Think back to your last discussion of “ego.” Perhaps you described someone as having a big ego or even reflected on your own ego in the context of a relationship, work, or group project.
It’s not uncommon to use this term to describe someone’s personality or presence in a certain context. However, the term ego has a unique historical meaning in the field of psychology.
In this article, we’ll unpack the historical meaning of ego, the use of ego psychology today, and five ways to develop a healthy ego and enhance your self-understanding.
What Is The Ego?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the ego has two definitions:
- “the self, particularly the conscious sense of self (Latin, ‘I’)”
- "in psychoanalytic theory, the component of the personality that deals with the external world and its practical demands.”
According to the definition from psychoanalytic theory, the ego is the component of your personality that deals with the external world, enabling you to perceive, reason, conduct reality testing, and balance the demands of the id and the superego.
The superego is considered the moral component of your personality, stemming from parent demands and social standards. In essence, the superego is thought to dictate your sense of right and wrong.
The id is considered a more basic, instinctual component of the personality and contains your biological drives, including for hunger and sex.
Psychoanalysis: A Brief History
Psychoanalysis, also called the Freudian approach or Freudianism, is a distinctive approach to psychological disorders developed by Sigmund Freud. One of the defining characteristics of psychoanalysis is the assumption that much of our mental activity is unconscious. According to this theory, psychoanalysts must interpret the subconscious meaning behind individuals’ overt, external behaviors.
While psychoanalysis has left an important legacy to psychiatry and psychology, some of its core beliefs are controversial. The following are considered some of the key limitations of this approach:
- Some scientists cite a lack of empirical support for its claims and effectiveness.
- It is based largely on clinical experience, with many hypotheses that cannot be challenged empirically.
- The theory of child development has been refuted.
Like any therapeutic approach, psychoanalysis presents several limitations as well as possible benefits, depending on the patient’s condition, history, and personal needs. Psychologists continue to study the role of ego psychology in mental health, and psychoanalysis played a role in laying a foundation for future research.
What Is Ego Psychology?
How Does Ego Affect Your Mental Health?
As our understanding of personality develops, researchers have identified several ways that ego can influence your mental health and relationships.
Benefits Of A Healthy Ego
While you might describe a self-absorbed person as egotistical, having an ego doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, provided it’s not leading a person to consider only their own interests. When you view your life as important and meaningful, you may be more likely to take calculated risks, pursue your ambitions, and even interact more authentically with others.
The following features of a healthy ego may lead to several benefits for your mental health, including:
- Belief in your personal power and decision-making abilities
- Healthier relationships
- Stronger emotional control and willpower
- Ego-resiliency, or the ability to flexibly adapt to difficult and stressful conditions
While these benefits are distinct, they are all related to a person’s fundamental belief in their own worth.
Characteristics Of An Unhealthy Ego
When it comes to ego, too much of a good thing can negatively affect a person’s relationships and mental health. While an unhealthy ego can take various shapes, a person with a may exhibit the following characteristics:
- A tendency to hide mistakes and weaknesses
- Refusal to ask for help
- Refusal to accept failure
- Denial of pain or fear, even when these feelings present an opportunity to connect more vulnerably with others
When an ego grows out of control, a person’s sense of importance and confidence can become inflated, potentially threatening their relationships and performance at work.
Relatedly, an undersized ego can also be unhealthy. To sustain relationships and adapt to new challenges, a person generally needs confidence, mental strength, and flexibility, which may be found in a person with a right-sized ego.
How To Develop A Healthy Ego
While a healthy ego is thought to be a part of self-understanding, it can take some time to develop and understand your sense of self.
Below are five strategies that might help you build and manage a healthy ego, which may benefit your mental health and your relationships:
1. Acknowledge The Benefits Of Ego
At its core, a healthy ego may safeguard you from hurt, rejection, and other basic human fears. While you might have negative assumptions about big egos, recognizing your worth may help you work through uncomfortable feelings and tough experiences and ultimately enjoy the benefits of a healthy self-concept.
2. Ask For Feedback
How often do you ask how you’re performing and showing up for others? In school or your profession, regular performance reports or report cards may provide feedback, but in your personal relationships and even casual encounters, you might not have details to assess your impact on other people. Left unchecked, a big ego can make someone appear arrogant and over-confident, and these traits tend to scare off potential friends and acquaintances.
If you’re unsure how you come off to other people, it may help to ask a friend or loved one for feedback on your strengths and potential areas for improvement. Whether you’re asking as a friend, partner, teammate, or coworker, an honest outside perspective may help you keep your ego in check and enjoy more fulfilling relationships.
3. Focus On Self-Esteem
Ego is thought to be related to self-esteem, which refers to how positively you view your personal qualities and characteristics. It can be shaped by your capabilities, accomplishments, and perceived success in living up to your values.
If you’re looking for ways to build self-esteem, some common strategies include:
- Identify sources of low self-esteem, potentially with the support of a therapist.
- Create a list of your strengths and weaknesses, which may challenge negative self-perceptions and provide a clearer view of yourself.
- Practice positive self-talk or mantras, which you can say out loud, record in a journal, or even write on sticky notes to keep around your space.
- Write down a list of your past accomplishments, as well as future goals.
These strategies may help you recognize your best qualities, appreciate your achievements, and form a clearer picture of where you’re heading next.
4. Invest In Your Hobbies
A well-managed ego tends to be associated with healthy levels of confidence and competence, which you may be able to develop in a hobby of your choosing. A hobby can offer a sense of purpose and an avenue to connect to yourself and your community. There are hundreds of possible hobbies you can choose from, but some common examples include:
- Creating art, whether alone, with friends, or even in a club
- Participating in team sports
- Meditating or practicing yoga or another form of mindfulness
Whatever hobby you choose, the power of hobbies and other leisurely activities can extend far beyond the ego. Research suggests that people who engage in more leisure activities experience both psychological and physical benefits, including lower blood pressure, greater social support, and greater life satisfaction.
5. Meet With A Therapist
The work of building your ego may feel like an independent journey, but a licensed therapist may be able to offer valuable, personalized insight. If you feel hesitant to visit a therapy practice, you might try online therapy, which allows you to connect with a therapist from home or anywhere you have an internet connection. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has training in ego psychology or any specific mental health topics of interest to you. You can communicate with them in a way that’s most comfortable to you—through phone, live chat, videoconferencing, or a combination of these methods.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies show that online therapy can be just as effective as traditional in-person therapy. Recently, a 2021 study assessed the value of a web-based relationship program on participants’ relationships and mental health. The researchers found that participants’ relationship satisfaction improved compared to the control group's. There were also minor improvements in measures of anxiety and depression for the control group.
While this study reviewed just one online program, the results highlight the value of online interventions for partners, individuals, and others seeking to improve their self-esteem and relationships.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Are The 12 Ego Functions?
According to psychoanalytic theory, the ego has 12 functions. All of these functions allow the ego to help you interact properly with reality.
Reality testing: The ego differentiates between what is happening in one’s internal world and what is occurring in the external world. When the ego is functioning normally, a person is thought to have an accurate perception of their external world and not experience hallucinations or other distortions.
Judgment: Judgment involves an individual’s capacity to identify and weigh the consequences of a behavior before acting. In other words, this ego function helps a person to be reasonable and act accordingly to the situation at hand.
Sense of reality: The ego is able to help us perceive and experience an accurate sense of reality. In order to experience an accurate sense of reality, an individual must be aware of the external world and perceive their connection to it as real.
Regulation: This ego function helps to control drives and impulses in accordance with what is happening in reality. It involves the capacity to hold sexual and aggressive impulses in check until the ego has determined how to act appropriately based on moral standards (from the super ego) or social norms.
Object relations: This ego function helps us form and maintain coherent representations of others and ourselves. It helps us perceive ourselves and others as whole objects with three-dimensional qualities.
Thought processes: The ego helps us come up with goals and organize thoughts.
Adaptive regression: The ego gives us the ability to act younger and then return back to our normal state. For example, we can be spontaneous, have fantastical thoughts, and then come back to normal.
Stimulus barrier: The ego gives us the ability to filter out certain stimuli.
Autonomous functions: The ego is in charge of functions that operate continuously, such as memory, learning, concentration, and motor functions. These functions have a primary autonomy from instinctual drives and therefore are conflict-free.
Mastery competence: The ego is in charge of our ability to interact with and be competent within the external environment. The degree to which someone feels competent originates early in childhood as a function of their innate abilities and their mastery of developmental tasks. Competency is also improved through receiving appropriate feedback from significant others, such as caregivers and important figures.
Integrative/synthetic functioning: The synthetic function helps us integrate and organize mental processes into a coherent form. This ego function helps us to think, feel, and act in a rational and coherent manner. Furthermore, this ego function helps to fit and bind all the disparate aspects of personality into a unified structure that can interact with the external world. For example, a child loves her parents but may be angry with them occasionally. As she ages, she learns to synthesize these angry feelings so she doesn’t lose love for them. This is considered a pivotal developmental achievement.
Defensive functioning: The ego provides us with defense mechanisms to safeguard ourselves from uncomfortable situations and thoughts. These are internal mechanisms that defend us from painful experiences and help us tolerate anxiety. Initial defenses begin in childhood but adapt and change as one ages into adulthood.
What Are The Three Egos?
The three egos are the ego, superego, and id. Id psychology is the instinctual part of the mind. It contains our basic sexual and aggressive drives as well as hidden memories.
The superego provides the moral standards and ethical component of personality. It develops in the final phase of psychosexual development and is the voice of conscience and reason that assists in mental conflict.
The ego mediates between these other the id and superego and helps us interact with the external world.
What Is The Function Of Ego According To Freud?
The ego is a core principle in psychoanalytic theory. Freud believed that ego functioning was in charge of mediating our moral conscience and instinctual drives. It balances the two out so that we can interact well with the external world. It controls the impulses of the id (our instincts) based on our morals and conscience (superego). This mediation affects all our interactions with the external world, including decision-making and motor functions and coordination. This allows us to decide which behaviors are appropriate in certain circumstances.
What Are The Main Functions Of The Ego?
In psychoanalytic theory, the ego is in control of many functions. These include problem-solving, motor functions, memory, synthesis of conflicting impulses and aspects of personality, and accurate perception of reality.
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