Resilience from a psychoanalytic perspective

In 1932, addressing a gathering of medical students, Sigmund Freud made the famous and often quoted statement “where Id is, there ego shall be” (New Introductory Lectures). For a long time, before I read Freud more closely, I took this to mean that over time the ego could be trained to better dominate the unwieldy Id and that he was really talking about domination of the impulses.

As a review, the ego is that part of the mind with which we are most familiar. It is the seat of our conscious thoughts, sense of the here and now and the experience of the ourselves at any given moment. The Id is the source of energy in the mind; all the instincts and drives as well as the parts of ourselves that we find uncomfortable or unacceptable. (As a side note, Freud’s language was much more familiar and less scientific than the Latinized “ego” and “Id” suggest. Freud’s translator, James Strachey, wanted the theory to sound more scientific and so dressed up the English translation using Latin terminology).

At any rate, my initial understanding of this famous phrase could not have been more wrong. Freud was not suggesting that we increase our censorship and banish more of our experience to the Id, he meant the opposite; that as the ego grows stronger, more of the Id can be tolerated in our everyday lives. This enables us to benefit from all the energy of the Id and function more flexibly.

Anger is a good example of this process. Many of us are uncomfortable feeling anger and even less comfortable expressing it directly. We are led to believe, through growing up, that it is impolite to express anger so we squelch it at every opportunity. The problem is, there is a lot of energy to be had in anger and anger can be an important signal that our needs are not being met. If we divert anger out of our awareness and into the Id, we loose this resource and impoverish our ego.

This is not to say that we should be yelling at people all the time or making unreasonable demands. Rather, we should learn to tolerate anger (and all of out feelings) without resorting to defenses that negate reality and squelch anger.

If the Ego can be strengthened so as to tolerate all our feelings, comfortable as well as ugly, then we expand the Ego and allow it occupy territory once claimed by the Id. We function more flexibly, get overwhelmed less easily, and experience life more fully. That is resilience from an analytic perspective.

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