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Why we should stop conflating the superego with the conscience

Abstract

Freud’s decision to merge conscience into the superego has made it difficult to study conflict between them. While the superego comprises aggression turned back against the self, identification with the aggressor, and (often immoral) internalized social norms, conscience emerges from early libidinal attachments and identification with the nurturer. The distinction between superego and conscience is grounded in the Freudian and Kleinian distinctions between Thanatos and Eros and the paranoid-schizoid and depressive or reparative positions. While Freud, Alexander and Ferenczi all viewed the analytic cure as involving the demolition of the superego, mainstream psychoanalysis, following Strachey, has preferred superego modification to recognition of a separate conscience, failing to understand that it is only on the basis of conscience that one can know in which direction the superego needs to be modified. The social and cultural as well as the clinical import of these distinctions is explored.

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Correspondence to Donald L Carveth.

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Carveth, D. Why we should stop conflating the superego with the conscience. Psychoanal Cult Soc 22, 15–32 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/pcs.2016.13

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Keywords

  • superego
  • conscience
  • persecutory guilt
  • reparative guilt
  • borrowed guilt
  • capacity for concern