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Lewis, M.D. (1970). A Superego Distortion: The Defensive Use of Expressions of Moral Concern. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 51:465-470.

(1970). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 51:465-470

A Superego Distortion: The Defensive Use of Expressions of Moral Concern

Murray D. Lewis


Phrases expressing ostensible moral concern, such as '… but I feel guilty' or '… but it wouldn't be honest', are often used as a form of lip service or speech mannerism, with no noticeable accompanying remorse or other evidence of transgressing an internal value structure. One determinant of this superego distortion was found to be the need to fend off a sense of helplessness in the face of internal id drives or external environmental forces and to achieve a feeling state of active autonomous control, even at the cost of feeling somewhat guilty or dishonest. These expressions of moral concern were therefore seen to be functioning as a defensive mechanism of the ego.

In the case presented the patient could not receptively relax in an object relationship, but had to remain in control of it because objects were viewed as having violent drives but as lacking in drive controls, and therefore to be potentially traumatizing. His awareness of his own similarly precarious drive controls contributed to his feelings that he was 'false', 'not honest' and 'guilty'. But dynamically keeping in check these drive tensions was a severe, archaically punitive superego, and it was partly to fend off awareness of this in the analysis and to preserve the repression of deeper guilt that the superficial expressions of moral concern were so readily presented to the analyst.

It is generally accepted that relatively premature and excessive development of ego functions results in a precarious, superficial pseudo-strength of the ego, a 'false self'. In the case presented, it was proposed that there was concomitantly an accelerated and excessive development of the internal object representations that are among the genetic determinants of the superego, resulting in a superficial pseudo-morality, a 'false superego'.

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