Interpretation & Stockholm Syndrome of the Super-Ego

In Freudian theory, the super-ego operates is something like a judge: adjudicator and discipliner, critic and censor. The super-ego is the authority figure ruling on our thoughts and behaviours. It is the aspect of you speaking when you call yourself a failure, a reject, and a disappointment; it is the voice you hear when you think your work was not good enough, the break up was entirely your fault, and nobody will ever love someone as flawed and broken as you. It can be quite cruel.

What is interesting is how quick we are to agree with its pronouncements. If our super-ego was a person we met on the street, we would quickly tell it that it was wrong, punch it in the face, or walk away. Only the most masochistic among us would allow a total stranger to call us a failure, a bore, or an atrocious excuse for a human being. Yet, in our own minds, we have come to accept this and to a certain extent, rely on it for ruling and direction.

From childhood we submit to those in positions of authority: first our parents (and older siblings), then our teachers (and our peers), then the state (and police). We are brought and raised in a world that demands compliance to authority at every turn. This has, to a significant extent, shaped how we have come to think. It creates a docile, submissive, repressed mind that will not think for itself, but simply do as it is told, with little argument. It is fertile soil for the emergence of a very powerful super-ego.

We are generally unsympathetic to our own situation. While we might look upon others with forgiveness and compassion for their transgressions, we hold ourselves to a different standard. We know all the ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’ things we have done, and as this archive amasses we begin to agree that essentially, deep down, we are criminals and we need this authority to protect us from our own depraved selves.

But we are not bad, this is just the opinion of a single voice and we would be wise not to take it on its word alone.

More appropriately understood as an argument ‘against a single interpretation’, Susan Sontag, in her work Against Interpretation, warns against adopting a single interpretation. A single view flattens a multi-dimensional experience (whether it is art, or a thought or feeling), while saying more about the speaker than what is spoken about.

Echoing Susan Sontag, Adam Phillips in his work Unforbidden Pleasures encourages what he calls ‘over-interpretation’. When the super-ego screams that we are failures or nobody will ever love someone so tragically flawed, we should pause and invite ourselves to think about our predicament from another point of view.

You can only understand anything that matters – dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature – by overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses.

We should allow another voice to show itself and another interpretation to be pronounced. In doing so, we begin enriching our internal universe, bit by bit, no longer confining ourselves to one perspective and thereby giving ourselves a lot more room to move and think about things.

We could think about what is going on along the lines of Carl Jung and his theory of archetypes. We treat our super-ego as if it is a single god on a throne whom we must submit to. But really, within us is a pantheon of gods, and we all sit at a round table. We have given one voice precedence but there are so many within us wanting to speak, and we can hear them if we take the time to listen. As Phillips notes, without redescription upon redescription…‘the fragmentary repository of alternate selves will be silenced’. Through over-interpretation, we can turn a ‘judgement’ by our super-ego into a ‘conversation’ between our composite selves.

By nurturing the capacity for multiple interpretations, we expand the horizon of meaning we give to certain events in our lives. Maybe we did deserve to be dumped, but perhaps the timing simply was not right, or they weren’t ready to love someone and it has nothing to do with you. By embracing interpretation after interpretation, we can look at things with more discernment and scorn, appreciating that things may not always be as (misleadingly) simple as our super-ego claims them to be. Phillips reminds us that with the ‘shared internal jurisprudence’ of multiple perspectives and interpretations, ‘self-criticism might be less jaded and jading, more imaginative and less spiteful’.

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