At Risk Youths And The Super Ego

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When adolescents and young adults get into trouble on a consistent basis it’s easy for us to designate these kids as rotten, as troublemakers, as simply bad people. We like to cite the trope that we’re all responsible for our own actions, that these young people know better but are purposefully choosing destructiveness and evil. That must be because they’re destructive and evil, right?

The problem with the above point of view is that it hinges on the notion that what you see is what you get, that there’s a clearly defined and easy to follow line from inner personality through thoughts and feelings and on out to external behavior.

Psychoanalysis tells us differently. It reminds us that many of the drives and motivations responsible for our external behaviors are not currently accessible to our conscious awareness. The area existing outside of conscious awareness we want to talk about here is the super ego.

The conglomeration of norms, values, and tabus of a specific culture is transmitted to the next generation through the subtle and not so subtle messages from important authority figures in the life of the individual. In our society, parents are probably the most important mouthpieces for the transmission of norms and values, followed by family members, teachers, coaches, priests, psychologists, politicians, other various concrete authority figures, and of course the more ephemeral anonymous authority.

But most of us don’t take our super egos to be a conglomeration of norms and values transmitted from the outside, we take our super egos to reflect our inner Selves, we believe these norms and values spring from the inside, we refer to our super egos as our consciences. The super ego is one of the biggest blocks to human freedom since it masquerades as true Self and in the process drowns out the authentic voice calling out to us to self-actualize. And freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. How can you be responsible for your actions if you’re not a free, willing agent enacting them?

We see time and time again that when problem children are exposed to healthier, happier, structured environments where boundaries for behavior are known and agreed upon and consequences for going beyond these boundaries are known and consistent these children change, their problem behaviors go away. Whether it’s training dogs or raising kids it’s almost always the trainer responsible for the manifest problem behaviors arising in the trainee. But most trainers shrug this responsibility off, they project it onto their subjects and then rationalize their failure with the thought “I’ve done all that can possibly be done and the case is hopeless. My subject is out of control.”

This is why we’ve got to be careful when we talk about a moral compass, about how some people have one and some people don’t. Actually the moral compass that most people refer to is, once again, simply the super ego. And the existence or lack thereof of this moral compass has to do with environmental surroundings, with the strength and nature of the various messages from authority figures in the unique environment of the child. The young people who are called rotten criminals are usually just kids who grew up in unhealthy environments where positive support and active interest were nowhere to be found. Neglect and abuse were the common themes.

We do all have an authentic moral compass underneath, one that directs us towards discovering and unfolding our unique potentialities, towards walking our own unique life paths to fulfill our unique destinies, but most of us are not aware of its existence. Its voice is drowned out by the super ego.

So whether the moral compass that is really super ego is weak, which is often the case for those who end up living on the criminal fringes of a society, or strong, which is usually the case of those who end up living and acting within the boundaries of that society’s norms and values, we’re all living under an illusion until we decide to push through our super egos in order to discover what is really right for us, to discover those life orientations and choices that will help us grow into what we are, to discover those environmental conditions most suitable to our growth and self-actualization, regardless of the environmental conditions to which we were subjected in the past.

Pushing through the super ego to discover Self is an equally pressing concern for those considered delinquents as it is for those considered good citizens. When we simply try to pull at risk youths back into the norms and values of the dominant society, a society under which they have usually suffered a great deal, we do them a grave disservice because, even if we’re successful, we rob them of the chance to discover their own core values that can guide their behavior, instead simply replacing one super ego with another. When people choose self-actualization they choose growth and when they choose growth their destructive behaviors necessarily diminish before disappearing completely because growth and destructiveness are incompatible states of being.