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210 Clinical Concepts and Theoretical Developments I Ego Psychology/Superego – 3 seminars

Seminar Leaders: J. Deutsch, MSW; Dr. J. Fernando; D. Carveth PhD RP

Course Description

The Superego

The goal of this course is to introduce clinicians to the very rich contributions psychoanalytic theory and practice have made to understanding the development and functioning of conscience in individual psychology and in society. Prior to Freud’s insights which were based on his vast clinical work, knowledge about conscience and morality came from philosophy, religion, history and literature. The data for these contributions, the field of observation, was personal intuition, logic, observations of social behavior. At present, the study of conscience also involves the fields of sociology, anthropology, criminology, and the neurosciences.

Psychoanalytic contributions are unique in that they derive from long-term work with individuals, from the words ordinary people use to express what they think and feel. This allows for an understanding of the life-long development of conscience and of the many ways conscience functions in individual psychology, in interpersonal relationships, and in groups.

The goal of this course is to understand conscience from a number of psychoanalytic perspectives: its development throughout the life cycle, its unconscious and conscious components, conflicts around conscience, guilt as one of the major anxieties and as a motive for defense and of character formation, superego pathology and intermittent functioning of conscience, social influences, usable guilt and the capacity for concern.

Understanding the superego is particularly important in the clinical relationship. Guilt is a powerful motive. Working as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst involves self-knowledge about one’s own moral values and sensitivities: particularly important is knowing one’s own feelings about being helpful or unhelpful, being self-observant about one’s own feelings in encountering other people’s realities.

The superego presents clinicians with an aspect of psychology laden with strong feelings and with the great complexity of psychological and social processes. In this course, it is particularly helpful to focus on in-depth discussions of individual cases in order to tease out a way of working and of understanding such a central aspect of psychological experience. The trajectory is to move from clinical work to the relevant theoretical literature. The readings aim to show how the superego manifests itself in everyday life and in clinical work.

Course Objectives

  1. This course deals with an important aspect of human psycholgoical functioning and after attending it students will be better able to integrate the psychoanalytic theory of development of morality, and defects in its functioning in adults, into their clinical practice (1.1).
  2. After taking this course, students will be able to recognize the clinical presentation of, and formulate interventions related to, morality, reponsibility and the internal (superego) aspect of power dynamics as they manifest in the therapy, thus fostering this aspect of the safe and effective use of the self (4.3).
  3. Be able to foster client autonomy (4.2) by exploring the roots of their issues with morality and responsibility, including their tendencies to avoid realistic guilt and responsibility.

Seminar 1

The superego as it appears in individual behaviour

The following articles clarify how the superego appears in behaviour. The cases illustrate the intrapsychic underpinnings, including some developmental determinants, and how the superego is experienced as unwanted, as stressful and painful and warded off in a range of ways. The Furman paper illustrates how children can be helped to have a well-functioning superego. The following papers show how uneven or pathological superego functions interfere with the ability to be introspective and with a realistic perception of others. The clinical papers point to what is helpful to work on in treatment.

Required Readings

Freud, S. (1916). Some character types met with in psychoanalytic work. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 14 (pp. 309-332).

Furman, Erna (1980). Transference and externalization in latency. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 35, 267-284.

Seminar 2

Developmental and structural perspectives

These two articles are unusually rich in detail about clinical cases and well illustrate the theoretical complexity of the superego. The papers provide detail about how the superego changes from early childhood through adulthood and how it profoundly influences relationships and the way people perceive reality. In addition, the papers are clinically very helpful as there are clear descriptions of therapeutic interventions and how interpretations are helpful in disconfirming pathogenic beliefs. The second session of this course also includes a video excerpt from the last scenes of Mozart’s operas Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. The scenes depict the very flawed superego of Don Giovanni – a narcissistic character incapable of perceiving the reality of other people, incapable of feeing guilt. In contrast, the Count in The Marriage of Figaro comes to feel genuine remorse and concern about the hurt he has caused. The two scenes also convey other areas of psychological functioning that interact with the superego.

Required Readings

Fernando, J. 1997. (1997). The exceptions. Structural and dynamic aspects. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 52, 17-28.

Novick and Novick. (1994). Post-oedipal transformations: latency, adolescence, and pathogenesis. Journal Of American Psychoanalytic Association, 42(1), 143-169.

Seminar 3

Guilt, conscience and the superego

The goals and Objectives of this seminar are to: (1) review, critique and revise aspects of the psychoanalytic theory of guilt and the superego; (2) question Freud’s (1923) decision to make conscience a superego function instead of a separate structure or function of the mind thus making it difficult to focus upon conflict between the superego and the conscience; (3) review varieties of guilt and become familiar with the idea of the “guilt substitute” (masked guilt in a range of conditions that on the surface appear to have nothing to do with guilt); (4) observe Freud’s contradictory attitude toward the superego, calling for its “demolition” as a central contributor to psychopathology, yet at the same time seeing it as a necessary bulwark against the barbarous forces of the id threatening the thin veneer of civilization; and (5) explore what is meant by a “non-judgmental attitude” in clinical work. Does it mean “turning a blind eye” to the ethical dimensions of the patient’s behavior? If not, what?

Required Readings

Carveth, D. (2010). Superego, conscience and the nature and types of guilt. Modern Psychoanalysis 35(1), 106-130. Online here:

Carveth, D. (2015). The immoral superego: Conscience as the fourth element in the structural theory of the mind.” Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis / Revue Canadienne de Psychanalyse 23(1), 206-223.
Online here:

Carveth, D. (2013). The Still Small Voice: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Guilt and Conscience. London: Karnac Books.

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