What Is Ego Psychology?
By Julia Thomas
Updated December 17, 2018
Remember the old cartoon representation of a person with an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other, each giving conflicting advice?
That's the underlying principle of ego psychology, which has its roots in the work of the founder of psychotherapy himself, Sigmund Freud.
In the years since Freud, other psychiatrists have branched off with their ideas and interpretations of ego psychology. Today, the field has splintered so dramatically that it's hard to come up with one precise ego psychology definition for modern psychotherapy.
Here is some background to help you understand ego psychology and how it fits into your treatment plan.
The concept of the ego as we know it was first formulated in 1923 by Freud in his landmark work The Ego and the Id. In this book, he defined the human mind as divided into three distinct components: the superego, the ego, and the id. Each of these parts has a distinct role in the human consciousness.
According to Freud, the id represents the most primitive part of our mind. It contains all our repressed desires and suppressed memories. Our sexual drive, aggressive urges, and childhood traumas all reside here. The id has no contact with reality and operates separately from the outside world. It is motivated solely by the desire for pleasure. As infants, we are composed only of our urges and drives. As we grow older and come in contact with our world and environment, we develop the other parts of our mind, the ego, and the superego.
In opposition to the id, the superego represents a moral conscience. It imposes a value system, often punishing the id with guilt. The superego holds up a goal of an ideal self, a vision of what the self "should" be.
As a result, the id and the superego are in constant conflict. The third part of the psyche, the ego, has the role of mediating that conflict.
Freud defined the ego as the rational and realistic part of the human mind. It is concerned with the desire for pleasure (like the id) but can navigate a reasonable strategy to obtain this goal without compromising the moral and ethical demands of society, thus also satisfying the superego.
The ego is the part of ourselves that can take a step back, evaluate information objectively, and make rational decisions for our best interest. For that reason, we have come to associate the ego with the true self, with identity.
In contemporary language, we have negative associations with the word "ego." When someone has an inflated concept of his worth, we accuse him of having too much "ego." But in Freudian terms, a strong ego is a necessity to mental health.
As Freud (and his daughter Anna, who further developed his ideas) originally conceived it, the ego functions through a system of "defense" mechanisms, which protect it from the fierce conflict between the id and the superego. Some of these defense mechanisms are repression, denial, and projection.
For example, if someone cuts in front of you in a line at the supermarket, you may have a primitive urge to punch that person in the face. Freud would say that this is a primal urge from your id. But the ego represses that urge. This is a defense mechanism.
Another example: when you suffer the loss of a close family member, your ego initially blocks full awareness of the loss in the stages of shock and denial, so that you can process the grief gradually. This is another defense that protects you.
But the id and the superego are both powerful forces, and there may be times when they are too much for the ego to handle. When that happens, we develop problems such as phobias, anxiety disorders, and depression.
For that reason, the goal of ego psychology is to strengthen and empower the ego. But different schools of thought have emerged on the best way to accomplish this.
The Evolution Of Ego Psychology
Although Sigmund and Anna Freud were the original architects of ego psychology, another Austrian psychiatrist named Heinz Hartmann was the one who truly brought it to the forefront of the American consciousness. His paper The Ego and the Problem of Adaptation was translated into English in 1958 and became the basis for ego psychology in the United States, especially when Hartmann moved to New York City in 1941 after fleeing WWII Europe. There he trained many of the psychoanalysts who carried the torch of Freudian psychology in the modern US.
Having experienced first hand the horrors of war, Hartmann witnessed a unique resilience in the human soul when facing violent and hopeless situations. He felt that Freud's dark view of the id and ego were inadequate, and came up with a more optimistic explanation.
Freud believed that children came into the world as irrational creatures motivated solely by primal urges. Hartmann, on the other hand, believed that they are born already equipped with an ego that can adapt to their environment.
In his view, the goal of ego psychology is to ensure that the ego can function in a conflict-free zone. In other words, a healthy ego engages in rational tasks like learning, thinking, and perception without any primal conflict from the id. We are born with the ability to do so, but over time this ability is compromised by conflict from the id and the superego, as well as conflicts resulting from social expectations, relationships, and trauma.
Psychoanalysts who further expanded on the theories of ego psychology were Jacob A. Arlow and Charles Brenner. In 1964, they published the book Psychoanalytic Concepts and the Structural Theory', in which they emphasized the importance of "making the unconscious conscious." In other words, if you become aware of the way your unconscious mind expresses itself through fantasy and daydreams, you will be able to understand how these unconscious forces may be influencing your behavior in undesirable ways. For example, if you want a relationship, but continually break things off because you have a deep-seated fear of commitment, exploring your unconscious mind can help you understand why this is happening and change the behavior.
Ego Psychology Today
Though others have built on and expanded his work, ego psychology is based largely upon the work of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.
It would be impossible to overstate Freud's contribution to our knowledge of mental health. In fact, psychology as a discipline would probably not even exist if it were not for Freud's work. His ideas about the unconscious mind and defense mechanisms such as repression and denial were revolutionary for the period, and still inform our thinking about mental health issues today.
Here are some things we learned from Freud that you may still find in your work with a 21st-century therapist.
- The unconscious mind. Yes, there are all kinds of things going on in there that affect your behavior in ways that you're not even aware of. Talking about these things with a trained counselor or therapist can help you "make the unconscious conscious" so that you can understand your behaviors. Your dreams, your thoughts, your fantasies…they do reveal something about your mental state, and a good therapist will help you get to the bottom of all that. The therapists and counselors at Better Help are trained in understanding your unconscious mind and what it reveals about your behavior.
- Defense mechanisms. If you have PTSD, you may have repressed traumatic memories to cope with them. Or you may be in denial about a situation in your life that has become unbearable. These defenses protect your sense of self from pain, but there are limits. A therapist can give you a safe, non-judgmental place to sort through these attacks on your "ego."
- Where would we be without an identity? It gives us an anchor, a moral compass, a sense of purpose. It helps us define our goals, our strengths, and our weaknesses. Freud's early definition of the "ego" helped us understand the importance of establishing a strong identity and a sense of self, a theme that remains important in psychology today.
However, we had learned a lot since 1923 when Freud wrote The Ego and the Id. Here are a few of Freud's ideas that we have left behind.
- Humans as purely sexual beings. According to Freud, we come into the world as carnal beings, driven by sexual and aggressive urges. Modern psychologists now understand that the human psyche is much more complicated than that.
- Three-part view of the human psyche. Freud's descriptions of the id, ego, and superego gave us a way to visualize the complex factors at work in our subconscious mind. But in the years since Freud's time, we have come to understand that the psyche is extremely complex. To define it in three neat categories is much too simplistic. In reality, our personalities are impacted by a complicated interplay of heredity, environment, and personal choice.
- A lack of scientific evidence. Much of our modern understanding of human behavior is based on scientific principles of clear observation and evidence. Many of Freud's ideas, as compelling as they are, are mere speculation, not backed up by research.
Thankfully, modern-day therapists and counselors have a wide range of theories and models at their disposal and are no longer bound by the simplistic, three-part explanation of id, ego, and superego…although this is a good starting place and can account for a good part of our emotional angst.
We will forever be indebted to Freud for showing us that our repressed feelings and emotions have value and that their effects have consequences. But we have learned a lot since then. And when it comes to the intricacies of the human psyche…there is always more to learn.