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Depersonalisation and the Inner Critic

This is part of a series exploring how depersonalisation and derealisation have been understood throughout the development of psychoanalytic theory.


Depersonalisation and Freud


There may be a no more apt place to start a psychodynamic theoretical exploration of depersonalisation and derealisation than with the father of psychoanalysis. Freud himself experienced a “fleeting attack of derealisation” at the Acropolis, Athens in 1904*. He recounted and interpreted this experience thirty-two years later when he was eighty. Part of his interpretation was that it was a psychological defence against feeling guilt at outliving his father, whose cause of death was uncertain. 


In his case study of the Wolf Man†, Freud argued again that depersonalisation and derealisation have defensive functions. The “Wolf Man” refers to a young Russian man who had the presenting symptom of a sense of there being a veil between himself and his surroundings, This resembles a common feature of derealisation. Alongside this symptom was a phobia of wolves. Freud's case description focuses on a dream the man had of white wolves in a tree looking at him through an open window‡.


Various real or imagined traumas apparently occurred in the man's early life, including witnessing the primal scene of his parents, his older sister sexually abusing him, and sadistically exposing him to pictures of wolves knowing that he was phobic of them. His recovery was facilitated, according to Freud, by interpreting this material as linked to the loss of his family and wealth after 1917’s Russian Revolution. Exploring the impact of this loss enabled the Wolf Man to become conscious of feelings of guilt, which in turn, relieved him of his dissociative symptoms.


What Freud's interpretations of both his own derealisation and that of the Wolf Man’s likely have in common is the role of guilt particularly in cases of loss. The experience of guilt as a response to loss is mediated, according to Freud, by the superego. To illustrate this, it is useful to briefly explain Freud’s structural model of the psyche. This, I hope, will clarify, according to a Freudian account, how the superego can weaken the ego, causing states of depersonalisation and derealisation.


The Ego and the Id


The Id


According to Freud's structural model, the mind has three distinct agencies, the id, ego and superego§. The id is the agency where which primitive wishes and desires (i.e. mostly sexual and aggressive) are held. It is from the id that the ego and superego arise††.


The Ego


The ego refers the agency where the experience of selfhood occurs. This is clearly relevant in thinking about depersonalisation, since it is precisely the experience of selfhood which is severely compromised. This might explain why depersonalisation is termed by some in Buddhist meditation as ‘ego death,’ or, what vipassanā teacher, Shinzen Young, calls “falling into the pit of the void”**. From hereon, I will use the terms "self" and "ego" interchangeably.


Ego Defences


The ego is central here, since, implicit in a Freudian account of depersonalisation and derealisation is that, underlying such states, or the susceptibility to such states, is weak or  unstable ego strength. As I’ll discuss later, this is as a result of an overdeveloped superego. One of the ego’s functions is to keep intolerable unconscious states of mind kept out of conscious awareness. It does this by using certain protective psychological measures, namely, defence mechanisms, such as repression. In both the cases of Freud at the Acropolis and the Wolf Man, the ego utilises derealisation and depersonalisation as defences against intolerable guilt.


The Superego


The superego is borne out of a part of the ego that adopts values and moral codes in early life. The superego’s formation is thought to begin at the start of the child’s experience of Oedipal conflict, which, for the purposes of this article, will cause distraction by expanding upon. The superego’s function was first considered by Freud to be life-affirming, in that it was considered to be the agency of mind that encouraged goodness in action and states of mind characterised by an appropriate sense of morality. This take on the superego aligns with what is typically thought of as the possession of a conscience.


The Inner Critic


However, Freud came to see a version of the superego with more malign and detrimental consequences for the ego. This superego, rather than being a moral conscience, is an inner critic; the source of excessive and unsubstantiated self-criticism, guilt, and self-sabotage. It is particularly destructive because its manifestation presents itself to one as though it is a conscience or a trustworthy moral arbiter when it is in fact a sadistic and destructive “internal saboteur”‡‡.


This take on the superego as a particularly malign force is exemplified in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917)§§. Freud notes how depressed individuals characteristically adopt a harsh, self-berating stance towards themselves. This early account clearly has echoes of the self-loathing people often recount in their experiences of depression. According to Freud, these punitive attacks towards the self are displaced from hostile feelings towards that which has been lost. This displacement is a means of the depressed individual having a sense of holding onto, within themselves, that which has been lost. As Freud famously said, in taking what has been lost into the self, “the shadow of the object falls upon the ego”***. Even if the cost is painful depression and self-loathing, this is in some way preferable to the pain of fully coming to terms with what will never be regained or recovered.


What can be inferred from this is that the superego attacks the ego by denigrating and blaming it, both causing a weakening of the ego and whilst also protecting it from the arduous and sorrowful process of mourning. We can see that, for the ego, there is a short-term gain of being able to avoid the full pain of loss by enduring a more prolonged, depressive process.


Depersonalisation and the Superego


Perhaps with depersonalisation and derealisation the superego plays a similar role, in that it weakens the ego by causing a severely compromised feeling of selfhood. However distressing these symptoms are, the ego is potentially protected from experiencing something it regards as even more painful.


Returning to Freud’s experience of derealisation, we can see how he, in essence, interprets it as an effect upon the ego of superegoic survivor’s guilt. As guilt over his own continued existence is intolerable, the superego so strongly crushes the ego to the point it feels its own sense of non-existence, in the form of an unreal, dreamlike experience.


Impact upon the Ego


Thus, we might propose that the superego’s function in depersonalisation and derealisation is similar to depression, in that it protects the ego from intolerable feelings. However, the difference might be that it operates with fuller force. It doesn’t just cause the self to feel it is bad or unworthy. Rather, it weakens and diminishes the ego to the extent that it feels non-existent, unreal and fragmented. For the superego to act with such force, it is reasonable to imagine that it did so to protect the ego from something greater, or more intolerable than loss.


Implications for Therapy


Psychodynamic Therapy


Through psychodynamic therapy, the ego can learn to see itself as distinct from the superego. This is via a continuous process within treatment of self-reflection and observation of parts of oneself that are unhelpfully punitive. As Terry says, “the superego is troubling not only because of its cruelty but also because it usurps the ego. As a consequence the ego needs to reclaim its proper function of self-observation and judgement from the superego”†††. Psychotherapy offers an opportunity for the ego to gradually reclaim this function, as self-observation and becoming more aware of when the superego launches its attacks are inherent to the process.


Ego-Restoration


This process of ego-restoration might mean that the superego’s attacks are taken less seriously, and can also be understood in the context of an individual’s early development. For example, it is common for a child to feel responsible and blame themselves for their parents’ divorce because, according to the concept of a moral defence, it is preferable and less scary to conceive of oneself as being bad in an overall benign and good world than to see oneself as good in a bad, dangerous world. This can be conceived of as a superegoic attack that originally provided protection against states of helplessness. However, this function may have run its course.


In simpler terms, therapy can develop a stronger sense of selfhood by developing capacities to withstand criticism and attacks from both inside and outside. A stronger ego is one which has greater resistance and immunity to states of depersonalisation and derealisation, since it has developed sufficient ego capacities of self-observation and discernment. Self-observation can embolden the ego to talk back to the superego, thereby not allowing itself to be weakened by it. Discernment can help to see the superego for what it is; a misguided internal saboteur. The ego then has a choice to either camouflage or show itself predators that aren’t real, or no longer exist.


Sources

  • Freud, S. (1936/1964) 'A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis', Standard Edition, 22, pp. 237–248. Quotes are from Vol. 22, pp. 239–248. London: Hogarth Press. †

  • Freud, S. (1936/1964) 'From the History of an Infantile Neurosis', Standard Edition, 17, pp. 7–122. London: Hogarth Press. ‡

  • Abugel, J. and Simeon, D. (2006) Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-58. §

  • Freud, S. (1923) The Ego and the Id. Standard Edition, 19, pp. 1–66. London: Hogarth Press. **

  • Young, S. "Falling into the Pit of the Void", Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zIKQCwDXsA . ††

  • Freud, S. (1923) The Ego and the Id. Standard Edition, 19, pp. 1–66. London: Hogarth Press. ‡‡

  • Terry, P. (2023) A Clinician’s Guide to Understanding and Using Psychoanalysis in Practice. London: Routledge, p. 6. §§

  • Freud, S. (1917) 'Mourning and Melancholia'. Standard Edition, 14, pp. 243–258. London: Hogarth Press. ***

  • Freud, S. (1917) 'Mourning and Melancholia'. Standard Edition, 14, p. 249. London: Hogarth Press. †††

  • Terry, P. (2023) A Clinician’s Guide to Understanding and Using Psychoanalysis in Practice. London: Routledge, p. 21.



Delicate flowering plant illuminated by a beam of light, symbolizing tranquility and the absence of emotions or conflict as described by Freud
"Flowers are restful to look at. They have no emotions or conflict.” Freud

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