The Politburo in Your Psyche

The politburo in our psyche can obliterate our sense of purpose and direction.

A politburo is an unelected body of communist party leaders—an executive committee—that rules with a totalitarian mindset in a one-party state. Fortunately, there are not many politburos left (according to Wikipedia, China has one, along with North Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba). Unfortunately, every day throughout the world a lot of executive committees, private and public, are making secret self-serving decisions that display a politburo mentality.

We probably can’t liberate ourselves from this self-defeating mentality until we expose the politburo in our own psyche. This inner politburo is indifferent to our well-being. Its influence over our thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and actions leads to much suffering and self-defeat. Fear, tension, and anxiety are byproducts of the strained compromises worked out by this dysfunctional inner management that, like a political politburo, signifies the unfinished state of our evolution.

The politburo in our psyche consists of the ego, the id, and the superego, which are agencies in our psyche first identified by Sigmund Freud. Before proceeding to reference Freud, however, I first need to say something about his reputation and our society’s resistance to his work. He wasn’t right about everything, of course. Yet many of his detractors have exhibited an intense preoccupation with discrediting him, comparable to how Charles Darwin was and still is vilified in some circles. People instinctively have an aversion to depth psychology because, through our defense mechanisms, we protect our ego and self-image from inconvenient truth. There’s a price to pay, however.

For one thing, our surging egotism has inspired hordes of psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists, along with drug and medical researchers, to turn the study of human nature into a clash of egos and a war of disciplines. Too many cooks promoting their own recipes have turned psychological knowledge into a watery broth. Now distressed people have to search for help among hundreds of various psychotherapy options, many of which have no value. What is good, sound, and true knowledge from the past is now neglected, even by today’s psychoanalysts.

The ego, the id, and the superego are each a distinct structure of irrational-emotional activity, a primitive intelligence onto itself with its own nature and operating system. In 1923, Freud published his famous paper, “The Ego and the Id” dealing with the subject. (While the paper outlined the psychodynamics of the ego and the id, the superego is only mentioned in passing. However, its existence and role in our psyche can be inferred from Freud’s earlier and later writings.) Inner tension, as well as physical tension and disease, can be caused by the conflicted interplay and complicated rules of procedure among these three factions that comprise this inner politburo.

Let’s consider these three inner systems of irrational-emotional activity one at a time, starting with the id, the most unconscious and instinctive of the three. The id by itself doesn’t care much about reality or about the needs and feelings of others. It’s like an engine of entitlement, caricatured by the demanding child who grabs for things and insists on getting his or her way. Id wants instant gratification. Impulse buying on the part of consumers is often determined by id wishes. The instincts of id can also be a factor when people or a society tilt too far in favor of individualism and privatization at the expense of public endeavors and needs. The id is also in charge when individuals develop a craving for self-aggrandizement, for instance when certain politicians lust after power and when people who already are rich display cravings for more riches. The id can be operating as the “chairperson” of the politburo in cases of obesity, entitlement attitudes, psychopathic behaviors, and object fetishism.

The next member of the politburo is the superego or inner critic. This inner agency channels and regulates the energy of human aggression. Often we experience the aggression as if the control and domination behind it is at the center or core of our inner authority. For many if not most of us, the superego is the hidden master of our personality, hence the politburo member most likely to be chairperson. (Read, “The Tyrant that Rules Our Inner Life.”) The superego’s aggression is often directed at us—or, more precisely, at our unconscious ego, the third member of the politburo—in a harsh, scornful, and mocking way. The superego operates according to the decrees, “I am the Decider” and “No, that’s bad!” It provides the foundation in the world for authoritarian governments, voices, and personalities. Religious fundamentalists, warmongers, and anti-democratic voices derive their self-assurance from the primitive righteousness of the superego. In many friendships and marriages, one partner represents the emotional position of the superego, while the other partner represents the position of the unconscious ego (inner passivity). In this they mirror the primary conflict in the human psyche, the one between inner passivity and inner aggression. If the inner conflict in each partner’s psyche is too intense, the relationship will likely dissolve in acrimony as the superego’s condemnation whips up a frenzy of mutual enmity and self-loathing.

This last member of the politburo, our unconscious ego, is a clever enough intelligence, yet it is typically passive and defensive. It can become the chairperson of the inner politburo, however, in cases where an individual is wallowing in the resentment and anger of being an alleged victim. Our unconscious ego provides a better contact point with our conscious mind, yet it can be, paradoxically, the part of our psyche that we are most challenged to recognize and understand. The unconscious ego, what I call the phantom of the psyche, produces inner passivity as it mediates weakly and defensively between the conflicting demands of the id and the superego. Its primary role on the politburo is to produce compromises. These compromises often require that we (the unwitting individuals ignorant of these dynamics) pay some “pound of flesh” in misery and suffering. That mirrors the political politburo that imposes toxic decisions on an unsuspecting and often fearful public. The unconscious ego can be understood as the pleading voice of evolving humanity, evoking mercy, dipped in self-pity, struggling to become conscious. It’s predicament, as described in the last paragraph of the Wikipedia entry under The Ego and the Id , is described this way: “Thus the [unconscious] ego finds itself the seat of anxiety, beset by potential dangers from three directions—by the super-ego, the id, and (not to mention) the external world.”

Evolution calls on us to overthrow this politburo and establish an inner democracy in which our president, our authentic self, wisely presides. Such consciousness is vital to our personal wellbeing and the public good.