With the development of his structural model in the Ego and the Id (1923), Freud introduced the concept of the super ego as a ‘differentiation within the ego’ that consisted of the introjected identifications of the parents. This specialized part of the ego contained not only the residual valences of these early parental objects, but also reaction-formations against these impulses, resulting in an ambivalent struggle between the tendencies to identify or cast away these identifications. “‘You ought to be like this (like your father).’ It also comprises the prohibition: ‘You may not be like this (like your father)- that is, you may not do all that he does; some things are his prerogative.’”(The Ego and the Id, SE p. 30) This establishes a system of conflict in which the ego struggles against not only the commanding voices of the internalized parents, but also the ambivalent impulses contained within these introjections. Driven by these cathected internalized oedipal objects, the superego ‘retains the character of the father.’ Through this borrowed authoritative presence does one create the ‘form of conscious or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt.’(ibid)
D.W. Winnicott challenges the Freudian model of the superego and the development of unconscious guilt. By rejecting Freud’s derivation of guilt from an oedipal superegogic conflict, and through his reformulation of Melanie Klein’s depressive position, Winnicott arrives at much different notion of guilt as a pre-oedipal empathic achievement.
Not only did Freud explain guilt as being a manifestation of the punitive forces of the superego, he posited it in the economics of drive theory. ‘Punishment must be exacted even if it does not fall upon the guilty.’ (p.44) The driving force of guilt can spring from displaced desexualized libido seeking discharge. Furthermore, the superego can be driven towards a critical attack on the ego by the death instinct. In Chapter 5 of the Ego and the Id, Freud illustrates such an attack by exploring the superegogic phenomena evident in melancholia:
If we turn to melancholia first, we find that the excessively strong super-ego which has obtained a hold upon consciousness rages against the ego with merciless violence, as if it had taken possession of the whole of the sadism available in the person concerned. Following our view of sadism, we should say that the destructive component had entrenched itself in the super-ego and turned against the ego. What is now holding sway in the super-ego is, as it were, a pure culture of death instinct, and in fact it often enough succeeds in driving the ego into death, if the latter does not fend off its tyrant in time by the change round into mania. (p. 55)
This is significant in that the superegogic constellation with its residual cathectic energies, internalized, repressed and integrated into the ego, is driven by the death instinct as well as Eros. Although created as a product of the mechanisms of internalization, repression and identification in the oedipal complex, the superego can be bound to either of the fundamental drives and employed as the agent of the unconscious as these instincts seek expression. Thus, for Freud, the guilt of superego is 1) rooted in the economics of drive discharge as well as 2) the internalization of oedipal conflicts, both of which Winnicott disavows with his derivation of guilt through the depressive position.
For Winnicott, guilt is of a fundamentally different nature. It is not a consequence of an oedipal struggle nor an outlet for libidinal or death drive binding itself to cathected internalizations as in Freud’s model. For him, guilt is an achievement of the depressive position which involves an infant’s integration of the good and bad along with his development of a basic empathy towards his mother as she survives the daily cycle of both his aggressive and loving offerings:
Towards the end of this day in the life of any healthy infant as a result of inner work done, the infant has good and bad to offer. The mother takes the good and the bad, and she is supposed to know what is offered as good and what is offered as bad. Here is the first giving, and without this giving there is no true receiving. (Winnicott, “The Depressive Position in Normal Emotional Development,” 1954)
Guilt is not a troubling consequence of an authoritative paternal introjection but an acceptance of ambivalence and a consequent process of integration of the good and the bad in the mother and oneself. The infant starts off in a state unconcerned with the consequences of his libidinal instincts: “There is no concern yet as to the results of instinctual love. This love is originally a form of impulse, gesture, contact, relationship, and it affords the infant the satisfaction of self-expression and release from instinct tension; more, it places the object outside the self.”(ibid) The baby is eventually able to partially recognize the daily cycles of his mother’s provision of nourishment, her acceptance of both his loving and aggressive tendencies, her ability to give and to take, and the period of ‘reparation and restitution’ as she survives this ‘benign circle’ of her role. As the child begins to understand these qualities in his mother and differentiate his inner and outer worlds he develops a sense of ‘ruth,’ an impulse to spare the mother the wrath of his destructive impulses, since she is 1) an external object differentiated from his instinctual life and 2) the same mother of ‘quiet and excited love’, a constant and protecting now-integrated and differentiated object. (ibid)
But what about the infant’s ‘pre-ruth’ phase? What is the nature of the instinct of which the infant must develop ruth to reign? If ‘ruth’ is mercy, from what harmful force is the child sparing his maternal object?
Leopoldo Fulgencio argues that:
Winnicott’s conception of the depressive position—a specific moment in development in which the child sees itself as responsible by its acts
and thoughts in the relationship with the other (Winnicott, Human Nature  version 1988, pp. 36-64)—is a reiteration of his effort to produce a theoretical construction that is descriptive of facts: ‘Important new ways of pursuing the description of human nature follow the acceptance of the depressive position (by whatever name it be called) in the theoretical construct’ (p. 75). In this description, there is no mention of an energy that invests the objects or the I. There are no energetic investments, but instead the quiet and excited states of the developing child in his/her relationship with the mother (understood, here, as tantamount to ‘other’, anyone to whom the child may relate, and not necessarily herself or part of her). Winnicott says that this phase in development ‘involves the infant in guilt feelings, and concern about relationships on account of their instinctual or excited elements’ (p. 69). What is important to him is not the somewhat mechanical capacity to endure the excitation or to release it, but the value conferred on the feelings and fantasies involved in the child’s relationships with the world, in a stage when the child is mature enough to see itself as a unity in its dealings with other people and the environment. (Fulgencio, L. (2007). Winnicott’s Rejection of the Basic Concepts of Freud’s Metapsychology. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 88:443-461)
Winnicott seems to be eschewing Freud’s metapsychology involving the dynamic and economic drive principles in favor of a more observational approach concerned with the child’s development of internal and external object relations. He seems unwilling to develop or revise Freud’s underlying speculative theoretical models to serve as an invisible framework for psychic experience while pensively questioning Freud’s underlying principle of psychical economics:
Freud is here dealing with human nature in terms of economics, and deliberately simplifying the problem for the purpose of founding a theoretical formulation. There is an implied determinism in all this work, an assumption that human nature can be examined objectively and can have applied to it the laws that are known to apply in physics. (Winnicott DW (1965). A personal view of the Kleinian contribution . In: The maturational processes and the facilitating environment: Studies in the theory of emotional development, p. 171-8.)
Also noteworthy is the contrast in the way guilt manifests itself in Winnicott’s depressive position as opposed to Freud’s explanation of melancholia, or in contemporary terms, depression. In Winnicott’s depressive position, guilt is an achievement involving finding an empathic means to separate one’s instinctual experience from that of the other while beginning to internalize and integrate the good and the bad aspects of the external object. Once guilt manifests itself, the infant is at once achieving separation from and empathy for the surviving mother. It is difficult to conceive of guilt as an achievement, but perhaps it bears a relation to the experience of castration involved when we become aware of our absolute dependence on other humans and our consequent fear of being left alone. In a sense, when we enter the depressive position we join the human race. In Freud’s description of melancholia, the ego is not joining a race of humanity but rather enduring the shadows cast from its lost objects. The ego is bewildered by the sticky residue of fresh memories of loss which connects to unconscious threads of distressing affect and inseparable identifications, some of them uncomfortably ambivalent and not thoroughly digested. The internalized authoritarian figures inhabiting the superego’s turbulent realm are activated to recapitulate and attempt to master the experience of interacting with the lost objects and their affects. In this conception of guilt, the superego is hyperactive, often trying to route the ego in a self-destructive loop of identification and hypercathexis by turning the id’s erotic and thanatonic energies inward. Although depression and the depressive position are seemingly related by their similar terminologies, Winnicott was clearly not talking about melancholia when he described the events forming the depressive position:
In the concept of the depressive position in normal development there is no implication that infants normally become depressed. Depression, however common, is an illness symptom, and indicates a mood, and implies unconscious complexes that could become unconscious. The unconscious processes have to do with guilt feelings, and the guilt feelings belong to the destructive element inherent in loving. Depression as an affective disorder is neither unanalysable nor a normal phenomenon. (Winnicott, 1954)
But despite the contrasting models, Freud and Winnicott are each formulating a notion of guilt that addresses the depressive aspects of internalization and the ensuing uncomfortable struggle involved in digesting and integrating external objects. Whether lost or newly internalized objects, the integrative functions of the ego can activate both erotic and aggressive affects and object representations. Winnicott and Freud each derive the notion of guilt from a process of involving the introjection and digestion of internal objects. However, the superego which has nestled its way into the core of Freud’s melancholic metapsychological model is absent in Winnicott’s benign cycle of empathic attunement.