Conscience is a word commonly used but, in my view, often misused. As a psychiatrist who incorporates ethical and spiritual issues in therapy, every day I encounter people who are confused about conscience. They benefit from my explanation of the real conscience versus the inner parrot or the “superego.” I borrow the word “superego” from Sigmund Freud who described it as the internalized external authority. In other words, the superego is the judgment of right and wrong or good and bad programmed by one’s family and social group including one’s religion. The word superego is mistaken by many as super pride, taking ego to mean pride. In psychology the word “ego” stands for the “I” or the self of a person. To avoid the confusion of superego with pride, I refer to it as the “inner parrot” also because it is parroting the values picked up from its influential sources.
While Freud viewed conscience as the negative or guilt producing part of superego, I give a different perspective. As I see it, the real conscience uses reason and the Golden Rule with an open mind to decide what choice is right or wrong, good or bad. While the superego may use good reasoning and the Golden Rule if it is shaped by such influences, it often tends to deviate from this standard depending on the conditioning it receives. A child who is programmed by very rigid and punitive parents would likely have a rigid and punitive superego. Another child who is praised excessively would tend to have an unreasonably proud superego. External influences with varying intensity continue in our lives. We can notice members of extremist groups parroting the group’s ideology. Conscience uses reason and the Golden Rule in processing social values instead of parroting such influences. Many people think of conscience as God’s voice within us but others consider it a product of our higher evolution. In any case, the real conscience is our best guide from an ethical and spiritual angle.
Several examples would illustrate and clarify the difference between conscience and superego as well as the enormous importance of understanding these two inner guides. A business man saw me with severe depression and suicidal ideation after his business had a serious setback, He was condemning himself as a loser. He viewed people as either winners or losers as his successful father had viewed. He took full responsibility for his financial setback although the problem was almost entirely caused by the real estate bust in the country. He was judging himself by his unfair and unreasonable inner parrot which was repeatedly calling him a loser. He was a Christian who had read the Bible numerous times but did not quite grasp the deeper meanings of love and conscience. As I pointed out the fact that the word conscience is used 31 times in the New Testament and explained the difference between conscience and superego, he realized that he was judging himself by his superego, not his conscience. Superego doesn.t easily give up. It took him a few weeks to get his inner parrot to stop calling him a loser but once he understood the problem, he was on the right track and his depression improved greatly. Also, his narrow views about various aspects of life, including religion and national and world conflicts transformed.
Another example is a couple whose marital relationship was quite unhappy and both of them had much anxiety. They were blaming each other for their poor relationship. The husband grew uo in a family which emphasized financial and personal security and showed very little affection. So he had strong need for security. And he had strong sexual need. The wife grew up with a very affectionate mother and had strong need for affection. Although her sexual need was fairly strong it depended closely to getting overall affection. When husband’s business was not doing well because of market forces, he was insecure, focused more on business, showed much less affection to wife and wanted more sex to relieve his stress. She was distressed by these changes as it went against her needs and she became withdrawn and less sexually active. They judged the problem with their individual superego angle and blamed the other, escalated the tension and got close to divorce. I pointed out how they could use conscience and apply George Bernard Shaw’s version of the Golden Rule, that is, not to do to others as you would have them do to you because their taste may be different. A crucial part of living by conscience is in understanding and trying to meet the needs of oneself and the other. As they worked on it they became happy individually and as a couple.
Conscience promotes a broad view of a situation. An unfair superego tends to use a narrow view and an angle of argument to support the resulting unfair judgment . We can often notice when people who take extreme positions address issues. Extremism and prejudice are connected with unfair and unreasonable superegos. Pride about such superego stance by considering it as being a strong person or showing loyalty to one’s group, and group support of the extreme position tends to perpetuate the problem.
Hatred is connected with superego. In this regard, self-hate is interesting and informative. When a person hates himself or herself, who really hates who? I have treated a lot of people who hate themselves more or less. In each of these cases, , the individual’s superegos hated the person for not living by this or her superego’s standard. So, the person’s inner parrot kept picking on him or her. Interestingly as we dealt with this issue, one patient called her harsh superego her “inner terrorist.” Recently, Pope Francis mentioned the famous Catholic monk Thomas Merton as one of the great Americans. In a very interesting article Merton wrote about hell as hatred.
Jesus taught to love the enemy. Confucius taught to be fair to the enemy. Buddha’s teaching was to rely on the wisdom mind, not the ordinary, judging mind, and compassion as the active aspect of wisdom. We can understand these teachings from the perspective of conscience and superego. If we use our consciences, we would apply genuine reason, understand the enemy with a broad perspective, balance our feelings from being extreme and be fair in our reaction while protecting ourselves. The frequent tendency is to use harsh superego judgment and overreact.
So, it is apparent that understanding the inner voice of conscience and the voice of the inner parrot is crucial for us as individuals and groups. I will be blogging more on these and other such matters later.