A Nietzschean critique of the aim of psychoanalytic therapy in Anna Freud
I wrote this piece as the final paper for my “Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology” seminar with Dr. Kevin Boileau in my graduate program this term. This was the final draft which I turned in, but I plan to continue refining this paper during the next term where we will be exploring Michel Foucault’s relationship to psychoanalysis. I hope that you find this draft stimulating and enjoyable nonetheless.
What is the goal of therapy? The problem which we envision therapy solving determines our understanding of the beginning, middle, and end of the therapeutic process. Though the therapist does not proceed in a moralistic manner (assigning punishment or blame), the therapist does make judgments — evaluating the patient as healthy/unhealthy in accordance with a rubric of order/disorder and function/dysfunction. This means that at all times the therapist’s own operative conceptions of ‘order’ and ‘function’ guide their approach to the patient’s treatment. Thus, any inquiry into the nature of therapy must first interrogate how a particular therapist envisions the patient’s end state of “health.”
In her landmark text The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud attempts to rehabilitate the Ego’s unconscious operations as an object of study within psychoanalytic theory, and thereby to restore its pivotal role in the analyst’s end game for their patient’s analysis. Freud conceives of therapy’s goal as a properly negotiated psychic system in which the Ego is strong enough to establish “the most harmonious relations possible between the id, the superego, and the forces of the outside world.” She employs relational analogies to dramatize the interactions amongst the Id, Ego, and Superego as agents negotiating their interests and enforcing deals. By casting the Ego as the negotiator and enforcer who brokers a deal amongst the Id, Superego, and external world, Anna forges a vision of psychotherapy which moves beyond “psychic plumbing” unclogging blocked pipelines of cathexis, and instead imagines analysis as the place where the mind’s aggrieved parties can engage in arbitration to achieve a more satisfactory resolution.
In expanding the aims of analysis beyond the archaeology of unconscious wishes, Anna Freud’s work catalyzed other psychoanalytic theorists later subsumed under the label “ego psychology,” but her work also brought the unstable division between the Ego and the Id under closer scrutiny, thereby sowing seeds of doubt which could ultimately undermine the Ego’s supremacy. This paper will draw on a crucial insight from Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorism 109 in Daybreak in order to argue that Anna Freud’s investigations of the Ego’s relationship with the Id does not carry its own line of inquiry to the brutal end. If the Ego has its roots in the Id, what privileges its perspective over the Id’s? In the end, Freud fails to ask the question of the Ego’s self-interest, and thus she remains bound by the fantasy of the victorious Ego which can bring peace to the psychic system.
Anna Freud’s work on the Ego
In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Freud seems concerned by what she perceives as the psychoanalytic community’s fixation on the Id’s repressed wishes as the primary source of unconscious material in analysis. This myopia overlooks how the Ego itself carries out unconscious operations (mechanisms of defense), and thus possesses its own reservoir of unconscious material ripe for analysis. For instance, the patient’s discourse not only manifests the Id’s drives in such phenomena as parapraxes or dreams, but it also indicates the location of the Id’s attempted emergence by marking it with absences created by the Ego’s resistances. The unconscious thus also speaks in what does not appear in the patient’s speech.
Even in the exploration of the unconscious mechanisms functioning in the Ego, Anna seeks a loyal return to her father’s formulations. In his text The Ego and the Id, Sigmund Freud complicates the relationship between the Ego and Id by writing that “the ego is not sharply separated from the id; its lower portions merge into it.” He further theorizes that the Ego emerges as a surface phenomenon at the border where the unconscious and the world interact — “It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world through the medium of the Pcpt.-Cs.; in a sense it is an extension of the surface-differentiation. [emphasis mine]” Anna Freud concludes from the Ego’s own roots in the Id that the analyst must also learn about their patient’s Id by studying its refraction through the Ego. The unconscious operations of the Ego are included in the Id and derive their power from it. The Ego is thus split within itself between conscious and unconscious, thereby making its activity also a crucial object of analysis within the therapeutic context.
Freud reiterates that for her the goal of analysis remains the same — “to bring into consciousness that which is unconscious,” but immediately adds the proviso “no matter to which psychic institution it belongs.” With this appended clause she calls attention to the unique dynamics of each psychic mechanism in analysis, and the distinct relationship the analyst must cultivate with each one. The shape and function of the patient’s entire psychic system can be portrayed as the result of a deal brokered by the psychic entities in which each of their unique interests attains some minimal amount of satisfaction. This framework for understanding the psychic system leads Freud to articulate the task of the analyst in interpreting the patient’s speech as “to split up the picture, representing as it does a compromise between the separate institutions, into its component parts: the id, the ego, and, it may be, the superego.”
Freud wants us to see that her clinical and theoretical insights into the Ego’s functioning exponentially increases the difficulty of the analyst’s work, and that these new levels of complexity do not simply result from the presence of more moving parts. For Freud, the fundamental difficulty of the Ego in the analytic context is the antagonistic stance the Ego takes towards the analyst. The analyst’s work of encouraging unconscious drives to become represented in consciousness makes the analyst party to the Id’s interests, and thus the analyst always appears on the scene as a threat to the status quo which the Ego has worked hard to build and to maintain.
The Ego does not realize why it feels so anxious about the analyst. Ostensibly, the Ego and the analyst are allies in the observation and analysis of the Id’s activity, and the Ego may often consciously affirm this alliance. However, their relationship is always more ambiguous. To demonstrate this, Freud enumerates the variety of roles the Ego can assume (often simultaneously) within the analytic context. Throughout the therapeutic process, the Ego (1) sides with the analyst in observing the Id’s operations, (2) resists the analyst through its unconscious defenses and unreliable narrations, and (3) becomes itself at times an object of the analyst’s analysis. The multivalence of the Ego’s role in analysis derives from its own internal split between conscious and unconscious, causing it to consciously align itself with the analyst while unconsciously conspiring against the analyst’s attempts to coax unconscious drives into consciousness. The difficulty of the analyst’s relationship to the Ego thus parallels the difficulty of the Ego’s relationship to itself. The Ego can consciously agree that the Id’s drives in appearing in consciousness would be beneficial for its own analysis of the Id’s activities, and yet the Ego cannot stop itself from unconsciously opposing those drives in compliance with its various psychic pacts.
The quandary of the Ego’s split behavior prompts the question — “what does the Ego want?” What is the Ego’s own self-interest which it conspires to achieve in the psychic deals which it brokers and enforces? Even though the Ego attempts to act the part of the impartial mediator, its ongoing existence requires the continuation of tensions between the Id, Superego, and outside world. Much like a military contractor, psychic war is good for the Ego’s business!
The Fantasy of the Victorious Ego
Anna Freud provides us a vector for approaching this question in the closing of her text where she juxtaposes the image of a “defeated” Ego and a “victorious” Ego. This language of victory and defeat draws on a motif present in Sigmund Freud’s own writings, such as where he says, “psycho-analysis is an instrument to enable the ego to achieve a progressive conquest of the Id [emphasis mine].” Anna Freud’s own descriptions of the victorious Ego playing its role properly and the defeated Ego which fails in its role provides us with a picture of her conception of the healthy/unhealthy Ego, and also gives us crucial insight into how she conceptualizes the end goal of the therapeutic process itself.
Freud directs the analyst to recognize the defeated Ego by “the existence of neurotic symptoms,” which indicates that “the ego has been overpowered.” She continues, saying,“…[E]very return of repressed impulses, with its sequel in compromise formation, shows that some plan for defense has miscarried and the ego has suffered a defeat.” In describing the victorious Ego though, she says that the two purposes the Ego successfully achieves are enabling the restriction of anxiety and unpleasure, and transforming the instincts such that they can experience some minimal gratification. If the Ego achieves these objectives, it “thereby establish[es] the most harmonious relations possible between the id, the superego, and the forces of the outside world.”
However, Freud’s articulation of the victorious/healthy Ego actually re-stages the Ego’s fantasy. The Ego’s grandiose self-concept holds itself as the enlightened negotiator who could bring peace to the entire psychic system, if only it weren’t for that unruly Id and its drives. In this fantasy, the best thing possible for the psychic system would be for the Ego to fully dominate the Id. But why should the analyst privilege the Ego’s perspective over that of the other psychic components? Perhaps this fantasy is false, and dangerously so.
We can begin to suspect the fantastical nature of the Ego’s self-myth when we encounter Anna Freud’s paradoxical descriptions of the Ego as behaving at times like a master, a slave, and a neutral bystander, sometimes even simultaneously. As Slavoj Žižek frequently points out, the coincidence of opposite figures of the same object almost invariably indicates the presence of fantasy. In this case, the Ego strives to dominate the Id, but when it receives pushback it can retreat into the posture of the martyr who possesses good intentions but is misunderstood and abused by all. The Ego can then strategically pivot to the role of the ‘neutral negotiator’ who can mend the very conflict it created. Finally, this guarantees the Ego a seat at the table to ensure its own self-interest is represented in the deal which the psychic entities broker.
Even though Anna Freud’s vision of the victorious/healthy Ego posits the Ego as the pacifying and unifying agent in consciousness, the Ego actually functions as the primary disturbance in consciousness. When Freud describes how we gain access to the Id or the Superego within analysis, she says that “The superego, like the id, becomes perceptible in the state which it produces within the ego[.]” We can learn nothing of the Id unless the Ego opposes it, for only in opposing the Id does the Ego cause it to appear distinctly in consciousness. The same is true of the Superego. So long as the Superego’s demands coincide with the Ego’s interests, the Superego and Ego disappear into one another and become indistinguishable. Wherever there is no conflict, the Ego evaporates from the lack of tension.
If we continue to press into the ambiguity of the distinction between the Ego and the Id, we may even begin to question the inclusion of the psychic systems’ unconscious defense mechanisms in the Ego at all. Why not simply consider the Ego to be the realm of the conscious, and instead say that all unconscious activity belongs to the Id? The lack of consistency to the distinction between the two entities raises questions about their differentiation, and consequently arouses our suspicions regarding the Ego’s claims about the legitimacy of its nature and purpose. In short, the analyst must not let herself be duped into the belief that the Ego has nobler and loftier goals than the Id.
Why? Because it is the Id!
We turn to Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorism 109 in Daybreak to provide a clarifying intervention. In this aphorism, Nietzche identifies our conscious thoughts simply as the most dominant drive operating within us. He makes these remarks within the context of describing the six methods for controlling a drive, but he concludes by making the point that even the impulse and power to control a drive must itself be a drive. He says, “What is clearly the case is that in this entire procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us.” Continuing a few lines down, he writes, “While ‘we’ believe we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive which is complaining about another.”
Thus we return to the question of the Ego’s self-interest, and Nietzsche’s answer seems to be — its own ongoing supremacy as the dominant drive in the psychic system. Nietzsche casts a vision of the unconscious as a relentless battle of drives all seeking gratification by attempting to make the passage into consciousness in order to actualize themselves in the external world. In this ruthless contest, only those drives which manage to gain dominance over the other drives emerge as the Ego at the surface of the psychic system. Because the reigning drive’s hegemony remains more or less under constant threat, it must engage in strategies to suppress its rivals and assist its allies. In Nietzsche’s framework, the Ego is only the Id turned back on itself. The Ego is the mechanism of the Id’s self-objectification in consciousness, and this objectification of the Id has as its goal control.
In a Nietzschean theory of the Ego as “the drive which controls the other drives,” what does the Ego fear? It fears its loss of mastery and consequent extinction. We get a hint of this in Anna Freud’s warning against focusing too much attention on adult neuroses in which the primary source of distress to the psychic system is the Superego’s oppression of the Id. She points out that the Ego may also develop a symptom to protect the psyche from a particular Id instinct because of its intensity, regardless of whether the drive is prohibited by the Superego. The Ego reacts with anxiety to this Id instinct simply on the basis of its power to overwhelm the Ego. Freud approvingly cites her father here, saying, “What it is that the ego fears from the external and from the libidinal danger cannot be specified; we know that the fear is of being overwhelmed or annihilated, but it cannot be grasped analytically.” This seems to indicate that even in the absence of any transgression of the terms of a deal amongst the components of the psychic system, the Ego still acts in a self-preserving manner. This makes perfect sense within the theory proposed here, for the dominant drive’s primary interest will always include securing its own ongoing hegemony in consciousness, though this self-interest must remain disguised.
Anna Freud stands at the threshold of this paper’s core insight about the Ego’s own self-interest, and yet never takes the next step of bringing herself to question the Ego’s self-narration. Why? She remains entangled in the fantasy of the Ego, for this fantasy of the Ego is not actually the Ego’s own fantasy, but rather the human fantasy about the Ego. The Ego as a psychic entity has no capacity to tell or believe fantasies for itself, so the power of the Ego’s fantasy must derive from our belief in this fantasy. We are the tellers of the myth that the Ego’s successive conquest of the Id will restore balance to the psychic system. What causes our fixation with this fantasy?
Science fiction films typically require the main character to be a human protagonist who serves as a stand-in for the viewer as they navigate a foreign world of strange alien life forms and unfamiliar technology (Luke Skywalker, Rick Deckard, Captain Kirk), and the same phenomenon occurs within the psychic system too. We take the realm of consciousness where we experience our thoughts and our choices to be the domain of the Ego. We experience the Ego as that which wills, and by claiming that willing as our own, we forge an identification with the Ego. In the triad of Ego, Id, and Superego, we most identify with the Ego because it feels familiar to us, like a protagonist we want to root for in a movie. In fact, the Ego functions in our mind as the visualization of ourselves as the protagonist of our life. Consequently, we experience any threat to the Ego as an imminent threat to our own identity. This clinging to the Ego as our personal avatar in the psychic system makes it difficult to ask the question, “are the Ego’s interests actually my own?”
Nietzsche’s characterization of consciousness as the experience of the Id’s most dominant drive forces us to question this identification in uncomfortable ways. Nietzsche says regarding the war of drives, “a struggle is in prospect in which our intellect is going to have to take sides.” Nietzsche’s comment raises the question of valuation and decision in the therapeutic process, and thus complicates Anna Freud’s straightforward goal of strengthening the Ego to be victorious over the Id. What if the dominant drive undergirding my Ego is killing me? A good Nietzschean question might be, “should my Ego be strengthened if it primarily expresses ressentiment?” Therapy cannot simply be a matter of unequivocally backing the Ego in the patient’s psychic system. There remains also the question of whether the drive or drive-alliance which manifests itself as the Ego really is in the patient’s best interest. While Freud could certainly argue that some unity to the psychic system is better than none, and such a stop-gap measure could be necessary in particularly dysfunctional cases, strengthening the Ego in that patient’s case would only ever be a stepping stone to further work, not the goals of the therapeutic process itself.
Anna Freud’s work accomplishes a re-orientation of psychoanalytic therapy away from a fixation on the Id’s unconscious wishes towards a more dynamic picture of the psychic components’ relationships with each other and the analyst. However, whereas Anna Freud articulates the goal of analysis as rehabilitating the Ego to a victorious state where it is empowered to control the Id and thereby bring balance to the psychic system, this paper argues that we cannot afford to be so naively supportive of the Ego. In the Ego, the dominant drive within the Id objectifies the Id by curving back on itself. The Ego makes the Id an object for itself with the goal of controlling rival drives primarily, and helping ally drives secondarily. The analyst must at all times mind the gap between the Ego’s self-narration and its true behavior, as well as not consider themselves the Ego’s ally. The Ego’s interests do not necessarily align with the psychic system as a whole, and those interests may even conflict with a healthier version of the patient.
Ultimately, the difference between the Ego and the Id consists not in the superiority of their goals, but rather in the patient’s identification with one over the other. Because of the Ego’s status as conscious and therefore familiar, the patient identifies with the Ego’s successes and failures as though they were their own, whereas the patient experiences the Id as a scary and unpredictable intruder into consciousness. The fantasy of the victorious Ego preys on the patient’s identification with the Ego by allowing them to experience the Ego’s domination of the Id as an increasing feeling of overcoming (Nietzsche’s will to power). The patient’s dominant drive co-opts the patient’s identification with the Ego to create the illusion of having a single common interest, but this cannot erase the gap which nonetheless remains between the subject who does the identifying and the Ego which is identified with. This paper’s thesis regarding the non-neutral self-interest of the Ego raises serious questions for any future Ego psychologies which envision the end game of therapy as the empowerment of the Ego in the psychic system.
Freud, Anna. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. London, UK: Hogarth Press Ltd., 1966.
Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. Publisher unknown. Retrieved from https://www.sigmundfreud.net/the-ego-and-the-id-pdf-ebook.jsp
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. Edited by Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Mitchell, Stephen A., and Margaret J. Black. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 2016.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London, UK: Verso, 2009.