Building a better superego
Punishment in 18th century Bristol by John Latimer (information source The Annals of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century (1893). Author: John Latimer), courtesy of Paul Townsend on Flickr (Creative Commons). As an aside, some very interesting information behind these images is available at this link.

Punishment in 18th century Bristol by John Latimer (information source The Annals of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century (1893). Author: John Latimer), courtesy of Paul Townsend on Flickr (Creative Commons). As an aside, some very interesting information behind these images is available at this link.

’Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, a tradition floated by best hopes and intentions for the future … and grounded by the reality that most will fade long before Summer Solstice, some forgotten by the first day of February.

The problem with resolutions is that they are, for the most part, structured as demands upon ourselves. We look at our shortcomings and shake our heads. Dissatisfied with our unworthy ways, we try to parent ourselves into doing better.

And so we make lists, and read listicles, and download apps, and sign up for seminars, and buy books — somehow convincing ourselves that this time things will be different, this time you won’t let yourself fall off the bridge to success.

It doesn’t help that there’s an entire industry of task management apps, books, workbooks, videos, seminars, retreats that all focus on constructing a better way to parent ourselves.

The problem, however, is that so many of these approaches focus on scolding ourselves into achieving, and their answer with all of these systems is that somehow we can engineer the building of a better, more effective, more powerful superego, and that super-ego will parent us into success. Here’s how it works:

The developing superego absorbs the traditions of the family and the surrounding society and serves to control aggressive or other socially unacceptable impulses. Violation of the superego’s standards results in feelings of guilt or anxiety and a need to atone for one’s actions. The superego continues to develop into young adulthood as a person encounters other admired role models and copes with the rules and regulations of the larger society.

In other words, according to Freudian psychology, the super-ego — the ‘over-I’ — is the voice that scolds oneself for doing poorly, that triggers guilt over things done or not done, usually by the id — the ‘it’. When you cheat on your diet and feel guilty, that’s your superego at work. When you get depressed because you sat around drinking coffee instead of getting up on that treadmill to exercise, that’s your superego at work. When you flog yourself emotionally when you see in March that your savings account is not nearly as flush as you had intended in your New Year’s resolutions, that’s your superego at work. Desk not cleared, inbox not zero, fruit in the fridge not eaten, thank you’s not sent — all occasions for self-pillorying.

If superego had an IPO, it would instantly become the biggest company in the world.

The thing is: it doesn’t work.

At least it doesn’t for me.

I don’t believe I’m atypical in spending most of my free time doing things I enjoy rather than things I’ve decided in the past I should do (for my own good). We all do it. Why? Because we’re human, because we’re animals, because we want to be happy and we end up doing things to achieve that. The only problem with that is that we often do the wrong things, and therefore end up not meeting our needs. We eat ice cream to find a modicum of joy, only to hinder our goal of losing weight. We go to Facebook to find connection with others, only to hinder our productivity and perhaps reduce our wherewithal to enjoy even stronger connections with others in person.

And when we see ourselves doing this, we scold ourselves. “Bad you! Bad bad you! Don’t do that!” And duly chastened, we parent ourselves into behaving better. And yet the next week or next hour we find ourselves doing it all yet again.

In Dharma practice, the super-ego is something that usually brings nothing but anguish. Simply wishing things to be other than they are only brings anguish. And until you can let go of that anguish, you’re trapped in this self-flogging cycle, unable to see clearly, and thus unable to effect the change you yearn for.

Rather than embrace the notion that I must build a better super-ego to police my life into betterness, I’m choosing a different approach. I am going to practice letting go of the idea that I can police my life into betterness, and simply follow my heart and pursue that which brings me joy. But I will be mindful of the things I embrace and pursue, so that rationally I can, in effect, justify this joyful living as serving my long-term needs.

I can’t parent myself into getting into better shape — many years of life have taught me that — but I can embrace the joys inherent in exercise, and savor the pleasures of better health. I can’t beat myself into eating better, but I can choose to savor and relish the delights of eating good food. I can’t scold myself into housecleaning, but I can enjoy the good feelings I have in living in a clean house.

And in doing these things, I can cultivate these practices into habits. And I can do it without flogging myself with guilt, shame, anger, frustration, despair. They don’t work anyway.

This year I make no resolutions. Instead, I choose to be mindful in what I embrace, and cultivate through joy and appreciation the habits and traits I wish to acquire.

I choose to embrace an approach to life that is free of self-floggings. It takes work. It takes practice. But there’s joy in that, too.

Laura Scott is a designer, tech geek, fiction editor, and author.