stage of psychic devel-
opment is this function taken up by the ego and once this happens, it
is a quite different kind of reality-testing. Critical to my argument is
the fact that whereas for Freud, the process of reality-testing is opera-
tional through the acts of “watching and measuring”, differentiation
between these activities was never incorporated into his theory. It
might be said that it was Freud’s recognition of the link between the
T W O T Y P E S O F R E A L I T Y- T E S T I N G 61

activities that led him to posit the existence of the superego in the
first place. That is, of an agency that measured the ego. However, his
theory suggests that to be watched is to be measured and by implica-
tion that to watch is to measure. This is problematic because when
put together with his formulation of the superego as the introjection
of a moral agency resulting from the negotiation of the Oedipus com-
plex, it follows that the superego’s evaluation is by definition, “good”,
in affording a healthy correction of individual behaviour according
to social mores. It also follows that patients presenting with an over-
critical superego are then suffering from paranoid delusions. The
statement that an over-critical superego is a sign of emotional insta-
bility is undeniably true, but my research and my own clinical obser-
vation shows that the concomitant inference that a healthy ego is one
in which observation and evaluation are undifferentiated, needs to be
The notion that the superego’s values are implicitly “good” in Freud’s
theory is one of the major unresolved criticisms that have been leveled
at the 1923 formulation.

(Freud) bases morality on submission to the introjected parental

superego through fear of castration, implying that what the super-
ego demands is ethically good and that the personality which goes
on being afraid of castration … is a morally better personality than
one which outgrows castration anxiety. (Stephen, K., 1946, p. 27)

It has also given rise to the puzzle, in Freudian theory, about what
role the superego plays in melancholia and why the ego unaccount-
ably “submits” to the superego’s harsh judgment in this illness. The
evidence of my research is that rather than “submitting” as such, the
ego has not yet succeeded in liberating itself from these judgments. Fur-
ther, that a mature ego is defined by its capacity to differentiate between
watching and measuring and to make use of that differentiation in the
forging of its identity. Ronald Britton’s theory of the superego explains
this by saying that the ego is both the place where some phantasies
are granted the status of beliefs and at the same time the place where
such beliefs are judged to be true or false, by reality-testing (Britton,
2003, p. 101). Further, that this latter capacity is achieved by separating
from the superego: by the ego turning its capacity for observation and
judgement onto the superego (Britton, 2003, p. 101).

In Chapter Two I argued that since Freud’s time, the major clinical
preoccupation for Freudians and Kleinians with regard to the distor-
tion of reality has been not so much with reference to oedipal anxiety,
as with reference to primitive anxiety and the defences that arise from
the feared catastrophe of psychic impingement. My research suggests
that the answer to the question: “What is the link between, on the one
hand ‘reality-testing’ and on the other, ‘watching and measuring’”? is
that it is only once an individual is able to make a conscious differen-
tiation between these, that phantasy and reality begin to be differenti-
ated and that reality-testing can evolve as an ego function, rather than
an archaic superego function. A symptom common to all those in my
patient group was an incapacity for differentiation: there was no capac-
ity for observation that was free from judgment (“measuring”) either of
themselves or of others.
Scholars of Freud have noted how he was moved to change his
thinking quite radically with regard to reality-testing. Roy Schafer notes
that in “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” Freud asserts
that the superego tests reality only to retract it in “The Ego and the Id”
(Schafer, 1960, p. 172). Stein (1966) makes a similar observation and,
further, proposed that the superego should be recognised as retaining
the area of reality-testing.

Self-observation and self-evaluation are inextricably linked, and

are intimately involved with superego functions. Therefore, the
superego functions play an essential if indirect, role in reality test-
ing and reality adaptation. (Stein, 1966, p. 275)

The literature cited in Chapter Two documents the breadth and pro-
liferation of psychoanalytic observations of reality-testing in early
development. It is observed, in the clinical setting, to take the form of
adaptation to the environment. In babies, this is observed in the aware-
ness of body-limits and the surface of the skin, to integrate and organ-
ise experience (Alvarez, 1992; Bick, 1968; Kestenberg & Brenner, 1986;
McDougall, 1989; Ogden, 1989; Tustin, 1990). In infants it is observed
in social adaptability (Beres, 1958: “social compliance”, “preceptual
Superego”; Jacobson, 1954: “safety device”; Winnicott, 1960: “false
self”). In adolescents it is observed in the capacity to function simulta-
neously on two levels: Hytinnen observes the discrete psychic space to
which his patients retreat as a defence against the terrifying fantasies
T W O T Y P E S O F R E A L I T Y- T E S T I N G 63

of disintegration of childhood integrity that dominate this stage of

psychic growth. He describes this psychic retreat as the “adolescent
hut” (Hytinnen, 2002, p. 49).
Hytinnen believes that the reality-testing archaic superego exists “on
the border between the psyche and the soma” (Hytinnen, 2002, p. 49).
A number of other theorists have attributed reality-testing to the archaic
superego (Alexander, 1925; Bion, 1965; Caper, 2009; Stein, 1966). Robert
Caper goes as far as to equate the internalised primary object with the
archaic superego and to state that the infant experiences the mother as:

installed in its mind as a controlling internal presence whose view

of reality becomes the only view the infant can safely entertain …
this internal presence is the archaic Superego. (Caper, 2009, p. 81)


Managing the mother’s state of mind becomes synonymous with

survival. The infant’s experience combines a sense of utter help-
lessness with a sense of utter dependence on a force that is at once
ineffable and completely beyond its control. (Caper, 2009, p. 81)

His thinking is in line with the most recent developments in post-

Freudian/Kleinian theory with regard to the archaic superego, which
has a long history but has not been formally incorporated. In 1925,
Alexander described the archaic superego as “the deposit of earlier
adaptations to reality … [which] tends to hold the mental system fast
to earlier schemata of instinct- mastery” (Alexander, 1925, p. 24). The
ego, being the “only endo-psychic structure which can remember”, as
opposed to the archaic superego, which is “bound only to repeat”, has
the task of archaic superego dissolution, because after a certain stage of
development, this serves as an obstacle to its growth. He states that the
curative process consists in overcoming resistances to the ego’s taking
over of the function of the superego and the dissolution of the super-
ego as “the task of all future psycho-analytic therapy” (Alexander, 1925,
p. 13) . Bion too attributes the archaic superego with the capacity of
reality-testing, understanding it to be a “vital” tool for survival.

… the archaic superego: a superego that usurps (or has delegated

to it) the infant’s ego function of reality testing—a new part of

the mind whose views of reality override that of the infant’s own
ego … This archaic internal God, vital for survival when the
infant’s ego is immature, becomes a threat to the infant’s independ-
ent development—its development of a mind of its own—as its ego
matures. (Bion, 1965, p. 38)

Bion also remarks on the way in which the superego “appears to be

developmentally prior to the ego (in schizoid personalities) … and to
deny development and existence itself to the ego”. He also says that
“the usurpation by the superego of the position that should be occupied
by the ego involves imperfect development of the reality principle …”
(Bion, 1965, pp. 37–38). Alexander’s view of how the superego comes
to be responsible for reality-testing is similar to Caper’s view in that,
rather than “usurping” or “being delegated” this function by the ego, it
has this function from the outset and a harsh superego is indicative of
an ego that has been unsuccessful in challenging the fiats of the archaic
superego and has become, one might say, “petrified”, in both senses of
the word.

The Superego … divides the mental system into two parts one of
which is in excellent touch with reality but cannot communicate its
information to the instincts and the other [the ego] … which has no
direct access to reality. (Alexander, 1925, p. 13)

In summary, it is not the ego but the archaic superego that primarily
performs the function of reality-testing.
My research suggests that the reason Freud relegated his re-attribution
of reality-testing to the ego to the status of a footnote in “The Ego and
the Id”, was because although he recognised that his formulation of
the (oedipal) superego implied a new-found directness in the ego’s
relationship with reality, he could not be clear about why reality-testing
seemed to have shifted from being a function of the ego ideal to a func-
tion of the ego. The evidence I have gathered offers some insight. I have
made the case that ego development is triggered by resistance to whole-
sale compliance with archaic superego constraints and have pointed
to evidence that it is only possible to challenge the constraints of the
archaic superego once the archaic superego is perceived as a separate
part of the mind. The new knowledge that emerges here is that whilst
“watching” and “measuring” remain undifferentiated, it is not possible
T W O T Y P E S O F R E A L I T Y- T E S T I N G 65

to perceive the archaic superego as separate from the ego. That is to

say, the archaic superego can only be perceived as a separate part of the
mind once watching and measuring are perceived as discrete activi-
ties. Had Freud retained the protective aspect of the superego (the ego
ideal) as a primary stage of superego development, and therefore with
a function quite distinct from that of the oedipal superego, it would
have been evident that the ego’s new-found relationship with reality (to
which Freud refers in his footnote) was of a quite different order to the
ego ideal/archaic superego’s relationship with reality. It would have
been clear that the more primitive type of reality-testing had the func-
tion of facilitating a sufficiency of congruence between the baby and its
primary object: the only experience of reality that the infant can safely
entertain. This sufficiency is necessary before discrepancy can be toler-
ated without fear of annihilation.
In summary, Freud did not formulate the capacity for differentiation
between watching and measuring as pivotal to ego development. The
fact that Freud did not view this as pivotal meant that the significance
of “reality-testing” as an ego function was not grasped, representing,
as it does, the template for an entirely different kind of relationship to
I formulate below the two types of reality-testing that are implied
by Freud’s theory, incorporating them into the two stages of superego
development detailed in Chapter Three.

Archaic reality-testing—assessing the environment for threat

The first type of reality-testing is a function of the archaic superego that
exists a priori in the mind. It originates in the primitive mechanism
for survival that is embedded at the most profound level of the psy-
che and functions through projective identification with the primary
object. It originates in the “universal protective and destructive power”
attributed to the primary object (the legacy of the totem, which evolved
due to the extended period of physical dependence and helplessness
in humans). Operationally, it facilitates the adaptation of the baby
to its environment. The research of Bick (1968), Ogden (1989), Tustin
(1990), and Alvarez (1999), working with babies and infants (detailed
in Chapter Two) suggests that this works in the following way: sensory
experiences (both id instincts and external stimuli) are differentiated
according to their “safe” or “threatening” properties.1

The ongoing differentiation of “safe” (totem) and “threatening”

(taboo) experiences, facilitates the gradual construction of models and
schemata, which the baby can use to apprehend experience in a way
that lends it constancy and predictability. My research suggests that it is
the archaic superego that tests or negotiates with reality here.
It will be noted that at this stage, the combination of helplessness
and dependence on a force that is beyond its control, gives the baby the
sense that any deviation from the model or pattern that guides it, will
be annihilatory. I posit that the root of the archaic anxiety underpinning
the phantasy of annihilation is the actual experience of its predecessors
who asserted taboo prohibitions as a defence against this knowledge.
It is in just the same way that the baby complies with the taboo prohi-
bitions associated with its primary objects. “Knowledge” of this con-
stant threat of annihilation (of aspects of reality such as vulnerability
to violence, disease, starvation) is defended against through identifica-
tion with the safe/constant object and idealisation (of its powers to pro-
tect), giving rise to the first incarnation of the ego ideal. The constancy
and predictability of the object are the essential qualities of experience
that will result in particular behaviours and responses being deemed
The crucial point needs to be made that “safe” is not to be equated
with “good” in this context. “Good surprises are as alerting cognitively as
bad ones, especially where frustration and despair have been the norm”
(Alvarez, 1999, p. 167). Caper articulates the fundamental necessity for
this constancy in the parent, in his argument that the archaic superego
is located in the primary object. The mother’s “strictures on the opera-
tions of our minds reflect the strictures that our unconscious infantile
selves place, on the mind of the parent on whose constancy our very
survival depends” (Caper, 2009, p. 82). At this stage, the embryonic ego
and the ego ideal are undifferentiated. This first type of reality-testing
exists to optimise the chances for survival, and the ego does not develop
during this phase; its task is to survive catastrophic impingement. The
defining feature of survival in terms of psychic development is the
capacity to differentiate between safe and threatening objects. It needs
to be added that the by-product of the reality-testing that the archaic
superego carries out on behalf of the embryonic ego is the “mastery”
or “regulation” of anxiety. At this stage, there is a high degree of cor-
respondence between reality-testing and anxiety-mastery and both are
archaic superego functions. The equivalent of taboo prohibitions in the
T W O T Y P E S O F R E A L I T Y- T E S T I N G 67

totemic society are—in the individual—the constraints or “strictures”

to which the baby adheres, as it adheres to life itself. (See Chapter Three
for the distinction between “taboo conscience” and “true conscience”.)

Ego-forged reality-testing—“belief-testing”
The ego ideal is a pivotal concept with regard to the second type of
reality-testing. During the first stage, fully “projectively identified” with
the primary object, the infant believes himself to be “at one” with his
environment and “at one” with an invincible ego ideal. The emotionally
healthy infant functions according to a framework of models and pat-
terns that proffers a sufficient sense of predictability and constancy, and
he identifies himself fully with what is “safe” and therefore “good”.
However, this is both a rigid and a narrow mental space. This is an envi-
ronment in which, once sufficient experience of “safety” has been gar-
nered, a price becomes due for this experience of security, namely the
concomitant lack of psychic growth and development. Curiosity and
exploration are not the order of the day in a world where taboo prohibi-
tions dominate and the ego ideal’s protection includes repression of the
Oedipus complex: a withholding of “permission to know”.
In accordance with this, a new type of anxiety begins to be expe-
rienced, this time not the primitive anxiety of annihilation but of the
awareness of the world beyond “totem” and “taboo” and therefore
beyond “safety”—the darkness that lies beyond what is “known”.
Somewhere deep inside him, as well as the sense of unity with his
object, the infant becomes aware of discrepancy; of his smallness and
impotence. This awareness engenders both anxiety and aggression,
which threaten to knock “anxiety mastery” off balance. Initially, the
infant may respond in the same way to this new anxiety, in accordance
with archaic superego “guidelines”, which is to disavow it, split it off.
If so, as ever greater instinctualised forces accrue, the defences of ide-
alisation and denigration are intensified accordingly and unconscious
anxiety will increase. Since, in the meantime, social networks will have
been extended beyond the primary carers, these forces gain momentum
in social expression. The shared passion with which children—from
infancy to adolescence—both lionise, and share contempt for, shared
symbols (obvious totems are the stars of sports, music, TV, and film, and
of taboo, submission to any perceived “authority”), is evident in all soci-
eties. The totem is still external and constructed of shared projections,

but the totem is now explicitly a “shared social object” and taboo
prohibitions associated with it are ritually tested through transgression.
This leads to acknowledgement of discrepancy between the idealised/
denigrated object and the concomitant idealisation and denigration, but
only within the social context. Unwanted aspects of reality, in particular,
individual emotional ambivalence, continue to be disavowed. At this
point, “reality-testing” remains predominantly a function of the archaic
superego. The still immature ego is nevertheless developing through
acknowledgement of new aspects of reality “out there”, but this knowl-
edge is gained within the context of a “herd instinct” and still func-
tions through projection into, and identification with, its objects. As the
agency for “reality-testing”, the archaic superego retains the function of
anxiety regulation.
The second type of reality-testing emerges (in healthy development)
at the point at which frustration with the limitations of the object reaches
a critical point. This process first becomes dominant around the age of
two years, and manifests clearly again in adolescence. In pathological
development, where there is long-standing ego “arrest”, it frequently
manifests as dissociation or de-personalisation. These are states of mind
for which individuals typically seek professional help. In the healthy
psyche, through a combination of frustration with, and despair of, the
object yielding up what is imagined to be withheld, (but, since it is the
product of phantasy, is not withheld but absent), the aggressive instinct
to which this fear gives rise can be owned, and fear of the “unknown”
thus tolerated. The lessening of projective identification brings with it a
shift in the nature of the ego’s relationship with the external world (and
the tempering of its projection into internal objects). With projections
withdrawn or lessened, the object takes on a different nature and the ego
discovers that “reality” is not as straightforward or one-dimensional as
it was previously perceived. In particular, idealisation is for the first
time recognised as such. Up until now, it has been experienced as
“reality” in the sense of being “part of the self”. It is at this point that
reality-testing shifts from being a function of the archaic superego to a
function of the ego, marking the most radical shift in the alignment of
endopsychic structures since the primary survival period dominated by
the archaic superego. As the projections are withdrawn from the object,
and the “ideal” is differentiated from “reality”, it becomes possible to
make evaluations and judgments, independently of the act of observ-
ing. The individual now has the capacity to acknowledge his own act
T W O T Y P E S O F R E A L I T Y- T E S T I N G 69

of idealisation/totemisation. With this acknowledgement comes the

reality of his emotional ambivalence towards the object (and of his
object’s emotional ambivalence towards him). It is the tolerance of this
aspect of object-relating, of the discrepancy between itself and its object,
by the ego, that results in the object losing its totemic quality.
The loss or lessening of this totemic quality of the object has a radi-
cal impact with regard to how the ego then locates itself. Having, with
the acknowledgement of its destructiveness, lost its reference point (the
archaic superego) with regard to beliefs and values, how can the ego
know anymore whether his object is good or bad and whether he himself
is good or bad? With the loss of the psychic structure that has afforded
boundary/differentiation/perspective of any kind in the boundless
world of feeling, and sensation, what reference point does the ego
have? Once again the ego ideal is to hand. Now divorced from its bur-
den of totemic status and thus liberated from the ego’s projective iden-
tification with it, the ego ideal is free for introjection as a fully fledged
internal object. This shift transforms it from its status as a “reaction-
formation” to an integrated part of the ego. The ego’s newfound ref-
erence point is itself. Now it has placed a “stake in the ground” so to
speak, it can locate itself through its relationship to its (experienced,
rather than phantasied) objects.
The ego discovers that far from the overwhelming levels of anxiety
that it (unconsciously) anticipated with de-cathexis from its ego ideal,
(anxiety fuelled by the archaic fear of dis-integration that stretches right
back into its unremembered and unknowable past), there is, in fact,
a lessening of anxiety. In part, this is a result of the decrease in pres-
sure for the ego to attain the same status as its ideal. The discrepancy,
between itself and its object is made use of creatively, as a “benchmark”.
As “absolute” thinking becomes dissolute, aspiration to the ideal has
now become an issue of choice, rather than (habitual) compulsion. The
concept of the ideal is still present, but as a signpost, rather than the
embodiment of protection or destruction.
Through this process, the ego learns to regulate its own instincts. It
learns that anxiety is lessened when there is modification in thought or
behaviour towards its objects (Klein’s concept of reparation). This link
between the lessening of anxiety and modification of thought or behav-
iour is supported by an accrual of (felt) experiences. The correspondence
between reality-testing and anxiety-regulation, which are equivalent in
the first stage of superego development, makes a radical shift at this

point. As the ego evolves its own capacity for reality (belief)-testing, it
simultaneously develops the ability to regulate and manage feelings.
The way in which ego reality-testing operates is to use this newly incor-
porated object to bench-mark or depth-sound itself against, thus giv-
ing rise to, and maintaining, a new triangulated psychological space.
The ego ideal, now installed in the ego as a fully fledged individual-
ised object, can be made use of by the ego like a lens through which
it may position itself relative to its objects by evaluating its own and
others’ beliefs, values, and behaviour. “Watching” and “evaluating”
have become, in this process, differentiated as mental activities: the self
and others may be observed free of affective judgment; evaluation is
driven by considered thought founded on more neutralised instinc-
tive responses. With a corresponding differentiation between reality
and morality, estimations of what is real can now be ever more closely
approximated. Reality as an absolute is of course, unknowable.
The development of this capacity for reality-testing means that the
ego is no longer, as previously, entirely dependent on external forces
for its sense of self-esteem and self-worth. There is mourning for the
lost ideal, which ”does not spell the death of a relationship but only
the death of an idea” (Britton, 1998, p. 37). This mourning makes pos-
sible an acceptance of what has, in reality, been given to the ego, by
the real external object: (physical nurture, compassion, and life itself).
This in turn gives rise to remorse for “destruction” of the object through
incorporation of it. Having survived, and not been annihilated by, what
was most feared—“the killing and eating (usurping) of the Totem/Ego
Ideal”—there is also consolation, in the sense of a newly won stance
against the annihilation fear evoked by the archaic superego.
The archaic superego does not disappear; its power always threat-
ens to, and sometimes does, break through, under either individual or
social stress. For example, Hytinnen shows how, in normal adolescent
development, the archaic superego serves as a “safety hut” into which
the ego can retreat, for a period, whilst stresses on the ego are especially
virulent (see Chapter Two for further examples). But the fact that the
ego has challenged it and survived—and has not, as feared, destroyed
the object—strengthens the ego. There is consolation, too, in the new
experience of a solitude that is not charged with the primitive anxiety
of potential annihilation and, finally, an acceptance that although to live
fully necessitates destruction, the ego can replenish—and be replen-
ished by—its object, through creativity.
T W O T Y P E S O F R E A L I T Y- T E S T I N G 71

… in the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill,
and we are bound to fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we are
unable to love. (Freud, 1914, p. 84)

During the course of normal development, the archaic superego has
the function of reality-testing as part of its role to protect the embry-
onic ego. The forging of the ego consists in taking over the function of
reality-testing, which is only possible once the embryonic ego is able to
differentiate the archaic superego as a separate part of the mind. This
differentiation is contingent on a capacity to differentiate between the
activity of “watching” (or “observing”) from the activity of measuring
(or judging). This distinction, in turn, is contingent on sufficient experi-
ence of object-constancy.
The second type of reality-testing does not obviate the first but is
underpinned by it. This complex idea is effectively expressed by

A stable mental equilibrium seems to me to be something other

than a mere compromise between opposites. It seems rather to
involve a relation between two entities of a different order … the
balance weight to a belief in social organisation is to be found, not
in the absence of regulations and planning, but an insistence on the
richness and depth of individual experience. The individual hate
directed against the super-ego cannot be simply transmuted into
love for its opposite, but can, it appears, take the form of an attach-
ment to some ideal totally other to the primary one.2

(Waddington, 1947, pp. 126–127)2

Just as the ego evolves from the archaic superego, so the ego’s capacity
for reality-testing also evolves by virtue of it: it is the defining feature
of this evolution. Initially, the archaic superego anchors the embryonic
ego through its structural support of the ego’s projective identification
with the ego ideal. Once the ego withdraws this projective identifica-
tion, the ego loses this anchor. The loss of the anchor means the loss of
its reference point with regard to what is “good” and what is “bad”.
The ego ideal, newly liberated from its “totemic” (absolute) status
becomes available to the ego in a new guise. The ego retains the notion

of an ideal, but ceases to idealise it, rendering it available as a way of

calibrating discrepancy between itself and its objects. The ego now has
sufficient experience of “constancy/safety”, to relate directly to real
external objects, which it now does with reference to, and in negotia-
tion with, the values of the archaic superego.
A feature of the Oedipus complex that was very much part of his
thinking, but was not foregrounded by Freud, was the gradual differ-
entiation between phantasy and reality that it documents and that con-
stitutes ego maturation. The second type of reality-testing formulated
here signals the optimal attainment, by the psyche, of the capacity to
negotiate this relationship.
In the following chapter I set this new theory of conscience against
the criticisms of Freud’s 1923 theory (detailed in Chapter Two) to see
how it might resolve them at a theoretical level. I then review my patient
material in the light of “archaic” morality and reality-testing, to identify
implications for treatment.

A new theory of conscience

he archaic superego is the founding structure of the psyche: the
phylogenetic legacy of the survival instinct. It is the founding
structure upon which rests—at the higher individual level of
psychic functioning—the capacity for the more neutralised energies and
abstract values concomitant with mature ego functioning. It is realised
in the infant through corporeal experience, which gives rise to a sense of
boundary. With regard to the external environment, this will principally
be via the eyes and ears (through light and sound) and through the
skin (via physical constraint); with regard to the internal environment,
through bodily sensations, principally the workings of organs such as
the bowel and bladder. Although in essence structural and therefore
neutral as to morality, the infant’s experience of the archaic superego
will be coloured by affective and instinctive responses to these external
and internal sensations as either “safe” or “threatening” to his survival.
Experiences that engender constancy, coherence and integration will be
“safe”. Experiences that evoke anxiety will be “threatening”. In time,
the primary experience of boundary facilitates the capacity for differen-
tiating sensory from mental experience and as such is, in a psychoana-
lytic sense, the cornerstone of the psyche: a prerequisite of the capacity
for symbolisation and thinking.

In the initial stages of development, reality is no more nor less than

the sensory environment, and an archaic morality, or sense of con-
science, evolves from these concrete experiences. Archaic morality has,
in fact, nothing to do with the “ethics” forged through ego development;
it might be described as the by-product of a level of psychic organisa-
tion and functioning that is driven by the survival instinct. This has
been described as “sphincter” and “semi-physiological” morality by
Ferenczi, and by later psychoanalysts as “cognitive-affective morality”
and the “morality of constraint” (Schecter, 1979, p. 375), and an adap-
tive biological strategy. “The basis of morality … ultimately arises from
a biological necessity” (Milton, 2000, p. 1101). Biologists have recently
noted that

our moral compass is guided by primitive instincts related to avoid-

ing potential toxins. (Anderson, 2009)

As the differentiation of sensory from mental experience becomes more

sophisticated, the integrating force of the archaic superego is increas-
ingly experienced as inhibiting. This triggers a drive to challenge (in the
sense of transcend or transgress), the boundaries of archaic conscience
(taboo); the beginnings of ego growth.
If the attempt at transcendence or transgression results in a lessening
of anxiety, the still immature ego has a radically new experience, one
of genuine potency and agency. This also constitutes a radically new
experience of reality as available for negotiation; not absolute. Archaic
superego values can now be challenged as to their “justness” or “truth”;
beliefs previously held to be unchallengeable are put to the test, and
in this way, newly able to “observe itself in relation to an idea” (to use
Britton’s term), the ego begins to forge its identity.
If on the other hand, transgression is met by a heightening of anxi-
ety, the embryonic ego, overwhelmed, will not repeat the attempt. The
rationalisation, by the infant, for this response (which is instinctive, not
rational) is that the anxiety was a punishment for being bad. Because
at this stage of development “morally bad” and “bad” in the sense of
distressed cannot be differentiated, the lesson learnt by the infant is that
to contest boundaries has the potential for annihilation (through over-
whelming levels of anxiety) and must not be repeated. The trigger for
differentiation of itself (ego growth) from the archaic superego, with
which it is predominantly identified, has failed and “reality-testing”
A N E W T H E O RY O F C O N S C I E N C E 75

remains driven by the instinct for survival. The infant becomes the object
of his own fear, thereby setting up an intra-psychic sado-masochistic
mechanism whereby a denigrated “failed, weak ego” and an idealised
“powerful archaic superego” are identified with in turn. A punishment
illness is established in which the ego becomes, and remains, petrified.
In this chapter I shall firstly test-run this new theory of conscience
against the criticisms of Freud’s 1923 theory (detailed in Chapter Two)
to see how it resolves them at a theoretical level. I shall then review my
patient material to identify implications for treatment suggested by the
new theory.

Resolution of criticisms of the 1923 superego formulation

The first main criticism of Freud’s 1923 formulation of the superego was
that it failed to incorporate the “loving and protective” function that
Freud had identified as the ego ideal.
This protective function had been formulated in “On Narcissism” as
a substitute for the lost narcissism of childhood. In Chapter Two, this
protective function is documented in the citing of evidence from clinical
and theoretical literature, which spans eighty years. It is seen to have
an adaptive, organising function, quite distinct from that of the oedipal
superego. It organises through the recognition of patterns, giving rise to
models and schemata. An essential aspect of this organising function is
the regulation of affect, specifically the protection of the embryonic ego
from a surplus of primitive anxiety.
I have argued that this function came to be omitted through Freud’s
conflation of the two sources of conscience (fear of annihilation and
defence against emotional ambivalence/fear of castration). The primary
function of the ego ideal in the mechanism for survival slipped out of
view and thereby obviated, from a theoretical standpoint, the need for a
separate concept of the ego ideal. In doing so, Freud obscures the role of
the life-giving forces: nature/mother. He observes that the totem is “as
a rule inherited through the female line” (Freud, 1913, p. 104) (whereas
the “primal horde” is inherited through the male line) but concludes
that the latter replaces the former. “The germ of the institution of matri-
archy … was replaced by the patriarchal organisation of the family”
(Freud, 1913, p. 143). My research suggests otherwise: that the latter is
founded upon the former. That is, the emergence of the oedipal super-
ego, as the second stage of superego development, is contingent upon

the successful installation of an experience of safety facilitated by the

archaic superego. Freud conjectures that “the [totem] animal struck the
sons as a natural and obvious substitute for their father” (Freud, 1913,
p. 143). The research presented in Chapter Two suggests that it is sym-
bolic of the mother who gave birth to them and nurtured them. Further,
that the remorse that follows the killing of the father is a displacement
of the more frightening remorse that arises from conscious awareness
of the exploitation of life (nature) that survival necessitates (one of the
central premises of Melanie Klein’s theory). Freud dispenses with this
psychological reality rather fatalistically:

The two taboos of totemism with which human morality has its
beginning are not on a par psychologically. The first of them, the
law protecting the totem animal, is founded wholly on emotional
motives: the father had actually been eliminated, and in no real
sense could the deed be undone. (Freud, 1913, p. 143)

Although he does not formulate it in this way, the theory put forward by
James Strachey in his celebrated paper “The Nature of the Therapeutic
Action of Psycho-Analysis” (1934), which argues the case for the ana-
lyst as an “auxiliary superego”, corroborates the theory presented here.
In order that psychic change can be effected, the beliefs that support
the patients’ concepts of “good” and “bad” need to be relinquished, in
order that the capacity for differentiation as value-free may be experi-
enced and the beliefs and values thereby challenged and re-formulated
within the individual, by the ego.
The second area of criticism is that the 1923 formulation of the super-
ego is contradictory in its implication that both the ethics of the ego
and the ethics of the superego, constitute moral maturity. The theory of
conscience presented here resolves this contradiction by positing that
at the first stage of development, ethics are not the primary driver but
only the by-product of a level of psychic organisation and function-
ing that is driven by the survival instinct. In the second stage, ethics
are determined by the ego, challenging the beliefs and values accord-
ing to a different stance with regard to reality. This entails a capacity
for the conscious contemplation of contradictory perspectives in the
same moment. That is to say, perspective may be sustained without
judgment. This is initially made possible by the introjection of the
ego ideal to become a part of the Ego. Neither set of ethics is “good”
A N E W T H E O RY O F C O N S C I E N C E 77

or “bad” in a universal sense; rather they have discrete functions. In

the first stage, the “ethics” of the superego optimise the survival of
the individual by assuring that their “value system” is in line with
their primary guardians and immediate community: these values are
“received”. In the second stage, ethics are forged by the ego with refer-
ence to instinctualised responses, but not determined by them. The fact
that ego values are defined with reference to an internalised bench-
mark that represents an ideal but is no longer idealised, (i.e., defensive)
liberates the ego by offering a perspective whereby it can locate itself
with regard to its objects, other than by its similarity (safe) or difference
(threatening) to them.
The reinstatement in the new theory put forward here, of the ego ideal
as a defence against helplessness, highlights three points. First, it fore-
grounds the active role of the ego in superego development. Secondly,
it affords a central role to the introjection of the remorse—rather than
just “fear of reprisal”—that this second stage entails. Third, it accounts
for the puzzle Freud identifies, whereby the superego “punishes” even
when people are virtuous:

it is precisely those people who have carried saintliness furthest

who reproach themselves with the worst sinfulness. (Freud, 1930,
p. 125)

The new theory accounts for this by differentiating between a “com-

pliant person” and a person whose virtue is not only defined by an
allegiance to authority. The “saintliness” of the people Freud observes
emerges as, in fact, compliance: a repression of ego and a personality
comprised predominantly of archaic superego identifications.
This also offers an account of how it has come to be that “Freud’s
superego” has become synonymous with a punitive, rather than healthy,

Account of clinical profile of a type of patient

according to the two-stage model
For ease of reference, I first repeat the description of the patient group
that gave rise to my research (as presented in Chapter One), high-
lighting “defining symptoms” of their pathology. I then re-present the
clinical material in detail to examine how the new theory of conscience

accounts for this patient group’s experience of successful adaptation to

reality alongside the arrest of ego growth. Finally, I analyse the clinical
material according to the two types of morality and two types of reality-
testing defined in Chapters Four and Five respectively.

Clinical Illustration—highlighting defining symptoms of pathology

The six patients were female adults between the ages of thirty-one
and fifty-nine years old and seen in private practice. It was possible to
infer from the patients’ presentations and from factual life history that
although at the level of everyday care, physical needs had been well
met through infancy and childhood, they had, at the same time, met
with early and ongoing emotional trauma with regard to one or both
parents. Common to their presentation was, in all cases, a high level of
professional (including academic) achievement, a network of friends
and in two cases, a long-standing emotionally intimate relationship.
A striking symptom common to the patient group was their explicit
belief that they were “bad” and that their problems were, and had
always been, self-inflicted and therefore their own fault. They all com-
plained of an almost permanent sense of exhaustion, however this did
not translate into taking time off work; they were hard-working, loyal,
and driven. At the same time, they could never enjoy more than the
most fleeting sense of achievement. Four of the patients suffered from
ongoing obsessive thoughts of suicide. These took a number of forms,
but predominantly manifested in, on the one hand, obsessive planning
for how they would go about it and, on the other, imagining the experi-
ence of doing it.
Initially, these patients were strikingly light-hearted about their rela-
tionship with me. They had only come for therapy because they had
a sense of “something missing”. At the same time, my initial counter-
transference was one of dis-affection, even that the patient might be
right in their assertion that there may be “no real problem” and that
they were (as they themselves believed) “here under false pretences”.
It was characteristic of this group of patients that they feared, particu-
larly in working life, being a fraud and being found out. Three of the
patients used the phrase “double bind” in describing their experience:
that they felt “damned if they do and damned if they don’t”. This
resonated with my discovery that a high percentage of their thinking
consisted in going round in “loops” or, as two patients described it,
A N E W T H E O RY O F C O N S C I E N C E 79

“knots”. During the early stage of treatment they were forthcoming in

their verbal communication, with a confident social manner; compliant
and wishing (and able) to please. They presented with effective capac-
ity for social adaptation—able to “make life work for them”, asserting
that there was “just one problem” that they needed help with and that
is why they had sought treatment. These problems would character-
istically be described and communicated as if they were minor, but
their substance and depth were far from minor. Apart from the above-
mentioned suicide attempts and ongoing suicidal thoughts, they con-
sistently felt “bad” and “worthless”, and believed to a greater or lesser
extent that they should not enjoy, or fully satisfy, corporeal needs, nor
“look forward” to events. Two patients could not bear to feel the sat-
isfaction of a full stomach or being properly warm. All of the patients
consistently denigrated their achievements. Despite the characteristic
sense of “drive” in these patients, all described a persistent “Ground-
hog Day” experience, in the sense of no forward momentum and no
experience of building or accumulation, which had persisted all of their
lives. Despite working hard at their jobs, they described a world in
which there was no “return on their investment”, leaving them with the
feeling of “always starting from scratch”. No amount of effort resulted
in anything more than the briefest abatement of anxiety, resentment, or
bleakness of outlook. At the same time, it was apparent in all cases that
no-one in their professional lives had any sense of this suffering. In two
cases, no-one in their private lives was apparently aware of it either. In
the other two cases, the patients’ immediate partners were aware of the
suffering, to the extent that they found themselves witness to baffling
and on occasions frightening, distress.
The dream-life of this group of patients was thin in both recall and
content. Four of the six patients reported no recollection of dreams
when first presenting for treatment. Those dreams that were eventually
recalled, featured narratives in which basic corporeal needs cannot be
met. A belief common to the patients, which took some months of work
for them firstly to identify and then to articulate, was that they were
holding on to something very tightly as if with a “white-knuckled grip”,
the “letting go” of which they could best describe as being equivalent to
unthinkable betrayal. In one case it would mean unthinkable betrayal
of the patient’s mother, who had committed suicide. In four cases it
would mean betrayal of the patients’ mothers who, despite enduring
emotional and physical abuse (of the patient) had been, and were still,

considered “good” mothers. In the sixth case, the unthinkable betrayal

would be of a race of people (of whom the patient was a survivor) who
had been “ethnically cleansed”.
A final, striking feature common to these patients was that they
appeared to enjoy a capacity for objectivity. This was in the sense that
their use of language suggested that they empathised with others
and, correspondingly, were able to “see themselves” from different
perspectives. This capacity suggested a strong sense of reality.
However, when this sense of reality was put to the test in the clinical
setting it emerged as a “pretence” or “façade”. This, in turn, suggested
that the objectivity was in some way “one-dimensional”. Confronted
with a reality different from their own, such as was met in my inter-
pretations, their response was rapid increase in the level of anxiety
accompanied by dissociation and confusion. Where the patient could
verbalise a response, this was coloured by a rigid moral stance. This
rigidity would either take an aggressive form or a benign form. At
times I would be accused of being immoral, at times I would be
offered “benign guidance”. The latter was expressed unconsciously,
in the transference. An example of this would be an association to
how, as a child, the patient would “show my mother how to do it
properly” (such as brushing her hair or sitting in her lap), showing
their mothers “what mummies are supposed to do”. Experiencing this
in the clinical setting was moving: as infants, these patients had never
had the opportunity to grasp the difference between compliantly
pleasing their object, and the nurturing experience of truly satisfying
their object.
To summarise, despite the patients’ initial presentation of a capacity
for objectivity and effective social adaptation—both associated with a
mature sense of reality—it soon emerged that these patients suffered
deeply rooted emotional dysfunction, which could be broadly diag-
nosed as arrested ego development.

Analysis of clinical material

I have distilled the clinical material to seven “symptoms”:

1. The sense of never achieving anything, despite an energetic drive

that has brought professional standing and “successful” social
A N E W T H E O RY O F C O N S C I E N C E 81

2. Countertransference of dis-affection. The experience of something

3. Belief of being alive under false pretences. Fear of this “fact” being
“found out”.
4. Obsessive thoughts of suicide. Unthinkable fear of betraying the
5. Dream-content: narratives of imminent physical and mental
6. Absolute moral values. Moral superiority.
7. The belief that they are “bad”, their problems are self-inflicted
and their own fault. Thoughts forming “knots” and “loops”. False

How does the new theory of conscience account for the origin and
nature of these patients’ mental functioning? What might new under-
standing suggest in terms of treatment?

The sense of never achieving anything, despite an energetic

drive that has brought professional standing and successful
social adaptation
• Clinical material “I feel that I am running on empty”. “I feel I’m
holding onto something very tightly, but I don’t know what it is”.
“I’m afraid that if I file one card falsely at work, the whole library
will collapse”. “I realise that what I’m doing all the time, in all my
relationships, is ‘managing my mother’”.
• Insight My research suggests that the instinctive drive for ego
development, as a result of being constantly frustrated, becomes
subsumed into ever more vigorous adaptation to and accommoda-
tion of, the “archaic moral strictures” of the object. Failure to sat-
isfy the object (and implicitly the self) is thereby attributed by the
patient to a lack of sufficient expenditure of effort. However what
is being “managed” in the internal world, is a primary object that
can only ever be managed, never satisfied. My research suggests that
these patients’ experience of enduring contact with a demanding
and unyielding primary object is rationalised as “not having done
enough”. As a result, they feel permanently, mentally exhausted.
It suggests that they are permanently engaged in re-enacting their
original “failure” to use their primary object to establish a sense of

safety. In short, their mental functioning is dominated by a primitive

survival instinct. The archaic superego thus retains its function
as a dominant and although unyielding, at least safe, presence.
A patient’s insight: “I realise that what I’m doing all the time, in all
my relationships, is ‘managing my mother’” can be understood as a
description of the “stuck”, self-perpetuating internal object relation-
ship between the embryonic ego and its domination by the archaic
superego. The patients’ experience of holding onto something very
tightly can be understood as their holding onto/being in the grip of,
the archaic superego. It suggests that the exhaustion of doing so, is
tolerated because to let go would be to risk annihilation: the loss of
any psychic structure at all.

Countertransference of dis-affection (something missing)

• Clinical material “I don’t think there’s anything really the matter”.
“You must see people with much bigger problems”. “I had a happy
childhood. I don’t feel I have any right to be here”. “I feel there is a
gaping hole inside me”. “My only real problem is I have a sense of
something ‘missing’”.
• Insight My research suggests that the force of the counter-
transference whereby the analyst finds herself caught up by the idea
that there really is nothing seriously amiss, is directly proportion-
ate to the force of the patient’s archaic superego, silently denigrat-
ing and humiliating the embryonic ego. The evidence suggests that
the patient’s period of identification with the archaic superego is
long past its “sell-by date”; that it is now being used to repress feel-
ings in the service of compliance to perceived parental demands. It
also suggests that the patient’s experience of “something missing”
is an intuitive sense of an emotional experience, vital to develop-
ment, which is, indeed, still missing. This theory can account for the
patient’s belief that if this “one small thing” could be dealt with (with
the implication that everything else can be kept intact), that is all
they need. The evidence of my research indicates that constancy and
a level of predictability needs to be experienced before the archaic
superego can be challenged. Alvarez (1999) has described this as the
experience of the “good object of the paranoid-schizoid position”
as a precondition to the experience of the good object of the depres-
sive position. The experience of true “ego” feelings will be defended
A N E W T H E O RY O F C O N S C I E N C E 83

against to the last, because it will put the patient in touch with the
extent to which she has contributed, and continues to contribute, to
her own illness. This is experienced by the patient as evidence for
her deeply held belief that she herself has caused it. My research sug-
gests that premature interpretation to this effect will cause severe
unnecessary suffering and potentially irreparable damage to the

Alive under false pretences. Fear of being a fraud and being

found out
• Clinical material All of the patients initially expressed fear of being
a fraud and of being “found out”, particularly with regard to their
professional lives. Analysis subsequently revealed a belief com-
mon to all the patients that they did not feel entitled to be alive. In
each case, their mothers had communicated, verbally or otherwise,
that the patient’s birth had been the cause of mother’s depression
and distress. “I know that I’m afraid of being a fraud so I seek out
• Insight My research suggests that the protective archaic superego
that has proved such an invaluable resource as a defensive mecha-
nism, is at the same time now experienced unconsciously as a mask,
a fraudulent disguise. It suggests that my patients are unconsciously
aware that their psychic integration is facilitated by a carapace. Fur-
ther, that this carapace is founded on and held together by, pure
will. This deepens insight into their sense of holding onto some-
thing with a “white-knuckled grip”. It also suggests that the cara-
pace masks a terrifying unconscious belief that if their sense of self
is challenged, any experience of purpose to life, already precarious
and fragile, will be completely obviated. In theoretical terms, it is
as if the “modelling, organising” capability of the archaic super-
ego is somehow fused with the “social” self that defines emotional
maturity (Winnicott’s fifth definition of the False Self?), trapping the
embryonic ego inside, terrified in equal measure, of being and not
being, discovered.

This insight offers a workable account of the patients’ presentation of

the co- existence of successful socially adaptation alongside a “petrified”
embryonic ego.

Obsessive plans for suicide or self-harming. Unthinkable fear

of betraying the object
• Clinical material Four of the patients consistently planned for sui-
cide or self-harm and two regularly self-harmed. After some months
of analysis, all the patients were found to hold the belief that “get-
ting better” would constitute unthinkable betrayal. In one case this
was of a mother who had herself committed suicide; in four cases of
mothers who, despite regular emotional and physical abuse (of the
patients as children), were considered “good” mothers; in the sixth,
the unthinkable betrayal of a race of people who had been “ethnically
cleansed”. “The idea that it’s my mother’s fault scares me”. Over a
period, one patient would, during sessions, repeatedly check that her
mobile phone was turned off for fear of her mother “overhearing our
• Insight As stated above, according to my thesis, these patients feel
themselves to be in the vice-like grip of the archaic superego to
which they owe their initial and ongoing survival. At the same time,
exhaustion, despair, and, above all, loneliness, continue to build,
causing confusion. This is clearly an untenable situation, but suicide
itself is not a solution because this would constitute a challenge to the
strictures of the archaic superego, a force whose morality is impec-
cable. To identify badness in the primary object (archaic superego)
is experienced by these patients as betrayal akin to the usurping of
the highest authority. These patients believe that to identify badness
outside of themselves is equivalent to cutting themselves off from
the “life-saving” moral strictures that maintain their survival and
thus to demonstrating ingratitude. At the same time, to allow the
experience of satisfaction would engender a similar terror of hav-
ing betrayed the primary object. Planning for suicide or self-harm
is then the only way to manage the experience of living: of ongoing

Dream-content: fear of physical and mental dereliction

• Clinical material The dream-content of this patient group, for the
first year to eighteen months of analysis was broadly of two kinds.
First, difficulty accessing a toilet, or food, or difficulty locating stable
floors or walls. Second, of physical dependence on “mindless” objects.
Common scenarios for the first kind are those in which the patient
A N E W T H E O RY O F C O N S C I E N C E 85

needs to urinate or defecate but cannot find a toilet, or, finding one,
it is blocked. With regard to food, of being hungry and coming upon
food that has all been eaten by others, or is found on closer inspec-
tion not to be real food or is in a room that is inaccessible. Of floors
and walls that do not perform their due function: floors with holes,
walls whose plaster keeps falling away. Common scenarios for the
second kind are of being in the presence of people who have control
over the patient, but have no minds. People with mouths but no eyes,
or “zombies”: “mindless savages with no remorse or consequence”.
I feel “hollow/bad inside”.
• Insight The co-incidence of such dreams in individuals who appear
to enjoy successful social adaptation is one of the most striking
symptoms. The anxiety of these dreams, whose content expresses
unconscious fear of physical and mental dereliction, is primitive
and archaic, correlating with the evidence of my research that these
patients’ internal worlds are dominated by primitive anxiety. Fear
of “mindless savages with no remorse or consequence” may then
be understood as the experience of a primary object whose non-
responsiveness is experienced unconsciously as “savage”. Caper
might describe this as “the infant’s experience combines a sense of
utter helplessness with a sense of utter dependence on a force that
is at once ineffable and completely beyond its control” (Caper, 2009,
p. 80). The research suggests that the individual has remained in this
infant state, continuing, despite the competent adult “facade”, to
have a self predominantly made up of archaic superego, rather than
ego, identifications. As this can “only repeat”, not remember, the
embryonic ego is enslaved to it and the mindlessness that patients so
fear, is of course (also) their own.

Absolute moral values. Moral superiority/rectitude

• Clinical material “Although at school, another girl might bully me
by sticking a pair of compasses into my arm, I would remain calm
and say nothing, knowing that I had the moral high ground”. “I real-
ise that I feel directed by an authority—then I realise when I think
about it, that it’s me!”. “I realise that although I don’t respect my
boss, I crave her praise and fear her disapproval”. “ I’m not allowed
negative feelings, I never have been. If I do have them, I don’t feel
it’s me.”

• Insight My research suggests that my patients are dominated by the

first type of morality: “taboo conscience”. It can be inferred from this
that they occupy an internal world whose fragile sense of security is
enjoyed at the cost of rigidity and the shutting out of new experiences.
Accusations of immorality in the analyst’s attempts to introduce a
different perspective can then be understood as the expression of
“taboo conscience” in the sense that the interpretation is experienced
as “unsafe”. From the patient’s point of view, the analyst is indeed
being immoral in not conforming to the constraints of the patient’s
internal world. The analyst is breaking the taboo just as the patients
experienced themselves to be breaking their mothers’. In this object
constellation, the patient is identified with the mother as the archaic
superego and the “embryonic ego” of the patient is projected into the

The patients’ belief that they are “bad”, that their problems are
self- inflicted and, therefore, their own fault. This sequence of
thoughts forming “knots” or “loops”. False objectivity
• Clinical material “I am my own ‘suicide bomber’”. “My own brain
is working against me”. “I don’t believe in God, but the God I don’t
believe in is very powerful”. “My mother was depressed because I’d
done something wrong.” “I know I’m in a sort of ‘totalitarian’ state,
but I’m afraid of abandoning the issues”. “If I take in what you say,
I shall be collaborating: I shall be like a spy or double agent.” “The
consequence of putting judgment into suspense would be lethal”.
“I feel bad, I have to do something to make myself feel better, which
I’m ashamed of then, that proves that I am bad”. “I seem to have a
lot of different versions of myself and don’t know where I’m coming
from”. “I have the feeling that what I’m talking about has no relation-
ship at all to what I’m thinking about”.
• Insight The idea that if the patient takes in what is said, she will
be collaborating with something lethal—and yet finds herself filled
with the compulsive drive to do just that—illustrates a “loop” or
“knot” of thoughts that dominate psychic functioning. Similarly,
the belief that “feeling bad” proves the “fact” that “I am bad”. My
research suggests that these patients have never differentiated the
subjective experience of feeling bad from the objective judgement
A N E W T H E O RY O F C O N S C I E N C E 87

of “being” (morally) bad: they have no capacity for differentiation

between a moral evaluation and an experience of self: between judgment
and observation. In short, they have no capacity for objectivity.

Further, it suggests that these “loops” are a defense mechanism

against the experience of feeling. To be emotionally engaged with is
to be beaten, abused, or humiliated; to be shamed, frightened, suf-
focated. The reason that the patients defend against this is because
the history of their experience of feeling is that it “damages” or
“distresses” their object. It suggests this in the following way. The
patient, as an infant, had an experience of “feeling bad”. This expe-
rience was reacted to, by the primary object as being (morally) bad.
As a result, the patient has learnt “not” to feel, and to substitute
judging for feeling.
This contributes to the understanding of “taboo conscience” as a
“morality”, as a libidinal response to the safety or threat of the envi-
ronment, and one that does not originate, like “true” morality, from a
libidinally neutralised evaluation of beliefs or ideas. Whereas “objectiv-
ity” can be viewed as evidence of dimensionality in the internal world;
for these pre-oedipal patients there is no internal dimensionality. Expe-
rience is always instinctualised/libidinised. Risk-taking is driven by
fear, rather than curiosity, and the “social self-confidence” is similarly
driven by fear. These patients are not “driven” but “hounded”. The fact
that the patients’ sense of reality is not substantiated by a foundation
in a mature ego gives rise to intense anxiety and fantasies both of being
found out and of falling apart. This anxiety results from a symptom
common to this group of patients: a discrepancy between their belief
that they are independent and self-contained and the fact that they feel
isolated, exhausted, and increasingly despairing: that is, not independ-
ent or “self-contained” at all. Feeling and believing are to all intents
and purposes, undifferentiated: a state that is symptomatic of archaic
superego dominance.
The suffering they experience from this permanently “depleted”
state is rationalised as “due punishment” for what they perceive as
“damaging” wishes and so a sterile momentum of impulse and pun-
ishment is set in train. That is, the patient interprets her experience of
deprivation as her inability to attain the standards set by her superego.
A state of deprivation is rationalised as a state of inadequacy.

Summary of findings with regard to two types of morality

The patients’ sense of morality can be described as archaic. That is to
say, they lack the capacity to evaluate their own and others’ behaviour
except with regard to a sense of safety or threat. “Good” and “bad”
have the flavour of “fact” rather than being the result of evaluation.
Their internal world is dominated by phantasies of imminent physi-
cal and mental dereliction (which has, in fact, already happened)
and by primitive rather than oedipal anxiety. These are all kept in
place by the fear of betrayal, ensuring that no change or growth can
intervene. What is so striking about these patients is the loyalty they
demonstrate to the very part of their mind that persecutes them. My
research indicates that their loyalty is underpinned by the belief that
what persecutes them is, nevertheless, also the foundation of their
psychic structure. This underlying fear manifests as a rigid moral
stance. To the extent that they are “right”, their reality is reinforced
and they therefore feel safe. But at the same time, their arrested ego
development means that they have no capacity for evaluating any-
thing beyond its properties as safe or threatening to their sense of
equilibrium. This engenders in them a feeling of stasis in the sense
of experiencing no cumulative progress, as if each day is begun with
the same hand of cards, the playing of which seems only to result in
being dealt, once again, the very same hand of cards. This in turn gen-
erates anxiety, which the archaic superego becomes successively less
able to contain. Unable to occupy any positions other than the high
ground of “moral” superiority and the abyss of denigration, analytic
treatment leads eventually to the acknowledgement that their actual
experience (of independence and lack of agency) is contradictory to
their beliefs about it. Awareness of this discrepancy threatens to put
them in touch with the psychic reality that their sense of agency has
no substance. The discharge of libidinal energy that results from the
challenging of these defences frequently manifests as dissociation or
depersonalisation, accompanied by panic attacks or ideas of suicide.
It was experiences of this kind that triggered these patients’ initial
request for treatment.
The clinical material above illustrates the early stages of treatment
of my patient group. In addition to ever-intensifying symptoms, what
brings these patients for treatment is the hope that perhaps other people
A N E W T H E O RY O F C O N S C I E N C E 89

do not live their lives in this way and an idea that there can be another
way of experiencing and relating to, the world.

Summary of findings with regard to two types of reality-testing

My results show that the patients’ apprehension of reality is domi-
nated by a survival instinct: surviving rather than living. Although
articulate, intelligent, and passionate, they engender, at the same time,
a feeling, in the listener, of being helpless and dependent on a force
that is beyond their control. They are constantly either despairing or
anxious, expecting and guarding against the possibility of humiliation.
Their relationship to reality is one of persistent scanning and monitor-
ing of their objects for signs of threat. The results suggest that their
adaptation to reality is, albeit “effective”, of a highly rigid and narrow
nature; that it is carried out by an archaic superego at the cost of ego
repression. Ego repression has become a character formation—that
is, their psychic functioning consistently reignites and maintains this
state of affairs. “I am bad, my problems are self-inflicted and therefore
my own fault”. Their engagement with the external world is princi-
pally led in a kind of survival mode, where their sense of reality is lim-
ited and rigid and response to any challenge of it is imbued with the
same primal fear that holds it in place. Their capacity for adaptation is
therefore one-dimensional; is in fact, not adaptability, but compliance.
This phenomenon can be accounted for by the observation that the
reality to which they refer is defined by its congruence (or incongru-
ence) to their sense of psychic integration. At this stage of emotional
development, feeling and believing are, to all intents and purposes,
undifferentiated, as are “watching” and “evaluating”. This accounts
for their sense of something “missing”, which is actually is due to the
discrepancy between their belief that they are independent and self-
contained and the fact that they feel isolated, exhausted, and increas-
ingly despairing.
With a sense of self comprising predominantly archaic superego
identifications, my patients’ sense of reality is archaic , that is, cast
in terms of a system of beliefs and values that increasingly restricts
their thinking and behaviour, but that they do not know how to con-
test. Skilled in accommodation of, and adjustment to, their objects,
their presentation to the outside world as intelligent, competent,

and co-operative personalities, tragically suggests nothing of their


The “new theory of conscience” presented in this chapter incorporates
Freud’s earliest thoughts about the origin and nature of morality. His
abandonment of this insight, specifically the loss of the protective func-
tion of the superego led Freud to a theoretically unsound conflation of
the concepts of the ego ideal and the superego. The two major theoreti-
cal problems which this raised and which I have documented in previ-
ous chapters—how to account for evidence of a protective superego in
clinical work over the ensuing decades and the contradiction inherent
in the concept of an oedipal superego which is more morally mature
than the Ego—are resolved by the new theory.
A review of the case material from my patient group indicates that
these individuals, remain emotionally immature; in the grip of an archaic
superego that should have been challenged long ago. The very “lifeline”
to which they cling—their robust sense of morality—is the very struc-
ture that imprisons them and that they need assistance to liberate them-
selves from. They live in a state of deprivation but rationalise this as
punishment for what they perceive as “damaging” wishes, completing
a circle of deprivation. This loop, like the proverbial “cracked record”,
catches each time on their reasoning that they are being punished for
failing to attain the standards set by their superego. What is in fact a
state of deprivation is rationalised as a state of personal inadequacy.

Concluding remarks

n the introduction to this book, I put forward the case that in
everyday life, judgment as to what is right or wrong, that is to say,
the taking up of a “moral position”, is as frequently made by indi-
viduals on the basis of what is perceived to be personally safe or threat-
ening as it is through appeal to any other principle. I have argued, with
reference to his earliest understanding of the roots of conscience that
this was also Freud’s belief. His view was that conscience originates
in the relationship between the individual and the primary protective
object: the totem. I have shown that notwithstanding this, his 1923 for-
mulation of the oedipal superego neglected the idea that the superego
had its origin in the survival instinct. I have argued for, and formulated,
its reinstatement, and in so doing, have found that augmentation of the
concept of the superego along these lines yields two distinct stages to
superego development: an archaic superego that, in healthy develop-
ment gives rise to a superego negotiated by the ego. Research of clini-
cal material, predominantly from the past half-century and analysis of
clinical material from my own practice suggests that mature superego
functioning is distinguished by the way in which “moral evaluations”,
about both individuals and society, are made by an ego that is forged
through challenge to archaic superego dominance. I found that the

differentiation of these two stages of superego development implies

two types of morality. I have taken care to emphasise that attainment
of the second does not mean that the first is somehow dispensed with.
On the contrary, ego-negotiated morality defines itself in reference to sur-
vival morality. In cases of immature superego functioning, we find that
a petrified embryonic ego has become trapped in a state of deference to
survival morality.
Does a distinction between archaic and ego-negotiated morality mat-
ter, either in clinical work or for the clearer understanding of society?
In clinical work, do we not seek to interpret the deepest anxiety of the
patient at any given moment of the session; an aspiration that renders
the distinction void? I believe the distinction is vital for two reasons.
The first has to do with the analysis of patients with a particular clini-
cal profile. The second has to do with the application of psychoana-
lytic understanding to the increasingly complex impact of unconscious
forces in society. I will set out these arguments and conclude with some
applications that my argument suggests.
It was my work with a particular type of patient that motivated my
research for this book: outwardly successful individuals who seemed
well-adapted to reality but in fact suffered severe and debilitating
symptoms. Treatment was successful to the extent that each patient
managed to loosen their exhausting grip on an archaic superego that
was constricting their growth. Persecutory anxiety lessened over time,
idealisation and self-denigration lost their seductive power; under-
standing of and responsibility for the part they had been playing in the
relentless but unwitting subjugation of themselves was accessed and
worked through. Glimpsing a different way of relating to experience,
they were able to risk adopting a different stance vis-à-vis reality. This
was rewarded with an experience of living that allowed for genuine
and lasting impact, relieving their sense of fraudulence. The sense that
they were always on the point of missing something was dissipated.
They felt more “light-hearted” about life, no longer feeling consistently
bad. It will be remembered that common to this group of patients, on
presentation for analysis, was a lack of capacity to differentiate between
feeling “morally bad” and “bad” in the sense of distressed or unhappy.
Amongst this patient group, one had received the psychiatric diagnosis
of a borderline personality disorder, another of obsessional compulsive
disorder, and three had been prescribed anti-depressant medication.
Three of the patients suffered from ongoing obsessive thoughts of

suicide. These took a number of forms, but predominantly manifested

in, on the one hand, obsessive planning for how they would go about it
and, on the other, imagining the experience of doing it.
Another aspect of my motivation to carry out this research was the
realisation that my approach to patients with a similar profile had at
one time been rather different. Assuming that defences against oedipal
anxiety (rather than primitive anxiety) were dominant, I interpreted
the patients’ interest in therapy as a search for something or someone
who would support and strengthen their defences and that our work
would consist in showing them that this belief was itself a defence.
I interpreted assertions that their problems were not very serious as an
attack on their dependence and vulnerability. My principal responsi-
bility to them as patients was therefore to identify and articulate their
hostility and self-destructive attacks and lay bare the mechanisms by
which they operated. This would release them from their mental state
of primary narcissism. With this model in mind, I interpreted aspects of
their relationship to their successful careers as a manic defence against
depression and simultaneously an attack on their objects, whom they
envied. I interpreted denigration of their achievements as a defence
against their craving for admiration, and resistance to the anxiety that
accessing their feelings of being small or impotent would engender.
I understood their sense of being “fraudulent” as unconscious aware-
ness of having constructed an edifice that left them without authentic-
ity or a sense of agency.
My view now is that in some, perhaps all, of these cases, an
acting-out of their earliest object relationship was taking place in the
consulting-room: that their primary object did not actually want them to
survive. According to the theoretical framework presented in this book,
sado-masochistic object relations (with an archaic superego) are already
deeply rooted and well-exercised in such patients; my perceived alli-
ance with this punitive superego therefore presented them with a ter-
rible impasse: to abandon analysis (and thereby to abandon any hope of
cure) or experience the horror of dis-integration, with the added twist
that they had risked seeking help, against instinct, only to find their
worst nightmare waiting for them. This is precisely the kind of scenario
with which a cruel—in the guise of protective—superego torments the
mind, declaring: “You see? I have always told you that your unhap-
piness was due to the fact that you are bad, and this finally proves,
beyond all doubt, that this is true.”

The fact that my work with the patients whose material is discussed
in this book was successful does not prove that it was my differentiation
between two types of conscience and focus on primitive rather than
oedipal anxiety that was responsible. However, the evidence of their
improvement does support this hypothesis, as does the substantial evi-
dence of the practitioners whose work is detailed in Chapter Two.
To avoid the risk of damage to such patients, the assumption should
be made, at the initial assessment, that the anxiety being experienced
(consciously or unconsciously) is primal, rather than oedipal. It will
quickly become apparent if oedipal anxiety is in fact dominant, with
negligible damage to the patient. The worst outcome is that the patient
finds the therapist too “intense”, not right for them, and seeks another
referral. On the other hand, if it is assumed that the anxiety is oedi-
pal and is, in fact, predominantly primal, the analyst will be identified,
unconsciously, as an ally with their archaic superego, which in patients
with this profile, will be inordinately tormenting and cruel. The primal
anxiety, unaddressed, will intensify, but completely out of view of the
analyst: sado-masochistic relating is second nature to such individu-
als. Attendance at sessions and payment of bills for analysis may be
punctual, not due to a “working alliance” but as a way of keeping the
terrifying object from engulfing them, forever. In addition, what analyst
is not susceptible to a compliant patient? What results is a pathological
analytic relationship that even supervision can easily miss.
A clinical vignette, in Chapter Three, illustrates the very first signs
of a shift from domination by the archaic superego to the vivification of
a petrified ego. The patient experiences, momentarily, a mental space
where judgment is suspended and where she can contemplate her mem-
ory without judging it. Crucially this is followed, minutes later, by the
insight that whilst her parents had always decreed that she should be like
them, any glimmer of hope or desire that she could actually be like them
had consistently been met (originally by the object and subsequently by
an introjected object), with a punitive and humiliating response. What
the patient experiences in making the shift is the capacity for insight,
thereby beginning the liberation from her psychic incarceration, a
confounded place where the “dutiful” response to a command is met
with punishment and humiliation. In this instance, an interpretation
of oedipal anxiety and an attack on the parental couple, as a defence
against vulnerability and dependence, would have reinforced the
patient’s guilt at having such a desire, indeed having any desire at all.

The only safe place is to “want nothing”, be psychically dead. Instead,

the analyst needs to make the link for the patient between the capacity
for a mental space where judgment is suspended and the insight that
follows this. The analyst’s first task, presented with such an incarcer-
ated mental state, is to begin the process of showing the patient what
value-free contemplation feels like: something they will have never
before experienced. This needs to be done in a way that interprets at a
deep level, but with a light touch. The lightness of touch is important
because it minimises the risk of further entrenching the punishment-
seeking illness: engaging the patient’s curiosity without exciting their
persecutory fantasy. For such patients, the challenge to their reality is
very frightening indeed.
This is, of course, only the beginning because patients with this clini-
cal profile are particularly vulnerable to the fantasy of betrayal, by and
of their object. Their vulnerability to paranoia, fantasies that the thera-
pist is malign and out to trick or exploit them, will all come into play,
and will take some years to work through, but at least these can become
manifest, show themselves in the light of day, rather than remaining in
the shadows, with possibly the worst outcome: complete, and worst of
all, hidden, loss of hope.
My change of view with regard to patients with this profile came
about through the experience of listening to them and trying to remain
open to understanding. What can be said then about my original view
and how it was formed? My own insufficiently analysed primal anxiety?
According to the argument I am presenting here, yes. But is there fur-
ther insight to be gleaned about the nature of the superego my patients
were meeting in my consulting room. In what sense was it “mine”? The
theory I am presenting states that a superego that has not been negoti-
ated by the ego remains a totem, the “received”, or archaic superego of
an idealised group. One of the most dangerous situations that can arise
in the consulting room is one where a patient, “held hostage” by a tor-
menting superego, is met by a therapist who themselves remain, despite
their training analysis, dominated by just such a superego. Freud had
much to say about “totemisation”. Alongside his belief that the axis of
what I have termed “safe” versus “threatening” developmentally pre-
cedes that of “good” versus “bad”, Freud stated that the “totemic” state
of mind, initially projected by the individual onto the earliest groups
of parents and family is later transferred to other social groups. These
are typically political or religious but will include all and any groups,

for example, those bound by adherence to a particular psychoanalytic

school of thought. Jane Milton has written of the dangerous potential in
psychoanalytic institutions for “smug self-righteousness and sense of
belonging” that such adherence may afford and how it can be bought
“unfortunately at the cost of loss of scientific objectivity and creative
thinking”. “It is time for the Ego of Psychoanalytic Theory to challenge
its fear of ‘usurping’ the authority of the ‘great and the good’” (Milton,
2000, p. 1111). This is a serious matter, for in these cases, the intensity
of the unconscious processes in the therapist by which the continued
incarceration of the patient’s ego will be secured, is matched only by
the intensity of the probably irreparable psychic damage the patient
will experience. Only one other outcome is possible, that the patient
participates in the idealisation; perhaps deciding that they too, wish
to train as a psychoanalyst! In short, no individual is exempt from
the power of these unconscious processes and this is the bad, but also
the good, news that psychoanalytic thinking, at its best, can offer. The
clinical vignette referred to above illustrates how a mature morality
is founded on the capacity, first, to tolerate, and then to make use of,
two conflicting perspectives simultaneously; that is, to use emotional
response to the simultaneity to make evaluations about one’s own or
others’ behaviour. Analytic trainings have a responsibility to ensure
that trainees/candidates are in possession of such a capacity by the
time they qualify.
With regard to whether a distinction between archaic and ego-
negotiated morality matters for the clearer understanding of society,
I believe it is useful in many areas other than the practice of psychoa-
nalysis. Just as in psychoanalytic trainings, vigilance is required in all
areas of society to ensure healthy challenge to the establishing of a
“moral” code that seems secure and reassuring but whose protection is
bought at the cost of independent thought. The most powerful and ter-
rible nature of moral codes that are not challenged is seen when actual
bodily survival is threatened. It is perhaps the only explanation, at a
psychological level, for the horrific cruelty with which entire racial or
religious groups are massacred entirely on the grounds of difference.
Closer to home, and far from the horror of genocide or religious wars,
it helps us to make sense of those influences of religions, cults, and
political ideologies of all kinds where protection, in the form of exclu-
sivity, is destructive. To make sense indeed, of any situation where indi-
viduals, caught up in a culture of “totemisation” lose touch with their

humanity towards others and themselves. An understanding of the roots

of conscience in survival shows us that these are not, psychologically,
individuals; rather they are in thrall to a state of mind (manifested by
the group) in which psychic independence is itself, taboo.
Does this mean that all individuals who experience a sense of belong-
ing are not, psychologically, individuals? The answer is, of course, no,
and this brings me to how the differentiation of two types of morality
is helpful in distinguishing two types of group. The primary group is a
survival group. In Chapter Five, I discuss Freud’s idea in “Totem and
Taboo” that the defining feature of a social system is the act of projec-
tion into, and identification with, individual members onto a shared
object. Since the original totems and taboos optimised physical sur-
vival, it follows that it is social systems that (initially) optimise the sur-
vival of individuals. My argument in this book has been that it is this
state of mind that is dominant in the infant, a priori, as a phylogenetic
legacy. In this sense neither the new-born baby, nor the “blind devotee”
of any given ideology are individuals in a psychological sense. Indi-
vidual thinking, freedom from the “morally pre-ordained self” has to
be worked for, through challenge to received values. To challenge is not
to disregard those values, only to consider one’s own or others’ behav-
iour independently of survival anxiety. These received values might be
the best to adhere to in the circumstances: the possibility of choice is the
defining feature. Groups made of individuals who have this capacity
constitute quite a different kind of group, what Bion would call a group
free of “basic assumptions”; a work group “anchored to a sophisticated
and rational level of behaviour, suitable to the fulfilment of the aims
individuals wish(ed) to pursue” (Bion, 1965, p. 65).
In society in general, lack of attention to the unconscious mechanism
of “totemisation”—resulting in “turning a blind eye” at an institutional
level—has in the most recent past led to serious social problems such
as the sexual abuse of minors in care homes, the Church, and, most
recently, it seems, within the British Broadcasting Corporation; collusion
in drug-enhanced sports performance; financial corruption in banking;
and racial violence on the football pitch. Clear thinking about what con-
stitutes independence of mind provides a framework for thinking about
and acting upon, misconceptions of “individuality” and to the capac-
ity to distinguish the “healthy” from the “unhealthy” group. Sir Alex
Ferguson, addressing English football fans recently, made just such a
differentiation in reminding them that although superficially they may

look the same, “friendly rivalry” is profoundly different to the stance

of “embittered enemy”. His choice of words is helpful in reminding
us why it is that archaic morality so often outstays its useful period,
and this is the ever-present human capacity for blame, resentment and
If we are to continue to challenge rigid states of mind that inhibit
full and open thinking, and to which individuals and nations alike are
equally and ever inclined, then a clear understanding of those forces
that give rise to and maintain rigidity seems a worthwhile endeavour.
It takes hard work to attain independence of mind, and, by its nature,
it must be constantly re-earned. Although the sense of security afforded
by totemisation has to be continually renounced, there is neverthe-
less security to be had in the knowledge that the emotional health
and mental stability of others, is the primary source of nourishment to
one’s own.

Chapter One
1. An entire edition of Psychoanalytic Inquiry in 2004 was dedicated to this
subject, declaring the concept defunct as a clinical tool and of interest
only as an historic theoretical concept. This is with the notable excep-
tion of Leon Wurmser, who refers to the power of the superego in its
capacity for primitive affect-regulation. He observes it clinically as a
kind of “back-up system that comes into play when trauma, having
evoked the most profound sense of helplessness, causes a collapse of
‘Ego’ affect–regulation”. (Wurmser, 2004, p. 201)
2. “We find repressed and unconscious, the stages which we still observe
in primitive people: cannibalism and murderous tendencies”. (Klein,
1927, p. 175)
3. I shall argue that if he had formulated the oedipal superego as heir to an
archaic, “totemic” superego, thereby integrating the ideas he explored
in “Totem and Taboo” with the development of his theory of narcissism,
it would have been clear that there two distinct stages in the develop-
ment of morality.
4. Chasseguet-Smirgel’s book The Ego Ideal—A PsychoanalyticEssay on the-
Malady of the Ideal” (1975) is a notable exception. However she essen-
tially explores the concept only as the “ideal ego” and as a feature of
primary narcissism.
100 N OT E S

Chapter Two
1. My thanks to Robert Hinshelwood for drawing my attention to Karin
Stephen’s work.
2. “Another factor, besides the influence of the system Pcpt., seems to have
played a part in bringing about the formation of the ego and its differ-
entiation from the id. A person’s own body, and above all its surface, is
a place from which both external and internal perceptions may spring.”
(Freud, 1923, p. 24)
3. Although he did not attribute the instinct to the superego, Ferenczi also
observed in his patients “[a]n instinct of self-preservation, life instinct
[that] inhibits the disintegration [brought about by splitting] and drives
towards a new consolidation … It is very difficult to make a conception of
the true essence of this instinctual factor and its function. It is as if it could
command sources of knowledge and possibilities which go infinitely far
beyond everything that we know as faculties of our conscious intelligence.
It assesses the gravity of the damage … seems to have some knowledge
of events distant in space and to know exactly at what point to stop the
self-destruction and to start the reconstruction”. (Ferenczi, 1930, p. 231)

Chapter Three
1. A contemporary example, in 2013, is the protest riots that have been
held in Belfast over the decision in December 2012 to limit the days
when the union flag flies over Belfast City Hall.

Chapter Four
1. One might say that archaic morality serves to forge and protect a sense
of “me” as an entity (i.e., as against “not-me”), whereas ego-forged
morality serves to differentiate “me” as a unique individual.

Chapter Five
1. How is the differentiation made, given that the infant has not gained
sufficient cognitive capacity for this to be a “conscious” act? Robert
Caper offers a persuasive explanation in his idea that an ordinary sen-
sory stimulus and a traumatic one is only a matter of degree. This last
is a complex idea, effectively expressed by Caper with an analogy to
the eye and its response to light: “light of a certain intensity gives rise
to a visual sensation when it strikes the retina, but light of a sufficiently
great energy … will case traumatic blindness”. (Caper, 2009, p. 77)
2. My thanks to Robert Hinshelwood for bringing Waddington’s work to
my attention.

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adaptability 25 archaic morality 5–6, 11, 53–54, 74

capacity for 27 and ego ideal 38
adolescent hut 62 clinical vignette 54
Alexander, F. 8–10, 18, 21, 28, 50, 63 archaic reality-testing 65–67
theory of superego 26–27 helplessness and dependence 66
Alvarez, A. 8–9, 23, 62, 65–66 primitive survival mechanism 65
concept of good object 47–48 archaic superego 5–6, 18, 29
“A Meta-psychological Description as frontier-guard 21
of the Process of Cure” 26 development of 40–41
Anderson, A. 52 obsessional neurosis and 21
anxiety primary function 11
claustro/agoraphobic 41 protects embryonic ego 40
ego experiences 42–43 psychic structure and 8–12
Klein’s superego and 4–6 serves as safety hut 70
oedipal, premature interpretation vs. healthy superego 43
of 10 Arlow, J. A. 16–17, 45
persecutory 7 autistic-contiguous mode 24
phantasied attacks of parental
couple 10 basic unity 24
phylogenetic 9 being bad 2, 6
primitive 26 being good 2


belief-testing 67–71 early superego 4, 7

Beres, D. 16, 18, 20, 48, 62 organisational elements of 18
Bick, E. 23–25, 62, 65 ego see also superego
Bion, W. R. 55, 63–64, 97 Britton’s idea of 10
body superego 22–25 capacity of 56
Bouchard, M. 49 cohering force and 22
Brenner, I. 19, 22–23, 47, 62 development of 27, 42–43
Britton, R. 8, 10, 28, 43, 51, 61, 70 embryonic 18, 43
Building out into the Dark 9 infant 21
Busojaras 34 values of 28–29
ego-destructive superego 27
capacity for differentiation 23, 62, 65 ego-forged morality 11, 54–57
Caper, R. 8–10, 19, 21, 28, 39, 52, ego-forged reality-testing 67–71
63, 66 and anxiety-regulation 69–70
theory agent of constraint archaic superego and 70
49–50 development of capacity for 70
claustro/agoraphobic anxiety 41 function of archaic superego 68
clinical profile, of patient group limitations of object, frustration
12–14 with 68–69
dream-life 13 loss of totemic quality of object
sense of something missing 12 69
cohering force 22 regulation of instincts 69–70
compliance 25 ego growth 40–41
conscience 3 see also morality ego ideal 36–39
evolution of see evolution of and superego 37
conscience archaic morality and 38
Freudian psychoanalytic theory Freud’s concept on 37–39, 60
and 3 original function of 38
Freud’s thinking of 45–47 Eisnitz, A. J. 19, 51
healthy or mature 2–3 emancipation 10
influenced by social conscience embryonic ego 18
2–3 Emde, R. N. 17, 102
primary state of 6–7 endo-psychic structure 25, 43, 63
correct moral judgement 2 environment for threat, assessment
counterpoint to chaos 19, 25 of 65–67
eupathy 27
“damaging” wishes 87, 90 evolution of conscience
“depleted” state 87 clinical considerations 6–7
Deutsch, H. 25 gap in psychoanalytic
differentiation 5 understanding of 1–4
dream-life, of patient group 13 healthy conscience 2–3
dynamism 20 theoretical considerations 7–8

Fairbairn, W. D. R. 7 incomplete superego 51

false self personality 20–21 “Inhibitions, Symptoms and
compliance and 25 Anxiety” 4
fear of annihilation see primitive Isakower, O. 48
Ferenczi, S. 22, 47 Jacobson, E. 19–20, 22, 62
Finkelstein, L. 16–17, 19, 45 Jacobson’s superego 20
Freud, S. 3–5, 11, 16, 31, 36, 43, 54, Jones, E. 16–17, 45
71 “justness” 74
analysis of Little Hans by 35
concept of body superego 22 Kagan, J. 17
descriptions of totemic society by Kalsched, D. 8
33–34 Kestenberg, J. S. 19, 22–23, 47, 62
work on ego ideal 37–39 Klein, M. 4
work on reality-testing 59–61 Klein’s superego 4–6
Freudian psychoanalytic theory psychic structure 5
3–4 supplanted concept 4
Freud’s thinking, of conscience and
morality 45–47 Lecours, S. 49
Furer, M. 17 Lichtenstein, H. 20
Little, M. 24
genuine potency 42
Goodman, S. 20 mature ego 61
Grotstein, J. 19, 22 McDougall, J. 23, 62
presents clinical observations of mentalization 49
superego 25 Milton, J. 52, 74, 96
Ground-hog Day experience 13 Money-Kyrle, R. 3–4, 10, 17, 51
“Group Psychology and the Analysis moral agency 17
of the Ego” 38 moral sense 51–52
groupthink 2 “moral” code 96
morality 1–9 see also conscience
Hagglund, T. -B. 47 archaic 5–6, 11
Hagglund, V. 47 clinical observations of 50–52
healthy conscience 2–3 correct moral judgement 2
stable mental state and 2 ego-forged 11
healthy superego 27 Freud’s thinking of 45–47
vs. archaic superego 43 heteronomous 51
heteronomous morality 51 of fear 3
Hoffman, M. L. 17 pre-oedipal stage of 47–52
Holder, A. 18 roots of, in sensory experience
Hytinnen, R. 19, 23, 28, 47, 56, 62–63, 47–50
70 stage of 6–7

superego 3 pre-oedipal stage, of morality 47–52

survival 52 clinical observations of morality
theory of 8–12 50–52
type of judgment and 1 roots of morality in sensory
types of 53–57 experience 47–50
morality of constraint 50, 74 pre-oedipal superego
morality of cooperation 50 capacity of 19
“morally bad” 74 functions of 19–22
mother’s strictures 66 organising and modelling 19–21
service of adaptation 21–22
obsessional neurosis 21 primal horde 34–36
oedipal anxiety 4, 41, 43 primitive anxiety 26, 33
dissolution of 16 legacy of 36
premature interpretation of 10 lessening of 28
vs. primitive anxiety 36 prioritising oedipal over 36
oedipal superego 2–3, 5 vs. oedipal anxiety 36
concept of, contradiction and primitive survival mechanism
inconsistency in 16–18 32–39
development of 41–43 ego ideal 36–39
Freud’s concept of 45–47 primal horde 34–36
phase-appropriate development projective identification and 33
41–42 psycho-social phenomenon
Oedipus complex 3, 46 32–33
feature of 72 projective identification 33
Ogden, T. H. 24–25, 62, 65 capacity of ego and 56
“On Narcissism” 15 ego’s 69, 71
On the Origin of Species 32 lessening of 68
over-critical superego 61 primitive mechanism for survival
patient group sense of self by 40
capacity for objectivity 14 protective superego 15–29
clinical profile of 12–14 body superego 22–25
dream-life of 13 clinical literature as evidence of
sense of something missing 12 18–22
petrified ego 6, 8, 26, 94 oedipal superego 16–18
Piaget, J. 51, 103 on narcissism 15
potency, genuine 42 psychic place 23
pre-autonomous superego schema psychic structure 5
18–19 Alexander’s theory of superego
preceptual superego 18, 20 and 26
pre-moral superego 19 archaic superego and 8–12
pre-oedipal phenomena 18 loss of 69

Psychoanalytic Inquiry (2004) 27 concept of 3–4

psychoanalytic theory, Freudian 3–4 criticism of Freud’s theory of
psycho-social reality, integrity of 33 27–29
curative process and 9
reality-testing 59–72 “dynamism” and 20
and anxiety-mastery 66 ego-destructive 27
archaic 65–67 ego ideal and 37
clinical observation and 60 healthy 27
discrete psychic space 62–63 incomplete 51
ego-forged 67–71 Klein’s see Klein’s superego
Freud’s re-attribution of 64–65 moral agency 17
overcritical superego, patients oedipal 2–3, 5
with 61 organising aspect of 20
watching and measuring of ego protective see protective superego
60–62, 64–65 stages of 5
superego development, stages of
“safe” 1, 5, 9,11, 29, 40, 42, 48, 53, 39–43
65–67, 73, 77, 88, 91, 95 see also archaic (protective) 40–41
“threatening”, “unsafe” ego-forged (oedipal) 41–43
safety hut 70 ego growth 40–41
Sandler, J. 16–18, 27, 45 ontogenetic development 40
Schafer, R. 16–17, 19–20, 27, 45, 62 phase-appropriate development
Schecter, D. E. 16, 19–20, 45, 50–51, 41–42
56, 74 superego morality 3
Schur, M. 104 survival morality 52
self and object, discrepancy in 42
self-care system 8 “taboo conscience” 46–47, 52, 87
sense of cohesion 53 taboo prohibitions
sense of self by 40 primary objects 66
service of adaptation, mastering of in totemic society 66–67
instincts in 21–22 transgression and 68
social anxiety 36 “The Ego and the Id” 3
Solint, A. 104 theory of conscience
sphincter-morality 22, 47 analysis of clinical material 80–82
Spitz, R. 18, 22–23, 47 moral superiority/rectitude
Stein, M. 16, 54, 62–63 85–86
Stephen, A. 22–23 superego formulation 75–77
Stephen, K. 4, 10, 16, 45, 61 symptoms of pathology 78–80
Strachey, J. 76 two-stage model 77–78
strictures, mother’s 66 “threatening” 1, 5, 9, 11, 29, 40, 42,
superego see also ego 48, 53–54, 65–66, 73, 77, 88, 91,
archaic 5–6 95 see also “safe”

“Totem and Taboo” 31–44 undifferentiated ego conscience 21,

overview 31 50
primitive survival mechanism “unsafe” 86 see also safe
superego development, stages of Waddington, C. H. 71
39–43 Weiss, J. 48, 104
totemic clan 34 Weissman, P. 18, 21, 48, 50
totemic society, Freud’s Westen, D. 16, 45
descriptions of 33–34 white-knuckled grip 13
totemisation 33 Winnicott, D. W. 7, 21, 25, 62
totemic clan 34, 36 Wurmser, L. 16, 56
taboos of, origin 35 concept of superego by 22
totemic society, Freud’s descriptions
of 33–34 “zombies” 85
totemisation 33
triangulation 8
“truth” 74
Tustin, F. 23–25, 62, 65